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Home » Holiday » Cinco de Mayo » How to Make Tamales

How to Make Tamales

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Have you ever wondered how to make homemade tamales? We’re spilling all of our tamale secrets and walking you through the steps of how to make this authentic Mexican recipe.

While tamale making is a bit time-consuming, it is well worth the effort! Our pork tamales recipe results in ultra-tender, meaty tamales with a touch of spicy and they are delicious when served with salsa, chiles, corn, and other Mexican recipes.

The flavorful filling features roasted pork shoulder and our homemade red chile sauce plus lots of cheese. We’d highly recommend this Mexican recipe. The delicious tamale combination is guaranteed to be a hit!

Pork filling in a tamale.

Slow-roasted pork shoulder is the base of this Mexican recipe and is what we love to make tamales with. The pork is ultra-tender with a rich, incredible flavor thanks to a spicy rub and the magic of slow roasting.

We combine tender shreds of pork shoulder with our red chile sauce to create a red pork tamales recipe with maximum flavor!

The pork, sauce, and cheese filling is rolled up into corn husks layered with masa. Steam the pork tamales on the stove or make them in the Instant Pot. Whichever method you choose, we know your tamales will turn out tasty.

Two tamales on a plate with salsa.

Why this Tamales Recipe Works

Tamales might sound intimidating, but pork tamales are in fact more time-consuming than they are complicated. Inspired by authentic Mexican pork tamales, this recipe has bold flavor and is true comfort food that makes for an extra special treat!

If you’re looking for some food pairing ideas, you can serve these red pork tamales with our Mexican Street Corn Salad, our homemade Mole Sauce or a warm slice of Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread. These homemade tamales are also delicious with creamy guacamole and traditional salsa or salsa verde.

Once you master how to make Mexican tamales, I’m sure you’ll join us in dreaming up all of the different ways to enjoy these pork and cheese tamales!

Our pork tamales recipe is:

  • super delicious and full of flavor
  • inspired by authentic Mexican pork tamales
  • meaty, cheesy, and perfectly spiced on the inside with a tender outer corn masa layer
  • naturally gluten-free

Ingredients for Pork Tamales

Let’s get to the recipe ingredient list! This recipe is straightforward but you will need to plan enough time in advance to prepare the pork shoulder. Luckily, you can make the pork filling up to three days before assembling the tamales.

Masa, tallow, chicken broth, corn husks, salt, cumin, garlic powder, and baking powder.

To make these Mexican tamales, you will need:

  • corn husks for tamales (affiliate link)
  • roasted pork shoulder
  • red chile sauce (homemade or storebought)
  • Monterey Jack cheese
  • instant corn masa flour (masa harina) (affiliate link)
  • baking powder
  • cumin powder
  • garlic powder
  • lard, beef tallow, or butter
  • chicken broth

Our tamale recipe below starts with our recipe for a slow-roasted pork shoulder. You could also use our cider braised pork shoulder or our recipe for chipotle pulled pork.

How to Make Tamales

This tamales process is a tad lengthy but so worth every minute spent working on this recipe!

For the full printable recipe card, scroll to the bottom of the page. We’ll summarize the steps below but you’ll find all of the ingredients and the details in the recipe card.

Here’s how to make these pork-filled Mexican masa marvels:

  1. Prepare the corn husks: Pour hot water over the corn husks and let the husks soak.
  2. Make the tamale filling: Follow the recipe for the pork shoulder and the chile sauce. Shred the pork and mix it with the sauce for the tamale filling.
  3. Make the masa: The trick to the masa is to beat the corn dough until it is light and fluffy.
  4. Assemble the tamales: Spread the masa on the top two-thirds of a corn husk (see photos below) and place the tamale filling in the center of the dough. Add a slice of cheese next to the filling then roll them up.
  5. Cook the tamales: We show you how to steam tamales on the stove or in an Instant Pot.

After you mix the dough, here is how to assemble everything.

