I have been relentlessly testing new tamal recipes, and these chocolate tamales are my new favorite creation! Masa is mixed with cocoa powder, butter, and sugar for a sweet, cake-like packet of goodness. And for extra oomph, whole pieces of chocolate bars are placed in the center of the tamal to create an extra-rich chocolate flavor.
Here, I will share with you how I was inspired to make this dessert and just how easy it is to make these chocolate tamales at home!
Sweet tamales in Mexico
You may be more familiar with savory tamales, like ones made of pork, beef, or chicken. But, it is not uncommon to find sweet tamales in local tamal shops or from vendors selling tamales on street corners here in central Mexico. Common sweet tamal flavors include pineapple and strawberry, among others. And while these are delicious, I am a devoted chocolate fan at heart, so these chocolate tamales hit a sweet spot for me.
I had my first chocolate tamal at a Mexican independence day party a couple of years ago. The tamal was deliciously sweet, super chocolatey, and with a soft molten middle. It reminded me of a molten chocolate lava cake. I was hooked.
So, how was I to go about recreating this incredible dessert? I had never made sweet tamales before but I had plenty of experience making savory tamales. Lucky for me, Señora Lore, offered to show me how! She makes sweet tamales out of pineapple, strawberry, and even pumpkin! But, since she had never made chocolate tamales before, we adapted her strawberry tamales recipe to make these!
While the recipe I am sharing doesn’t have a soft, gooey center, it more than satisfies my sweet tooth with its intense chocolate flavor.
Why you should make chocolate tamales
There are so many things to love about chocolate tamales, besides the fact that they are made with chocolate.
For starters, this is one of the easiest tamal recipes that I have ever made. Why? Because all of the mixing is done by hand and you don’t need to spend extra time in the kitchen cooking the filling. Simply mix the masa by hand with sugar, cocoa powder, melted butter, and a pinch of salt. No fancy equipment is needed here.
This tamal is also vegetarian! Most tamales use lard, so they aren’t vegetarian-friendly. Here we use butter instead of lard! So, if you are looking for a vegetarian sweet tamal, this one is for you!
I also love the portability of tamales. Since they are wrapped in individual corn husk packets, these are easy to take on the go. They are the perfect single-serving size! Just heat them up and wrap them in a bit of aluminum foil and you have a portable, warm dessert! Plus, you can eat this tamal right out of the husk, so plates are optional 🙂
Tips for making chocolate tamales
These tamales are easy to make, and with these extra tips, you will be on your way to chocolatey, deliciousness in no time!
Soak extra husks
This recipe will yield about 20 5-inch tamales, the perfect individual dessert size in my opinion. BUT, you will want to soak more than 20 husks for the following reasons:
- If you use less filling in your tamales, you will yield more. Having extra husks on hand means you don’t have to soak extra husks in the middle of your assembly process.
- Some of the husks will have small holes or tears in them. Having extras soaked makes it easy to switch out any holey husks or use smaller husks to patch any rips or tears.
- I have gotten into the habit of lining the top of my steamer basket with corn husks and then placing another layer of corn husks on top of my tamales as they cook. This helps keep the water in the pot from evaporating too quickly. Having extra soaked corn husks on hand ensures that I have enough to line my tamalera!
Slightly oversweeten the dough
If you have made savory tamales, like my tamales verdes with chicken, you will know that I tend to oversalt my masa prior to cooking. The reason is that the salt evaporates out of the tamales as they cook, so a perfectly salted masa prior to cooking will lead to a bland final product. The same holds true here, but for the sugar.
You will want to have your masa just slightly on the sweet side prior to cooking so that the final tamal is sweet and not, well, blah.
Trust me. I tested this. My first batch was perfectly sweetened prior to cooking and the final product wasn’t sweet enough for my taste. Here, I recommend a full cup of regular granulated sugar for every 2 pounds of masa. Of course, you should taste the masa yourself prior to cooking, adding the sugar gradually. This gives you the chance to adjust the sugar before the tamales are cooked!
Mix by hand…literally
The dough for this tamal is thick. I tried mixing it with a giant wooden spoon and gave up. I usually mix my tamal dough in a standing mixer. But these tamales I find I can easily mix by hand and get moist, fluffy results. Plus, this is the method that Señora Lore uses to make her tamales. So I followed her lead and mixed the dough the way she does!
