Talk about bringing back memories with food! Tamales will forever and always remind me of my abuelita and my mami. Making tamales with them was always a task I enjoyed. Mostly because the outcome was delicious! These Authentic Mexican Tamales are filled with a traditional pork and chile colorado mixture. They’re wrapped in corn husks and steamed in a large steamer called a vaporera. Let’s talk a little more details so you can make these without any kind of intimidation!
Growing up in a Mexican household you were guaranteed to have tamales for the holidays. While everyone else was eating turkey and green bean casserole, or ham and mashed potatoes at Christmas, I was enjoying some tamales with my family. My abuelita would get everything prepared and ready for the tamales on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. As a little girl, and even as I grew older, I loved being able to help my abuelita spread the masa on the corn husks. It always made me feel important and useful in the kitchen. It was so fun to spend time with my abuelita and mom and listen to all the stories they shared about growing up in Mexico, family memories, etc. These are the kind of memories I hold dear to my heart and I am constantly reminded of when I cook traditional recipes.
Alright, let’s talk about the main ingredients you are going to need:
Masa flour: you can find these at lots of different grocery stores in the Mexican isle. I have easily found it at Walmart or you can even order it online here. If you’re an Aldi shopper like me you will be happy to know they have their own masa flour and it works just as fine for this!
Corn husks: You can find these at any Mexican grocery store. You can also order these online and would check somewhere like Instacart to see if you can get it delivered to you from a local grocery store.
Dried peppers: As I have mentioned in previous posts, dried peppers are readily available in lots of grocery stores usually in the Mexican section or produce section. Remember you can use dried peppers for lots of different things, like my pozole rojo recipe found here.
Lard: You guys HAVE to trust me on this one. Authentic Mexican Tamales are made with lard, they just are. You can certainly sub shortening for it but as far as subbing any other type of fat, I cannot speak to that. I grew up eating these authentic, traditional, full-of-flavor, tamales the way my abuelita made them and I am giving you the tools you need to achieve that same goodness. Maybe one day we can make a “healthier” version together but right now, this ain’t it! The lard can be found at various grocery stores or ordered online. I have found it at local grocery stores and Walmart. If you’re lucky enough to have a Mexican grocery store or market where they make their own carnitas and they sell fresh lard, BUY IT! Serious game changer in flavor.
Now let’s talk about actually making these Authentic Mexican Tamales!
You’ll start by soaking the husks in hot water. You can do this in a large mixing bowl, a large casserole dish, or by using your sink full of hot water. While these soak you’ll cook your pork and start on the sauce. Making the red chile sauce is a lot more simple than you probably think. All you need to do is boil the peppers in some water along with the onion, garlic and salt, add everything to a blender, and blend until smooth. Doesn’t that seriously sound so easy? Well it is, don’t you worry! Next step is making the masa. I am not going to lie, this was the most intimidating thing for me when I was trying to learn how to make tamales. I was always afraid of making my tamales too dry or too moist. I clearly remember my grandma telling me that I would know when the masa was ready if I put a little bit of it on the back of my hand and it left a little shine from the manteca, or the lard. You all, this little trick didn’t work for me. That gave me no indication if my masa would yield a good consistency or not. However, I still do that trick to at least make sure there’s enough lard. Does it work, maybe? Do I think of my grandma every single time I do it, for sure!
The masa needs to have enough water and lard to make it easy to spread on the corn husks. You don’t want it to be crumbly or dry because you will get dense tamales. It needs to spread smoothly onto the husks. It is a lot of trial and error but my mami and I made this recipe a couple of times to ensure the measurements were just right. Something that I think makes a huge difference in flavor is using some broth in place of water. When you cook the pork it will render lots of liquid before browning. Save some of that liquid to use for the masa. The flavor is intense and delicious. Always try your masa to ensure there is enough salt. Don’t forget the baking powder, it is key for fluffy tamales. My mami told me the story about the first batch of tamales she made when she moved to the U.S. She said they were the worst tamales she and my papi had and it was all because she didn’t use baking powder. Note to self, (and everyone else), don’t forget the baking powder!
Once you’ve got the pork cooked and into the red chile sauce, you’re ready to assemble your tamales. You will take some masa and put it onto the smooth side of the corn husk at the bottom if the straight edge. You can use the back of a spoon or your fingers to spread a thin layer of masa on the husk. This will be the blanket for your filling. Then you will add some of the pork mixture onto the masa and fold over the edges of the husk to encase the tamale. You do so by folding one side over the other and bringing up the long, pointed end to make a long envelope. See the pictures below. You can leave them as is or you can tie a string of corn husk to keep them secure. Honestly, no one in my family takes the time to do that and the tamales turn out just fine.
