In some areas of the United States, you can get ready-made dough for tamales, either fresh from a tortilla factory or in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. If you don’t live in such a place—or if you just want to make your tamales completely from scratch—use this basic recipe. It calls for masa harina, a commercial corn flour product which is used to make tortillas, tamales, and many other Mexican and Central American foods.
The number of tamales that you will be able to make with this recipe will depend upon the size of the tamales and the quantity of filling used in each one. (See How to Make Tamales for an outline of the entire process and All About Tamales for a description of some of the kinds that exist).
Note: Masa harina (which translates as “dough flour”) is the dry product; by itself means “dough” and is what you have after rehydrating the flour.
- 6 cups masa harina
- 5 cups warm water or low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups pork lard
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 tablespoons onion powder (optional)
- 2 tablespoons powdered cumin (optional)
In a large mixing bowl mix the masa harina with the warm water or broth. Allow the mixture to sit for about 20 minutes to soften somewhat, then beat with an electric mixer on low speed until a dough forms. (You now have masa.) Sprinkle the salt, onion powder, cumin, and chili powder over the dough, if desired, and mix again until well combined.
In a separate bowl, whip the lard with an electric mixer for about three minutes or until fluffy. Add the lard to the dough, beating in a little at a time, until well combined.
Your masa should be about the consistency of peanut butter. If it’s too dry, mix in a little more water or broth; if your dough is too loose, add more masa harina until you get the desired texture.
Use your masa immediately or cover and store it in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
Variations on Homemade Tamale Dough
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different herbs and spices in your dough, varying them according to your personal preferences or to complement the flavors in the filling(s) that you intend to use.
Try, for example, a couple of tablespoons of dried epazote (either in place of or in addition to the spices mentioned in the recipe) for a rustic and very Mexican note. Or replace the spices mentioned with powdered cinnamon and cloves to complement a pork filling or for sweet (dessert) tamales.
Once you’ve become comfortable making the basic recipe, you will begin to think of your own favorite add-in seasonings.