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Mexican food is probably my very favorite. I could eat it every single day and never grow tired of it. While I’m an enchiladas superfan, eat tacos or fajitas or by the half dozen, nosh on chips and salsa on a daily basis, and yes, even enjoy “Americanized” Mexican food, there is nothing I adore more than homemade tamales. And they don’t even have to be Mexican tamales. I’ve eaten tamales from Mexico and several Central American countries and I’ve loved them all. Today we’ve partnered with with Rojo’s Salsa to show how easy it is to make homemade tamales in your own kitchen.
Rojo’s was founded over 30 years ago when a secret homemade salsa recipe was brought to the U.S. by a family from Mexico. From that very first salsa to now, Rojo’s has become an industry leader in offering salsas, including restaurant-quality refrigerated salsas (my favorite!), and other Mexican dips created with fresh-cut tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Each one is crafted in small batches to ensure quality, freshness, and homemade taste. The salsas are cold processed and expertly seasoned–and they can be found right in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store
Tamales are often a part of Mexican holiday celebrations, though they can be found pretty much everywhere on a daily basis too. My family quite enjoys tamales during the holidays because we gather around the kitchen table and make them together.
Tamale making is a great activity for a group of people–it makes the assembly go a lot more quickly and it’s fun to have a few filling options so everyone can personalize their tamales. Or if you’re like me, set aside an afternoon and make a big batch to freeze so they’re all ready to pull out and reheat for a party or night at home. (They make a great lunch to take and reheat at work too.)
Making tamales is fairly easy, although it is a little time consuming. But the more often you make them, the simpler and more streamlined the process becomes. I like to take a few shortcuts to make the process even easier, as I’ll explain below.
Tamales are composed of corn masa dough or batter, and a flavorful filling. They are made inside a wrapper, typically cornhusks or banana leaves, and steamed. (For this recipe, I call for dried corn husks because they are easier to procure.)
For me, it’s all about the filling. It makes or breaks a tamale. Without a good filling, the tamales aren’t worth the time. So nail that part of the recipe and most of the work is done.
The first component I prepare is the filling. Tamales can be either savory or sweet and can be filled with just about anything–meat, poultry, vegetables, cheese, or fruit. Savory tamales are my jam, so that’s what I’m demonstrating in this post.
One thing I’ve started doing is to cook the chicken filling in my slow cooker, typically the day before I want to make the tamales. That’s where Rojo’s Restaurant Style Medium Salsa comes in handy. I simply place the chicken, salsa, a little chili powder and salt in my slow cooker and cook until the chicken shreds easily. That’s about 5 minutes of prep for delicious, flavorful chicken to rival any others. The reason I make it the day before is because then the chicken has time to cool adequately and reabsorb the flavorful sauce.
For a vegetarian option, I like to combine black beans, roasted poblano chiles, corn, Monterey Jack cheese, and Rojo’s Fire Roasted Salsa. Everything is stirred together and ready to go in about 10 minutes. Rojo’s offers a variety of salsas and dips, fit for any flavor craving. The brand even launched a new line of creamy Queso Dips as well as three exiting new salsas (Pico do Gallo, Hatch Chile and Salsa Verde…YUM) this year!
Once the fillings are made, it’s time to tackle the batter or tamale dough. Read on for how-to photos, tips, and tricks.
How To Make Homemade Tamales
The masa dough can be made from either fresh or dried masa. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Mexican market and can find fresh masa, get it! It’s better and the hard work is pretty much done for you when it comes to the correct consistency and texture. If you’ve ever made homemade corn tortillas, then you’ll already be familiar with dried masa. It is made from corn that has been treated with lime (not the citrus fruit), dried and ground.
The dried or fresh masa is mixed with a fat, either lard (or vegetable shortening), broth, salt, and seasonings, if desired. I prefer to add chili powder to the masa dough, but that’s completely optional. I think it looks pretty and it adds a little extra flavor. The tamale dough needs to be softer than that used for making tortillas. It should be more batter-like, but also hold its shape when spread on the corn husks. To lighten the dough, baking powder is added.
The most authentic Mexican food I make myself is heavily inspired by Chef Rick Bayless. I find his recipes to be consistently delicious and easy to make. I’m borrowing a bit from his tamale dough recipe as well as his technique because it’s the best I’ve found.
After the filling has been made, the next step is to soften the cornhusks. They need to be soaked in very hot, but not boiling, water for several hours. During that time they will become pliable and easier to work with. It’s important they stay submerged, so placing a plate with a heavy can or even a cast iron skillet on them helps keep the water lever above the husks.
