Traditional Pork Tamales


  • Water
  • 6 pounds boneless pork leg, cut into 3-inch cubes
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
  • 14 cloves garlic, peeled (8 for meat; 6 for sauce)
  • Salt to taste
  • 12 dried California chiles
  • 4 dried pasilla or poblano chiles
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 (8-ounce) bag dried corn husks or about 7 dozen corn husks
  • 10 pounds (wet) corn masa for tortillas (buy fresh at your favorite tortilleria)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 cups lard, softened


  1. Bring 8 cups water to a fast boil and add meat, onion, 8 cloves garlic and salt to taste. Cook, covered, 1 1/2 hours, until meat is tender. Cool meat, and then shred using a fork. Reserve 3 cups broth for masa mixture.
  2. Remove seeds and cores from dried chiles. Place chiles in a large pot and add enough water to cover chiles (about 6 cups). Cook over medium heat, uncovered, about 15 minutes, until chiles are tender. Put drained chiles in a blender and add 1 cup chile water, remaining 6 cloves garlic, cumin seeds and salt to taste. Blend until smooth and then strain chile sauce to remove seeds and skins, if necessary. (It is easier if you blend the chiles in 2 batches using 1/2 cup chile water for each batch.)
  3. Place shredded meat in a large pot and add chile sauce. Mix well and cook, uncovered, 10 minutes. Taste and re-season, if needed.
  4. Separate corn husks and remove the silk (do this carefully as dry corn husks can crack). Rinse and soak clean corn husks in warm water for about 1/2 hour or until soft. Drain off excess water (squeeze out carefully but do not twist) and set husks aside.
  5. Using a large bowl, combine masa, baking powder, 3 tablespoons salt, lard and 3 cups reserved broth. Hand-knead mixture about 20 minutes, until everything is combined and masa is smooth.
  6. To assemble tamales, place a corn husk in palm of left hand (pointed tip up, away from you) and using a wooden spoon or spatula, spread a thin layer of masa mixture (about 2 tablespoons) on corn husk extending about 3/4 way up husk. Turn the corn husk around with pointed side down, closest to you. Add a tablespoon of meat mixture to middle of masa. Fold right side of corn husk to middle of the tamale (making sure you cover the filling), then fold the left side in the same way. Fold the pointed bottom end of the tamale up about 2 inches. Leave top open (do not fold).
  7. In a large deep pot, place a colander and stand the tamales with the open ends up (wide side). Pour about 10 cups warm water into side of pot (to a depth of 3 inches) with about 70 tamales. Cover tamales with leftover corn husks and a damp kitchen towel. Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid.
  8. Steam tamales at medium-low simmer about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, making sure to add more water (it should be boiling; add two cups at a time) as needed (pot should not boil dry). The tamales are ready when firm but not mushy masa peels easily from corn husk.

Yield: about 6 dozen tamales

To make chicken tamales, substitute 6 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts for pork and cook for 40 minutes or until chicken is tender. Proceed as directed above.

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