Best Basic Tamales Recipe

May 3, 2011 10:00 am

A satisfying, versatile side dish wrapped in a husk

The countdown to Cinco De Mayo starts today. And what better way to kick it off than with a basic tamales recipe. For advice, we look to the excellent Mexican chef Roberto Santibañez, whose Brooklyn restaurant Fonda is the go-to haute Mexican spot for in-the-know New Yorkers. 

Here, he lays out his recipe for tamales. There are a fair amount of steps, but follow the instructions carefully and you'll be rewarded with a satisfying, versatile side dish or snack that can put your hot sauce to use. 

These packets of masa dough, which can be wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves, and many other things, deserve an entire book of their own. But for now, you’ll have to settle for this great recipe, which you can use to make a variety of tamales by filling them with the delicious leftovers from your adobo- and mole-making adventures and topping them with whatever salsa you’d like. Tamales also make a great stand-in for rice, potatoes, or other starchy sides when you’re serving a saucy dish. Be sure to get dried masa that’s specifically called tamal flour because it’s a bit coarser than the kind you’d use to make tortillas.

Corn husks are used to wrap tamales
Corn husks are used to wrap tamales
Servings: 30 tamales


30 dried corn husks, preferably with rounded bases
1 cup (8 ounces) pork lard, (see note)
3 cups tamal flour
2 cups barely hot water (about 110°F), (see note)
1 teaspoon fine salt, or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil
5 cups filling, such as pork or shredded chicken in any of the mole or adobo sauces, or Sautéed Spinach and Mushrooms
  1. Soak the corn husks in cold water for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, using a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the lard on medium-high speed in the mixer bowl until it’s very fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes (if you are using a handheld electric mixer, double the beating times).
  3. Meanwhile, mix together the tamale flour, water, and salt with your hands in another large bowl until you have a uniform dough.
  4. Add half of the dough to the lard and beat to combine.
  5. Add the oil and the remaining dough to the lard mixture and beat on medium-high speed until it has the texture of a fluffy frosting and a tablespoonful of it floats in a glass of water, 10 to 15 minutes. Season the batter to taste with additional salt (the batter should taste salty, as some of the salt will leach out during steaming).
  6. Drain the corn husks. Put a heaping serving spoon of the batter (about 1/3 cup) on the concave side of a husk.
  7. Spread the batter to flatten it slightly and evenly, so it roughly forms a rectangle.
  8. Put a couple of tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the batter. Enclose the filling in the batter as you fold over the husk, doubling the pointed end over the bottom half. The rounded end will remain open.  Repeat with the remaining batter, filling, and husks.
  9. Fit the tamales into the deep steamer basket of a pasta pot, standing them with the open ends up. Fill the pot with about 1 inch of water, and place a coin in the pot so you can tell if the water has evaporated (you’ll know you need to add more water when the jiggling noise from the coin stops).
  10. Insert the tamale-filled steamer basket and cover the tamales with additional corn husks, a plastic shopping bag (as many Mexicans do), then a damp cloth, and the lid. These coverings will ensure that no moisture escapes and the tamales steam properly.
  11. Bring the water to a boil (you will hear the coin start to jiggle) and steam the tamales, adding more boiling water if you no longer hear the coin jiggling, until the tamale separates from the husk easily when you unwrap it, 45 to 50 minutes.

Tamales keep stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to three days or in freezer bags in the freezer for up to one month. You can also store the tamale batter in a sealable bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If you freeze the tamales, defrost them overnight in the refrigerator before warming them. To reheat, either re-steam the tamales in their husks as before until they are heated through, about 30 minutes, or place a few at a time in a deep plate with a little water to cover the bottom of the plate. Cover the plate with another, inverted plate, and microwave 1 minute for every 1 or 2 tamales.
Note on omitting the lard: You can substitute an additional 1 cup of vegetable oil for the pork lard to make vegetarian tamales. If you do, just add all the oil at once to the masa dough and beat on medium-high speed, increasing the beating time, as necessary, to achieve a very fluffy batter.

Note on water: To infuse more flavor into the masa, I love to start with 3 cups of boiling water in a small pot, add 4 or 5 tomatillo husks, 1/8 teaspoon aniseed, and 1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds, and cook for about 10 minutes. Then I strain the water, which has reduced to about 2 cups (add a little more water or pour a little out, if necessary), let it cool until it’s barely hot, then use this water in the tamale recipe.

Level of Difficulty: 
Prep Time: 
35 minutes
Cooking Time: 
1 hour
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