(Almost) Grandma’s Tamales

My husband’s hispanic grandmother used to make tamales every Christmas and send them out to all the family too far away to enjoy them in her own kitchen in southern California.  They were delicious – we looked forward to them every Christmas.  A few years into our marriage, they stopped coming.  She was getting old enough that they were too big of a job for her to handle anymore.  I wanted to learn how to make them, so I started asking my husband’s aunts in California.  I found two problems – one, none of them knew how to make them; two, she barely spoke English and didn’t use recipes because she couldn’t read or write.  I have read every tamale recipe I can find, and with a little experimentation I have gotten my own version pretty close to the original.  My father-in-law says they taste just the same.  Now I make tamales every year for the whole family.  I love it that the tradition is still alive!  Here’s the recipe if you want to start a tradition of your own.

Ingredients (I’ll explain the measurements later):

  • a nice, big pork roast
  • corn husks
  • masa flour
  • corn oil
  • chili powder
  • cumin
  • garlic powder
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • paprika

The first thing you want to do is cook your pork roast.  You can do this two ways.  You can put it in a Crock-Pot overnight, or you can boil it.  Either way, you cut it into fist-sized chunks so it cooks evenly.  Be sure you save the broth – you’ll need it later.  You can cook the meat in the morning for afternoon tamale-making, or you can cook it the day before.  It’s really up to you.

When the pork roast is cooked and cooled, shred it into small pieces.

At this point, you want to start soaking your corn husks.  Take them out of the package and put them in a bowl of hot water to soften up.  They will need to soak for 2 or 3 hours before you can really work with them.

Mix the following ingredients into a paste:

  • 1/2 c. corn oil
  • 6 Tbsp. chili powder
  • 3 Tbsp. cumin
  • 3 Tbsp. garlic powder
  • 2 Tbsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. black pepper

When these are all mixed together, add them to the shredded pork and mix well with your hands.  Yes, it’s gross – but it’s the best way to get the consistency right.

Next, you put about 2 pounds (usually half a bag) of masa flour into a large bowl.  Add the following spices and mix well:

  • 3 Tbsp. paprika
  • 3 Tbsp. salt
  • 3 Tbsp chili powder
  • 3 Tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 Tbsp. cumin

Then you add 2 c. corn oil and about 2 quarts of the pork broth you saved (1 cup at a time), mixing well after every cup of broth.  You know it’s right when it looks and feels like peanut butter.

You’re almost ready to make tamales.  First, you need to shake the water off the corn husks and let them air dry for a few minutes.  Then you lay the husk in front of you with the narrow end to your left.  Spread a thin layer of masa on the husk, leaving some space at the left and top with no masa.  You can do this however is easiest for you – some people like to use a spoon.  I like to use my hands.

Then you put a line of the shredded pork in the middle of the masa.  I like to make mine with lots of meat, but not everyone does.  Then you can roll your tamale.

This is the part where it gets tricky.  All the recipes I read said to roll – for the life of me, I can’t do it.  I fold mine – I take the bottom and fold it up to the top, then sort of peel the edge of the husk away from the masa and use it to sqeeze the tamale in nice and tight – THEN I roll it.  It’s hard to explain, but once you get your hands on it, I think it will make more sense.  Anyway, you roll the tamale from the bottom to the top, then fold the narrow end up against the edge of the husk.

After you roll the tamales, you place them in a steamer with the folded side down.  You can buy tamale steamers, but I cheated and made my own.  I have a canning pot with a basket for the jars.  I line the basket with foil and poke holes in it, then set the handles on the edge of the pot so the basket is raised.  (If you have ever used a canner, you know what I’m talking about.)  Fill the bottom of the steamer with water, but DO NOT put in so much you get the bottom of your tamales wet – you’ll have soggy tamales.  Cover your steamer and bring the water to a boil.  When the water boils, turn the heat down and steam for about 2 hours.  You will want to check every now and then to make sure the pot doesn’t boil dry.

That’s it!  When the masa is firm you know you’re done.  Then all you have to do is eat and enjoy!


122 thoughts on “(Almost) Grandma’s Tamales

  1. OK, about to admit something really embarrassing here: I used to wonder how the heck the corn husk was appetizing as you ate it with a tamale. I mean, wasn’t it all fibrous and stringy?

