From-Scratch Pork Tamales Are the Cooking Project You've Been Looking For

April 13, 2017

I’ve always wanted to learn to make tamales. So when I had the opportunity to cook with my wonderful friend Janet, I asked her if she would show me how they are made in her home country of Mexico. Before we started, she warned me that tamales are a labor of love: While certainly not a quick dish, they would be worth the work, she ensured me.

Many countries have their own version of tamales. Even in Mexico, tamales vary from place to place, family to family: Some wrap their tamales with corn husks, while others use banana leaves. Janet told me that where she is from in northern Mexico, corn husks are the preferred cooking sleeve, and she feels that they yield a tender, softer exterior. The fillings, too, are matter of preference. Some like to add refried beans or chicken to the masa dough, but for Janet’s family, the favorite is slow-cooked pork flavored with ancho chile. (And she uses any leftover pork to make tostadas or fill tacos.)

Because the pork simmers for three hours, Janet makes it the day before. With the pork shredded and flavored ahead of time, she can focus on making the masa dough and assembling the tamales.

Spread the masa over the husk, then spoon the pork on top. Photo by James Ransom

Making the masa is a bit time consuming—but very important. Janet told me that in Mexico, you can go to the mill to pick up freshly ground masa, which is softer and fresher than what we purchase in the grocery store here. In the States, she prefers to buy “instant” masa, as she feels it has the closest flavor to what she was able to buy back home.

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Once the masa is ready, she lays the pliable husk in her hand, using her palm as a base, and spreads the masa up and down. She wants the masa to be thin enough that she can put a generous helping of pork down in the middle. Then, she expertly folds it up and ties it with a bow made of corn husk. In Mexico, she would make a simple tie on the pork tamales and a bow on the bean tamales so that her guests would always know what they were going to find inside.

Fold n' tuck. Photo by James Ransom

When she’s ready to cook, Janet lines the steamer basket with broken pieces of corn husks before nestling in the tamales—the steam will heat the husks before the tamales, which prevents against soggy bottoms. Then, she places a plastic bag over top of the tamales to catch the condensation (another moisture protection device), followed by a dish towel and, finally, the top of the pot.

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Top Comment:
“There is a dried masa made for tamales- it's coarser than that made for tortillas. Be sure to get yellow corn masa if you can, much better flavor (and better nutrition).”
— Smaug

Then, it’s just a matter of waiting two hours—one for the tamales to steam, and one from them to hang out in the steamer with the heat off. Janet covers the finished tamales with homemade salsa verde made with tomatillos, onions, and cilantro. The combination of the savory pork, soft corn masa, and fresh salsa verde makes all of the labor worthwhile.

You can make the tamales ahead of time, too: Freeze them, steamed or un-steamed, in a plastic bag for up to a month. Defrost the tamales before steaming or, if they've already been cooked, defrost them in the microwave on a dish wrapped in Saran Wrap for two to three minutes.

What's your favorite type of tamale? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sharon
  • Chris Glenn
    Chris Glenn
  • Smaug
  • Doug R.
    Doug R.
  • meg
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


Sharon April 20, 2017
Tamales are definitely a labor of love .....with the emphasis on LABOR.
Author Comment
Anna F. April 26, 2017
LOL Sharon. I agree, definitely not a 30 minute meal but the results are so worth it!
Chris G. April 16, 2017
Here's a couple places you can probably find the answers you want:
how to make tamales

how to roll homemade Tamales

Author Comment
Anna F. April 16, 2017
Thank you for providing these links! So appreciated.
Smaug April 14, 2017
You may be able to get fresh masa at Mexican stores. There is a dried masa made for tamales- it's coarser than that made for tortillas. Be sure to get yellow corn masa if you can, much better flavor (and better nutrition).
Author Comment
Anna F. April 16, 2017
Thank you for your advice!
Doug R. April 14, 2017
Sounds delightful. Somehow I (a non-Latino) have become the tamale specialist in my Latino family. They're very time-consuming, but always worth it.
Author Comment
Anna F. April 16, 2017
I love that you are a tamale specialist! I agree, totally worth the effort. I think making the filling the day before definitely lightens the load. Do you fill your with pork too?
meg April 13, 2017
"Then, she expertly folds it up and ties it with a bow made of corn husk."
This article would be infinitely more helpful if statements like this came with actual guidance on how to roll the tamales. As it is, it's hardly a guide.
Jane G. April 13, 2017
best guide--get invited to a Mexican household at Christmas they will teach you!
Author Comment
Anna F. April 16, 2017
I agree, watching Janet do it was pretty awesome. Meg, after you fill the husk, fold up the bottom, the top down and then the sides in. Get another husk, rip off a thin string and tie it around with a bow. There are a few pictures in the article. Hope this and the links above help.