Tamales: A Christmas Tradition

In the small Texas town of Canutillo, ten miles from the Mexican border, sits Tamales Lupita, the busiest little restaurant you’ll ever find.  No matter what time of year it is, the place is packed with hungry customers, but around Christmas time, there is a consistent line out the door.

My family has purchased tamales from Lupita’s for years and years, and each time someone announces that they’ve picked up a dozen or two, a small celebration ensues.  As much as we all love Luipta’s, however, my family likes to prepare their own tamales at Christmas time.  I was fifteen when I first started helping my Grandma prepare this dish, and each year I try to carry on the tradition.


In the simplest of terms, a tamale is a sort of cornmeal dumpling filled with meat (traditionally pork) and steamed in a cornhusk.  However, sweet tamales are also common around the holiday season and are usually stuffed with raisins and anise.  (Where I come from, it is not unusual to find pink-colored masa in the grocery stores specifically designated for these “dessert” tamales.)

Since tamale-making is a laborious task, I prefer to prepare the pork and red chile sauce the day before and then assemble and cook the tamales the next day.

So gather up some friends and let’s make some tamales!



Season a 6-7 pound pork shoulder or butt roast with salt and pepper.  In a dutch oven over medium-high heat, add a couple tablespoons of canola oil and brown roast on all sides (about 6 minutes each side).


Cover the roast with water and add one large, sliced yellow onion, four garlic cloves, and a teaspoon of salt.


Put a lid on the pot, and reduce the heat to low.  Gently simmer roast for a couple hours until meat is fork tender and falls off the bone.  Remove roast and place on cutting board to cool.  Place the pot of broth in the fridge.  You will need it when preparing the masa.

Chop or shred meat into small pieces and set aside.



In a large pot, add one-half pound of dried, red chilies and cover with water.  Cook chilies over medium heat for an hour or until soft.  Allow chilies to cool before pureeing.  (Reserve cooking liquid!)


Meanwhile, roast a head of garlic.  You could add fresh garlic to the sauce, but I find that roasted garlic lends a smoother flavor.  (To roast garlic, cut off the top of a garlic bulb, pour olive oil over the top of the bulb and cover tightly in foil.  Roast for 45 minutes at 400 degrees.)


Puree chilies in batches.  To puree chilies, remove stems, place in blender along with a ladle of the cooking liquid and blend until smooth.


Add 4-5 cloves of roasted garlic and strain the mixture through a sieve using the chile water to loosen up stubborn clumps.  In the end, your sauce should have the consistency of tomato puree.  If it is more like peanut butter, add more chile water.


In a large pot, combine the meat and the sauce along with a tablespoon of oregano and a tablespoon of salt (or to taste).  Place in the fridge and reheat the next day over low heat.




Reheat the pot of pork broth over medium heat.


Place half a package  (to start) of dried corn husks in a large bowl filled with hot water.  If you can, purchase a package of large husks.  It is much easier to spread masa onto a large husk than a small husk.  If you prefer skinnier tamales, however, the small husks are fine.


Soak husks at least 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare the masa.

The Masa


For a 7 pound roast, I usually need about three batches of this masa mixture.  It is best to prepare the masa in small batches to ensure the best texture.

In a large bowl, add 1 1/3 cup of lard and whip until light and fluffy.


Blend in 4 cups of dried masa mix, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of baking powder and one teaspoon of chile powder until well combined.


Add 3-4 cups of hot pork broth and mix until well combined.  The masa should be the consistency of oatmeal or peanut butter.  If it is too thick or difficult to spread, add a little more broth.


Evenly spread a large spoonful or two of masa about 1/4” thick in the top left upper quadrant of a cornhusk.  Make sure to leave about 1-inch border along the top of the husk because the masa will expand as it cooks and you don’t want it to bubble over and out of the husk.  (This part is tricky but you will get the hang of it, I promise.)


Place a few tablespoons of meat down the center of the masa.


Fold the left side of the husk over to the center of the meat.


Fold over again until the husk is all wrapped up around the masa.


Finally, fold up the bottom.


One down….many to go!


Line up tamales a baking sheet.


Once you have assembled roughly 3-4 dozen, prepare the pot for steaming.


The right tools make all the difference in cooking and a tamale pot is no exception!  A tamale pot is a large pot that comes with a grate that rests a few inches above the bottom of the pot.  (The only way tamales can be properly steamed is if they are suspended above water—never should they be resting in water.) 