How to Cook Homemade Tamales

There are a couple of ways you can steam the Mexican tamales. Cook them over the stovetop in a large pot or steam them for a few minutes in the Instant Pot!

Cooking Tamales on the Stovetop

  1. Arrange a steamer basket or rack in a large pot of water. The tamales will need to stay suspended above the water.
  2. Set the tamales on the rack with the open side facing up, packing them closely together.
  3. Spread extra corn husks on top of the tamales to help hold the steam in. If you don’t have extra corn husks, lay a clean towel or parchment paper on top. This helps prevent the steam from quickly evaporating off the tamales.
  4. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Simmer for 60 to 75 minutes. If you need to add more water (see our notes for an easy hack on how you can tell), pour it down the side of the pot and not on top of the tamales.
  5. Check to see if the tamales are done cooking. If the husk peels away easily, it’s done. If the dough sticks to the corn husk, return to the pot and cook 5-15 more minutes. Let them sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

Cooking Tamales in the Instant Pot

If you’re steaming the tamales in the Instant Pot, you will need to cook them in batches.

  1. Add 1 cup of water to the inner pot of the cooker and place a rack in the bottom. Arrange them upright on top of the rack, open side up. Keep them packed snug so they don’t tip over.
  2. Seal the lid and cook on high pressure for 25 minutes.
  3. Let the Instant Pot release pressure naturally for 10 minutes, then release the rest of the pressure manually.

Tips for Making Tamales

  • If you’re cooking your Mexican tamales on the stovetop, place a coin at the bottom of the pot. Water will evaporate from the pot while the tamales steam but you won’t be able to see the water level.

    The coin will clink around in boiling water and if it stops clinking, you’ll know to add more water to the pot.
  • Use an offset spatula, a bench scraper, or the back of a spoon to spread the dough on the corn husks.
  • The baking powder is optional but it will give the dough a lighter, more tender texture for holding the tamle filling. 
  • Whipping the fat and the batter creates light and tender masa dough in this recipe.
     
  • The masa dough should be slightly sticky and easy to spread on the corn husks. Some cooks make the masa as thick as play dough, but a slightly sticky dough will be much easier to work with when adding the tamale filling.
  • If the ends of the tamales fall through the steamer rack, spread a few corn husks on top of the rack to keep them from slipping through the gaps.
  • The tighter you pack the tamales into the pot, the longer they will need to cook

add a coin to the bottom of the pot

Frequently Asked Questions About This Tamale Recipe

Now that you know how to make Mexican tamales, here are a few recipe FAQs that might come up during the process.

How long do corn husks need to soak for tamales?

The corn husks will need to soak in water for at least 1 hour until they are softened and ready to use in this recipe.

Can you make tamales without corn husks?

While we recommend using corn husks to make Mexican tamales, if you cannot source them, there are other ingredients you can use as substitutes. Fresh husks from corn, parchment paper, banana leaves, or even aluminum foil will all work to hold the tamales together in a similar way to corn husks. However, corn husks make this recipe authentic and add a touch of flavor to the tamales.

How long do you steam pork tamales?

Steam the pork tamales according to the cooking method you are using. On the stovetop, the tamales will need to steam for 60-75 minutes. If you are cooking the tamales in the Instant Pot, they will only need to steam on high pressure for about 25 minutes.

What is inside a tamale?

These easy red pork tamales are made with tender roasted pork shoulder, cheese, and a delicious red chile sauce. The tamale filling is simple yet packed with flavor.

Why are tamales wrapped in corn husks?

Corn husks help hold tamales together until the corn flour masa dough cooks. Corn husks allow the tamales to slowly steam while holding in moisture, ensuring the tamales do not dry out while you make them.

Can you freeze tamales?

Yes, you can freeze tamales before or after you cook them.

Now that you have mastered this recipe, you may be wondering “how do you make sweet tamales?” and we have a recipe for that as well.

How to Freeze and Reheat

Uncooked tamales can go straight into the freezer. Wrap them in the filling, then in the corn husk, and freeze. If you cook them first, let them cool down before transferring them to the freezer.

