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May 8, 2011 11:53 AM

Making Tamales - Masa Harina vs Corn Kernals From Scratch

Any of you make your own tamales? I started to and make it with masa harina which is the corn flour not the corn kernels. I know that making from kernels is a lot more work but I'm thinking of doing so and compare the taste.

I did start a discussion on masa harina going bad but I thought a new discussion dedicated to tamale making would be appropriate.

Thank You

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  1. Do you have a Mexican market close to you? You'd be better off using masa para tamales, which is masa that is already soaked, ground and mixed and ready to roll. All you'll need to do is whip in your choice of fat and then fill and wrap your tamales.

    To start with dried corn kernels you're going to need to nixtamalize them, find a mill that will grind them for you and then make your masa. Mexican markets generally have 2 kinds of already made masa, "para tortilla" whch is a finer grind masa, and masa *para tamales* which is a little coarser ground masa. Sometimes you'll find masa para tamales preparada which means that the fat has already been mixed in. I happen to prefer it sin (without) preparada as I like to add my own fat and whip it to the consistency I want.

    There is a type of tamal made from fresh corn called an uchepo. They're very good, a little tricky to make and seem to work best with what we call "field" corn here in the U.S., which is a little starchier than the ultra sweet and hightly hyrbidized sweet corn. Diana Kennedy has recipes for uchepos in several of her books.

    10 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva

      DiningDiva, thank you for your input on this subject.

      Near me is a tortilla factory that I have gone in to buy already made tortillas that they make but I have also bought the tortilla dough to make the tortillas on my tortilla press and then put in the hot griddle or pan. When I went in their to buy the dough I told them I need some dough or masa and the lady asked for what, tortillas or for tamales and I said tortillas. So apparently where I bought the tortilla dough they sell both the tortilla and tamale dough.

      I was making my own tamale masa out of masa harina which was good because I could control a lot of the type of fat and consistency but I just learned from you that I could buy some masa para tamales which I can add my own fat too and then make my own tamales. I have a few questions if you will.

      1) Do you mean that they make it from corn kernels and I just mix in the fat, it's not from masa harina but from actual corn kernels?

      I'm with you I want to make mine with my own fat so I can control the texture and consistency of the dough. So I guess I'd get the one that they make without the fat.

      2) Do you think that masa made from corn kernels taste different than masa harina? I am new to this that's why I am not sure of all this.

      3) Which fat do you incorporate into your tamale masa?

      4) Do you make red or green tamales regardless of the meat, I mean regardless of chicken, beef, pork, cheese and so forth.

      I made some tamales with masa harina and I made them green chicken. I made tomatillo (spell?) sauce and the sauce was great. Gonnna try red next. Reason I made out of masa harina instead of buying dough from the tortilla/tamale masa factory is because I wanted to control the consistency but learning from you I can buy the kind without the fat in it then I'll do that and make my own by adding fat. I have to ask the tortilla/tamale masa factory if they make the kind without the fat already included in it so I can do my own.

      5) I seem to interchange the terms masa and dough but they are the same right?

      Thank You,


      1. re: HoundDogz

        * Masa, masa dough and dough are all pretty interchangable.

        * Most tortillarias (places that make tortillas) use Maseca, which is a Mexican brand of masa flour. There are a few places that start with the dried corn kernels. It is a laborious process to make masa from dried corn. The corn has to be "slacked" which is done by adding cal (lime, not the juice, the chemical), letting it stand, rubbing to remove the skin on each kernel, then grinding, usually more than once , and then making your masa dough. Ask the ladies at your tortillaria is they're making the masa from Maseca or nixtamalized corn. If they say nixtamalized corn, that's from corn kernels.

        * If you buy masa for tamales be sure to specify "sin preparada" which means without all the other ingedients.

        * You can use just about anything as a fat for tamales, the most common is either lard or crisco. I prefer lard. Put the masa in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Turn it on and begin adding lard a little bit at a time. If a little blob of masa float in a glass of water it's pretty much ready. Some recipes add a bit of baking powder or soda to help the tamal poof.

        * You can stuff just about anything into a tamal. You can even simply mix something (like plumped raisins) into the dough, put it onto the husk or leave, roll and steam. You can also just wrap and steam the dough without anything else, particularly if you want an accompaniment to the meal. Tamales can be served plain or with a sauce over them. There are hundreds - if not thousands - of variations on tamales. Why limit yourself to red or green :-)

        1. re: DiningDiva

          Thank you for your info. I learned a lot. When I go and buy some masa I'll ask them if they do it "sin preparada" and if it is I'll make some with that. I will also ask them if they use Maseca or nixtamalized corn. I guess it's fine either way but I'm curious.