To prep everything the same day, let the cornhusks soak after placing the chicken and salsa in the slow cooker on high. By the time the chicken is cooked through, the cornhusks will have softened enough.
If you’re using dried masa, it needs to be combined with hot water first to reconstitute it. The masa should feel soft and be neither runny or crumbly. The texture will be like playdough. Let it cool to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe and beating it with the lard.
If you’re using fresh masa, the next step is simply beating the lard (or shortening) with salt and baking powder.
The masa (fresh or reconstituted) is added to the mixer in 2-3 additions, along with any spices you’d like to add. After each addition, the batter is beaten well.
The broth is added next. I like using a flavorful chicken, turkey, or vegetable broth. If you’re using water, be sure to taste the tamale dough to make sure it has enough salt or it won’t be flavorful enough. It’s important to test the dough by placing a small amount in a glass of cold water. If it floats, the tamales will be light in texture. It may take a few times making tamales to find the texture you like best.
The texture and consistency of the tamale dough or batter is very similar to a thick cake batter. It will be kind of fluffy. It shouldn’t be runny. It should be thick enough to spread.
And then it’s assembly time!
Assembling Homemade Tamales
The pre-soaked cornhusks should be drained and patted dry with a clean dish cloth or paper towels. Have all of the ingredients nearby, as well as ties to secure the tamales as they cook. These can either be thin strips of cornhusk (torn after soaking!) or food-safe twine or string.
I like to go through the cornhusks and sort them by size. The larger ones are preferred, but if there are only smaller, narrower husks in the package, layer two or three overlapping each other so there’s enough surface area to wrap around the tamales. The tapered edge or tail should be closest to you.
Spoon 1/4 cup of the tamale batter directly into the center of the corn husk. I use my mini ice cream scoop; two mini scoops is roughly equal to 1/4 cup. Gently, but firmly spread the masa out into a 4-inch square, making sure there is plenty of room on every side for a border.
Place about 2 tablespoons of the desired filling into the center of the masa batter.
Bring the two long sides together in the middle. Fold both over in one direction – to the right or the left – to help the batter close in around the filling.
Next bring up the tail or tapered end to the center of the husk. Secure with the tie. But do not tie too tightly; the tamales will expand as they cook. The top ends stay open.
To cook the tamales, have a steamer ready. If you don’t have a steamer (either a Mexican or Asian one) you can simulate one by using a steamer basket set into a stock pot or large kettle. Or, I like to use my strainer insert and stock pot. Another option is to place custard cups or ramekins upside down in a large pot and place foil or cornhusks on top to keep the tamales elevated for proper air circulation and cooking.
The tamales go upright into the steamer. It’s a good idea to line the bottom with extra cornhusks to keep the water from getting into the tamales (it happens) as they cook. I also like to place some on top to keep the condensation from falling back into the open tops and making them soggy.
The hardest part is waiting patiently for them to steam. It takes 60-75 minutes for the tamales to cook through. If you work with warm filling, the cooking time will be shorter, but I like to use cold or room temp filling because it’s easier to work with. The tamales will be done cooking when the masa comes away from the husk easily. The tamales must then sit in the pan, off the heat, for another 10-15 minutes to set up a bit before serving.
And that’s it! The homemade tamales can be served warm or at room temperature by themselves or with salsa on the side. Cooled tamales can be wrapped well and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for several months. They can be reheated in a steamer for about 10-15 minutes, or until warmed through.
Black Bean Tamale Filling
Yield 4-5 cups
A great vegetarian option for filling tamales. Made with Rojo's Fire Roasted Salsa along with sweet corn, roasted poblano chiles, and Monterey Jack.
- 6-7 large poblano peppers
- 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack
- 1 1/2 cups (or a 15-ounce can) black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup sweet corn (no need to thaw if using frozen)
- 1 cup Rojo's Fire Roasted Medium Salsa
- Salt, to taste
- Adjust oven rack so it is about 4-5" from the broiler. Preheat broiler to high.
- Place the whole poblanos on a baking sheet. Broil for 3-4 minutes, or until skin blackens and blisters. Turn over and broil the other side. Let cool.
- Peel away the skin and remove the stem and seeds. Chop. You should have about 1 1/2 cups.
- In a bowl, combine the cooled poblanos, Monterey Jack, black beans, corn, and salsa. Stir well. Taste and add salt, if needed.
- Refrigerate until ready to use. Can be made 3-4 days in advance.
Makes enough filling for one batch of tamales, about 30-32. Store any leftovers in refrigerator and use as a taco or quesadilla filling.
Courses Main Dish