Once you have assembled all of your tamales, it’s time to steam them! Best way to do this is if you have a large steamer, or a vaporera. This is a great option if you don’t have one and can be used for various other things. You’ll add some water to the bottom of the pot, just enough to cover the bottom and not reach the steamer insert. You’ll cover the insert with corn husks to make sort of a base where the tamales will rest. Just a couple of husks on top of the insert will do, doesn’t have to be perfect. Align the tamales upright with the openings facing up. Cover the steamer and cook steam for a total of 45 minutes to an hour. You know they are done when the corn husk easily separates from the tamale and the masa is fluffy and not “doughy”. Keep in mind these are steamed so inevitably the masa is going to be moist. You just want to ensure it’s no longer sticky and raw.
This may be overwhelming to you and I can absolutely understand that. It was always so intimidating to me until I actually did it and realized making tamales is really not that hard. Is it time consuming? Absolute, 100% it is. That’s the beauty about this recipe. It’s a labor of love and it is meant to be an intricate process as it always has been for every Mexican abuelita and mami out there. These are always made with lots of love and always bring the family together to make wonderful memories. Please feel free to ask me any questions you have about making these Authentic Mexican Tamales. I do hope you give them a try and make your own memories. Trust me, your heart and belly will not regret it! Provecho!
Authentic Mexican Tamales
- Steamer; "Vaporera"
- 2 lb pork shoulder or pork butt cubed
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 tbsp lard can use preferred oil
- red chile sauce
- 1 lb corn husks
Red Chile Sauce
- 10 guajillo peppers
- 3 ancho peppers
- ½ onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1½ cups water
- 8 cups masa flour
- 7 cups warm water *see notes
- 2 cups lard melted, **see notes
- 2 tbsp baking powder
- 3 tsp salt
- Place corn husks in a large mixing bowl, large casserole dish, or in your sink and fill with hot water. Let the husks soak to soften while you prepare everything else.
- In a large dutch oven over medium heat at lard to melt or use preferred oil.
- Place pork in dutch oven and cook until cooked through and browned. You may need to do this in batches. Remove any liquid as it accumulates to ensure browned, crispy pork.*
- *Reserve any liquid/broth for the masa.
Red Chile Sauce
- Place all ingredients, except salt, in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Let the contents cool for about 10 minutes and place everything in blender, including salt. Blend until smooth and salt more if needed.
- Add sauce to dutch oven with pork and let this simmer over medium low heat for 20 minutes.
- Add masa flour to large mixing bowl and add baking powder and salt. Mix thoroughly.
- Add in melted lard and half of the water. Mix with your hands until thoroughly incorporated. At this point add any reserved, (and measured), broth from the pork and use more water if needed to complete the 7 cups of liquid.
- Mix with your hands thoroughly until you've made a masa that is smooth and spreads easily. If it is crumbly and dry, add a little more water. Try adding a tablespoon at a time. If it is too sticky add a tablespoon of masa flour. Try the masa and adjust salt as needed.
- Grab a corn husk, shake off water, and spread about 4 tablespoons of masa onto the smooth bottom part of the husk. You will spread this along the straight edge of the husk, not the pointed end. *The amount of masa you use will depend on the size of your husk. You want the masa to spread across the husk and leaving about ¼ of an inch of the bottom of the husk without masa and only spreading it up to mid husk, spreading roughly into a 4 inch square or rectangle. Remember the masa needs to cover your filling.
- Add about 2 tablespoon of the pork filling. Fold over one side of the husk over and then fold the other side of the husk on top. This will make a cone-like shape. Fold over the pointed end of the husk over to seal the bottom of the tamale. You can choose to tie a piece of husk around the tamale to secure it but this is not necessary. *The amount of filling you use will depend on the amount of masa used.
- Add just enough water to steamer to cover the bottom but not spill over the insert. Cover the top of the insert with some corn husks to create a base/barrier between the water and tamales. Bring this water to a boil and then reduce heat.
- Arrange tamales onto steamer making sure they're all facing up. Cover with lid and increase heat to high to bring back to a boil. Leave the temperature at high for 20 minutes then reduce heat to medium.
- Finish steaming tamales at medium heat for additional 25-40 minutes.
- Test the tamales after 25 minutes on medium heat. If they don't separate from the husk easily, are still sticking to the husk, or the masa is still slightly raw and sticky, steam for additional 15 minutes.
- Once cooked, remove tamales from steamer and serve with your favorite salsa drizzled on top and favorites sides.