Mom’s Traditional Mexican Tamales Recipe

image Tamales Recipe The  Mayan Calendar is quickly counting down to 12-21-12 and we've got to get a move on if we are going to be ready when the Mayan Apocalypse hits.  Don't worry, you won't have to climb Machu Picchu or swim Lake Titicaca to please the Mayan Calendar gods and possibly stave off the end of the world and all things Southwest.  Just come along with us this week, we've collected a few of our Mayan inspired recipes that are one part traditional, one part modern and a whole lot of fun. The lineup for this week's menu has a speedy, modern spin on Mayan corn dish, chicken wrapped in banana leaves, plus a warm and delicious Mayan chocolate dessert that is absolutely the last thing you will want to taste before the calendar stops, or restarts, or... what ever it is going to do.   First up is our Traditional Mexican Tamales Recipe.  Since the Mayans invented tamales (the most Southwest of all dishes) we decided to start out our tribute with the most perfect tamales on the whole darn planet... our mom's.  If you never make another tamale, make these.  What?  You have never made tamales?   What are you waiting for?  Time's a wasting!


At Christmas time, I look forward to more than presents, Santa, heavenly choir music. At Christmas, I get to eat home made tamales and reminisce. My mom and my fabulous co-blogger and sister Sandy, and I made tamales at Christmas time. And, yes, I do know that every family that makes tamales believes their tamales are the best. But. My mom's tamales really are the best. The masa is light and fluffy and yet  decadent at the same time. The filling of meat and red chile sauce is packed with flavor with just a tiny bit of heat. And you must put a black olive in the middle - not optional. We made dozens and dozens of tamales - to freeze for eating throughout the year and to give to lucky friends and neighbors as gifts. One year we even made 100 dozen. No, I am not making that up. It took us two full days. Exhausting but rewarding. We would sit and smooth the masa onto soaked corn husks with the back of a spoon - talking, laughing and solving all world problems as we assembled this ultimate Mexican Christmas food. Then, we steamed them for an hour and swooned in bliss as we ate the fruits of our labors. This really is My Last Meal request: Mom's Tamales, a Cheese Crisp and guacamole and chips. I would die a happy woman.


image mom making tamales

To us, making tamales is an art form.  We have shared step by step pictures of Mom's (AKA Carol Hicks) technique for rolling the tamales so that you will get a tamale that is just as light and beautiful as she makes.


 1.  Buy fresh, plain masa NOT masa that is already prepared with lard.  Note: this recipe is not formulated for dried, packaged masa mix or masa harina. 2. The masa should not be compressed and dense.  Try to loosen it up a little before adding it to the lard mixture. 3. Buy a little extra lard.  The key to fluffy tamales is whipping in enough lard and air so that a small spoonful of masa will float on the top of a glass of cold water.  If it doesn't float, whip it some more. 4.  Spread the masa gently so that you don't over work the masa.  Treat the masa like you would treat buttercream icing. 5.  Make sure the tamales are upright in the steamer and packed well enough to keep their shape. 6. Do not let boiling water reach the bottoms of the tamales.  The boiling water will make that part of the tamale very tough. 7.  Check the steamer often to ensure there is water in the pan.  Add more water when needed but, try not to get water on the tamales.

image how to make tamale masa

The masa should be light and fluffy like frosting when you are finished and a teaspoon full should float on the top of cold water.

Remember to soak the corn husks submerged in water overnight before you start so that they will be soft and supple  when you roll the tamales.  Give the corn husk a little "stretch" before you spread in the masa.  Be careful not to tear the corn husk.  You can over lap smaller husks together before spreading on the masa which will "glue them together.  Spread the masa on the corn husk about a 1/4 inch thick.  Leave a one inch margin around the top and the side edges with about 2 inches of margin on the bottom edge.