Not only do I feel that this method mixes the ingredients better, but it also gives me a chance to feel how the dough is coming together. The dough should be soft, the ingredients evenly incorporated, and it will have the texture of a thick cake batter (spreadable, but not runny). So, don’t be shy, get all of the filling ingredients ready in a large bowl and mix this dough with your hands.
Use masa ground for tamales
In Mexico, you can buy two types of masa: masa ground for tortillas and masa ground for tamales.
Both are made with dent corn that has gone through the nixtamalization process (my article on basic tamal dough explains what nixtamalization is), but tortilla masa is more finely ground than the masa used for tamales.
Really, you can use either type of masa for tamales. It all depends on the texture that you want your cooked tamal to have. I like tamal masa in this recipe because it produces a lighter, fluffier texture. Tortilla masa typically produces a more compact tamal, like in this recipe for black bean tamales.
Where to get masa for tamales
To get my tamal masa, I call up my favorite tortilla supplier a day before and ask her to have tamal masa ready for me the next day. It is freshly ground and works perfectly for these tamales!
But even masa for tamales can vary in texture and moistness. The below picture shows two types of masa, one with a texture similar to wet sand and another that is even moister, with a more dough-like consistency. I bought both, freshly ground, from two different tortilla shops.
In the US, I have found masa for tamales in Latino supermarkets. Most of the ones that I have seen are similar to the dough-like consistency in the second picture. If you start with a drier masa, you may need to add more liquid to create a dough with the proper texture. Once mixed the dough should feel soft, almost like a thick cake batter. Thinner than cookie dough, but not too runny.
And another note…you will want to check the ingredient label prior to buying any masa. Some masa is sold preparado (prepared), which means it may already include salt, lard, and water. Since this recipe doesn’t use lard or water, you will want to avoid those types of masa.
Alright! Now that we have the tips and tricks out of the way, let’s get to cooking!
How to assemble chocolate tamales
Filling the corn husks
Once your masa is properly mixed, you are ready to fill the corn husks! Spoon a bit of the masa mixture into the corn husk towards the curved bottom part of the husk. Notice that there is a space between the bottom of the corn husk and where the masa mixture starts. You don’t want to place the masa too close to the edges of the husk, otherwise, it will be hard to fold the packet and the mixture could leak out. If you have any tears in the corn husks, use an extra piece of corn husk to patch the tear.
Next, spread the filling upwards slightly towards the pointed end of the corn husk. Add a piece of the chocolate square to the center of the tamal. Now you are ready to fold!
Folding the tamal
If you can make a burrito, you can make a tamal! Once you have the filling inside the corn husk, fold so the sides overlap the filling and the pointed part of the husk closes downwards. I then flip the tamal seam-side down to ensure the packets don’t open back up while I fill the rest of the husks.
Once all of the husks are filled, get a large pot ready for steaming.
Cooking chocolate tamales
I use a tamalera, a pot specifically designed for making tamales. But don’t worry, these can steam in any tall pot with a steamer basket. The below picture shows how you can set up a regular stock pot with a steamer basket to cook your tamales.
Fill your pot with a generous amount of water, but make sure that the water level does not come above the steamer basket. You don’t want the tamales to get wet during the cooking process. Heat covered over high to a boil and then reduce the heat down to maintain a simmer. Place the tamales standing up with the folded part of the husk towards the bottom of the pot.
I like to line the top of the steamer basket with extra corn husks and then place another layer of corn husks on top of the tamales while they cook.
Checking for doneness
I start timing the cooking time for tamales from the point when the tamales are in the pot and the water is simmering. It usually takes me about 1 1/2 hours to have these cook the whole way through. But I like to start checking the tamales to see if they are done after 1 hour.
To check for doneness, pull a tamal out of the pot using kitchen tongs. Open up the tamal packet and gently roll the tamal back and forth in the corn husk. If the tamal pulls easily away from the corn husk, they are done! If the masa is still sticking to the husk, simply rewrap the tamal, place it back in the pot, cover and let them cook for a bit longer. I like to check about every 15-20 minutes after the first hour to see how things are coming along.
These tamales will feel soft to the touch, even when they are fully cooked. I like to turn off the pot and then let them rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. This helps them firm up a bit. But it is so hard to resist not eating these right out of the pot!
