Yes, You Can Make Traditional Tamales From Scratch

Traditional Tamales From Scratch

My favorite part of the holidays? Homemade tamales. No family recipe? Try one of these.

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Whenever I hear a friend talking about making tamales with their mother or abuelita over the holidays, I am stricken with jealousy. These delicious, labor-intensive bundles are an essential part of the holiday season in Latino kitchens across the world, and of course, homemade is best. I love them all: red chile pork tamales, green chile chicken tamales, tamales de res, tamales de rajas con queso. (My one exception: sweet pineapple tamales. But you can decide for yourself.) Somehow the masa is always lighter, the fillings more savory and complex, the corn husk wrapping more charming when it comes from someone you know.

Of course, I would love nothing more than to learn at the elbow of a home cook who has made tamales for so long she (or he!) holds the recipe in memory. Better yet to be invited to a tamalada, or tamale-making party. But, like all foods that we covet, with the power of the Internet, you can make them at home on your own.

Basic Mexican Tamale Dough

Don't be intimidated if you've never made tamale dough before — it's actually quite simple, particularly with a stand mixer doing the bulk of the work. This tamale dough, filled with tips from the geniuses at Serious Eats, is a really solid place to start. 

Joshua Bousel, the author of this recipe, has two important tips: Beating the masa until it’s light and airy gives it that amazing, fluffy texture; and resting the dough keeps it light and moist. It's best when made with fresh masa, but be forewarned that you're unlikely to find this at the grocery store. The recipe provides an alternative using masa harina (sold under the brand name Maseca) and chicken broth if you aren't able to get fresh. Another insider tip? Use back lard for extra flavor.

Now for the truly hard part: deciding on your filling.

Pork Tamales

This recipe, from Everyday with Rachael Ray, uses a simple pork filling with ancho chiles. She then adds the broth from the pork to the masa for extra flavor.

Pork Tamales

Pork Tamales by Everyday with Rachael Ray

Chile Colorado Pork Tamales

Chile colorado, I’ve learned, is the traditional name for the familiar combo of pork and ancho chiles. This recipe, from La Piña en La Cocina, is a bit more authentic than Rachael Ray’s — and involved. But don't be put off by the amount of time it takes — the bulk of that is hands-off time as your pork shoulder cooks and your dried corn husks soak.

Chile Colorado Pork Tamales

Chile Colorado Pork Tamales by La Piña en La Cocina

Beef Tamales

Beef (chuck roast to be specific) is another traditional tamale filling. This recipe, from All Recipes, is so good, says one reviewer, that they would make it on its own.

Beef Tamales

Beef Tamales by All Recipes

Apple-Braised Beef Tamales

Hola Jalapeño uses apples, apple juice, dried guajillo chiles, and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds to take these beef tamales in a different direction.

Apple-Braised Beef Tamales

Apple-Braised Beef Tamales by Hola Jalapeño

Roasted Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales

If you're in a rush, well, maybe tamales shouldn’t be on the menu — they are a time-intensive dish, after all. But you can save some time by using rotisserie chicken and salsa verde, as Muy Bueno Cookbook does here.

Roasted Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales

Roasted Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales by Muy Bueno Cookbook

Chicken-and-Poblano Tamales

Chicken, poblanos, and tomatillo salsa is another classic combo, as this recipe from Tasting Table can attest. 

Chicken-and-Poblano Tamales

Chicken-and-Poblano Tamales by Tasting Table

Mole-Rubbed Brisket Tamales

This recipe, from The Spruce Eats, keeps it kosher- and halal-friendly by omitting the lard in the masa dough. The real treat, though? This complex, sweet-and-savory brisket filling, which features cocoa powder and cinnamon along with cayenne, ground cumin, and ancho chili powder.  

Mole-Rubbed Brisket Tamales

Mole-Rubbed Brisket Tamales by The Spruce Eats

Midnight Pork Tamales

A fairly typical pork tamales recipe (shredded pork, ancho chili puree) is made more interesting with the addition of potatoes and green beans.

Midnight Pork Tamales

Midnight Pork Tamales by Free Mexican Recipes

Poblano Chorizo + Cheese Tamale

Who can say no to chorizo and cheese? Not me. This easy tamale recipe keeps it relatively simple with store-bought ingredients.

Poblano Chorizo + Cheese Tamale

Poblano Chorizo + Cheese Tamale by Buy This, Cook That

Smoky Fiesta Black Bean Tamales

Vegans, we haven’t forgotten you! This black bean tamale recipe from Sun Warrior uses a smoky cashew cream to bind all the other traditional ingredients together. 

Smoky Fiesta Black Bean Tamales

Smoky Fiesta Black Bean Tamales by Sun Warrior

Swiss Chard Tamales

From Aida Molenkamp at Chowhound, tamales with cheese, chiles and ... swiss chard? Depending on how you tweak the masa, this can be vegetarian — or not.

Swiss Chard Tamales by Chowhound

Swiss Chard Tamales

Jalapeño and Cactus Tamales

Nibbles and Feasts puts cactus and pickled jalapeño directly into the masa for these easy no-filling tamales. And if you use vegetable broth, it’s easy AND vegan.

Jalapeño and Cactus Tamales

Jalapeño and Cactus Tamales by Nibbles and Feasts

Puerto Rican Pasteles

“[T]amales are different not just from country to country, but also from region to region and even from abuela to abuela,” Zilkia Janer, a global-studies professor at Hofstra University, told The Atlantic. In Puerto Rico, they’re called pasteles and don’t use corn masa, instead using a plantain-based dough wrapped in plantain leaves. 

Puerto Rican Pasteles

Puerto Rican Pasteles by Epicurious

Aunt Chilada's Yucatan-Style Pork Tamales

Down in the Yucatan region of Mexico, they use banana leaves instead of corn husks. But trust: These square tamales are just as mind-blowingly delicious.

Aunt Chilada's Yucatan-Style Pork Tamales

Aunt Chilada's Yucatan-Style Pork Tamales by CDKitchen

Sweet Tamales

Sweet tamales aren't my jam, but they might be yours! This recipe, from La Cocina Mexicana de Pily, features raisins (and food coloring!) — though she encourages you to get creative.

Sweet Tamales

Sweet Tamales by La Cocina Mexicana de Pily

Vegan Chocolate Tamales

Featuring Mexican chocolate, cinnamon, and pecans, this is a dessert tamale I might be able to get behind. And it’s vegan to boot.

Vegan Chocolate Tamales

Vegan Chocolate Tamales by Dora's Table