Mexican Tamales are a treat to eat, but also a vibrant tapestry of flavors, textures, and aromas that are woven with the threads of family tradition and festive celebration. As a proud Latina, I’ve grown up with the rich, comforting scents of masa mixed with sweet or savory fillings wafting through my home, and I can’t wait to share the experience with you today.

hands holding a hand-carved wooden tray filled with wrapped tamales.

From the bustling streets of Mexico City to sleepy villages in Oaxaca to the cozy kitchens of Mexican-American homes, tamales have a story to tell. And oh, what stories they are! Wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, these delightful parcels are bursting with flavors that span generations and geographies. 

Whether it’s the savory goodness of perfectly seasoned meat, the earthy-sweet tones of masa, or the heartwarming blend of spices mixed with sweet fillings, tamales are delicious. In this special roundup, I’m excited to share with you the diversity of this traditional dish, from authentic Mexican tamales that have been passed down through generations to modern, innovative twists.

Latina food blogger Yvette Marquez with her mother, both wearing Mexican aprons and holding a tray of homemade wrapped tamales in front of a Christmas tree decorated with mini tamale-shaped ornaments.

What are Mexican tamales?

At their core, tamales are a cherished gift from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to the modern culinary world. But what exactly are these delectable treats that have stood the test of time? Each of these homemade tamale recipes is:

  • A Culinary Craft: Tamales are traditional Mexican dishes made from masa (a dough derived from nixtamalized corn), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. The natural wrapper acts as a portable container that imparts a unique flavor while keeping the tamale moist and perfectly cooked.
  • Versatile: The beauty of tamales lies in their versatility. Fillings can vary widely, ranging from savory and spicy meats like pork, chicken, beef, or lamb, to sweet and delightful fruits, chocolate, and/or nuts. Some regions even have vegetarian or vegan variants, showcasing beans, cheese, and peppers.
  • A Symphony of Flavors: The key to authentic tamale’s distinct taste is in its simplicity and the harmony of its flavors. The masa is infused with rich broth, lard, or vegetable shortening, giving it a smooth, creamy texture that perfectly complements the filling. Spices and sauces are added to enhance the taste, making each bite a delightful experience.
  • More Than Just Food: In Mexican culture, tamales are much more than just a dish — they are a symbol of community and celebration. Preparing tamales is often a communal activity, known as a ‘tamalada‘, where family and friends gather to spread the masa, fill, and wrap these treats. This tradition turns cooking into a celebration, an act of coming together and sharing.
  • A Feast for Special Occasions: Traditionally, tamales are a staple during special occasions like Christmas, Dia de los Muertos, Dia de los Reyes, Dia de la Candelaria, and Mexican Independence Day. Their presence on the dining table during these celebrations signifies the importance of heritage and the joy of being together.

Basic Tamale Ingredients 

The art of making tamales begins with understanding its basic components. Each ingredient plays a crucial role in creating the unique texture and flavor of a tamale. 

Wondering what Mexican tamales are made of? Let’s explore the essential elements that go into making these delightful parcels:

  • Natural Wrappers: The choice of wrapper not only holds the tamal together but also imparts a subtle flavor during the steaming process. Corn husks are the more traditional choice, giving a light, sweet note to the masa, while banana leaves, popular in tropical regions, lend a more aromatic and earthy flavor.
  • Masa Dough: The soul of any tamal is its masa, a dough made primarily from nixtamalized corn. You can opt for the convenience of store-bought fresh wet masa or use powdered masa harina, like the popular brand Maseca. When mixed with water, masa harina rehydrates to form a smooth, pliable dough perfect for spreading on your wrappers.
  • Fat: Fat is key to achieving the right texture in your masa. It makes the dough tender and adds richness to the flavor. Depending on your recipe and preference, you can use lard for a more authentic taste, vegetable shortening for a lighter version, or oil for a vegan alternative.
  • Filling: The possibilities for tamal-fillings are endless, ranging from traditional seasoned meats and cheeses to innovative sweet fillings like fruits and chocolate. The filling is where you can get creative, infusing your personal touch into each tamal.
  • Sauce: While tamales are delicious on their own, the right sauce can elevate them to a new level by enhancing the flavor and adding moisture to the dish. You may want to serve your steamed tamales with a variety of salsas for savory versions, or sweet sauces for dessert tamales. 

