Every family that makes tamales thinks their mom’s tamales recipe is the best. But, my mom’s tamales really are the best. You can ask anyone. I am proud to share her Traditional Mexican Tamales Recipe with you.
One of the best things about Mom’s tamales is the masa. It is light and fluffy and full of corn flavor. The filling is a mixture of beef and pork that is cooked until tender then, stirred into a delicious red chile sauce.
Mom puts a black olive in the center of the red chile meat before rolling the tamale up in it’s corn husk for steaming. The olive is a signature of a tamales recipe from the Old Southwest.
It is not hard to make tamales at home but, they do take some time. So, making tamales is the perfect time to gather family and friends around the table for a day of fun and friendship.
In the Southwest, tamale making at Christmas time is a treasured tradition. Families gather together and spend the day rolling tamales together. My mother, my sister and I have made dozens and dozens of tamales together over the years and look forward to making a big batch anytime we can.
To us, making this tamales recipe is an art form. We have shared step by step pictures of Mom’s (AKA Carol Hicks) technique for mixing the masa and rolling the tamales so that you will get a tamale that is just as light and beautiful as Mom’s.
Tips for making the best Mexican Tamales Recipe:
Cook the beef and pork mixture the day before preparing the masa and rolling the tamales. Refrigerate the meat mixture overnight in a large bowl so that the fat will rise to the top and solidify. Remove the fat from the top of the meat before mixing into the red chile sauce.
- Buy fresh, plain masa NOT masa that is already prepared with lard. Here is the link to my Mexican Food Basics: Masa Basics post to show you the different types of masa.
- Note: this recipe is not formulated for dried, packaged masa mix or masa harina. You must use fresh masa. See our Tamales Recipes page for tamales with dried masa harina or masa mix.
- The masa should not be compressed and dense or squished into a hard lump during transport or storage. Try to loosen it up a little before adding it to the lard mixture by breaking it into smaller chuncks.
- Buy a little extra lard. The key to fluffy tamales is whipping in enough lard and air into the masa so that a small spoonful of masa will float on the top of a glass of cold water. If the masa doesn’t float, whip it some more and add more lard a little bit at a time.
- Soak the corn husks in water over night. We soak quite a few at a time so I use a medium sized ice chest with enough water to submerge the husks in the water and rinse them off at the same time.
- Spread the masa gently so that you don’t over work the masa. Treat the masa like you would treat buttercream icing.
- Leave a border around the edge of the corn husk with no masa on it so that the bare edges can be brought together while rollling the tamale keeping the masa inside.
- Fold the bottom of the corn husk up, sealing off the bottom of the tamale.
- Place the tamales upright in a large steamer. Make sure the tamales are upright in the steamer and packed well enough to keep their shape and not fall over in the steamer.
- Do not let boiling water reach the bottoms of the tamales. The boiling water will make that part of the tamale very tough.
- Check the steamer often to ensure there is still water in the pan and it has not boiled out. Add more water when needed but, try not to get water in the tamales.
The masa should be light and fluffy like buttercream frosting when you are finished. You can tell the masa is ready when a teaspoon full of masa floats to the top of glass 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.
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.
Shop this affiliate link to help you find everything you will need to make this tamales recipe.
- 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
- Tamale Meat
- 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.
- Tamale Sauce
- 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.
- Tamale Masa
- 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.
- Tamale Assembly and Cooking
- 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 Sandy