A basic tamal dough recipe should be part of any serious Mexican food aficionados repertoire. After relentlessly testing tamales for the past few weeks as I developed my recipe for tamales verdes with chicken, I have finally hit on a tamal dough that is consistently moist and fluffy. This tamal dough is perfect for a variety of fillings. So, once you learn how to make the tamal base, feel free to customize the fillings to your taste!
Tips for making tamal dough
First, a Spanish lesson. Masa is dough in Spanish. You will see me use the words interchangeably in this article. Just know that when I am talking about masa or dough used for tamales, I am talking about the corn-based dough, traditionally used in Mexican cooking.
I like to start with fresh ground masa, masa that is specifically ground for tamales. Here in Mexico, I get my masa from my favorite tortilla supplier. I call them a day ahead and ask for my tamal dough to be ready the next day. In the US, I have seen tamal dough in the refrigerated meat sections of Hispanic grocery stores. There are a couple of things to watch out for when buying tamal dough.
First, there is a difference between tortilla masa and tamal masa. Tortilla masa is ground finer and has the consistency of play-doh. It is solid but still pliable. Tamal dough is less processed, so the consistency is more like wet sand. It is grainy but will hold its shape when squeezed in your hand.
While it is possible to make a tasty tamal using tortilla masa (like this simple black bean tamal), the consistency of the tamal will be firmer. If you like a light, fluffy tamal, start with a masa that is ground specifically for tamales.
Secondly, some tamal masa is “prepared” or “preparado”. This typically means that the dough is ready to use, so the lard, salt, broth, or water has likely already been added. Read the ingredient label on the package. This ensures you know what is in your dough and you can adjust the recipe accordingly.
What is nixtamalization?
The tamal dough I use in this recipe is ground corn which has been nixtamalized. Mexicans have been using this process to make masa since pre-Hispanic times. In fact, the word nixtamal is from the náhuatl language and is a combination of the words tenextli (cal or food-grade lime) and tamalli (tamal).
So what is nixtamalization exactly? Nixtamalization is the process of cooking and softening the grains of corn before they are ground into masa. Dried corn kernels cook in a water and food-grade lime (calcium hydroxide, or cal) solution. The corn soaks overnight, is rinsed the next day, and is finally ground into masa for tortillas or tamales.
This process not only gives corn tortillas and tamales their unique taste. The cal actually helps improve the corn’s nutritional value by allowing the proteins found in the grain to be digested. Cornmeal made from corn not treated with this process is unable to form a dough when added with water. Therefore, the nixtamalization process which chemically alters the corn is crucial for making masa!
Start with room temperature, fresh ingredients
My tamal dough-making process starts with me pulling all of the ingredients out of the fridge and letting them come to room temperature on my kitchen counter. By having everything at room temperature, I have found that the dough comes together easier and has a more consistent texture.
Since making tamales can be a daunting task, I usually start making elements of my tamales 1 or 2 days before I assemble them. I highly recommend that your ingredients are no more than 1 or at the most 2 days old when you start assembling the tamales. My masa will keep in the fridge for only a couple of days before the flavor starts to turn bitter.
If you need to purchase unprepared masa more than 2 days in advance, I would recommend freezing it in a plastic bag and then allowing it to come to room temperature before mixing with the rest of the ingredients.
I have had success freezing my unprepared tamal masa for up to a week before using it without any significant changes to taste or texture.
Take your time mixing the masa
A light, fluffy tamal not only depends on your ingredients but also on how much these ingredients are mixed. I use a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment to make my dough. The mixing process is relatively hands-off if I let the machine do all of the work!
First, I beat the lard. The lard that I use is a beige color and has a thicker texture to start. Once I have beaten it for about 10 minutes, the texture is more liquid and the color has lightened to almost white.
I then mix the lard with all of the other ingredients for another 20-25 minutes, for a total mix time of about 30 minutes. This may seem excessive, but I have had the best results after mixing the masa for this amount of time.
To see if the masa is ready, some folks recommend taking a small ball of the masa and placing it in a glass filled with water. If the masa floats, they say the masa is ready and will be light and fluffy.
