Cooking Tamales: A Step-by-Step Guide

If you’re looking to make traditional Mexican cuisine at home, then homemade tamales are a must-try! Tamales can be filled with various ingredients, like chicken, beef, pork, veggies and cheese, but the process of making them can seem daunting at first. However, with a little bit of practice, making tamales from scratch can be a fun and rewarding experience. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through the process of cooking tamales from start to finish.

Cooking Tamales: A Step-by-Step Guide | Eat Urban Garden
Cooking Tamales: A Step-by-Step Guide

What are Tamales?

If you’re a foodie, you may have tried tamales before and loved them. Tamales are a delicious traditional Mexican dish that have been around for centuries. They’re usually made from masa, which is a dough made from corn, and are stuffed with various fillings such as meat, cheese, or vegetables. The fillings are then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. The result is a moist, flavorful, and nutritious dish that is perfect for any occasion.

The Origin of Tamales

The origin of tamales can be traced back to the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations, who used them as a portable food source for warriors. They were also offered as gifts to the gods during religious ceremonies. The word “tamale” is derived from the Nahuatl language, spoken by the Aztecs, and means “wrapped food.”

The History of Tamales

The popularity of tamales spread to other parts of Central and South America as indigenous peoples migrated throughout the region. The dish has evolved over time, with different cultures adding their own unique ingredients and flavors. Today, tamales can be found in many Latin American countries, each with its own regional variation.

The Cultural Significance of Tamales

Tamales are an integral part of Mexican culture, especially during holidays and celebrations. They are often made in large batches and shared with family and friends. It’s not uncommon for families to gather together and have a tamale-making party, where everyone pitches in to prepare the ingredients and wrap the tamales. This communal activity is a way of bringing people together and strengthening relationships. In addition, tamales are often served as a symbol of prosperity and good luck during special occasions such as weddings.

Why Cook Tamales?

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish that has been gaining popularity around the world due to their mouth-watering flavor and versatility. The act of cooking tamales is not only a culinary experience, but also a cultural one, learning about the traditions and history of the dish. But why should you try cooking tamales? Here are some great reasons:

The Taste

The first reason to cook tamales is the delicious taste. The flavor profile varies depending on the filling and seasoning you choose, but the result is always mouth-watering. The masa (corn dough) combined with the tender meat and spices creates a unique taste sensation that is sure to please your taste buds. Whether you prefer savory or sweet, there is a tamale filling for you.


Another great reason to cook tamales is the diversity of fillings. From chicken to pork, beef, cheese, vegetables, and even sweet fillings like chocolate and fruit, the possibilities are endless. This versatility is great for feeding a crowd with different tastes and dietary restrictions. Tamales also make great leftovers, making them a perfect meal prep option.


Lastly, cooking tamales allows for creativity in the kitchen. Experimenting with different fillings and spices can lead to unique flavor combinations that you’ll love. You can also customize the size and shape of the tamales, making them perfect for any occasion from a small snack to a full meal.

What Makes a Great Tamale?

If you want to cook a perfect tamale, you must start with the basic ingredients that make it delicious and distinctive. By understanding the essential components and techniques, you can create a tamale that oozes with flavor, aroma, and texture. Here are the fundamental elements that you should know:

Masa Dough

The masa dough is the foundation of a tamale. It’s a mixture of cornmeal, lard or oil, salt, and broth or water. You have to prepare it correctly to achieve the right consistency. The masa should be moist but not sticky, and it should hold together without cracking. You can add a pinch of baking powder, sugar, or spices to enhance the flavor and texture. Be sure to let the dough rest for at least an hour before spreading it on the corn husks.

  1. Ingredients:
    • 2 cups of instant corn masa flour
    • 1 1/2 cups of warm chicken broth or water
    • 1/3 cup of lard or vegetable shortening
    • 1 tsp. of salt
    • 1/2 tsp. of baking powder (optional)
  2. Instructions:
    • In a mixing bowl, combine the masa flour, baking powder, and salt.
    • In a separate bowl, whisk the broth or water and lard until creamy.
    • Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and mix with your hands until the dough comes together. Knead for a few minutes until smooth and elastic.
    • Cover the dough with a damp towel and let it rest for an hour.