    And yes, I get it now…


    Beautiful pix, and great post!

    1. Hello everyone. Happy New Year!

      Well, yes, the corn husk is used only as a cooking wrap, and helps keeping the flour masa and filling together until steam cooked. When served, you will want to unwrap the tamale and leave the husk aside.

      It is common to freeze the remaining tamales and cook them later using a comal (sort of Mexican pan which you will put directly on the stove fire), but any pan with a lid will do.

      You will not need to steam-cook again, but dry simmer.

      Cooked this way tamales will not be soft anymore, but crunchy. Unwrap and bathe them with tomato sauce and serve with a refried beans garnish sprinkled with shredded cheese and a cup of Chiapas coffee.

      Viva Mexico!

  2. Okay…I have a question about tamales and I think I know the answer…do you eat the corn husk? I mean is it edible after all that prep work or do you have to unwrap the tamales. (Obviously I have never had the pleasure of eating a tamale I don’t know if I could even find one in my town if I tried.) Anyway, thanks for the recipe. Please don’t tease the ignorant German girl.


    1. I’m just a midwest farmgirl, so no teasing. 🙂 I had never had a tamale until I married my husband, and I used to wonder the same thing. You do have to unwrap the tamale. The cornhusk is only a wrapper. You probably could eat it, but it wouldn’t taste very good. 🙂

      1. I KNEW IT! So … why the corn husk then? Does it make the whole thing taste corn-ish? I mean there’s got to be something better to wrap them in. Or at least easier to find. I don’t know where I would get a bunch of corn husks that I would feel good about cooking food in.

        Thanks for the answer — and for not teasing!

      2. This is a reply for CrystalSpins:

        The corn husk serves as a mold, if you didn’t put it inside the corn husk, there’s a huge chance they will break because when they’re hot they’re very fragile, and if you would try to take them out they would break.

        This is a nice recipe, there’s definitely more than one way to make tamales. Pork tamales, chicken tamales, beef tamales, sweet tamales. You can use Masa to make them, but if you’re experienced enough you can grind down corn into a fine masa and make a tamale out of it. Personally a prefer making it out of ground up corn, it gives an awesome taste I can’t even describe.

        Maybe one day I’ll ask my mom to teach me her recipes so I could share them on my blog.

  3. Seems like the Munich White Sausages: only when I moved to Bavaria I learned, that you have to unwrap them or sizzle the sausage out of its skin…
    looks yummie…thanks for sharing…

  4. I used to hate tamales, but now I love them! I also used to be confused about the corn husk and if you eat it or not. Once I took a mouthful of the husk and it tasted bad–thank goodness not in front of my friends! LOL!

    Thanks for sharing this recipe! Happy New Year!

  5. Tamales on Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite traditions, I just never knew how to make them. Being from Arizona, there were lots of places to buy authentic tamales, but now that I’ve moved away, it’s just not the same. Thank you for sharing your recipe. I (and my husband) can’t wait to try it!

    1. I get mine at Wal-Mart. Most of the grocery stores around here have it, but we have a really large Hispanic population as well. I guess it depends on your location. If you can find a Hispanic grocery, they would have it there as well. http://www.mimaseca.com
      is the website of the masa I use if you want to see what the package looks like.

  6. I love tamales! I married into a Hispanic family and my grandmother in law how taught me how to make these wonderful treats. This is one tradition that you want to keep doing for years. Lots of memories and food!

  7. I’m definitely going to try this! My husband loves tamales but I’ve never tried cooking them (as in making them from scratch, as opposed to removing them from a can or frozen package and heating them up). Last time I tried to “cook” them, he’d brought home a bag of them from the local international market. I steamed a bunch of them, we couldn’t wait to try them… and it was only after unpeeling the corn husks and taking a couple of bites that we realized our tamales were made of pure masa. No pork. No filling of any kind, in fact! I’m sure they were meant to be like that and that we’d just got the wrong sort of tamales, but… well, suffice to say I ended up ordering a pizza that night instead. Anyway, these look yummy and I will try it out… pork and everything!