I, personally, have found this method to be unreliable. Sometimes the masa floats and sometimes you can mix, and mix, and mix and it never floats! By mixing my dough on a medium speed for the times recommended here, I have found that my tamales are consistently light and fluffy, even if my masa doesn’t float in a glass of water!
So, instead of using the float test, I prefer to go by the times I mentioned above and by how the masa looks and feels. The ingredients should be well blended. The masa should be wet, but not runny. It should hold its shape when scooped with a spoon and have a texture similar to buttercream.
You need more salt than you think
I made the mistake once of forgetting to salt my masa before making tamales. The result was bland and unpalatable. I ended up throwing away the whole batch, because, well, they were just that bad. Imagine, all of that hard work, in the trash! It was a frustrating and valuable lesson.
The thing is, as the tamales steam, the salt evaporates out of the masa. So not only do you need to make sure that the masa is salted, it needs to be a little on the salty side. I would highly suggest that you taste the masa once you have it prepared to check the salt level and err on the side of a bit saltier is better. I have found that 2 tablespoons of salt for every 2 pounds of masa is the right amount for me.
How to use this tamal dough
This tamal dough is light and fluffy, perfect for a variety of fillings! I have used this masa to make my delicious tamales verdes con pollo. I have also used this filling to make a rajas con queso (poblano strips and cheese) tamal. This tamal is simply strips of roasted poblano peppers, a chunk of cheese (I use cincho), and your favorite red salsa!
I think this tamal would be amazing filled with shredded pork rib meat in green salsa with purslane (like this dish here)! Maybe you have a favorite shredded Mexican-style beef recipe that you could use for your filling. There are so many options and the great thing is that you can customize the filling to your tastes!
As noted above, this dough produces a light, fluffy textured tamal. Certain tamales are made with tortilla masa to produce a more compact and denser tamal, like tamales colados (Yucatan). Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to share additional tamal recipes, including ones using tortilla masa. But for now, I hope you enjoy making your own creations using this basic tamal dough!
This recipe was adapted from the following sources:
Diana Kennedy, Cocina Esencial de México
Rick Bayless, Basic Tamal Dough recipe
Rocio Castro, Guerrero Mexico
Basic Tamal Dough
- 1 1/4 cup lard at room temperature
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Salt to taste see notes
- 2 lbs masa for tamales see notes
- 2/3 cup chicken broth at room temperature
- In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat lard on medium speed until it has lightened in color and texture, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, 5-10 minutes1 1/4 cup lard
- With the mixer still on medium speed, add in the baking powder and salt. Gradually, add in the masa, alternating with the chicken broth, beating until the ingredients are well mixed, 10-20 minutes. The dough should be light and fluffy, almost the texture of a buttercream frosting. It should not be runny and should hold its shape when scooped with a spoon. A lighter textured, well mixed masa will produce a fluffier tamal when cooked. See notes on salt.1 tsp baking powder, Salt to taste, 2 lbs masa for tamales, 2/3 cup chicken broth
- Use immediately for corn husk tamales
I use a masa ground for tamales for this recipe. It is not salted and it does not have lard added in. I have seen this type of masa available in Latino food markets in the US. Check the ingredients on any masa for tamales that you purchase. Some may already include lard and salt, which will mean you will need to adjust this recipe to remove those ingredients. If you are starting with cornflour like Maseca, you will need to add water to prepare the masa according to the package directions prior to starting.
- To make 2 lbs masa using masa harina (I used Maseca in my test), you will need 4 2/3 cups Maseca and 2 2/3 +1/2 cups warm water to yield 2 lbs 1.2 ounces of masa. Mix the ingredients by hand in a bowl until you form a cohesive dough. Please note that I have not tested the tamales using this masa. This note is to simply give you a conversion for how to yield 2 lbs of masa from masa harina (Maseca brand).
My Mexican host mother used to say that the salt evaporated from the tamales during the steaming process. She always slightly over-salted her masa to compensate. In my experience this holds true. A masa that is salted perfectly prior to cooking, tends to be a bit bland once it is finished. I slightly over salt the masa to compensate. In this recipe, I find that 2 tablespoons of salt for 2 pounds masa work for me. You will want to add salt slowly and taste as you add the salt.