The filling is what gives a tamale its unique flavor and personality. You can choose from various options, such as meat, vegetables, cheese, beans, fruits, and nuts. The filling should be moist and well-seasoned, but not too soupy or chunky. You have to spread it evenly on the masa dough, leaving some space at the edges, so you can fold the tamale and tie it with a string or corn husk strip.

  • Popular fillings:
    • Shredded chicken
    • Pork carnitas
    • Beef barbacoa
    • Veggies (such as onions, peppers, tomatoes, corn, or spinach)
    • Queso fresco or cheddar cheese
    • Refried beans or black beans
  • Instructions:
    • Cook the meat or vegetables in a skillet or slow-cooker until tender. Add your choice of spices, herbs, or sauces to season the filling.
    • Dice or shred the meat or veggies into bite-size pieces.
    • If you’re using cheese or beans, spread them directly on the masa dough.
    • Spoon the filling on the center of the masa dough and spread it evenly, leaving about 1/2 inch of dough uncovered on the top and bottom edges.
    • Gently roll the corn husk into a cylinder, tucking the filling inside. Fold the bottom end of the husk over the tamale, then fold the top end down.
    • Tie the tamale with a string or corn husk strip to keep it tightly wrapped.

Sauces and Seasonings

The final touch to a tamale is the sauce and seasonings. You can serve the tamale with a side of salsa, guacamole, or sour cream, or drizzle some sauce over the top. The sauce should complement the filling and the masa dough, and enhance the overall flavor of the tamale. You can also sprinkle some herbs, spices, or cheese on the tamale, or brush it with melted butter for extra richness and crispness.

Try this simple yet delicious salsa roja recipe to pair with your tamales:


  • 6 medium-size tomatoes
  • 1/2 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3-4 dried chiles de arbol (or your choice of dried chiles)
  • 1 tsp. of salt


  1. Boil the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chiles in a pot for 10-15 minutes or until softened.
  2. Let the mixture cool down, then transfer it to a blender or food processor. Add the salt and blend until smooth.
  3. Strain the salsa through a sieve to remove the seeds and skins.
  4. Reheat the salsa in a saucepan and adjust the seasoning.

Drizzle the salsa over your tamales and enjoy!

How to Prepare for Cooking Tamales?

Before starting to cook tamales, it is important to prepare all the necessary tools and equipment. Additionally, different types of tamales require different cooking methods and materials. In this section, we will discuss the preparations needed to cook tamales to perfection.

Tools and Equipment

When cooking tamales, having the right tools and equipment is essential. Here are some of the things you will need:

  • A large pot with a steamer basket or a tamale steamer pot
  • Masa harina (corn flour)
  • Corn husks or banana leaves (depending on the type of tamale)
  • A mixing bowl and a spoon or an electric mixer
  • A knife or kitchen scissors
  • Any desired ingredients for filling (meat, cheese, vegetables, etc.)

Types of Tamales and Their Cooking Methods

There are several types of tamales, and each requires a different cooking method. Here are some of the most popular types:

Cooking Method
Traditional Tamales
Steaming in a pot with a steamer basket for about 1-2 hours, depending on size
Sweet Tamales
Steaming in a pot with a steamer basket for about 1 hour
Oaxacan Tamales
Wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in a pot for 2-3 hours
Tamales de elote (Sweet Corn Tamales)
Steamed in a pot with a steamer basket for 45-60 minutes
Tamales de camarón (Shrimp Tamales)
Wrapped in corn husks and steamed in a pot for about 1-2 hours

Note: Before steaming the tamales, it is important to check if they are ready by performing the float test. Simply place a tamale in a cup of water and if it floats, it is ready to be steamed. If it sinks, it needs more time to cook.

What to Serve with Tamales?

When it comes to tamales, the filling alone is not enough to create a wholesome meal. Pairing the right drinks, sides, and desserts will enhance the taste and cultural experience. Here are some ideas to complete your tamale feast:

1. Drinks

A refreshing drink will complement the bold taste of tamales. Horchata, a sweet rice milk infused with cinnamon and vanilla, is a classic Mexican drink that pairs well with tamales. For those who prefer something tangy, try Mexican hibiscus tea, or agua de Jamaica. Its tartness and floral aroma are a perfect match for spicy tamales. A cold beer or margarita is also a popular option for a boozy tamale party.