Tamal Dough Recipes

soaked hoja corn husk spread with a layer of masa para tamales.

Tamale Masa Recipe

4.50 (65 ratings)
Masa for tamales can be purchased in one of two ways, prepared and unprepared. Our family prefers to purchase unprepared masa and then we add lard, salt, broth, and baking powder, giving it the muy bueno touch.
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hero shot of masa harina tamales being assembled in corn husks.

Tamales with Masa Harina (Masa Dough Made With Masa Harina)

4.82 (16 ratings)
This easy tamal dough recipe makes about one dozen tamales but you can double, triple, or quadruple it, as needed. The recipe can easily be made by hand in a bowl, but whipping the lard in a stand mixer makes for fluffier and lighter tamales.
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Savory Tamale Recipes

Dive into the heartwarming world of savory tamales, where each bite is a celebration of rich, bold flavors and satisfying textures. These authentic tamale recipes are the quintessence of comfort food, often featuring hearty meats, robust spices, and sumptuous sauces. 

They embody the soul of traditional Mexican cuisine, perfectly balancing the earthiness of masa with the complexity of their fillings. Whether it’s my favorite Christmas tamales (classic pork in red chile sauce) or innovative vegetarian options, savory tamales offer a delicious canvas for culinary creativity.

Chicken Mole Tamales

4.27 (15 ratings)
Delicious chicken is slow cooked until extra tender and then shredded for these spicy chicken mole tamales. Serve topped with mole sauce for added flavor.
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authentic mexican pork tamales rojos steaming in a tamalada.

Authentic Mexican Pork Tamales Rojos

4.59 (87 ratings)
These Muy Bueno Tamales Rojos are mouthwateringly delicious; tender shreds of spicy red chile pork are wrapped in a soft masa dough and steamed to perfection for a rustic, comforting meal you won't soon forget.
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Instant Pot Tamales Recipe with Pork and Roasted Green Chile

4.75 (28 ratings)
Making classic tamales can be an all-day project and lots of dirty dishes, but with the magic of an Instant Pot, you can make a little over a dozen tamales whenever the craving hits — in under two hours from start to finish.
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terracotta plate with chicken tamales verdes and a silver fork.

Roasted Chicken and Salsa Verde Tamales

5 (4 ratings)
This is the perfect stress-free rotisserie chicken and salsa verde tamales to prepare during the holidays. With Thanksgiving around the corner these tamales can also be made with leftover shredded turkey. Packaged like a small gift waiting to be unwrapped, tamales are one of Mexico's most popular party foods. There are many steps involved in tamal making but the process is actually easy. Host a tamalada (tamal-making party) and gather a few friends to help with the assembling.

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Cheese with Roasted Chile Tamales (Tamales de Rajas Con Queso)

5 (4 ratings)
These tamales are filled with roasted green chile and cheese. But it doesn’t end there – the filling is slow simmered in suero (whey) that my mom brought over from Licon Dairy in El Paso, Texas. The combination of the suero with green chiles gives this recipe its one-of-a-kind sabor.
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Red Chile Lamb Barbacoa Tamales

5 (4 ratings)
We made these lamb tamales last year and I wanted to share the recipe with you just in case you want to make tamales for Christmas or Dia de los Reyes (King’s Day). You will not be disappointed with this filling. The simple slow-cooked marinated lamb meat is juicy, spicy, and so tender. The earthy flavor of this meat will melt in your mouth.
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Zucchini and Corn Tamales

4.58 (7 ratings)
Tamales are most often prepared for several special occasions between December through February. In December we make tamales for Christmas and New Year’s Eve then in January we make them again for Día de los Reyes (The Day of Kings) and in February we prepare them for Día de la Candelaria (Candle Mass Day). Although tamales can be made any time this is usually when our family makes them. This is an easy lighter, meatless version you will love!
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Sweet Tamale Recipes

Let’s explore the enchanting world of sweet tamales, where a humble corn dough takes on a delightfully sweet persona. These tamales are a beautiful blend of soft textures and subtle flavors, often enhanced with a variety of fruits, sweeteners, and fragrant spices. 