  8. My partner is Mexican and we had tamales for Christmas Eve, too. It is also a tradition from his grandma. We also have sweet ones for dessert, with pineapple and sultanas. Delicious!

  9. Oh, my gosh.

    Finally something I can just about sink my teeth into.

    Like you, I recall the days when mom spent hours… days… preparing for The BIG Day with her best friend Berta, whose husband would drop her off early at the house so they could work and talk and make the best tamales I’ve ever eaten in my whole life!

    Mind you, Berta and mom would split costs and the masa; but on their production day, each got half of the masa, the shucks, and the fillings. But that’s where the similarities ended.

    Mom’s were ever so exquisite, and they sure tasted different from Berta’s, which weren’t as light. Nevertheless, the tamales… which had been labeled by filling and name… were equally portioned so that each comadre could keep half of each batch made for her family.

    I always wished mom would’ve kept more of her own tamales ’cause they were yummier, even though both batches had been made with lots of TLC. But they were true friends, and they always shared.

    Mom had a stroke in 2001, and the tamales were never the same after that. Some years later, Berta died; and mom stopped her tamale production altogether. But I’ll never forget the tamales made especially for me with the chicken and raisin filling.


    And, since I’ve been saying, “I’m gonna make ’em one of these days,” I now can, thanks to your wonderfully written… and illustrated… post.

    Thanks ever so much! And happy new year!

  10. I have learned that no matter how incredibly well I make something that was a favorite childhood memory of my husband’s…it will NEVER come close to mom’s or grandma’s. That is why I had to come up with my own creations…thanks for the recipe, though. I can’t wait to make it!

  11. I wish I had the guts to try making tamales by myself but I still leave it to my mom. We (my dad & the kids) always did the “unta-ing” of the husks. Someone asked about the corn husk, consider that tamales are from very long ago before aluminum foil was created. It held in the masa and allowed it to be steamed and gave it an easy shape without a big mess and corn was readily available. In today’s days, think of it as the best way to recycle.

    My goal is to have a tamalada (tamal making party) one of these days because you learn so much from each other as you cook in a group. One of these days, one of these days… FYI – the singular is tamal, the plural is tamales.

  12. Thank you for posting these! They look delicious 🙂 My only tamales experience was reading about them in a book when I was like 15, and recently had the ones from Trader Joe’s which are really good. But, I cannot wait to attempt to make them so I have them perfected for next Christmas 🙂 Happy New Year!

  13. Hi, let me say you, that Tamales are a verry comon snack food in México, there is a verry big variety, according to the site of the country. Is a verry easy and taste fully snack. One of the most comon way of do it, is like our friend put above.
    You have to take out the wrap, because this cover is just for give them taste and smell, and to take it without the risk of contaminateit. You eat de mass cooked witht mit (what ever), or fruit in the case of suit tamal.
    IN central México is common eat “la guajolota” which is a breath with a tamal iside (sandwich). Its sell in the streets like a fast break fastast, but worry, dont abuse of this snack, because you can win load.

  14. My mom and dad used to go to a friends house and make tamales. The neat thing about it was the friends all went to high school with my dad. Mom and dad always brought home a couple dozen tamales to share with us, they were so good! I have never made them, but I think I might get some of my friends together and try now. Thank you for sharing your recipe!

    1. You won’t believe this, but I can guarantee that this is a true story.
      My grandma lives in California, and I live in Idaho, I never get the chance to visit and neither does her, so one day one of our friends went to California and I asked him if he could visit my grandma and give her some of my gifts (clothes and pictures) he did, and my grandma made us a treat, she prepared 2 dozen tamales and put them around 5 bags.

      Well the trip from California to Idaho by car normally takes 1 day, but my friend’s car broke down and he had to stay at a town to get it repaired, so it took about 1 day and a half for the tamales to get here.

      What Amazed me was that the tamales were still hot, as if they were just taken out of the pot 15 minutes ago. I asked my friend if he reheated it for us, and he said they were in his car’s back seat the whole way. I don’t want to question how this happened because I know that’s not important, It amazes me what power love can have in this world.

