As the holidays approach, Latin American families like mine begin to plan their menus, and tamales are always the main star of the feast. Making tamales from scratch takes a bit of time and preparation, from soaking the husks to serving a steamy tamale that slides off the husk when unwrapped. Many tias, mamás, and abuelitas debate around the kitchen table—who has the best tamale recipe? Though it’s an argument that’s never really settled, one thing’s for sure: whether you are new to making tamales or an expert with your own recipe or one passed down to you, the most delicious tamales start with a delicious, reliable masa recipe.
My Go-To Masa Recipe for Tamales
Back when I learned how to make tamales from my grandmother and mom, they scoffed when I asked for exact measurements. They measured the ingredients al tanteo, meaning “a calculated guess” in Spanish. They measured the masa harina, baking powder, and salt with a favorite soup spoon, a coffee cup, the palm of their hands, or pinch with their fingers. This masa recipe yields a basic tamale dough—one that I meticulously wrote down as I watched them. This is my go-to masa recipe for both savory and sweet tamales.
My Favorite Brands of Masa Harina
Convenience is a big plus for me, so I opt for instant masa harina to make masa for tamales. Some brands like Maseca and Masabrosa have a variety of options to choose from. Their masa harinas made specifically for tamales have a coarser grind, which yields a masa with a bit of a gritty texture. Their regular masa harinas meant for tortillas will be smoother. Both are delicious, and it’s a matter of personal preference. Both brands can be found at your local Latin supermarket and most big box grocery stores. You will likely get a better deal buying them at a brick-and-mortar than online.
Knead the Masa by Hand or With an Electric Mixer
If I am making masa for about two dozen tamales (the number of tamales this recipe yields) I clear out my schedule because I to knead the masa by hand. The process is a bit long if done by hand—whipping the lard takes about 20 minutes and kneading the dough takes about 15 minutes. I like to feel the texture of the masa in my hands. For me, it’s nostalgic because this is how I grew up making tamales. But you to you! You can use an electric mixer and cut the prep time in half.
If I am making 40 to 60 tamales for a family gathering, I let my stand mixer do the work. The masa becomes more difficult to knead by hand when making a large batch—the masa might not mix properly and will then cook unevenly. My mom will always notice tamales pintos, “unevenly cooked masa,” and we don’t want that!
Make It Vegetarian or Vegan
This recipe calls for lard and chicken stock, for making savory tamales. Here is how to modify the recipe for vegan or vegetarian tamales.
- Switch out the lard for vegetable shortening or vegetable oil.
- Fry 1/4 cup of sliced white onions in vegetable oil until golden. Cool the onions to room temperature before adding it to the masa right before the masa harina.
- Instead of chicken stock, use vegetable stock or water.