Ever since we learned how easy and delicious it is to make homemade tamales, we’ve been experimenting with different flavor variations. Our favorites so far have been Green Chile Chicken Tamales and Sweet Potato Black Bean Tamales (Vegan).
But we’re certain there are many creative flavor ideas still waiting to be explored! In the meantime, we thought it would be helpful to share our basic, easy formula with you as a base to let your creativity shine!
What are Tamales?
Tamales are believed to have originated in Mesoamerica (a region that includes parts of Mexico and Central America). They consist of a corn-based (masa) shell and flavorful filling (vegan, vegetarian, or meat-based) that’s wrapped in either a corn husk or a banana leaf and then steamed.
How to Make Tamales
The process starts with making the dough. The main ingredient is masa harina, which is corn that has been cooked and soaked in lime water then ground into flour. This is not the same as cornmeal, so be sure to get the right one!
The masa harina is mixed with water and allowed to sit for 15 minutes so it can rehydrate. Then salt, baking powder, avocado oil, and broth are added until the dough resembles a thick paste.
Traditionally, lard is the primary fat component, but to keep things a little lighter, we like to use avocado oil and cut back the amount as much as possible without sacrificing on texture.
Once the masa dough is prepared, it’s time for the filling. We’ve had success with Green Chile Chicken and Sweet Potato Black Bean variations. But you can also use the following as a guide for experimenting with new flavors:
- Oil or water (for sautéing)
- Onion and/or garlic
- Meat, beans, and/or veggies
Sauté the onion and garlic, then add the meat, beans, veggies, and seasonings. Then cook until everything is tender and the flavors have developed.
When the masa dough and filling are ready, it’s time for assembly.
We like to use dried corn husks since they are most readily available. But during corn season, you can use fresh husks from corn on the cob or use banana leaves if they are available to you!
To make a tamale, hold a corn husk in your non-dominant hand (or place on a flat, clean surface) and make sure the wider edge is facing you.
Use the back of a spoon to spread 2 to 2 ½ tablespoons of masa dough from the bottom 1/3 center of the husk to the right edge (see photo below).
Then add your filling of choice to the center of the masa and guide the right edge of the husk over the filling, tucking it in.
Continue rolling until the seams meet (do this gently!). Then fold the narrow edge of the corn husk over where the seams meet and set it in a dish that will hold the tamales upright (such as a loaf pan).
Repeat until you’ve used up all of the dough and/or filling!
How to Cook Tamales
Cooking tamales is easier than you might think!
Simply place them upright in a steamer basket in a large pot or Dutch oven. Then cover and steam for 1 hour (sometimes a bit more). That’s it!
How to Freeze Tamales
Tamales are perfect for freezing because they’re easy to make in large batches and they reheat nicely.
To freeze, let the tamales cool and then add to a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Freeze until firm, then transfer to a well-sealed container. They should keep for at least 1 month, oftentimes longer.
How to Reheat Tamales
To reheat from the fridge, put the tamales in the microwave or in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop over medium heat until hot.
To reheat from frozen, let the tamales thaw and then proceed as you would if they’d come out of the fridge. For a quick thaw, you can microwave for 1 minute, remove the husk, then proceed with one of the above-mentioned reheating methods.
How to Eat Tamales
When ready to eat, remove the corn husk and discard it (compost if available).
We hope you find this guide helpful! And if you try this recipe, let us know! Leave a comment, rate it, and don’t forget to tag a photo #minimalistbaker on Instagram. Cheers, friends!
How to Make Tamales
- 2 cups masa harina (not cornmeal // masa harina has been cooked and soaked in lime water, then ground into flour)
- 1 ¾ cups water
- 1 ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 ¾ tsp baking powder
- 4 ½ Tbsp avocado oil
- 2/3 – 3/4 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, bone broth, or water (warm temperature is best)
FILLING (choose one)
- 1 package dried corn husks (as recipe is written, ~26 corn husks)
- Add masa harina to a large mixing bowl and pour the water over it. Stir to combine — it will appear dry, that's okay. Let rest 15 minutes to hydrate.
- In the meantime, add dried corn husks to a large mixing bowl and cover with room temperature water. Set something on top to submerge them (such as a small skillet). Let soak at least 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, heat a pot, Dutch oven, or large rimmed skillet over medium heat. Prepare filling by sautéing the onion and garlic in oil or water. Then add your choice of meat, beans, and/or veggies, and seasonings/spices. Cook until everything is tender and the flavors have developed. See our Green Chile Chicken Tamales or Sweet Potato Black Bean Tamales for additional guidance.
- To the soaked masa mixture add salt, baking powder, and avocado oil and stir. Then add broth (warm or room temperature for best results) a little at a time until a thick paste is achieved. It shouldn't be liquidy or crumbly (see photo). Be sure to stir well so it's fully combined. Set aside.
- Remove corn husks from water and pat dry. Then take one husk in your non-dominant hand (or place on a flat, clean surface) with the wider edge toward you (narrow end away from you). Add 2 – 2 ½ Tbsp masa in the center near the bottom (closest to the end facing you), then use the back of a spoon to spread the mixture from the bottom 1/3 center of the husk to the right edge (see photo). A semi-thin layer is ideal (not too thin, not too thick).
- Then add 1 ½ Tbsp of the filling to the center of the masa. Fold the right edge of the corn husk over the filling (toward the masa's left edge) and tuck right where the masa ends on the left. Then continue rolling until the husk’s seams meet. Next, fold the narrow edge of the corn husk tightly toward the opposite side of where the seams meet and set in a loaf pan or dish that will keep your tamales upright (see photo). Continue until you have used all your masa mixture and filling (as recipe is written, ~26 tamales).
- To a large pot or Dutch oven, add a steamer basket. Fill a pot with water until it almost touches the base of the steamer basket. Then add the tamales, keeping them upright if possible (see photo).
- Turn the heat to high, then once boiling, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer to steam the tamales for 1 hour. At the 1-hour mark, carefully remove one tamale to ensure it's cooked. Allow it to cool for a couple minutes, then unwrap. If the dough is fully cooked it shouldn't stick to the husk and should be semi-firm and springy to the touch. If it's still wet or sticking to the husk, cook tamales for another 10-15 minutes then check again to ensure doneness.
- Once cooked, remove the lid and let steam escape. Then they're ready to enjoy! Top with desired garnishes. We loved guacamole, hot sauce, diced red onion, and a little dairy-free yogurt (Culina plain).
- Store cooled tamales covered in the refrigerator up to 4-5 days. Reheat in the microwave or in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until hot.
- Or, to freeze, let tamales cool, then add to a parchment-lined baking sheet and arrange in a single layer. Freeze until firm, then transfer to a well-sealed container where they should keep for at least 1 month, oftentimes longer. To cook from frozen, either let thaw then heat in the microwave or a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until hot, or microwave for 1 minute, remove husk, then continue heating in the microwave or in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until hot.
*Masa mixture roughly adapted from Seasons of My Heart cookbook.
Nutrition (1 of 26 servings)
If you try making tamales, let us know how it goes! Leave a comment, rate it, and don’t forget to tag a photo #minimalistbaker on Instagram. Cheers, friends!