photo credit: LoriMartin

Mexican Tamales

Mexican tamales (tamal is the Spanish "singular" use of the word) are packets of corn dough with a savory or sweet filling and typically wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves.  The packets are steamed and eaten traditionally served with Atole (masa drink).   Contrary to what is found in most American-Mexican restaurants, most tamales are not served with a sauce, but rather simple and plain.

Tamale History

Tamales date back to pre-Columbian (before Columbus) Mexico and possibly even further. No history of the tamale would be complete without discussing the process of "nixtamalization". Nixtamalization is the processing of field corn with wood ashes (pre-Colombian) or now with "cal, slaked lime". This processing softens the corn for easier grinding and also aids in digestibility and increases the nutrients absorbed by the human body.

Nixtamalization dates back to the southern coast of Guatemala around 1200 - 1500BC where kitchens were found equipped with the necessities of nixtamal making. We have found no specific references to the making of tamales at this time.

It is well documented by Friar Bernardino de Shaagun in the 1550's that the Spaniards were served tamales by the Aztecs during their first visits to Mexico. (America's First Cuisine's - Sophie D. Coe). Tamales were made with beans, meats and chiles and cooked on the open fires as well as on comals.


As with most Mexican foods each region of Mexico has it's own specialties. Specialty versions abound but here are examples of some of the variations listed by region.

Culiacan, Sinaloa - Everyday varieties include tamals made of small, sweet brown beans, pineapple and corn. Special occasion versions are large and made with both meat and vegetables.

Veracruz - Tamales made of fresh corn and pork seasoned with hoja santa. Other styles include banana-leaf wrapped masa with chicken and hoja santa.

Oaxaca - Large tamales wrapped in banana leaves spiced with their regional specialty "black mole". They also do a corn husk variety with other moles including green or yellow with small black beans and chepil (a herb).

Monterrey - This region prefers a small tamal that uses both smooth or coarse dough which includes shredded meat and red chilies.

Yucatan - Achiote is a favored seasoning. Many tamales from this region are quite large and cooked either in a pit or baked in the oven. The dough is made of smooth-ground masa and fillings include chicken and pork, or a combination. Another version is called the vaporcitos, a simple thin layer of masa on a banana leaf, steamed. Tamales colads, a thin dough with fillings of chicken, tomato and achiote.

San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas - A banana leaf wrapped version called tamales untados, filled with pork and a mole.

Michoacan - Specialties include corundas wrapped in fresh corn leaves and unfilled.

North Western Mexico - Both Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless write of the huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles made with very coarsely ground masa with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves. These monstrous tamales are baked in wood heated ovens in specialty restaurants, normally on weekends.

The Wrappers

Dried Corn Husks

Dried corn husks are the most commonly used tamal wrapper. Most of the corn husks found in the U.S. are smaller than the husks sold in Mexico. About seven years ago a new "style" husk was introduced to the U.S. market. This style is called "enconchada" which refers to the "conch shell shape" of the stacked husks. The enconchada husks are of a higher quality and come in at least three sizes varying from 7" - 9". They are even available packed in water for immediate use. Normally the husks must be weighted down in water and soaked for at least 10 minutes to make them pliable and ready for use.

Fresh Corn Husks

The fresh corn husks (not dried) are used in the Northern Veracruz to make green corn tamales. In Michoacan fresh corn tamales are produced called tamales de elote.

Fresh Corn Leaves

Diana Kennedy describes how fresh corn leaves are folded into "five-pointed sextahedron shapes" called corrundas. There is alternative, less complex method that produces a triangle shaped tamal. The fresh leaves actually impart an enhanced corn flavor.

Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are quite large and make very efficient wrappers for the larger style tamales. It is best to pick young fresh, tender leaves if you have a plant available. Otherwise they are available frozen in many Latin markets. To prepare you have to slice the leaf along the central rib, and remove the rib. The leaves must be heated and wilted over an open high flame to make them flexible. Once cooled, masa is placed on the "smooth" side of the leaf. Tamales are later boiled, or steamed.

Chaya Leaves

Chaya also know as Jatropha aconitifolia or Cnidoscolus Chayamansa is similar to spinach and even richer in iron. This plant was well known to the Mayan culture and is still available in some parts of Mexico. The leaves are used medicinally, as well as a cooked or raw vegetable. The raw leaves are also used as a tamal wrapper.


The tamalon is actually a large tamal that serves many people. You can use a simple smooth (not terry cloth) dish towel to wrap this giant tamale. Typical ingredients are masa with seasonings mixed with strips of swiss chard. The tamal is steamed then unwrapped, sliced like a jellyroll and served.

The Dough

Each style of tamal uses a very specific type of masa (corn dough). The best of the best comes from the Mexico City region where the tamales are white and spongy.

Masa Refregada - This style of masa is made of dried white corn, cal (slaked lime) and water.  After the heating and soaking process the corn is drained, the skins removed (buy copious amounts of washing), then ground in a mill to a textured dough that is not as fine as what would be used for tortillas. This style makes a spongier tamal than masa flour but less so than the Textured Corn Flour version. See recipe (Nixtamal).  For excellent recipes we suggest the two books listed below in the Credits Section.

Textured Corn Flour - The process is similar to the masa refregada but the slaked corn or hominy (corn soaked in cal) is dried after the skins are removed.   The dried corn is then ground to the texture of fine grits. This style masa produces very white, spongy tamales.

Commercial Masa para Tamales - Maseca makes a "instant" masa product made specifically for tamales.  Tamale "aficionados" would probably have apoplexy at the thought but for those of you who don't have access to fresh tamale dough, and don't choose to wade through the process, it is an alternative.