  15. Nice post! Enjoy making tamales with friends and moreso eating it. And, certainly not hard to make if done with the help of others. Question though….what does Grandma think of them 🙂 Congrats on Freshly Pressed and Happy Holidays! LB

  16. I am a cookbook and recipe fanatic. Your explanations and photos were super. I don’t know if I’ll make these

    i AM IMPRESSED!!!!!

  17. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!!! I’ve lived in Spain for a few years now, and the thing I miss the most about home (California) are my family’s annual Christmas tamales! I’m going to try and make them sometime this year. Though I know it’s a ton of work (I made them with my mom once and it took us almost 8 hours). THANKS FOR THE RECIPE!! 🙂

  18. No you do not eat the husk! I remember the Tamale Man on the Santa Fe Drive corner in Denver. It was one of those childhood memories. I have longed for a Tamale as good as his. I will be trying this great article. Thanks

  19. Wow, how exciting = I’ve had no idea how to make them and I appreciate your step-by-step instructions!
    How do you ship them safely? Do you freeze and then send, or do you freeze, and then send in some sort of freezer container? Do you cook them before you send them?
    Thanks for posting :*D

    1. When they were sent to us, they were frozen solid in zip-lock bags and sent UPS. Personally, I would freeze them in a ziplock bag, put them in dry ice, and send them overnight.

  20. Hello,
    in many spanish speaking countries in the american continent, Tamales are native, not just in Mexico. I grew up with them, be it from my mother, my aunt or my grandmother. All great!
    Pork is only one possibility – any meat will do, but beef, pork and chicken are the classic ones.
    Sometimes they are wrapped with corn husks, sometimes with banana leaves, but none of these are eadible.

    1. That’s what most people in Mexico use, it’s hard to come by Platano (banana) leaves in the USA though, so the usual tamale in the USA are made from corn husk leaves.

      Most stores sell corn husk because it’s easy to dry them and package them and they maintain their structure, platano leaves don’t. Although I’ve heard from my grandma in California that it’s easy to get ahold of Platano leaves in California.

  21. I made tamales for the first time this year, thanks to the help of my neighbor, Carolina, who is from Mexico. We’re in New Mexico, and you’re right, we can get tamales anywhere, any time, in so many varieties. I made green chile and chicken tamales my first time out. My neighbor insisted we use lard in the masa…but one can make a lighter masa with part lard/oil and pork, chicken or vegetable broth. It took us about two hours to do the assembly (she has production down to an art). I know that if I tried them myself, it would take me forever. But I don’t think tamales are meant to be made alone. A great reason to get the girls (and guys) together!

  22. “But I don’t think tamales are meant to be made alone.”

    That is true, Zehpyr.
    Tamales are much work, so it is mostly connected with festivities or with celebrating. And however complex to prepare, they are never eaten as lone dish. Just as in diferent cultures the contents changes, it varies what accompanies it. Like everyting else. Coffee is drunk in many different ways througt the world, just like eggs or rice are prepare differently in different regions.
    That is the most wonderful thing about traveling and knowing different culutures – the palate grows as well as the mind could.

  23. On the Texas border, we have the New Year’s tradition, too. Right now, the grocery stores are selling packages of corn husks, cooked pulled/shredded pork, the steamers for cooking them, and the latest idea: 3 or 4-lb. packages of freshly-made masa. My church has what we call “Amigo Sunday” after the Christmas service, and the entree is tamales, ordered from a neighborhood professional. This year we had pork, chicken, bean & cheese, and a new one made with cream cheese and jalapeño. I am a gringa, but I love these tamales! Too old to make them, though…

  24. I must admit- i have never heard of a Tamale…..until now! The only thing that stops me from rushing out and starting is the thought of HOW LONG This could possibly take? MY heart would break if it took 24 hours to make, and was gulped down in 30 minutes?
    Well done on being freshly pressed! Have an awesome start to teh New Year!

    1. My mom usually starts preparing the recipes during the night. Watering the dried out husk leaves, unfreezing the chicken (or pork or beef) then she wakes up early in the morning and we help her pull the chicken or whatever meat we use into small strings with out hands. Then she starts the pot and we start making the Masa (dough) then we start making the tamales and slowly putting them inside the pot.

