My Grandmother's Tamale Recipe, Plus the Tools That Make Them Easy to Make — MBG Home — Modern Brown Girl | Amplifying Brown Voices, One Story at a Time (2024)

If you grew up in a Latino household, chances are it's not the night before Christmas that gets you excited, it's the night before Christmas Eve. The reason? Tamales! For many Latinos, Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena'and is a big family day. I remember Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, tamales on the table, and Christmas presents at midnight. My parents can remember back-in-the-day (pre-kids)going to Midnight Mass, then attending the Christmas dance, and afterward heading back home early Christmas morning and eating a breakfast full of tamales.

Tamales are as regional as road maps.

Tamales may be sweet or savory, wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. Sweet tamales are filled with fruit. Savory tamales are filled with pork, chicken, turkey, fish, cheese, or any combination of the above. At my grandmother’s house, we had savory somewhat spicy pork tamales wrapped in corn husks. For years I’ve tried to copy her recipe. My grandmother does not make her tamales from any written recipe. She, like most experienced cooks, goes by the touch, feel, and taste as she prepares her culinary masterpiece.

The following is a close version of my grandmother’s recipe for pork tamales. It is time-consuming but well worth it!


Makes approximately 5 dozen tamales

  • Fresh corn masa, 5 lbs.

  • 1 lb. corn husks

  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt

  • 1 lb. lard

  • 5 cups cooked pork broth (drained from cooked pork) To be set aside, used as needed

  • 8 oz. whole chili anchos

  • 5 lb. pork shoulder

  • 3-4 cloves of garlic

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 2 teaspoons of ground cumin


The day before

Prepare the Chili Ancho

Put the ancho pods in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 30 minutes or more until soft, then remove the stems and seeds and coarsely chop. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Let cool and carefully transfer the mixture to a food processor and process adding reserved soaking liquid as needed until smooth. Pour blended mixture through a fine mesh sieve and transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Prepare the Husks

Fill a stock pot with warm water and corn husks and soak overnight. Just before you’re ready to make your tamales, rinse husks and dry well and, if too wide, cut in half. Set aside.

Prepare the Pork

Cut pork shoulder into small (1-2 inch) pieces. Add garlic, pork pieces and spices to a large stock pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 3 hours or until meat is tender. Remove meat and shred. Let meat cool and refrigerate overnight. Reserve pork broth.

The day of

Prepare the Masa

Beat 1 lb. lard with mixer or by hand until light. Add salt and fresh corn masa. Add in the chili mixture little by little until a dark pinkish color, and to taste. Beat with heavy duty mixer or knead like bread with a little pork broth, until dough is light. The dough is ready when a small amount floats when dropped in a glass of water.

Prepare the Pork Filling

Heat some lard in a heavy saucepan. Add a cup (or more, to your taste) of the blended ancho chili mixture to lard and simmer until sauce slightly thickens. Add some salt to taste. Now add shredded meat and both and cook for about 20 minutes. You may want to add more of the blended chili mixture to your liking.

Fill the Corn Husks

Put some of the masa in the center of the corn husk. With the back of spoon, spread the bottom 2/3 of corn husk evenly to edges. Line plenty of pork meat down center. Fold side of corn husks toward center, overlap. Now fold top (without masa) down and set aside on platter until ready to cook. Continue these steps until all masa and pork filling is used up.

Steam Tamales

Bring 3-4 cups of reserved pork broth to boil in a steamer. Place tamales with folded side down in steamer standing upright. Cover tamales with moist corn husks and a clean moist dish towel. Put lid on steamer and steam for 1 ½ hours or until husk can be easily peeled from the dough. Add more broth as needed to continue steaming being careful not to pour broth on tamales.

My Grandmother's Tamale Recipe, Plus the Tools That Make Them Easy to Make — MBG Home — Modern Brown Girl | Amplifying Brown Voices, One Story at a Time (2024)
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