How to Make Tamales, According to a Bicultural Texan Chef

A step-by-step how-to plus detailed photos--including how to wrap them.

Updated on December 12, 2022

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

By Denise Browning for Food Network Kitchen

Denise Browning is a professional chef, cookbook author and contributor writer at Food Network.

The jolly season is right around the corner and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales in my home city of San Antonio, Texas. Our freshly steamed corn dough wrapped in corn husks is not exactly the same as Mexican tamales. Texan masa (corn dough) typically contains more seasonings, such as garlic powder, cumin and chili powder, and they can be filled with different fillings—including vegetables.

I learned how to make tamales from two of our most famous Chicanas: former Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla and UTSA professor emerita Ellen Riojas Clark, when I attended one of their Christmas tamaladas in San Antonio’s Westside several years ago. They literally made us stick our hands in the masa while sharing a tamale recipe, tips and anecdotes.

From that time forward my bicultural family began to incorporate tamales into our Christmas traditions. And why not? After all, they are the most delicious edible presents that come already wrapped, ready to tear apart, as we gather to celebrate the joy of the season and to share food and blessings.

What Are Tamales?

Tamales consist of corn dough (originally made with teocintle, the ancestor of modern corn) with or without a filling wrapped and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf.

Tamales (singular tamal or tamale) are an indigenous creation. They are thought to have originated in Mexico and Guatemala around 7000 BC, spreading from there to the rest of Latin America, to parts of the Caribbean and the US.

Making tamales was (and still is) a labor-intensive process. Yet it served more than one purpose. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations, among others, used tamales as portable food and carried them when traveling large distances. They used to fill their tamales with local plants and animals such as turkey, fish, fruit, squash, roasted squash seeds, squash blossoms and beans. In addition, tamales also carried a higher meaning in their culture. They were considered sacred or seen as a food of the gods and were served in their rituals and festivities.

Tamales for Christmas

In the book Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization Ellen Rioja Clark says of tamales: “They were originally used as food for the gods.” She also affirms: “They were used to commemorate religious ceremonies and any type of formal celebrations. That’s why we do it at Christmas.”

Hispanic residents account for a large part of the Lone Star State’s population, and they bring their holiday traditions to the table. I have lived in San Antonio, Texas for the last 15 years and let me tell you, no holiday meal is complete without tamales.

You can make your own or buy them at local supermarkets or tamale shops. Some of the latter are so famous that one can easily spend more than two hours in line to buy tamales for Christmas.

Equipment to Make Tamales

  • Large bowl, for soaking corn husks
  • Medium bowl, to mix the tamale dough in
  • Rubber spatula or wooden spoon, for mixing
  • 1/3 measuring cup, to add the dough to the corn husks
  • 6-qt. pot with a steaming rack or basket, for cooking tamales

What Is In a Tamale? Ingredients for Making Vegan Tamales

  • 2 1/2 cups instant corn masa flour (Maseca Tamal)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 1/4 cup vegetable broth, warm
  • 3/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 2 jalapenos, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 1 cup canned fire-roasted yellow corn, drained
  • 1 cup jarred fire-roasted red bell pepper, drained and chopped
  • 12 large corn husks (plus 8 extra, for lining the steaming pot)

How to Make Tamales, Step-by-Step

Here, I’ve laid out a guide for making your own tamales—a vegan version, meaning they don’t lean on lard to bind the masa together and don’t contain any meat inside. This technique makes 12 tamales and takes about an hour and a half. Read on for the step-by-step how to.

Step 1: Soak the Corn Husks

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Submerge the corn husks in a large bowl of warm water to soften them for about 20 to 30 minutes or while preparing the corn dough. To keep them submerged, place a heavy plate or bowl on top of the husks.

Step 2: Prepare the Corn Dough

In a medium bowl, combine the masa, baking powder, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder and cumin using a wooden spoon or spatula. Then, gradually mix in the warm broth until it forms a homogeneous mixture.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Next, pour the oil slowly into the masa mixture, mixing well until fully combined.

Step 3: Add the Vegetables to the Masa

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

After that, gently mix the chopped vegetables (jalapenos, corn and bell pepper) into the masa mixture. If needed, taste a small amount of the mixture and adjust the seasonings to your taste. NOTE: During the steaming process, the dough will lose some of its savory taste. Let the vegan tamale dough rest while draining the corn husks.

Step 4: Drain and Pat Dry Corn Husks

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Drain the water and pat the corn husks dry using a kitchen towel.

Step 5: Spread the Tamale Dough onto the Corn Husks

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Form the tamales by placing 1/3 cup of the dough onto the upper center of each corn husk, leaving about 1 1/2-inch free space along the top edge.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Use a piece of plastic wrap to press and spread the dough onto each corn husk.

Step 6: Wrap the Corn Husks

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Fold the sides of each corn husk towards the center.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Then, grab the long free sides and fold again lengthwise to join the edges—as if closing a pocket.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Next, fold the narrow end of the husk towards the upper center of the tamal.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Lastly, tie each vegan tamale with a strip of corn husk or a piece cooking twine. Do NOT tie too tightly!

Step 7: Assemble the Pot and Cook the Vegan Tamales

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Fill the pot with water up to the level of the steaming rack. Position the rack or basket and then line it with some extra corn husks. Place the tamales inside the pot in an upright position, but with their open ends facing up. To keep them in an upright position during the steaming process, you may place a mason jar in the center of the steaming rack.

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Cover the tamales with the leftover corn husks. This will ensure the steam won’t drip onto the tamales

Photo by: Denise Browning

Denise Browning

Place the lid on the pot.

Turn the heat to medium-high and cook your vegan tamales for about for 75 minutes. If needed, lift the basket to pour more water into the pot, but make sure the water doesn’t get into the tamales. After the cook time comes to an end, remove one tamale from the pot using kitchen tongs and let it rest on a plate for about 7 minutes so the dough can get firm.

Lastly, unwrap the tamale and gently pull the sides. If the corn husk separates easily from the tamale dough, your vegan tamales are ready. If not, continue to cook the remaining batch for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve your vegan tamales while they are still hot with your favorite hot salsa. Rice and beans are popular sides for tamales in Texas.

Tamale Filling Ideas

Although our vegan tamales have the vegetables mixed into the dough, you could use them as a filling for the tamales instead.

For this, mix them with just enough green or red chile salsa and then evenly distribute a small amount of the vegetables on the top center of the dough, making sure not to overfill! The salsa will prevent you bite into a glob of dry filling.

You may use any chopped vegetables of your choice (e.g. finely chopped zucchini, mushrooms, pico de gallo veggies, sautéed spinach or kale mixed with a salsa, mashed pumpkin or mashed butternut squash or refried beans).

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