      Once we put all of these into the pot (steamer etc) we leave it cooking while we go on with our usual stuff.
      Usually at about 2-3 pm they are ready to be taken out and eaten.
      We tend to make 3 dozens and we eat what we can, and refrigerate whatever is left. If you feel like eating a tamale, simply recook it by putting it on a pan, or microwave them.

  25. Robert Johnson, 1936-37, Song Title: ‘They’re Red Hot’; verse: “Hot Tamales and they’re Red Hot; yes, she got ’em for sale”. Wow, these things are still going strong – must be lovely! *nom, nom, nom* Happy New Year. 🙂

  26. I’m very impressed that you have mastered tamal making and turned it into a family tradition. I live in a small Mexican town, and spent a day working with our town’s tamal making crew (in Mexico, the singular for tamales is tamal — it is only tamale in the US). It was very labor intensive, and I came away with a new understanding of all that goes into tamal making.


    1. I guess it depends what part of Mexico you’re talking about. My family from Acapulco uses Tamal as a singular. My family from Puerto Vallarta and California uses Tamale as a singular.

  27. I took out of the freezer a package of leftover tamales from a friend. Recently widowed I haven’t felt like cooking for myself but during the holiday season good friends brought me their signature dishes for my freezer. The tamales were fabulous and I wouldn’t even dare to venture to make something so complicated. Now that I see all the steps my friend took to make this delicious concoction I appreciate it even more.

    1. They’re not hard to make, they look complicated but in reality they’re not. It’s never too late to start a new family tradition. The US tends to have more Mexican traditions than any other because of our rich history and beautiful and delicious traditions carried down from Mexico.
      I’m sure you can Venture into Making tamales, why not share your tamales with your friend? Or better yet, ask her to teach you so you can have a closer relationship as friends.

  28. Lovely post…I love family traditions…my grandma used to make natural yoghurt in earthen mini pots whenever we went over for the weekends or festival celebrations…and to date nothing can beat that taste and memory …
    I do have a question though…I’m a vegetarian and would like to know what would be a good substitute for pork?Many thanks..

  29. Those looked fantastic; I’ve eaten my weight in tamales by now but I love this time of year. My mom made them a few years ago all by hand, like when she was a kid. But it was tough to make enough to satiate everybody who would come!

  30. wow! that is a complicated recipe (but well explained). Congrats to you for your dedication and honoring of a family tradition! Looks (and sounds) delicious!!!!!

    1. Sure. I’ve personally never made any but the pork, but I know there are chicken and beef tamales as well. I would imagine you could put just about anything you like in them.

  31. oh I wish I would have seen your post an hour ago! I am trying to make tamales for the first time. And the recipe I found calls for puree (boiled) chiles and water to add to the pork. It’s just NOT flavorful, at all. And it doesn’t even have very much heat. A friend of mine from Mexico, who I have lost touch with, used to bring me tamales his mother would make. They were unbelievably delicious and I have not had any as good since. 😦 I may try to add your spice mixture without the corn oil since I already added the chile puree and it’s very moist already. Thank you so much for this post. Tamales are awesome comfort food!!

    1. I agree – they are top notch comfort food! I hope the spice works with what you have so far. Let me know how it turns out! Good luck!!!

      1. I think you have saved my tamales 🙂 It’s much better!! I plan on finishing tomorrow and I will be using your recipe for the masa dough! Thanks again!

  32. Thank you, thank you. This looks like the real thing. I grew up in Texas and my Daddy’s friend delivered fresh, homemade tamales to us every Christmas Eve. Dare I try to make them? It would be worth the trouble if it works.

  33. Great post and beautiful picture of the TLC process required to get to the end product, I can just see myself munching down several tamales! Seems like abuelas / grandmothers are the tamal experts all over the globe. There is another great home cooked Abuela tradition and those are croquetas, another finger food made from left over pork from Christmas eve dinner. God bless all abuelas and those who take the time to learn and go to the trouble of keeping family traditions alive from one generation to next. Salud!

  34. CONGRATS on being pressed!!! I’ve been there and know it is quite the honor. Best of luck with your blog in 2011!
    My grandma made tamales until she was 96 years old. Now my mother, sister, and I have continued the tradition. If you have a chance I’d love for you to stop and peak at my blog. This is the story we wrote about my grandma making tamales:
    Feliz año nuevo!