Pour enough water into the pot until the water level comes right up to the grate but not over it.


Set pot over high heat and bring water to a boil.  Remove pot from heat and carefully place tamales upright into the pot (make sure to keep their “tails” folded up) in concentric circles until the pot is mostly full.  Do not pack the tamales in tight, however, or they will not steam properly.  Leave adequate wiggle room,


Over medium-high heat, steam the tamales for at least 1½ hours over medium-high heat without lifting the lid.  

I know, it’s tempting to check up on them, but lifting the lid will only release all the steam and your cooking time will be prolonged.  If you are worried that the water at the bottom of the pot will dry up, don’t.  The space between the grate and the bottom of the pot is at least five inches and it takes a while to boil up five inches of water.  If anything, keep an ear out.  A sharp hissing sound might mean that your pot is low on water.  To check water level, remove a few tamales from the center and carefully peer down the holes of the grate.  If the water looks low, add more (HOT) water using a baster.

After an hour and a half, check the tamales.  Carefully remove one tamale from the center of the pot with tongs.   If the masa pulls away from the side of the husk, they are done.


If the masa is still mushy, place back in the pot and cook tamales for another thirty minutes.

Carefully remove the tamales and cool slightly before serving.



You just made a batch of tamales!  Now reward yourself with lunch and a long nap.


Yield: Makes about 6 dozen medium-sized tamales

Prep Time: About 8 hours

Ingredients for Meat

*6-7 lb. pork butt or shoulder roast, trimmed of excess fat

*1 large yellow onion, sliced

*3 large garlic cloves

*salt and pepper

*2-3 Tablespoons canola oil

Season roast with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add roast and brown on all sides (about 6 minutes per side).  Add onion, garlic and salt and cover roast with water.  Bring to a simmer, cover pot and cook roast for 2 hours or until meat is fork-tender.

Remove roast from broth and allow to cool on a cutting board.  Reserve broth.  Chop meat into small pieces.  Set aside.

Ingredients for Chile Sauce

*1 ½ pound dried Poblano or Anaheim chilies, stems removed

*4 large cloves roasted garlic

*1 Tablespoon dried oregano

*1 Tablespoon salt

In a large pot, add chilies and cover with water.  Simmer over medium heat until soft, about an hour.  Reserve water.

Puree in batches with garlic in a blender.  Strain the mixture through a sieve using the reserved chile water to loosen the mixture.  Sauce should be the consistency of tomato puree.  Add oregano and salt.

Combine meat and chile in a large pot and set aside.

Ingredients for Masa**

*1 1/3 cups lard

*4 cups packaged masa mix

*2 teaspoons baking powder

*1 teaspoon salt

*1 teaspoon chile powder

*3-4 cups reserved pork broth, hot

Whip lard until fluffy.  Beat in masa, baking powder, salt and chile powder until well combined.  Stir in hot broth until the masa is the consistency of oatmeal or peanut butter.  You may need to add extra small amounts of broth to the masa as you are preparing the tamales.

**You will need at least three batches of this recipe for a 6-7 pound roast.


Soak a half package of large husks in a container of hot water for at least 30 minutes.  Spread masa 1/4” thick over the top left quadrant of the husk, making sure to leave about a 1” border along the top of the husk.

Add a couple tablespoons of meat down the center of the masa.  Fold the left side of the husk to the center of the meat.  Fold over again until the husk is completely wrapped around.  Fold up the bottom of the husk and set the tamale on a sheet.  Repeat until you are out of masa.  You will need at least 4 dozen tamales to fill al large tamale pot.

Steaming the Tamales

Fill the bottom of a large tamale pot with water until the water level reaches the grate insert.  Bring water to a boil over high heat.  Carefully place tamales into pot in concentric circles until pot is filled but there is enough wiggle room between tamales.  Steam for 1 ½ hours heat over medium-high heat without peeking!  After this time, check a tamale from the middle of the pot to see if the masa pulls away from the side of the husk.  If the masa is still sticky, steam, without peeking, for another ½ hour.

Remove cooked tamales with tongs and serve.


8 thoughts on “Tamales: A Christmas Tradition

  1. TAMALES!!! OMG!!! I never thought I love you more than before but I do!! Thanks for sharing! I am making TAMALES SOOOOOOOON!!!!!!!

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