A simple black bean and masa filling, steamed to perfection in a corn husk! These black bean tamales are easy to make and please both kids and adults! If you are new to making tamales, this is a perfect beginner recipe because the process is so simple and doesn’t require hours and hours of time in the kitchen!
What is a tamal?
The word tamal (tamales is the plural form in Spanish) comes from the Nahuatl word tamalli. This food preparation method has roots dating back to the pre-hispanic era where a corn-based dough (dough is masa in Spanish) 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 roots. However, the influence of other ingredients coming from immigrants has changed some of the fillings over time. In short, a tamal is a filling that is wrapped and then steamed until cooked.
There are a huge amount of regional variations throughout Mexico. The predominant forms are the flattened rectangular or square shapes of tamales wrapped in banana leaves or a longer, thicker form of tamales wrapped in corn husks. In some regions, a triangle-shaped tamal is popular.
Meat fillings generally include chicken, beef, pork, turkey, or a combination. Salsas can be red, green, or mole. A variety of vegetables can also be incorporated into the filling. There is a local tamal in the Tequesquitengo lake region of Morelos which doesn’t use masa and is prepared in an aluminum foil packet filled with fish and vegetables or sometimes a combination of local cheese, onions, epazote, and garlic. In these examples, the word tamal essentially refers to the cooking method of steaming the ingredients in a packet rather than the traditional masa-based tamal. There are even sweet tamales, filled with fruit, like strawberries or pineapple, that are eaten for dessert. So, as you can see, there are many regional variations and types of tamales throughout Mexico!
When to eat tamales-customs and traditions in Mexico
In central Mexico, you can find street-side vendors selling tamales all year round. Here in Cuernavaca, the vendors typically set up in the morning hours to offer quick, portable breakfasts or lunch or in the evening for dinner or a late-night meal.
There are certain times of the year, however, when tamales are eaten by tradition. These dates will vary depending on the region of Mexico.
On January 6th, Mexicans celebrate the epiphany by gathering with friends and family to eat a traditional bread called rosca de reyes and drink Mexican hot chocolate. Inside the bread is a figure of the baby Jesus (or several). Each person slices a piece of the bread and whoever ends up with the baby Jesus has to make tamales on February 2nd for Candlemas.
Día de los Muertos-November 1st and 2nd
Tamales are also typically consumed for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead in English) or All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1-2). Tamales are placed at the offerings made to the remembered dead. It is customary in a small town in Morelos called Ocotepec that anyone who enters your house to pay respect to the dead during Día de los Muertos will receive a tamal to enjoy during their stay.
Lastly, certain regions of Mexico make tamales for the Christmas season. When we lived in Arizona, there was a large influence of traditions from the bordering Mexican state of Sonora. At Christmas time, tamales were abundant and often prepared by families in Arizona who had roots originally from Sonora.
How these simple black bean tamales came to be
When the COVID pandemic hit, we were scrambling to find a safe, in-person option for our kids to continue their education. Schools in our area of Mexico have not been allowed to re-open (they were shut down in mid-March 2020 and as of this writing May 31, 2021, continue to remain closed). My youngest son’s teacher was about to lose her job as the school did not have enough enrollment to keep her employed. With a small group of other parents, we hired her and set up our living room as a small kindergarten classroom.
One of the things that the kids have enjoyed the most is celebrating certain seasons and festivals with homemade food. Food that the kids help to make and eat during class! One of the meals that they make together for Candlemas is these simple black bean tamales. The teacher chooses to make these specifically with the kids because the process and the ingredients are so simple. Since I have this kindergarten class in my house, I got to help the teacher and kids make these tamales this year!
Many thanks to my son’s teacher, Monica Eligio, for sharing the recipe and process and teaching me step-by-step how to make these!
How to make black bean tamales step-by-step
What makes these tamales so simple is that the preparation of the masa filling is straightforward. More elaborate recipes require cooking meat ingredients, chopping vegetables for filling, making salsa, or sometimes even cooking the masa (like in tamales colados). This recipe, however, is significantly easier since the masa filling requires very little preparation. Canned or homemade beans work interchangeably in this recipe, giving you the flexibility to use whatever you have on hand!
These particular tamales are denser and more compact than other versions, due to the use of tortilla masa in this recipe and how the masa is prepared. If you are looking for a fluffier texture for your tamal, this recipe is not for you.
Prepare the corn husks
The first step in making these tamales is to soak the corn husks. You will need to place the corn husks in a large bin or sink filled with water. Dunk them down into the water so that they are completely wet and submerged. Let them soak for a good 15 minutes or until they become pliable. Remove them from the water and allow any excess water to drain off while you work on the next step.
Prepare the masa filling
Next, heat the lard on the stove until it is melted. I add a few onion chunks and salt to give the lard extra flavor. You want to let the lard heat up and let the onion turn translucent before removing the lard from the heat. Discard the onion and let the lard cool a bit so that you don’t burn yourself when you start hand-mixing the masa.