          Thanks so much!

          1. re: DiningDiva

            DiningDiva, I just came from a Mexican market near me and I asked if they had any tamale dough already made and they showed me to the refrigerated section and said they were out and try tomorrow. I did not ask if it was "sin preparda" but I'll go tomorrow and look. What they did have however was nextimal as it said on the package. Was not dough but was the corn kernels that looked bloated or puffed up some. On the ingredients it said corn, water, lime so I suppose that is the nextimal you might be referring to. They looked soft. I think those would be what I could use if I buy them and put them in the food processor and turn them into a dough but add the lard and salt or whatever needs to be done with it.

            Does this sound right?

            I made some tamales with masa harina but on the package it did say Maseca on it so I think that is the brand you were talking about above. I wonder how much better the tamales would taste if I used the nextimal corn that I saw at the Mexican market?

            Was wondering why you use the dough from the Mexican market that instead of making your own with masa harina/Maseca if the Mexican markets with the kind already made (sin preparada) is made from Maseca rather than corn kernels?

            Thanks much!

            1. re: HoundDogz

              Here's a lot of info on nixtamalization:

              I have used fresh masa, as well as masa harina (Maseca) to make tamales. The fresh masa tastes far superior to the masa made with Maseca. I find the texture to be better as well. So if you can get fresh masa, go for it. As for grinding the nixtamalized kernels at home, good luck. I've never done it.

              If all you can get is masa made from Maseca, I think it is better to make it yourself at home. Why? Because you can use a broth instead of water to make the dough, adding more flavor. For instance, I braise meat until tender, and I use the released liquid and fat to make the masa.

              I use real lard rendered by the local sausage maker as my fat (not the blocks you get a supermarkets - they lack flavor), which I whip in a stand mixer first until it is well aerated. Then I add the masa to it and beat it some more before using.

              1. re: Joe MacBu

                Thanks for the info and the link. I learned a lot about masa from that link you gave me.

                1. re: Joe MacBu

                  I bought prepared masa at a mexican grocery in PHX and brought it home to Annapolis. The woman at the store said it was ready for tamales but no fat is listed as an ingredient. I bought 5 lbs. (It is nixtamalized masa and it's beautiful!). Can you tell me the ratio of lard to masa to make tamales? I have a local butcher I am going to ask to get me "real" lard. We do have a small latino bodega down the street but it only has lard in blocks. Thanks for any help, I can't wait to make my tamales.

                  1. re: juliaorlandi

                    There should be plenty of recipes around for tamales that give the lard to masa ratio. Also did you see this post in this thread:

                    As for the lard from the butcher, make sure you understand the difference between pork fat and rendered lard.

                    PHX to Annapolis? Be careful about spoilage of fresh masa.

                    1. re: paulj

                      Thanks for the thread. It was in the fridge the entire time.

                2. re: HoundDogz

                  You do not want the nixtamalized corn kernels. Your food processor is not strong enough to grind them and, if it doesnt' break your food processor, you won't get the corn kernels fine enough to make a dough.

                  This is what you want - Masa para Tamales sin Preparada
                  That should get you a masa dough very similar to the dough you've been getting to make tortillas except that the corn or masa flour is not ground quite a finely.

                  I agree wtih JM that you should use freshly rendered pork lard and not the white brick. I get my lard at my Mexican market, yours may have it as well. I, too, generally start by whipping the h*ll out of the lard and gradually adding little balls fo the masa dough to the mixer until I get the consistency I want.

          2. I want to thank everyone who gave input into this and gave me direction on how to get the right masa for the tamales.

            I scored some today. I scored the masa that is made of the kernels not from the masa harina maseca. I went to the tortilla factory about a mile from me and the lady was helpful but did not carry what I need. I asked if it was nixtamal dough and she said yes. Just to verify I asked if it was from the actual corn kernel or masa harina maseca and she confirmed the kernel. I asked if it was sin preparada and she said yes so I asked if I could buy some not prepared. She said no because they make it for restaurants already prepared. I want more control over things so she told me to try a market down the street past Jack In The box. I went and forgot the name so I stopped at a random market and they did not carry masa but a customer told me to go to 5 Points. I said is it the place by the cemetery and he said yes. I thanked him and went on my way. On the way to 5 Points I stopped by El Super which is a Super Market. They had some made the Nixtamal way but it was prepared. I went to 5 Points as the man directed me to and they had it.

