Basic Dough For Tamales

white-maize in a bowl


Getting tortillas right from raw ingredients took about 100 go’s. The process is labour intensive so Mexicans buy them ready-made or use masa-harina for instant results. Without the benefit of a personal tutor I had only trial-and-error to guide me. Of course I got there in the end!

Tamales are much easier. Mexican cooks make tamales, and I got that hands-on tutorial (thanks, Maria and Yolanda – you know who you are!).

Tamales from scratch are easily made with a simple food-processor, producing the best intensity of flavour.

Using masa harina is undoubtedly quicker and also gives great results. Use masa harina for tamales, which is more coarsely ground and will give the best texture.


Masa harina is not corn meal or polenta. Masa has been treated with slaked-lime to release nutrients and intensify the flavour. See our previous post  Nixtamalization Of Corn: Ancient Secret Of The Americas

UK sources for masa para tamales include

  • (out of stock at the time of writing. I think the restaurants may have beaten us to it)

Take your pick of either one; both recipes are available below

Guidelines For Making Tamales

  • Quantity: 1 lb of dry masa or whole maize will yield approx 12 tamales
  • Whole Corn: the corn is briefly cooked in a dilute solution of limewash, left to soak overnight, rinsed then ground. Grinding corn for tamales requires a coarser grind than that for tortillas and can be adequately achieved with a food processor. Use  slaked lime-putty (calcium-hydroxide) which is chemically stable. Quick-lime (calcium oxide) is highly volatile and NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Aerating: use a food processor for whole corn or, for masa harina, an electric whisk to aerate your tamal mixture ready for the float test
  • Float test: drop a little of the dough into a cup of water. It’s ready to use when it floats. Otherwise add a little more fat and liquid and conntinue whisking for a few more minutes
  • Shortening: shortening will create a lighter, airier texture, but bear in mind the original Aztec tamales contained no fat at all! You can reduce the quantity of shortening and compensate with half a teaspoon of soda or bakng powder


making mexican tamales

Tamal Dough - From Masa Harina (Instant Nixtamal)

Masa Harina For Tamales has been treated with lime and ground to the right consistency for the best texture. The basic tamal batter or dough requires the addition of liquid, usually stock, and shortening with plenty of beating either by hand or electric mixer to add air for a light, fluffy finish.
Prep Time 15 mins
Total Time 15 mins
Cuisine Latin American, Mexican
Servings 12 tamales


  • 1 lb by dry weight of Masa Harina Para Tamales
  • 1/2 cup oil, vegetable shortening, butter or ghee or use half this quantity and add bicarb or baking powder
  • 1/2-1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder (optional)
  • 1/2 litre vegetable stock or water
  • salt to taste


  • Put the masa into a mixer bowl. Add all of the shortening (oil, vegetable shortening, etc.) to the dry masa now. Starting at low speed add about 1/3 of the the liquid. When this is incorporated turn up the speed to medium-high and add the remaining liquid, a little at a time, whisking for a good 5 minutes in total
  • The mixture shouuld resemble thick cake batter but be easily spreadable

Float test

  • Let your mixture rest for 15 minutes in the fridge, then drop a little into a cup of water. Your batter should float. If it doesn't, add a little more liquid and fat,  whisk for a further 2-3 minutes and refrigerate for aother 5-10 minutes before repeating the float test

Reduced fat version

  • Reduce the quantity of fat by 1/4 to 1/3. Try the float test. If necessary add in your raising agent(s), whisking briefly. Keep any mixing and stirring brief and light from this moment on to avoid beating out the air. After 10-15 minutes in the refrigerator your mixture is ready to use
making mexican tamales

Basic Dough For Tamales From Corn And Lime

This version starts with the raw ingredients: whole dried maize, limewash and water. Simple!
Cook Time 15 mins
soaking time 8 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Cuisine Latin American, Mexican
Servings 12 tamales


Making nixtamal

  • 1 lb by dry weight of whole dried corn white, blue, yellow or other
  • 1 tbsp pure slaked-lime putty
  • water to cover

making tamal dough

  • prepared whole nixtamalized maize (as above)
  • 1/2 cup oil, vegetable shortening, butter or ghee or use less and add bicarb or baking powder
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda or baking powder (use in the reduced-fat version)
  • 1/2 litre vegetable stock or water
  • salt to taste


Nixtamalizing The Corn

  • Put the whole dried maize kernels in a pan and add enough water to cover
  • Dissolve a tablespoon of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide, cal, limewash) in a little water and add to the pan
  • Bring  the pan to the boil and simmer the corn for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a non-metallic container and leave to soak, covered, overnight
  • In the morning rinse the corn thoroughly until the water runs clear

Making the tamal dough

  • Put all of the nixtamalized corn in a food processor. Add a quater of the liquid and grind using the main blade starting at low speed and gradually speeding up to high
  • Gradually dd the fat and remaining stock, alternating in batches to obtain a atill slightly grainy texture similar to a stiff cake dough or peanut butter

The float test

  • Put a small blob of dough into a cup of water. If it floats the tamal dough is ready. Otherwise add a little more fat and liquid (water if you've run out of stock).
  • If you're making the reduced-fat version add the raising agent (bicarb or baking powder) now and briefly pulse the dough in the food processor just enough to mix it in, or turn the dough out into a bowl and gently stir it in by hand
  • Chill the tamal dough for 20-30 minutes before going on to make your tamales. Chilling the tamal dough significanltly increases the chances of your dough passing the float test.

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