Additions To The Dough

  • Fats - Traditionally the fat of choice was fresh lard.  This will vary with the recipe but some will use lard, some butter or vegetable shortening, or a combination of two or more of these. If you use lard, use only fresh lard and if possible, get freshly rendered pork lard from your butcher.
  • Leavening -  Some of the dough recipes will use baking powder for a lighter tamal corn dough.
  • Liquids - The ground corn is most commonly mixed with water, chicken broth and even sometimes milk.  The individual recipe will dictate the proper liquid.
  • Flavorings - Salt is almost always added to the dough to enhance the flavor of the corn

Tamale Fillings

The filling for the tamal can be anything from squash or beans, to fish, chicken, beef, pork, pumpkin seeds, hard cooked eggs, even dove breast. Other more exotic ingredients are alligator tail or iguana.

Spreading The Masa

masa spreader for tamales

Probably one of the biggest challenges new tamale makers face is the task of spreading the masa onto the corn husk. Commonly you'd just use the back of a spoon to spread the dough. Because the dough tends to be stiff, this is not as easy as it should be. And thus the "masa spreader" was born. This handy gadget makes spreading masa a breeze. You use it like a cement trowel. Just pick up some masa with the edge of the tool and place at an angle along the moistened corn husk and spread. This is one great invention.

Wrapping And Tying

There are many ways to wrap a tamale and again, the style will vary in different regions of Mexico.  In fact, you don't always need to tie tamales.  The purpose of tying is to make sure the tamal stays folded while it is steaming.

Ties -  You can slice thin strips of soaked, softened corn husks to use for corn husk ties.  You can also use household string.  If  you are using banana leaf wrappers, cut thin, lengths of banana leaves for ties. String -  (cañamo) Simple white kitchen string is commonly used for tying tamales. It's a good time saver when you don't want to take the time to make lots of small husk or leaf ties.

Steamers (Tamaleras)

Steamer Type Description
tamalera steamer
Galvanized "Bote Tamalera" tamale steamer


The steamer used commonly in Mexico is referred to as a "Bote Tamalera" which just means "tin tamale steamer". The steamers look like a trash can but have a steamer insert in the bottom and a lid.

A small amount of water is held in the bottom of the steamer and it is topped with perforated metal divided that keeps the tamales out of the water. This perforated piece is layered with corn husks then the tamales are placed on top of the husks, the lid placed on the steamer and the tamales cook until down (time varies depending on the recipe). These steamers come in various sizes that will accommodate from 30 - 80 or more tamales.

bamboo steamer
Asian Bamboo Steamer


Bamboo Steamer
This steamer will function if you are steaming a few small tamales. To use you place the unit over a pot of boiling water. This small steamer does not take up much storage space and it also works well for steaming tortillas.
thai stainless steel steamer
Thai Stacked Steamer
Thai Stacked Steamer
This is one of our favorite versatile cooking tools. We prefer when possible to buy a tool that is multifunctional. This stacking steamer is perfect for a small to medium sized batch of tamales, or for steaming, fish, vegetables or other meats. These steamers are very well made and amazingly inexpensive. Water is placed in the bottom receptacle and the food is placed in each level of the steamer.

Other Types Of Tamales

Many other Latin countries make some type of tamales.  Here are a couple of notable versions:

Hallacas - A Venezuelan tamale wrapped in banana leaves.

Nacatamales - Found in Nicaragua, and El Salvador combines an interesting variety of ingredients that get wrapped in plantain leaves.

Tamale Making Supplies

At Gourmetsleuth we carry everything you need for making fresh tamales at home, from organic corn or corn masa, corn husks, steamers and more.

The Best Tamale Making Book

Recipes include Chicken Tomatillo, Chorizo Potato, Vegetable Curry, and Greek tamales. Nearly 100 traditional, vegetarian, vegan, and specialty tamales and sauces.

Corn, Cal, Steamers, Wrappers

Organic Masa Harina - Dried organic masa flour is available at Gourmetsleuth as well as  in most Latino markets and even in some larger nationwide chain grocery stores.

Field Corn -  We sell dried whole corn for making fresh nixtamal (used to make tamal or tortilla dough) including:
White dried corn
Blue dried corn

Cal - Slaked lime used for soaking field corn for making nixtamal. 

Corn Husks, Banana Leaves - Corn husks are frequently available at large main-stream grocers, or Latino markets.  Banana leaves can be purchased frozen in Latin markets and specialty stores.

Steamers - Mexican made steamers can be purchased at Latino grocery stores. Many of the Mexican markets now sell "stacked steamers" made in the Orient.  A stacked steamer can be used for a variety of recipes (including but not limited to tamales) and is quite versatile. Available in Mexican and Asian grocery stores.

Where to Buy Online

GourmetSleuth - We sell most of the basic ingredients needed for making tamales including field corn, cal, Maseca Corn Flour for Tamales, frozen banana leaves, Tamale Steamers, Stacked Steamers, Corn Husks (Enconchada).


The Art of Mexican Cooking - Diana Kennedy's book is a "must have" for any lover of Mexican foods. It is out of print but available used from Amazon.com.

Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking
from... - By Rick Bayless.  This is another great resource.  Not only are the recipes "authentic" and of the highest quality but Rick provides great historical and regional information about Mexican cooking, ingredients as cooking tools too.

america's first cuisines
America's First Cuisine's
- Sophie D. Coe.  The late Mrs. Coe provides us with detailed insight about the foods of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs as well as the impact of the Spaniards on our cuisine today.

the story of corn
The Story of Cornby Betty Harper Fussell
This excellent book details the lineage and impact of corn on the development of American cuisine.  A witty and factual history of corn.  Most of us don't realize the impact this grain has on our economy today.   Learn how corn is still "god" in the 2000's in the Americas.


Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.