Are you making homemade tamales for your next party or special occasion? If so, how do you know how much masa and other ingredients you need to make your tamales? This article will answer that question, plus more, like what is masa, what is a tamal, and what is the difference between masa for tortillas and masa for tamales.
Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish usually prepared for special occasions, like Christmas, Día de los Muertos, Mexican Independence Day, baptisms, weddings, or birthdays. Tamales aren’t particularly hard to make, but they are time-consuming. Especially, if you are making a large batch to share with friends and family.
Knowing how to make a basic masa dough for tamales will let you create a whole range of authentic Mexican tamales from savory to sweet tamales. Pork tamales with red chile sauce, spicy green salsa with shredded chicken, black beans and cheese, or even sweet pineapple…whatever your personal preferences, tamales are totally customizable and can come in all sorts of flavors!
Below I have a handy table of contents so that you can jump right to the section you need or keep reading the entire article for all of the information on masa for tamales!
Table of contents
- What is masa?
- What is a tamal?
- What is nixtamalization?
- What is the difference between masa harina, masa for tortillas, and masa for tamales?
- How is masa for tamales prepared?
- How to fill and wrap a tamal
- How to steam tamales
- What masa should I buy to make tamales?
- How much masa do I need to make tamales?
- How much lard do I need to make tamales?
- How much filling do I need for my tamales?
- Can you refrigerate masa for tamales?
- Can you freeze masa for tamales?
- Where can I buy masa for tamales?
- Favorite tamal recipes
What is masa?
“Masa” is simply the word for dough in Spanish. It can refer to flour or corn-based dough. Tamales usually use a corn-based dough that has been nixtamalized and ground.
Tamales canarios are on exception. These tamales use rice flour instead of corn for the filling.
What is a tamal?
The word tamal (tamales is the plural form in Spanish) comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli, which means “wrapped”. This food preparation method has roots dating back to the pre-hispanic era where a corn-based dough was mixed with vegetables and meat, then wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and steamed. The preparation in Mexico today remains relatively similar to these ancient roots.
What is nixtamalization?
Nixtamalization is an ancient process developed in Mesoamerica where dried field or dent corn is cooked in an alkaline solution. Essentially, nixtamalized corn is what we would call hominy in English.
To make an alkaline solution, you simply add, slaked lime, called cal in Spanish, to water. Field corn cooks in this solution until the grain softens and the outer skin peels off easily.
Once the corn is nixtamalized, it can be cooked further to create soups like pozole. Or it is ground into masa. This nixtamalized corn dough is used to make a variety of Mexican foods from tortillas, tostadas, sopes, gorditas, tamales, and atole.
What is the difference between masa harina, masa for tortillas, and masa for tamales?
You may wonder if there is a difference between tortilla masa (masa de tortilla), tamal masa (masa de tamal), and masa flour (masa harina). In short, there is.
All of these masas are made from field or dent corn that has been nixtamalized and then ground. But how each of these masas are processed is what makes them different.
Tortilla masa is ground finer than tamal masa, and has a texture more like Play-Doh (shown in the above picture in a clear bag). If you want to make corn tortillas from fresh masa, you don’t have to add anything to the dough. You can simply roll the dough into balls, press them into flat disks of dough, and cook them on a comal or griddle.
Tamal masa, on the other hand, is generally coarser and has a texture more like wet sand (shown in the above picture in a blue bowl). It will still hold together when squeezed in your hand but is grainier than tortilla masa. And to make tamales, unlike tortillas, you have to add ingredients to the masa in order to achieve a dough with the proper texture. Fat, salt, broth, and baking powder are commonly added to the base masa.
Lastly, masa flour (masa harina) is nixtamalized corn that has been ground and then dehydrated. This is different than corn meal, which is just dried, ground corn. The texture is, well, like flour. Masa flour is a practical way to be able to make tamales or tortillas at home without having to find freshly ground masa.
How is masa for tamales prepared?
To prepare masa for savory tamales, you need to have freshly ground tamal masa made from nixtamalized corn. Or, alternatively, you can use corn flour reconstituted into a wet dough by adding water. You will also need lard (or vegetable shortening), broth (I typically use chicken broth), salt, and baking powder.
To start, have all ingredients at room temperature. Using a stand mixer, beat the lard on medium speed until lightened in texture in color. This usually takes anywhere between 5-10 minutes. Keep the mixer on medium speed while you add in the baking powder and salt. Then add in a bit of masa, alternating with the chicken broth, and continue adding the ingredients until everything is incorporated. I keep the mixer going for another 10-20 minutes or until the masa has a light and fluffy texture, like buttercream frosting. It shouldn’t be runny but should hold its shape when scooped up with a spoon.
Some people like to test their masa to see if it is ready by using the float test. To perform this test, take a small piece of masa and put it in a cup of water. If the masa floats, then it should be ready to go.
Personally, I find the float test unreliable. Sometimes my masa floats and sometimes it doesn’t. But my basic tamal dough recipe has been tried so many times, that I get consistent results even if my masa doesn’t float.
You can get more details on this process in my post on basic tamal dough.
How to fill and wrap a tamal
Making tamales isn’t hard, but it does take some practice to wrap a tamal so that it holds together for steaming.
What are tamales wrapped in?
Most commonly, tamales are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves. Although, I have eaten tamales that are wrapped in Swiss chard and even the green corn leaves from corn stalks.
Often the wrapper used will depend on the type of tamales that you are making. For example, Oaxacan and Yucatan-style tamales will usually be wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husks.
All of my published recipes to date use corn husks to wrap tamales, so the following process will assume you are using these as well!