You can use the microwave, stovetop, or Instant Pot to reheat or cook frozen tamales.

Cooking MethodPrecooked & FrozenUncooked & Frozen
Stovetop steaming45 minutes90 to 120 minutes
Instant Pot30 minutes40 minutes
Microwave4 to 5 minutes6 to 7 minutes

For the microwave, wrap the tamales in a damp towel to prevent them from drying out and rotate them halfway through the cooking time. Times will vary depending on your microwave.

It isn’t hard to learn how to make tamales and we know you’ll enjoy these delicious, authentic Mexican pork tamales! Each bite is super tasty with a tender, soft outer layer and a flavor-packed pork filling.

Helpful Tools for Tamale Making

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A tamale broken open to show the pork filling.

How to Make Tamales

Yield: 30 tamales
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours

The process of making tamales is a little time-consuming, but it is definitely worth it! Plan enough time in advance to cook the pork shoulder which you can make three days ahead of time.

Whether you steam them on the stove or in the Instant Pot, this pork filling with red chile sauce and cheese is sure to please.

Ingredients

  • 30 to 40 corn husks for tamales

Filling

Masa

  • 4-1/2 cups instant corn masa flour (masa harina)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1-1/2 cups lard, beef tallow, or butter
  • 2 to 3 cups chicken broth

Instructions

  1. Rinse the corn husks under running water to remove debris and dust. 
  2. Place the corn husks in a large bowl and separate them. Pour hot water over the corn husks and let them soak for at least 1 hour until they are soft. You can leave them in the soaking water while the pork shoulder cooks.

Make the Filling

  1. Follow the recipes for the roasted pork shoulder and the red chile sauce. 
  2. When the pork shoulder finishes roasting, shred the meat off the bone and place it in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Pour the red chile sauce over the shredded pork and mix until well combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside.
  4. Slice the cheese into logs 3-inches long and 1/4-inch wide. Place the cheese on a plate, cover it with plastic wrap, and set aside while you make the masa dough. 

Make the Masa

  1. In a medium sized bowl, combine the masa flour, baking powder, salt, cumin, and garlic powder. Set aside.
  2. Place the lard (or fat of choice) in a large mixing bowl. Beat the lard with an electric mixer for 4 to 6 minutes until it is light and fluffy. It should look almost as fluffy as frosting and hold a stiff peak when you lift the whisk. 
  3. Add half of the dry masa mixture into the lard and combine well. Add the rest of the masa flour mixture and combine until the mixture looks dry and crumbly. 
  4. Add 1 cup of the broth and mix until well incorporated. Continue adding the broth 1/2 to 1 cup at a time and blend well between additions. The amount of broth you need will vary from batch to batch. Continue to add the broth until the dough looks soft, slightly sticky and spreadable. It should be about the consistency of creamy peanut butter. 
  5. Once you get the masa dough to the consistency of peanut butter, turn the mixer to medium and beat it for about 10 minutes to incorporate air into the batter. 
  6. Test the dough: Drop 1/2 teaspoon of dough into a glass of cold water. If the dough floats in the water it is ready. If the dough sinks to the bottom of the glass, continue beating for a few more minutes. 
  7. Taste the masa and add more salt if necessary. If you don’t want to taste the raw dough, scoop a couple of tablespoons of dough and fry it in the skillet like a pancake.
  8. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp towel to prevent it from drying out. 

Assemble the Tamales

  1. Lay a corn husk on the counter with the smooth side up. Place about 3 to 4 tablespoons of dough into the corn husk and spread it on the top two thirds of the husk (don’t spread any dough on the narrow end of the corn husk ). Leave 1/2 inch of space at the top edge of the husk. See the photos for reference. 
  2. Place about 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough. Add a slice of cheese next to the filling. Fold the sides of the husk toward the center and over the top of the filling. 
  3. Fold the narrow end of the husk up to seal the bottom of the tamal. Place the tamal on a plate and continue to assemble the rest of the tamales. 

