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Basic Tamale Method

Total Time
2 hrs 30 mins

Cookbook author Marcela Valladolid showed us how to put on a tamalada–a tamale-making party–at her house near San Diego. She and her three aunts made these small, fluffy tamales, with plenty of filling in every bite. Use any leftover filling in tacos or eggs, and extra masa for sopes (crunchy fried bites). See the list below for information about ingredients.

su-Basic Tamale Method Image

Photo: Thomas J. Story

 6 ounces dried cornhusks (40 to 45)
 1 pound (2 cups) cold Fresh Lard or 3/4 lb. (1 1/2 cups) hydrogenated lard
 5 cups masa harina, such as Maseca
 2 teaspoons baking powder
 4 teaspoons kosher salt
 4 1/2 cups hot chicken broth (reduced-sodium or homemade)*
  Your choice of filling:
  Roasted Poblano Chile and Cheese Tamale Filling
  Chicken and Green Tomatillo Tamale Filling
  Pork and Red Chile Tamale Filling
Step 1

Soak cornhusks: Submerge in hot water, weighted down with a plate, until pliable, about 30 minutes. You'll have extra, but that's good; invariably some rip or are too ridged to fold properly.

Step 2

Make dough: Using a mixer with the whisk attachment, whip lard on low speed, then increase to high, until lard is as fluffy as frosting, about 5 minutes.

Step 3

Put masa harina in a large bowl, sift in baking powder, and whisk in salt. With mixer on low speed, beat one-third of masa mixture into lard until fully incorporated (scrape beater and bowl at least once), then beat in one-third more. With mixer still on low, drizzle in broth so it doesn't splatter, and beat 5 minutes to hydrate masa mixture (it will thicken).

Step 4

Beat in remaining one-third masa mixture, a spoonful at a time, until incorporated and dough is soft and fluffy without being sticky (you may not need all the masa mixture). Test dough by rolling a small ball of it over the back of your hand; if it rolls easily, without sticking, you've added enough.

Step 5

Cover dough with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for at least 10 minutes and up to 1 hour, or chill up to 2 days.

Step 6

Meanwhile, drain cornhusks and pat dry with a kitchen towel. If you won't be using them immediately, chill them in resealable plastic bags for up to 2 days.

Step 7

Put 4 upturned ramekins in a 10- to 12-qt. stockpot equipped with a tight-fitting lid and set a steamer basket on top (or use a tamalera; see "Tamalada Shopping List," below). Pour in water to a depth of at least 1 1/2 inches but below the steamer basket level. Repeat with a second stockpot. (Or use 1 pot, but cook half the tamales at a time.)

Step 8

Fill tamales: Set a cornhusk on a work surface, smoother side up (or hold it in your hand), and dollop 2 to 2 1/2 tbsp. dough onto wide (top) half of husk. Smear with back of a soup spoon or your fingers until about 1/4 in. thick, leaving a 1-in. border along top and sides. Fill by spooning 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp. filling down center of dough (for cheese and chile filling, arrange 2 cheese pieces and 2 chile strips down center). Bring sides of husk to meet over filling, then fold both sides over filling in the same direction. (Go to for a video on how to fold.) Turn tamale seam side up, then fold narrow bottom (end) under tamale to close it.

Step 9

As you work, set tamales upright (open ends up) in steamer baskets of pots, packing them loosely. Or, if you don't have enough room on your work surface, put them in baking pans or some other container with sides, arranging them upright; then transfer them to pots on stove.

Step 10

Cover pots with foil (or a thin kitchen towel) and lids, which must fit tightly to keep the steam in. Bring pots to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-high to maintain a steady boil. Steam tamales vigorously until easily separated from husks but still somewhat soft (open one to check), 1 to 1 1/2 hours, adding hot water to pot every 20 minutes or so. Remove pot from heat, remove lid and foil, and let tamales cool in pot 20 minutes, uncovered, to firm up.

Step 11

*You can use broth left from making the Chicken and Green Tomatillo Tamale Filling. Or, for Pork and Red Chile tamales, use the broth from that filling.

Step 12

Make ahead: Dough, up to 3 days, chilled airtight; soaked cornhusks, up to 2 days, chilled. Cooked tamales keep for 1 week chilled and up to 2 months frozen. To reheat, steam or microwave, covered with a damp kitchen towel.

Step 13

Tamalada Shopping List

Step 14

Before everyone comes over to make tamales with you, make sure you have the following ingredients, along with whatever else you'll need for the fillings you've chosen.

Step 15

Dried cornhusks: Find bags of husks at Latino markets, well-stocked grocery stores, and online at Choose husks that look fresh and smell sweet.

Step 16

Lard: Widely available, hydrogenated lard will work in these recipes. But for tamales with the best flavor and lightest texture (and no trans fats), get fresh lard from a butcher shop or Latino market. Or make your own; it's easy.

Step 17

Masa harina: Masa harina is fresh corn dough dried and ground into flour; to use, mix with lard or butter, baking powder, and broth or other liquid. Brands vary in texture; Maseca was used in these recipes, since it's easy to find. Or, choose fresh masa, which you can use as is; look for the label "para tamales" at a Latino market. You'll need 4 lbs. for 3 dozen tamales.

Step 18

Tamalera: This large pot has a tall steamer insert that allows for plenty of hot water (a 20-qt. tamalera will hold 3 dozen tamales). Find one at Latino markets or Or, use 2 (12 qt.) stockpots with regular steamer baskets set on upturned ramekins (custard cups), or 1 pot, cooking in 2 batches.