The wrapping process
First, soak corn husks in water until they are pliable. I usually use water straight from the tap, but you can use warm water if you wish. I don’t make a point of counting out how many husks to soak. Just eyeball it and soak a few extra husks just in case. If you have leftover husks, you can let them dry and store them for your next tamale-making session!
Once your husks are pliable, shake off any excess water and set them aside.
You should have your favorite filling and the masa mixture ready to go at this point. I like to set up an assembly line with my corn husks on one side, followed by the masa mixture, then my filling and salsa (if using).
To fill your tamal, hold the corn husk with the rounded, narrow end at the bottom of your hand. Put a dollop of masa into the corn husk (I usually aim for ~1/3 cup of masa per tamal), and then spread the masa into an even layer upwards, toward the open, pointed end of the husk.
Add your filling and salsa on top of the masa mixture. Make sure to leave space at the edges of the corn husk free of masa or filling. This will make the tamal easier to wrap. I try to aim for roughly equal amounts of filling for each tamal, but I don’t measure the filling as I am placing it in the tamal.
Once your masa mixture and filling are in the corn husk, fold the sides of the husk over the center with the filling. Fold the pointed end of the corn husk down towards the rounded end of the husk to make a neat packet. Repeat this process until you run out of masa mixture and filling!
How to steam tamales
To steam tamales, fill a large pot with water and place a steamer insert inside. Heat the pot on high heat covered until simmering, then reduce the heat down and maintain a simmer. There should be enough water in the bottom of the pot so that ideally, water doesn’t have to be added during cooking. You will also want to keep the water level below the insert so that the tamales don’t sit in water as they cook.
There are special pots used for making tamales called vaporeras. If you are making lots of tamales, it would be wise to invest in one. These pots can hold dozens of tamales at a time, making it quicker to cook large batches. But, if you are making fewer tamales or only make tamales occasionally, there is really no need to get any special equipment.
I like to layer the top of the steamer insert with some extra corn husks. Then I stand my tamales up in the pot on the folded end of the tamal. Cover the tops of the tamales with extra husks and the pot lid on top. It takes me usually between 1.5-2 hours for the tamales to fully cook.
What masa should I buy to make tamales?
The type of tamal that you want to make will dictate what type of masa you need to buy. I use both tortilla and tamal masa to make tamales, depending on the texture that I want my tamales to have once they are cooked. Tortilla masa produces a denser, more firm tamal. I use this type of masa for Yucatan-style tamales or simple black bean tamales. Tamal masa produces a lighter, fluffier tamal. I love this type of masa for making tamales verdes with chicken.
And if you can’t find fresh masa, then using masa harina or corn flour, like Maseca, is an option.
How much masa do I need to make tamales?
How many pounds of masa you need for tamales will depend on how many tamales you want to make and how big your tamales are.
For every pound of unprepared masa, I usually can get between 7-8 tamales, each about 5-6 inches long. Most of my recipes suggest starting with 2 pounds of masa to make a batch of about 15 tamales. The below table will tell you how much masa, lard, broth, salt, and baking powder you will need for different quantities of savory tamales.
And if you are starting with corn flour instead of fresh masa, the below chart will show you how many cups of masa harina and water you will need in order to yield a certain quantity of masa dough.
I have done my tests for this chart using Maseca brand corn flour. There should be a table on the brand of corn flour that you are using that tells you how much water to add for the quantity of masa that you want to make.
How much lard do I need to make tamales?
I use 1 1/4 cup lard for every 2 pounds of fresh masa. Other recipes may change their ratios, but my testing results of tamales in my own home kitchen are consistently light and fluffy with this ratio.
If you don’t want to use lard, you could use equal amounts of vegetable shortening.
How much filling do I need for my tamales?
Each recipe should tell you how much filling you will need to prepare to make the tamales.
For example, my tamales verdes with chicken recipe calls for 3 cups of shredded chicken plus 2 lbs of tomatillos, onion, garlic, and serrano peppers for the sauce. This is enough to fill about 15 tamales that are 5-6 inches in length.
But if you are making tamales with rajas, for example, you will need a few strips of chile for each tamal, plus some salsa and cheese, if using.
How much filling you add in is a personal preference and depends on the type of tamal that you are making.
Can you refrigerate masa for tamales?
When I buy fresh, unprepared tamal masa, I refrigerate it if I am planning on using it within the next couple of days. I don’t store prepared masa for future use. Once I add in the lard, broth, salt, and baking powder, I use the masa right away. I have not tried refrigerating my own prepared masa for future use.
Can you freeze masa for tamales?
Yes! If I buy fresh, unprepared tamal masa and I don’t plan on using it within the next 2-3 days, I store the masa in airtight bags in my freezer. The masa will keep for 2-3 months. Once you are ready to prepare the masa, allow it to thaw out in the fridge.
I like to divide out my fresh masa and store 2 pounds of masa per bag. That makes it easy for me to thaw only the amount of masa that I will need for the recipe that I am making.
Where can I buy masa for tamales?
I have found fresh masa for tamales in my local Mexican grocery store, in the refrigerated section near the eggs and meat. If you have a local corn tortilla factory or store in your area, they may also carry tamal masa.
Check the label on any bag of masa that you are buying to see whether it has other ingredients added in. Masa preparada (prepared masa) will typically include lard and salt. Unprepared tamal masa will just be nixtamalized corn that has been ground for making tamales. Each tamal recipe should tell you which type of masa to purchase, either prepared or not.
My recipes use unprepared masa, since I prefer to control the ingredients and quantities for my tamal making at home.
Favorite tamal recipes
Are you ready to make some tamales? Here are some of our favorite tamal recipes that we make at home!
I hope that you found this article informative! If you have any other questions, let me know in the comments!