To Cook on the Stovetop:

  1. Place about 2 to 3 inches of water in the bottom a large pot. 
  2. Drop a coin into the water. The coin will jingle when the water boils and let you know if you need to add more water to the pot if it stops jingling. 
  3. Place a steamer basket or a rack in the pot so the tamales stay suspended above the water.
  4. Arrange the tamales on the rack with the open side facing up. Keep them packed closely together so they all stay in an upright position. 
  5. If you have extra corn husks, spread them out over the top of the tamales to help hold the steam in. If you don’t have extra corn husks, lay a clean towel or parchment paper on top of the tamales. This will help prevent the steam from evaporating as quickly.
  6. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. You won’t be able to see if the water is boiling so watch for steam then place the lid on the pot and reduce the heat to medium low. 
  7. Simmer for 60 to 75 minutes. If the water evaporates out, the coin will stop clinging. Add additional water to the bottom of the pot by pouring it down the side of the pot (do not pour water on top of the tamales). 
  8. Check the tamales to see if they are finished cooking. Remove one tamale and peel the husk off. If the husk pulls away easily and the dough does not stick to the husk, it is finished cooking. If the dough sticks to the corn husk, add 5 to 15 minutes to the cooking time.
  9. Let the tamales sit at room temperature for 10 minutes so they firm up before serving. 

For the Instant Pot:

  1. You will need to cook the tamales in batches if you use the Instant Pot as it will not fit all of them at once. 
  2. Add 1 cup of water to the inner pot of the Instant Pot and place a rack in the bottom of the pot. Arrange the tamales upright on top of the rack with the open side facing upward. Keep them packed snuggly so they hold each other upright. 
  3. Seal the lid and cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. Let the Instant Pot release pressure naturally for 10 minutes then release the rest of the pressure manually. 

Notes

  • An offset spatula or a bench scraper makes it easy and quick to spread the dough on the corn husks. You can also use the back of a spoon. 
  • The baking powder is optional but it will give the tamale dough a lighter, more tender texture. 
  • Whipping the fat and the batter are key steps to achieving light, tender tamales. 
  • Make the masa dough slightly sticky and easy to spread on the corn husks. Some cooks like to make the masa almost as thick as play dough, which is also fine but it will take longer to assemble the tamales. 
  • If the ends of the tamales fall through the steamer rack, spread a few corn husks on top of the rack to prevent the tamales from falling through the gaps. 
  • The tighter you pack the tamales into the pot, the longer they will need to cook
  • Since the tamales need to steam for a long period of time, you may need to add more water to the pot. If you place a coin in the bottom of the pot, it will rattle in the boiling water. You will know if the pot ran out of water if the coin stops rattling. 
  • You can freeze the tamales before or after you assemble them. Steam pre-cooked frozen tamales for 45 minutes. If the tamales were not cooked prior to freezing them, steam the frozen un-cooked tamales for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 30 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 342Total Fat: 21gSaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 11gCholesterol: 27mgSodium: 444mgCarbohydrates: 35gFiber: 4gSugar: 7gProtein: 9g

Nutrition information is a guideline only, is calculated automatically by third-party software, and absolute accuracy is not guaranteed.

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Dahn Boquist

Dahn is a retired nurse, recipe creator, home cook, baker, and self-proclaimed foodie. She loves creating in the kitchen and cooking for family and friends. She lives in Washington State with her husband and dog. When she isn't cooking or baking, you can usually find her spending time with her grandson or exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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Rose Halpin

Wednesday 13th of December 2023

This past three weeks I've made a total of five batches of tamales, Two double batches and one single batch. The last three batches I used your recipe, exactly. (The first double batch I adapted your recipe with prepared masa) I'm so happy with my outcome. Your tamale and especially your masa recipe is the best I've ever tried. Spices and seasoning is delicious. Thank you.

Dahn Boquist

Wednesday 13th of December 2023

Wow, it sounds like you've been busy in the kitchen with five batches of tamales; that's impressive. Thank you so much for your comment, I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the recipe.

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