2. Sides

The right side dish can balance out the heaviness of tamales. A light salad with a citrusy dressing is a great way to add some freshness to your meal. Mexican-style rice and beans are also a staple side dish that will complement the rich flavors of tamales. For those looking for a healthier option, grilled vegetables such as zucchini and bell peppers can offer a savory contrast to tamales’ mild sweetness.

  • Mexican-style rice and beans
  • A light salad with a citrusy dressing
  • Grilled vegetables

3. Desserts

Finish off your tamale meal with a sweet treat. Traditional Mexican dessert, churros, are crisp, sugary, and pair well with tamales. Mexican flan, a custard-like dessert, is another popular choice. For a lighter dessert option, fresh fruit such as strawberries or mangos can add a touch of sweetness.

  1. Churros
  2. Mexican flan
  3. Fresh fruit like strawberries or mangos

Pro tip: To balance out the flavors of spicy tamales, try serving them with a dollop of sour cream or guacamole on top.

How to Cook Tamales?

If you are craving for authentic Mexican cuisine, a well-made tamale is always a great choice. Although the process of making tamales might seem confusing at first, it just needs a bit of practice to master. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to cook tamales to perfection.

Step 1: Soak the corn husks

Before you start assembling the tamales, you need to soak the corn husks in warm water for at least 30 minutes. This will make them flexible and easy to work with when you spread the masa dough.

Step 2: Prepare the masa dough

Masa dough is the base of tamales, and it is made from corn flour, baking powder, salt and shortening (or lard). Mix all the ingredients together until you get a smooth and pliable dough. If the dough looks dry, add a little bit of water to moisten it up.

Step 3: Spread the masa dough

Once the corn husks are soaked and the masa dough is ready, it’s time to start assembling the tamales. Take one corn husk and spread a spoonful of masa dough in the center. Use your fingers to spread it evenly, leaving some space on the sides and at the bottom.

Step 4: Add the fillings

The next step is to add the filling of your choice in the center of the masa dough. You can use anything from shredded chicken to roasted vegetables, and even sweet fillings like fruits or caramel. Just make sure not to overfill the tamales, as it might cause them to burst open while steaming.

Step 5: Fold the corn husks

Now that you have added the fillings, it’s time to wrap the tamales. Fold the sides of the corn husks towards the center, enclosing the filling completely. Then, fold the bottom end of the husk upwards while holding the sides together.

Step 6: Steam the tamales

The final step is to steam the tamales. Place them vertically in a steamer basket with the open end facing upwards. Fill the bottom of the steamer with water, and steam for about 1-2 hours, or until the tamales are cooked through. You can check if they are done by opening one tamale and making sure the masa dough is firm and not mushy. Serve hot and enjoy!

Thanks for Reading!

We hope you found this step-by-step guide on cooking tamales helpful and easy to follow. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different fillings and seasonings to make your tamales even more delicious! Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t give up if your first batch doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. Keep trying and soon enough, you’ll be a tamale expert.

Cooking Tamales: A Step-by-Step Guide | Eat Urban Garden

Cooking Tamales: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to make delicious tamales with this easy-to-follow step-by-step guide. From making the masa to cooking and serving the tamales, we've got you covered.
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Course Main dish
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 12 tamales
Calories 202 kcal


  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 ½ cups lard
  • 3 cups cooked shredded meat (pork or chicken)
  • ½ cup salsa
  • 12 dried corn husks


  • Place the corn husks in a large bowl of hot water and let them soak for at least 30 minutes.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Gradually stir in the chicken broth and lard until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
  • In a separate mixing bowl, combine the cooked meat and salsa. Mix well.
  • To assemble the tamales, spread a thin layer of the masa mixture onto the soaked corn husk. Spoon a small amount of the meat filling onto the center of the masa. Roll the corn husk so that the masa completely encloses the meat. Tie the ends of the corn husk with a small strip of corn husk to keep the tamale secure.
  • To cook the tamales, place them in a steamer basket over a pot of boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid and steam the tamales for 45-60 minutes, or until the masa is cooked through and no longer sticky.
  • Carefully remove the tamales from the steamer basket and let them cool for a few minutes before serving. Serve with your choice of toppings and enjoy!
Keyword tamales, cooking tamales, step-by-step guide

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