And there you have it! An easy, chocolatey, Mexican dessert! Let me know how these turned out for you in the comments below! Happy cooking!
Adapted from: Lorenza Lafragua, Cuernavaca Morelos
- 2 lbs masa for tamales, at room temperature ~1 kg, see notes
- 1 lb unsalted butter, melted
- 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 25-30 dried corn husks see notes
- 7 ounces chocolate squares, cut into 20 even pieces ~200g, I used 78% cacao chocolate bars
Prepare the masa and corn husks
- Fill a sink or large bin with water. Place corn husks in water and submerge to cover completely. Allow corn husks to soak until pliable, about 15 minutes. Remove from water and shake any excess water from husks before using, see notes
- Place all ingredients for the masa in a large bowl and mix by hand until all ingredients are evenly incorporated, about 5 minutes (see photo for reference)2 lbs masa for tamales, at room temperature, 1 lb unsalted butter, melted, 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1 cup sugar, 1 tsp salt
- Fill the tamal pot (tamalera) or a pot fitted with a steamer basket with water to just below the steamer basket level and heat on high to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and continue simmering. See notes.
- Using a spoon, place ~1/4 cup masa mixture into the curved part of the corn husk and extend 1/2 to 2/3 of the way upwards towards the pointed ends of the husks. You will want to leave about 1/2-1 inch gap between the bottom and sides of the corn husk and the masa mixture.25-30 dried corn husks
- Place a piece of chocolate in the center of the masa7 ounces chocolate squares, cut into 20 even pieces
- Fold the sides of the husk over to cover the filling completely and fold the pointed end of the husks downwards towards the curved part of the husk to create a packet. See photos for reference.
- Repeat previous 3 steps until all of the masa is gone
- Line the top of the steamer basket with left over corn husks. Place the tamales standing upright with the folded part of the tamal towards the bottom of the pot in the steamer basket.
- Cover the tamales with additional corn husks, cover the pot with a lid and allow the tamales to steam for 1-1.5 hours, or until the masa is cooked through. See notes
- To eat, remove from the pot with tongs and carefully remove the corn husks. Enjoy!
Dried corn husks are usually sold in packages in the Hispanic food aisle of the grocery store. For this recipe, you will need 25-30 large husks. I typically soak additional husks in case any of the husks have tears. You can then use smaller pieces placed on the inside or outside of the tamal to cover any tears and ensure that the masa mixture is completely covered. Use the leftover husks to line the top of the steamer basket and to place on top of the tamales in the pot. Any extra husks can be dried and stored for future use.
- If you have extra stubborn husks that don’t want to soften, try soaking them in warm water. Mine usually soften up just fine with water straight from the tap, but I have read comments from other readers that warm water works better for them.
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. Since this recipe doesn’t use lard, you will want to avoid any tamal masa that is already prepared with lard. 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 using this recipe. I have not tested this recipe using Maseca.
You will want to slightly over-sweeten the masa since some of the sugar will evaporate during the cooking process. In my experience, a masa that is perfectly sweetened prior to cooking will yield a slightly bland cooked tamal. I use a full cup of sugar in this recipe and this is the perfect amount for me. Taste your masa prior to assembling the tamales and adjust the sweetness accordingly.
You may need to add water to your pot during the cooking process, depending on how much water your pot can hold below the rack or steamer basket and how quickly that quantity evaporates. If you need to add water, pour water down the side of the pot to avoid getting the tamales too wet. A trick to know when you are low on water is to place a coin in the bottom of the pot. When the coin starts rattling, you know you are low on water.
These tamales usually take me around 1.5 hours to cook through. I count the cooking time from the point when the tamales are in the pot and the water boils. You can add the tamales to the pot prior to the water boiling.
I start checking these tamales for doneness at about 1 hour. To check for doneness, remove a tamal from the pot and gently peel back the husk. Gently roll the masa back and forth in the husk. If the masa peels away easily, then the tamal is done. If the tamal is not done, re-wrap in the corn husk and place it back in the pot.
I reheat these by steaming them on the stove. From the fridge, it should take 7-10 minutes to reheat all the way through or 30-35 minutes from frozen. Open and check them to make sure that they are heated all of the way through prior to consuming.