The meat for the filling should also be made the day ahead so that it can be refrigerated over night.  Chilling the meat over  night will allow more of the fat to rise to the top and be easily removed from the mixture.  Too much fat in the meat will discolor the masa and change the texture of the tamale.  Spoon the meat filling down the center of the tamale placing an olive in the very center.

images step by step how to roll tamales

Carefully fold the corn husk around the tamale making sure the masa completely incloses the meat on the bottom and sides of the tamales.  The perfect homemade tamales leave the tops open and the filling slightly showing from the top.

Gently ease the tamale into a beautiful, round cylinder.  You may tie the tamale around the center with a strip of corn husk for decorative purposes and to securely close the corn husk but, as you get used to rolling the tamales, they will hold their own shape without the tie.  Fold the bottom of the corn husk up so that the tamale is enclosed and protected from the steam while cooking.

Try not to stack too may tamales on top of each other until they have been frozen or steamed.  The weight of additional tamales will not only misshape them but, also create the dense masa you are trying to avoid.

Traditional Mexican Tamales Recipe

Mom's Traditional Mexican Tamales Recipe
These are the tamales we grew up on. Mom has made several adaptions from the original recipe including the mixture of both pork and beef. The tamales are light and fluffy with only a tiny bit of heat. The olive in the center of the tamale is a must for us and is traditional to Arizona-Sonoran Cuisine.
Recipe type: Main Dish
Cuisine: Mexican
  • 5 pounds lean pork or beef, or a combination, cut in 3 inch cubes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 3 cans (8 ounces each) tomato sauce
  • 2 cans (10 ounces each) red chile sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ pounds dried corn husks, soaked in water overnight
  • 1½ pounds lard (second choice: vegetable shortening)
  • 5 pounds fresh ground masa (NOT masa harina)
  • 1 cup broth from beef and pork mixture(or low sodium beef broth)
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  1. Tamale Meat
  2. Cook meat, garlic and salt in a slow cooker for 6 to 8 hours on high. Place in refrigerator and chill. Remove meat from refrigerator and remove solidified fat from top. Drain off liquid, reserving one cup to use in masa. Shred meat with a fork.
  3. Tamale Sauce
  4. Lightly brown the flour in the oil in a stockpot over medium high heat. Add in remaining ingredients and cook until thickened. Cool to room temperature before using. Stir suce into meat.
  5. Tamale Masa
  6. Beat lard with a stand mixer to the consistency of whipped cream (takes about 15 minutes on highest setting). Add masa a little at a time in small, golfball sized pieces. Slowly add the beef broth into whipped lard and masa mixture. Continue whipping the mixture until a small spoonful of masa floats in cold water.
  7. Tamale Assembly and Cooking
  8. Spread ¼ to ⅓ cup masa on corn husks, a little thicker than ¼ inch thick. Spread a rectangle that covers husks except 2 inches at bottom and 1 inch at top. Place about 2 tablespoons of filling in center and add one ripe black olive. Roll together so that masa completely encircles filling. Fold bottom end up and place upright in a steamer, folded side down. Steam for about 40 minutes when fresh, or 90 minutes when frozen.



We know you will love these tamales as much as we do. They are the perfect tamale so… why waste time with any other?

Let us know how you like them, we love hearing from you. Be sure to check out our Facebook fan page this week, I will be posting the ingredient lists for the rest of this week’s Mayan inspired recipe so that you can shop ahead of time and be ready on the big day!

—posted by Carol, Donna and Sandy

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  1. Jennifer says

    I think you made a big mistake with your ingredient list. You said five POUNDS of masa harina…I’m pretty sure you meant five CUPS. We used your recipe yesterday and had a heck of time trying to fix the masa mixture once we realized your mistake.

    • says

      Jennifer – so sorry you had trouble! I have never used dry “masa harina” to make tamales – so sorry if that’s how it came across. You need to buy fresh ground masa – I buy mine at a local Latino market. BUt, if you only have access to the dried stuff at the grocery store, you need to reconstitute if according to the package directions.


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