A Simple step-by-step recipe and instructions for making authentic Tamales! Fill them with pork, chicken or beans and cheese and cooked on the stovetop or in the instant pot.  

If you’ve been following TBFS then you know that I fell in love with authentic Mexican food while living in Mexico with my husband several years ago.  If you love it too, be sure to check out my Authentic Mexican Rice, Cheese Enchiladas, Horchata, and Tres Leches Cake!

Two tamales on a plate with pico de gallo and chopped avocado.

I learned to make homemade tamales many years ago from a sweet elderly woman in Puebla, Mexico. My husband and I were living in Puebla for a few months and became friends with this woman and her family. Her daughter was the secretary at the office building where we worked.

This sweet grandmother made incredible tamales! I expressed my desire to learn the ins and outs of authentic Mexican cooking, so the Grandma invited me over for a “tamalada” or Tamale making party. She made her masa dough completely from scratch, using dried white corn kernels and “cal” , which has been difficult for me to find in the U.S..

A latina Grandmother and Lauren Allen making tamales together.

What is a tamale?

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made with a corn based dough mixture that is filled with various meats or beans and cheese.  Tamales are wrapped and cooked in corn husks or banana leaves, but they are removed from the husks before eating. Try them served with pico de gallo on top and a side of guacamole and rice.

While making tamales is a process (made very fun with multiple people to help stuff and wrap them!), it’s really simple, so don’t be intimidated! There are just two main elements; the dough, and the filling.

  • The dough, called “masa” is spread on the corn husk. The corn husks do not get eaten, they are just used to envelope the dough and filling of the tamale which gets cooked inside.
  • The filling. You can fill the tamales with meat or beans and cheese. Find my favorite filling options below!

Ingredients:

Masa harina: I like the Maseca brand which is a common brand found in the Mexican aisle at the grocery store.

Broth: Beef, chicken or vegetable will work. If using my red chili pork tamale filling, use the leftover broth from the cooked pork.

Baking powder

Salt

Cumin

Lard: lard is used in truly authentic Mexican tamales (and it has less saturated fat then butter)! You can find it in the Mexican aisle at the grocery store, or online. Shortening would work as a substitute.

Dried corn husks: 8 ounce package

Ingredients for tamales including masa harina, corn husks, lard, broth, baking powder and spices.

How to Make Tamales, Step-by-step:

1. Soak the corn husks.  Place corn husks in a bowl of very hot water for 30 minutes or until softened.

2. Prepare desired filling. You’ll need about 3 ½-4 cups of filling for one batch of tamale dough. Some filling options include:

  • Salsa verde chicken: 3 ½ cups cooked, shredded chicken mixed with 16 ounce can salsa verde (I like herdez brand)
  • Bean and cheese: 15 oz can refried beans and 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Red chili pork: 1 recipe red chili pork

3. Make the masa dough: In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the lard and 2 tablespoons of broth until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Combine the masa flour, baking powder, salt, and cumin in a medium bowl; stir into the lard mixture and beat well with an electric mixer. Add the broth, little by little to form a very soft dough. Beat on high speed for several minutes. The dough should spread like creamy peanut butter and be slightly sticky. Cover the mixing bowl with a damp paper towel, to keep the dough from drying out.

Tamale masa in a bowl, a ball of masa on a corn husk, spread out and then pork filling placed on top.

4. Assemble the tamales: Lay a corn husk, glossy side up, on the counter with the wide end at the top. Scoop about ¼ cup of dough onto the top, center of the corn husk. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and use your hands to press and spread the masa into a thin layer, about ¼ inch thick. Keep the dough spread along the top half of the corn husk to allow plenty of room to fold the bottom husk up, when it’s time.

Place 1-2 tablespoons of desired filling in a line down the center of the dough. (You don’t want too much filling).

Fold-in one long side of the husk over the filling. Fold in the other long side, overlapping the first (like folding a brochure). Fold the bottom of the husk up. Optional: Tear a long strip from an edge of one of the soaked corn husks and use it to tie the tamale, to hold it together.

Three process photos for folding a tamale inside a corn husk.

5. Tie the tamales (optional): Tying the tamales can help you differentiate them if making more than one filling. However, you don’t have to tie a corn husk string around them to secure them, as they will hold together without it, stacked upright, side-by-side in the pot.

Tamales wrapped in corn husks and tied, lined up on a plate.

6. Cook on the stove-top or Instant Pot:

Add water to the bottom of your stove-top steamer or Instant Pot pressure cooker. (About 1 cup for IP and a few cups for a steamer pot—don’t fill above the steamer rack.) Lay a few extra corn husks on the bottom rack to keep the tamales from falling through and any boiling water from directly touching them.

Place tamales standing upright, with the open end up, just tightly enough to keep them standing. If using a steamer, lay a few soaked corn husks or a wet towel over the top of the tamales before closing the lid.

Steamer: Bring water to a boil (in Mexico they would often place a coin at the bottom of the steamer and when the coin started to tap in the pot you know the water was boiling.) Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check them after 45 minutes.

Instant Pot: Cook on Manual/High Pressure for 25 minutes. Allow pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, and then quick release.

Pork tamales stacked in a pot.

