Tamales are a traditional Mexican food served at special occasions. Even though you don't really need a special occasion to make them, they do take some time to make. But they're actually really simple (in fact, until it's time to roll them, the slow cooker, stand mixer, refrigerator and stove do most of the hard work). We do recommend you plan to cook them over two days, although doing them in one day is certainly possible.
On the first day, you'll want to prepare your meat and start the masa dough. Masa (which means "corn") dough can be purchased in wet or dry form. The wet form needs less liquid, so be aware of that when using it. We've given you the recipe using masa harina (corn flour).
When it comes to meat, pork is the most traditional meat used in tamales. Some people use beef as an alternative, but we recommend chicken if you don't like pork — as "the other white meat," pork is similar in texture to chicken when it's cooked.
Off-the-bone cuts are easiest (which is why we prefer them), though some people find bone-in cuts have a juicier finish. But if you carefully follow our directions, boneless meats will be just as juicy.
We never said making tamales was simple, but it is actually easy. Just read all of the instructions up front so you know what's going on before you begin (and can plan your day around it). Most importantly, have some fun with it. It's Christmas, after all.
Christmas tamales recipe
Day 1: Start the filling and masa dough
- 15 ounces (approximately) raw pork butt or chicken breast
- 2 cups beef (for pork) or chicken stock
- 1/2 medium onion, diced
- 2 dried de arbol chilies
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 pinch cayenne
- 1-1/3 cups fat (lard or vegetable shortening), chilled
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 scant teaspoons salt
- 4 cups masa harina (corn flour)
- 1-1/3 cups beef (for pork) or chicken stock
- Place the raw meat into a slow cooker and add stock, onions, chilies, cumin and cayenne (do not sear the meat first). Add a little water if necessary to ensure the meat is just covered.
- Turn the slow cooker on high for 2 hours, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 3 to 4 hours or until cooked through.
- Meanwhile, in a stand mixer (with a paddle attachment, not a dough hook), combine the fat, baking powder and salt and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy (it will become a bit shiny).
- Add half the masa harina and half the stock. Mix on low speed until combined.
- Add the rest of the masa harina and stock and beat, starting on low to avoid splashing, until the liquid is combined.
- Turn the beater up to medium and beat for at least 2 minutes until it's light and fluffy. The dough is ready when a small (teaspoon-size) ball is dropped in cold water and floats. If the ball doesn't float, place it back in the mix and continue beating for a minute at a time until a ball does float.
- Refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour (or overnight for two-day cooking) in an airtight container.
- When the meat is fully cooked, transfer it from the slow cooker to a large plate and allow it to cool for at least half an hour. (Reserve the cooking liquid.)
- When it's cooled a bit, use two forks to shred the meat finely. Place the shredded meat in an airtight bowl and ladle about half a cup of the cooking liquid over it (enough to help it retain its moisture, but not enough to make it "liquid-y") and refrigerate overnight.
- Retain an additional cup of the cooking liquid in the refrigerator overnight. Discard the rest.
Day 2: Make the sauce, finish the filling and dough, and steam
- 12 large dried California (mild) or New Mexico (a little spicier) chilies
- 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and pressed (or very finely chopped)
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pinch cayenne (optional)
- 6-1/2 cups water (divided)
- Dried corn husks (twice the number you think you need)
- Enough water to submerge the corn husks
- Place the corn husks in a large pot of water and turn the burner on high to bring to a boil.
- Meanwhile, preheat a cast-iron skillet or griddle to medium heat with no spray or grease.
- Prepare the chilies by cutting off the stem end. Pour any loose seeds into a small bag to discard. Insert a small, serrated knife into the chili to slice it open and flat. Remove the additional seeds and any loose veins and discard them.
- Place the chilies (which will roll back up) on the preheated skillet to roast, turning each constantly to avoid burning, for 2 or 3 minutes. If the chilies burn, discard them and start over, or they'll give your sauce a burned flavor.
- By now, the water should be boiling. Remove the pot from the stove and transfer the husks and water to a large bowl. Use a plate to weigh down the husks and allow them to sit for an hour completely submerged.