You will need a large bowl to be able to comfortably work the masa. Place the masa, the liquified black beans, and the lard into the bowl. Start kneading and mixing the ingredients by hand. You want to ensure that all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the color of the mixture is homogenous. Break up any masa pellets with your fingers to ensure the mixture is smooth. The masa will be sticky. I typically need about 10 minutes to work the masa so that all of the ingredients are evenly incorporated.
Fill 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 bottom curved 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.
Next, spread the filling upwards slightly towards the pointed end of the corn husk. Add a strip of cheese if you want. I used cincho cheese in the photo below. If you have any tears in the corn husks (like I did on the photo below on the far right), use an extra piece of corn husk to patch the tear. You can place the extra piece on the inside or outside of the packet to cover the tear.
Fold the tamales and steam!
If you can make a burrito, you can make a tamal! Once you have the filling inside the corn husk, fold so the sides over lap 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.
I use a tamalera, a pot specifically designed for making tamales. But don’t worry, these can steam in any pot with a steamer basket. 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 getting wet during the cooking process. Heat covered over high to a boil and then reduce the heat down to medium-low.
Place the tamales standing up with the folded part of the husk towards the bottom of the pot. If you need to, you could lay these on their sides to steam if your pot isn’t tall enough.
These should take anywhere between 1-2 hours to finish. Start checking at the 1 hour mark. To check for doneness, take a tamal out of the pot. Pull back the husk. The tamal should have a firm (not mushy) texture and the husk should easily pull away from the filling when fully cooked.
If they are ready, you will want to enjoy these simple black bean tamales warm! Remove the husks and top with Mexican cream, shredded cheese, and/or your favorite salsa (like Fresh Salsa Verde or Roasted Salsa Verde).
Source: Monica Eligio, Morelos, Mexico
Simple Black Bean Tamales
- ~12 large dried corn husks See notes
- 1/2 cup pork lard See notes
- 1/4 white onion, cut into large chunks
- 2.2 lbs prepared masa ~1 kg, see notes
- 1.5 cups blended black beans
- Salt to taste See notes
- 1/3 lb cheese, cut into strips ~ 144g, optional
- Separate corn husks. Fill a large bin or sink with water and submerge corn husks. Allow to soak until pliable, about 15 minutes.
- Remove from water and allow excess water to drain off
- Place lard, onion and a pinch of salt into shallow pan over low heat on the stove. Heat until lard is melted and onion starts to turn translucent, ~ 5 minutes
- Discard the onion from the lard and remove the pan from the heat. Allow the lard to cool slightly.
- In a large bowl, place the masa, black beans, lard and salt
- Mix ingredients by hand until combined and all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. The masa will be sticky. It takes me about 10-15 minutes mixing by hand to incorporate the ingredients.
- Taste the masa for salt and add if necessary. See notes on salt.
- Using a spoon, place ~1/3 cup masa mixture into the curved part of the corn husk and extend 1/2 to 2/3 upwards towards the pointed ends. You will want to leave about 1/2-1 inch gap between the bottom of the corn husk and the masa mixture. Place a strip of cheese on top of the masa mixture, if using. See photos for reference and notes on husks.
- Fold the sides over and the pointed top part downwards toward the curved part of the husk to create a packet. See photos for reference.
- Repeat previous 2 steps until all of the masa is gone.
- Place water in the bottom of a tamalera or pot fitted with a steamer basket. Heat over high heat to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. See notes.
- Place the tamales standing upright with the folded part of the tamal towards the bottom of the pot. Or, lay the tamales flat, overlapping in layers if there is not room for them to stand upright.
- Cover the pot and allow the tamales to steam for 1-2 hours or until the masa is cooked through. See notes.
- Enjoy these warm, with the husks removed. You can top these with a salsa of your choice or Mexican cream and shredded cheese.
- This tamal is denser and more compact than other versions. This is due to the use of the tortilla masa used in this recipe and how the masa is prepared. If you like a fluffier texture to your cooked tamal, this recipe is not for you!
- Corn husks are usually sold in packages in the Hispanic food aisle of the grocery store. For this recipe, you will need 12 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. Any leftover husks can be dried and stored for future use.
- I use traditional pork lard in this recipe, but vegetable shortening can be substituted in equal quantities for a vegetarian version.
- I use a masa prepared for tortillas for this recipe. The masa is wet, not dry cornflour. I have seen prepared tortilla masa in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, close to the meat. 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.
- 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.
- You may need to add water to your pot during the cooking process, depending on how much water your pot can hold below the 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.
- These tamales usually take me around 2 hours to cook through. I start checking for doneness at about 1.5 hours. To check for doneness, remove a tamal from the pot and gently peel back the husk. The masa should feel firm, not mushy and the husk should easily peel back from the filling. If the tamal is not done, re-wrap in the corn husk and place it back in the pot.
- I don’t have a microwave, so I reheat these by steaming 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.