Basic Tamales

articles Food & Cuisine Recipes

Karen Hursh Graber


  • 2 bunches dried corn husks or a package of banana leaves cut into 24 rectangles, 8″ x 12″
  • 1 pound lard or vegetable shortening
  • 2 1/4 pounds fresh masa or masa prepared with masa harina
  • 1 1/2 cups water or broth
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Filling of your choice (see recipes below)


Although tamales may be enclosed in many types of leaves, including banana, chaya and the fresh corn leaves called hoja de milpa, dried corn husks are the most frequently used wrappers in central Mexico, while banana leaves are common in the south. This recipe is for the bacic dough and describes techniques for using either corn husks or banana leaves as wrappers. Do not cut down on the amount of salt, since salt is lost during the steaming process.

Place the cornhusks in warm water to cover and soak them for several hours or overnight. Remove them from the water, drain and pat dry. If using banana leaves, omit the soaking and simply pass them over the stovetop flame to make them pliable.

Beat the lard by hand or with an electric mixer until it has the consistency of frosting.

Place the masa in a large bowl, add the water gradually and knead until the dough is no longer sticky; add the baking powder and salt.

Add the beaten lard to the dough, a little at a time, beating after each addition until the dough is light and fluffy. To test for lightness, pinch off a small piece of dough and drop it into a glass of chilled water. If it floats, the dough is ready; if not, continue beating and test again.

If corn husks are being used:
Trim the pointed ends if they have not been trimmed before being sold. Lay 2 of them side by side lengthwise, overlapping by about 1″. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the dough down the center of the overlapping husks, leaving the top, bottom and sides bare for wrapping. Spread about 1 tablespoon of filling over the dough and fold both lengthwise sides of the husks over the dough and filling so that they overlap. Fold the 2 remaining sides toward the center, forming a little package. Secure them by tying a strip of cornhusk around each tamal.

If banana leaves are being used:
On each rectangle of banana leaf, place about 2 tablespoons of dough, spreading it to form a thin layer. Place 2 tablespoons of filling over the dough, fold the bottom edge of the leaf upward and the top edge downward, so that they overlap. Press them lightly to keep in place, then fold the side edges inward to form a square. Wrap each tamal in a second banana leaf, sealing in the first one to prevent leakage while steaming. Tie each tamal with a strip of banana leaf.

Whether making corn husk or banana leaf tamales, pour water into the bottom of a tamalero or steamer, adding a coin so that its rattling will alert you if the water evaporates before the tamales are done. Line the steamer rack with either corn husks or banana leaves.

Arrange the tamales on the rack, stacking loosely to allow room for the dough to expand. Cover with another layer of corn husks or banana leaves and a clean cloth to absorb steam that drips from the inside of the lid, in order to prevent tamales from becoming soggy.

Steaming will take 1-2 hours, depending on the altitude and the consistency of the dough. Test for doneness by removing and unwrapping a tamal. Tamales are done if the husk or leaf separates easily from the dough and the dough is firm. If they need more time and water, add boiling water to the bottom of the steamer.

Let cool slightly before serving. If freezing tamales, allow them to cool completely and pack in freezer bags.

Makes about 24 corn husk tamales or 12 banana leaf tamales.

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Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
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