Freezing and Reheating Instructions:

To freeze tamales: I love making a big batch of tamales to keep in the freezer for busy nights. To freeze them, allow the cooked tamales to cool completely, then stick them in a freezer ziplock bag and freeze for up to 3 months.

To reheat tamales: Wrap leftover or frozen tamales in a few dampened paper towels and microwave until warmed through.  The wet paper towels will help them “steam” as they are reheated. Be careful when unfolding them–they will be hot!

Tamale with pork filling, pico de gallo on top and a fork taken a bite out of it.

Serve tamales with:

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Recipe

Prep 25 mins
Cook 20 mins
Total 45 mins
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Video

Ingredients
 
 

For the Dough:

  • 4 cups Masa Harina (Maseca brand if available)
  • 3 cups broth (beef, chicken, or vegetable broth)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 1/3 cups lard
  • 8 ounce package dried corn husks

Filling ideas:

Instructions
 

  • Soak the corn husks in a bowl of very hot water for 30 minutes or until softened.
  • Prepare desired fillings*.
  • Make the masa dough: In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the lard and 2 tablespoons of broth until fluffy, about 3-5 minutes. Combine the masa flour, baking powder, salt, and cumin in a separate bowl; stir into the lard mixture and beat well with an electric mixer. 
  • Add the broth, little by little to form a very soft dough. Beat on high speed for several minutes. The dough should spread like creamy peanut butter and be slightly sticky.* Cover the mixing bowl with a damp paper towel, to keep the dough from drying out.
  • Assemble the tamales: Lay a corn husk, glossy side up, on the counter with the wide end at the top. Scoop about ¼ cup of dough onto the top, center of the corn husk. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and use your hands to press and spread the masa into a thin layer, about ¼ inch thick. Keep the dough spread along the top half of the corn husk to allow plenty of room to fold the bottom husk up, when it’s time.
  • Place 1-2 tablespoons of desired filling in a line down the center of the dough. (You
    don’t want too much filling).
  • Fold in one long side of the husk over the filling. Fold in the other long side, overlapping the first (like folding a brochure). Fold the bottom of the husk up. 
  • Tying tamales (optional): You don’t have to tie a corn husk string around the tamales--it does take more time and they will hold together without it. However, if you’re making multiple fillings, tying ones of a certain kind can help to identify them.
  • Cook on the stove-top or Instant Pot: Add water to the bottom of your steamer or instant pot. (About 1 cup for IP and a few cups for a steamer pot—don’t fill above the steamer rack.) Lay a few extra corn husks on the bottom rack to keep the tamales from falling through and any boiling water from directly touching them.
  • Place tamales standing upright, with their open end up, just tightly enough to keep them standing. If using a steamer pot, lay a few soaked corn husks or a wet towel over the top of the tamales before closing the lid.
  • Steamer: Bring water to a boil (in Mexico they would often place a coin at the bottom of the
    steamer and when the coin started to tap in the pot you know the water was boiling.) Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Check them after 45 minutes.
    Instant Pot: Cook on Manual/High Pressure for 25 minutes. Allow pressure to naturally
    release for 10 minutes, and then quick release.
  • To test if the tamales are done: Remove one and try to pull the husk off. If the husk pulls away cleanly from the tamale they're done. If the dough is still sticky or wet looking, cook them for 5-10 minutes longer and try again.
  • Store leftover tamales in the refrigerator for 5-7 days depending on the freshness of your ingredients.

Notes

To test the masa dough. You can test if the masa tamale dough is ready by placing a tiny ball of dough into a glass of water — If the dough floats, it’s ready. If the dough sinks to the bottom of the glass then beat it for longer and add a little more broth. Test again.
Tamale Filling Suggestions: You’ll need about 3 ½-4 cups of filling for one batch of tamale dough.
  • Salsa verde chicken: 3 ½ cups cooked, shredded chicken mixed with 16 ounce can salsa verde (I like Herdez brand)
  • Bean and cheese: 15 oz can refried beans and 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Red chili pork: 1 recipe red chili pork
Freezing Instructions: Allow the cooked tamales to cool, then place them in a freezer safe bag and freeze for up to 3 months.
Reheating: Wrap leftover or frozen tamales in a few dampened paper towels and microwave until warmed through.  The wet paper towels will help them "steam" as they are reheated. Be careful when unfolding them--they will be hot!

Nutrition

Calories: 72kcalCarbohydrates: 15gProtein: 2gFat: 1gSaturated Fat: 1gSodium: 216mgPotassium: 89mgFiber: 1gSugar: 1gVitamin A: 204IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 46mgIron: 2mg

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I originally shared this recipe October 2017. Updated February 2020 with new process photos an clearer instructions.

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Lauren Allen

Welcome! I’m Lauren, a mom of four and lover of good food. Here you’ll find easy recipes and weeknight meal ideas made with real ingredients, with step-by-step photos and videos.

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  1. This looks like an amazing and easy to follow recipe. I’ll be making these this week! One question, if using a steamer, do you have to line them up in one layer or can you them stand up a second layer of them on top of the first layer if using a tall pot with a a steamer separator on the bottom?

    1. You can stack them! The woman who taught be did that and placed one thin layer of corn husks in between so they didn’t fall into each other. Enjoy!

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