They showcase the versatility and ingenuity of Mexican culinary arts, making them an ideal dessert or a special treat for celebratory moments. Whether it’s the deep flavor of chocolate or the bright zest of citrus fruits, sweet tamales promise a captivating and delicious experience, weaving unique and delectable flavor combinations that are sure to tantalize your palate.

Pumpkin Spice Tamales

4.50 (8 ratings)
Can you imagine if a classic American pumpkin pie and Mexican tamales had a baby? You’d get these exotic beauties. These Pumpkin Spice Tamales are great to serve after dinner or to enjoy with a cup of coffee for breakfast. These pumpkin tamales taste very similar to a pumpkin bread with chopped pecans. I especially love them drizzled with sweet condensed milk, sprinkled with pecan halves, and pomegranate seeds for a festive touch.
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Sweet Mango Dessert Tamales

4.75 (4 ratings)
A tropical twist on the traditional tamal recipe made with a mango filling nestled in a sweet mango-flavored masa, and topped with warm spiked mango preserves.
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Sweet Raisin Tamales (Tamales Dulces)

4.60 (5 ratings)
These sweet raisin tamales soaked in a piloncillo and canela syrup are perfect as a sweet holiday treat! A tamal, swaddled in a corn husk, is the heart of all things Mexican. Opening one is like opening an intimate secret, a gift.
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Frequently Asked Questions

Can you freeze tamales?

Absolutely, you can freeze tamales! It’s actually a fantastic way to keep them fresh and ready for whenever those comfort food cravings hit. After steaming and cooling, pop them into a freezer-safe bag, and they’re good to go for several months. When you’re ready to enjoy them, simply thaw and reheat. It’s like having a little piece of heaven waiting in your freezer! 🌽❄️👍

Alternatively, you can also freeze the tamales before they are steamed and steam them on the day you’re ready to serve them. Just make sure to label your freezer bags properly to know whether they’re cooked or raw.

What’s the best way to reheat cooked tamales?

I like to wrap the corn husk with a damp paper towel around the tamal to steam it in the microwave. It’ll vary depending on your microwave’s power, but usually, about 90 seconds is good. You can also lightly toast the re-steamed tamal in its cornhusk on a comal for a toasted flavor.

Are tamales gluten-free?

Yes, tamales are typically gluten-free! The main ingredient in the dough, masa harina, is a type of corn flour and doesn’t contain gluten. Just be mindful of the fillings and any additional ingredients. 

How long does it take to cook tamales?

Cooking tamales is a bit of a time investment, but trust me: it’s so worth it! The actual cooking time for tamales varies depending on their size and how many you’re cooking at once. Generally, it takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to steam tamales. Cut the cooking time by steaming tamales in an Instant Pot.

But remember, that’s just the cooking part. The assembly time – spreading the masa on the husks, adding the filling, and wrapping them up – is a whole different story. This can vary quite a bit, especially if you’re new to it or if you’re turning it into a fun group activity (which I totally recommend!).

Is it “tamale” or “tamal?”

In Mexican Spanish, the correct singular term for this beloved dish is “tamal,” while the plural form is “tamales.” This usage stems from the word’s origin in the Nahuatl language, where “tamalli” is used as a general term for the dish, not distinguishing between singular and plural. 

The word “tamale,” commonly used in English, is actually an Anglicized adaptation. As the dish traveled and gained popularity in different regions, the terminology evolved, leading to these variations in its name. Regardless of the term used, the deliciousness of this dish remains a universal language for food lovers everywhere!

Correct Mexican Spanish usage can be a topic of debate. That said, I rarely use “tamal” — because who stops at just eating one tamal, right?

Can you steam raw tamales in an Instant Pot?

YUP! To steam raw tamales in an Instant Pot, follow these Instant Pot cooking instructions.

And there we have it, amigos! Our delicious journey through the vibrant world of Mexican tamales comes to a close. From savory delights to sweet surprises, we’ve unwrapped the secrets and savored the flavors of this treasured Mexican dish. I hope you’re leaving with not just a satisfied appetite, but also a heart full of joy and a kitchen ready for tamale-making adventures. 

Remember, each tamal you create is not just a meal, it’s a story – a piece of tradition, wrapped in love and steamed to perfection. So, until our next culinary escapade, keep spreading the masa and sharing the joy. ¡Hasta la próxima, and happy tamale-making! 🌽💖👩‍🍳🎉