- While the corn husks are soaking, place the chilies, garlic, pepper, cumin, salt, cayenne and 3 cups of water in a blender and pulse, first on low until the peppers are broken up, then on high, until you have a relatively smooth puree.
- Strain the mixture into a medium saucepan. This may take some time, as the mixture is a bit thick, so use a spatula to press it through. When it becomes difficult, pour 2-1/2 cups of water, a little at a time, through the strainer to help. You'll start to notice bits of the skin of the dried chilies inside your strainer. When you have mostly bits of dried chilies inside the strainer and can't get any more sauce or liquid out, discard the leftover bits of dried chilies.
- Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently and reducing the heat as necessary to prevent full boiling. Continue cooking for around 30 minutes or until it has boiled down to a thickish sauce (it may take longer if your puree didn't yield a lot).
- Remove the sauce from the heat.
- Remove the masa dough and reserved cooking liquid from the refrigerator.
- Place the masa dough back into the stand mixer and stir on low to loosen the dough.
- Add 4 tablespoons of the sauce to the dough and mix to combine. You may need to push the dough out of the paddle and mix a second time to ensure it's well mixed.
- Check the dough in a glass of cold water again to ensure it still floats. If not, add the reserved cooking liquid (a tablespoon at a time) and beat on medium speed until it does. The dough should be light and fluffy, not stiff or runny. Place the dough in the refrigerator uncovered while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Warm the meat slightly in the microwave (it just needs to be warm enough to be workable, not warm enough to eat, and the liquid you put in the day before should keep it from drying out).
- Mix the sauce into the meat thoroughly, using a spatula to ensure you get as much sauce in as possible. Don't worry if the meat still seems a bit dry. Tamales don't have much sauce on the inside.
- Assemble and wrap the tamales (instructions below), then steam them for about an hour or until the corn husk comes away from the dough easily. You can steam them in a double-boiler or in a rice cooker. In a double boiler, set them semi-upright, leaning against one another. In a rice cooker, lay them flat, seam-side down, as close together as possible in a single layer. Use any extra reconstituted corn husks to fill extra space and place several on top of the tamales. In either case, the water should never touch the tamales, or they'll get mushy. Also make sure there's water in the pot at all times. When they're done, use tongs to carefully remove them, and place them on a platter to cool.
- Serve them plain or with a selection of Mexican-inspired condiments, like enchilada sauce, hot sauce, guacamole, cheese and sour cream. If you serve them to fresh-tamale newbies, remind them the corn husk isn't edible!
How to assemble and wrap tamales
Ironically, the most intimidating part of making tamales for many is the wrapping. But if you can wrap a burrito well or a Christmas present well enough, you've got it covered. Just remember that tamales are pretty forgiving, so if it isn't perfect, don't be too hard on yourself.
Before you begin, cut two of the soaked wrappers into strips lengthwise. Leave the wrappers in the soaking water to keep them soft while you're working.
Spread a soaked wrapper out in front of you and use a paper towel to remove any excess water from both sides.
If your wrapper has a pointed end (not all do), place that end away from you, making sure the side that's face up is the way it naturally tends to curl. Imperfections in the wrapper are OK as long as they don't impede your ability to roll the tamale. If you mess anything up, you can always scrape the ingredients off separately and start over.
Place 1/4 cup of the masa dough in the center, toward the bottom, of the wrapper.
Use your fingers to smash and spread the dough into an approximately 4-inch square (it doesn't have to be a perfect square), ensuring there's plenty of room on each side for wrapping (at least an inch on the bottom and sides).
Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture straight down the center (vertically) of the masa dough.
Use the corn husk to wrap the masa dough around the meat mixture, making sure the dough completely encompasses the meat (it's OK if the ends of the cylinder it creates are open). If necessary, you can use small pinches of dough to fix any holes or incomplete seams in the dough.
Lay the tamale back on the countertop flat and fold the bottom of the wrapper up over the raw tamale (be careful not to smash the tamale). Then fold one edge of the wrapper over, then the other in a burrito-style fold to complete the wrap.
Use a strip of the cut wrappers to tie up the remaining end. Use double ties if necessary.
More Mexican-inspired Christmas recipes
Traditional Mexican Christmas recipes
A traditional Christmas punch recipe: Mexican ponche
Christmas menudo recipe