  35. congrats on FP! I’ve been told that in Mexico they use a large pot and a stone in the middle, then the tamales are stood upright around the stone to steam. Although, that doesn’t explain how to avoid soggy masa :^) My mother-in-law and I wanted to make tamales and chorizo over the holidays, but we didn’t have time. You also have a good point about not being able to find a recipe to match grandma’s originals – I have the same problem with bread/buns that my grandma made. Everybody ate them, I was even in her kitchen after school, and still can’t replicate it.
    Happy Eating!

  36. I enjoyed reading this. I used to make tamales every year with my mom and grandma. We stopped doing it a few years ago, but this year we started the tradition again. They came out great! I did try a different sauce though. My mom used her traditional red sauce with pork but I used a green sauce with pork. I liked them both. I love traditional foods of my culture and I am glad that other people appreciate them too. Here’s a food from my husband’s culture:


  37. Sounds yummy! Thanks for sharing. They are alot easier sounding than I thought!!!! My sister has started making them every Christmas, and now I think I might try them myself!

  38. I think it is fantastic that you took the time to learn the recipe – even better that you shared it. I love a good tamale, and have an Aunt who hails from Mexico that has taught me a few things – this summer I learned how to make fresh salsa the way she always does. Some of the best things she taught me were how to make Spanish rice, and a fantastic tostada!

    This is also refreshing to hear, since much of our society has lost the art of tradition and learning important recipes and such from our parents and grandparents.

    Now that I have said that, I will need to learn how my father (who learned from my grandfather) how to make the famous three layer Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake that he made for every one of my birthdays growing up. He stayed up all night to do it and it was truly a labor of love!

    You have motivated me – thanks for posting and Happy New Year!

    Paul Helm

  39. I love Mexican food and think that home-made are always better and sometimes more interesting than the ones eaten at restaurants. Thank you for sharing the recipe. All I knew was that making tamales is a time-consuming process. I’m glad that I’m one step closer to making it myself. 🙂

    Happy New Year!

  40. What a great post! I LOVE tamales and have only made them 3 times. The first time was a disaster but after that it got easier. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, it was all trial and error. The last time I made them I was very happy with my product and ate tamales for months! because I had lots to freeze for later. I have used venison to my delight it was really good! I also make a red sauce with a dark roue and chili powder to dress my tamales with.

    (Hoping I spelled roue correctly as I can’t find the spell check on this computer!)


  41. Thanks so much! I had friends that made tamales every Christmas Eve. They would set up their garage with all the makings (prepared the night before) and anybody and everybody was invited to come make tamales. You made 12 and took 12 home.
    I’ve always wanted to try to make tamales, but was never sure where to find a good recipe. Can’t wait to try these! I’ll bet I don’t wait until Christmas!)

  42. You might just saved my life! I grew up in Mexico, and as many people that responded to your post I also had a couple of grandmothers that cooked the most delicious tamales. The better ones were Tia Berna’s Oaxaquenos…. But Mama Maria’s lasted longer. Now I not longer live in Mexico, but the taste for this culinary wonder has been somehow inherited by my youngest daughter who, by the way, has never lived in the country. Going to the point, she has been asking if we could make tamales one day, and I had been putting it off, until now… I am sure I won’t be able to get the corn husks here in Ireland, but I will improvise…
    Thank you, again… And a very Feliz 2011!

  43. The only time I tried tamales when we were at Vegas in one of the casino restaurants that I cant remember the name, all I can say is that its good. Now with your post I can now make it at home, Yummy

  44. Thank you for the wonderful recipe and great description of the details of making the tamales. I moved away from Texas, where tamales were a regular treat for our family at restaurants in San Antonio. I never realized until it was too late that you couldn’t get them just anywhere. So I’ve been trying to make my own, and your recipe is just what I needed.

  45. Loved this post! I think it might be important to point out that the husk has a rough side and smooth side. The tamales release best when you spread the masa on the smooth side.

  46. Love that you add spices to your masa! I haven’t seen that in other recipes and now can’t wait to make tamales again.



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