            By the way it's really named Los 5 Puntos but no one calls it that, everyone around here and there call it 5 Points, even Spanish language speakers. Any how, I verified with the lady at 5 Points that it is made from kernels. I asked two more times because I really wanted to be sure then she said yes and convinced me. Also I just had noticed they had vats of corn kernels being processed so that verified it. I bought some lard from there too, they had the liquidy brown kind like rendered pork you all mention. She told me that when she makes tamales at home she uses half brown rendered pork lard and half the white Farmer John stuff. I also bought some carnitas to make soft tacos with.

            Now I have to make this later today. Most likely tomorrow though. I have to figure out what proportions of what to what I have to use. I want to make a small batch see just to see how it turns out.

            20 Replies
            1. re: HoundDogz

              Since I am using nixtamal masa I don't add any liquid, is this right? I mean the rendered lard is liquid like but I mean no water or no broth since it's already made and has water in it, right?

              I want to make a small batch just for testing purposes, could you tell me what ingredients to add to the masa and what proportions? I know lard, maybe salt, maybe baking powder?


              1. re: HoundDogz

                Actually did research and found what I need but if any of you want to give input on what proportions you use then that would be great! Thanks.

                1. re: HoundDogz

                  I have Zarela Martinez's "The Food and Life of Oaxaca," which has several recipes for tamales made with fresh masa. Proportions of masa and lard vary depending on the type, but she doesn't use baking soda. You could try small batches with/without and note the difference.

                  The basic proportion is 1:3 lard:masa by weight. So 1/2 pound of lard (1 generous cup) to 1.5 pounds of masa (3 cups). Beat the lard in a mixer at medium speed for 1-2 minutes to aerate it. While beating, add masa a little at a time. The final consistency should be like a very thick, pasty porridge. Add liquid (water/stock) if needed. Martinez says she usually adds 6-9 Tbsp of liquid. Finally, beat in the salt (2-3 tsp). This makes about 20 average-size corn husk tamales or 12 in a banana leaf.

                  Let us know how it goes!

                  1. re: Joe MacBu

                    Joe, thank you for your help. I'll do that. I'll make some with and without baking soda and put in my lab/kitchen notes how I like the difference. I appreciate you telling me the ratio and details on how to mix these things. I was gonna make some tonight but I'm tired and gonna do it tomorrow. Thanks!

                    1. re: Joe MacBu

                      Joe, I made some. They were good except one thing, I think I added too much liquid. It was fine consistency I think but it did not pass the float in water test so I thought that if I put some more water in and mixed it would pass the float test but did not so I just gave up on that. They tasted pretty good but didn't turn out consistency wise right due to that.

                      Have you ever purchased the kind already prepared or do you only do the non-prepared masa? I might try the prepared kind too because 5 Points seems to do everything right so I'm sure the prepared kind is good too.

                      1. re: HoundDogz

                        If the masa didn't float it usually means there isn't enough fat in the masa. Instead of adding more water, you should have added a little more fat and then whipped it more to get more air in the dough. Tamales will generally turn out just fine even if the dough doesn't float but the proportions are reasonably close.

                        The float test is not a hard and fast rule, it's more a rule of thumb or guideline to let you know that the dough is ready.

                        One of the reasons I am not wild about masa preparada is that it has everything already in it and I don't like the consistency of what I can get locally, your experience may be different. The stuff I can get has an additive in it to delay souring and I think it gives the masa an off flavor. Once again, your milage may vary with the masa preparada you have access to.

                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          Thanks for the info. So that is it the fat content was off. It did taste pretty good but the overly wet consistency messed it up in the end.

                          I will try the masa preparada for the heck of it and see how it is but I do have some masa sin perparada still int he fridge, I did not use it all. Tomorrow I'll make more and try to fix that fat content issue.


                          1. re: HoundDogz

                            Anyone know where I can buy giant corn husks for making tamales? I bought some in East LA at some small Mexican store and they are pretty much standard sized. I want bigger than the standard. I can't find any giant husks. Where can I buy these? Thank You.

                            1. re: HoundDogz

                              How about using banana leaves like they do in Oaxaca? They're much bigger than corn husks.

                              1. re: Joe MacBu

                                Never tried that. I think that would be a good idea. I actually have some banana plants in the backyard. Maybe I could use those leaves. I never used them before so I'm curious how I'll do.

                                Thanks much.

                                EDIT - I found this after typing the above. If you are interested this is how you shape them into size and make them pliable to work with -


                                1. re: HoundDogz

                                  I just went to the Me Gusta gourmet tamale site to see pics of their tamales and I noticed they use two corn husk to make theirs because they are so big. I thought they used a giant mega husk, the elusive giant husk but they don't. Maybe there is no such things because I see from the pic they use two to make a big tamale. Mystery solved. I'll do that. I like the banana suggestion that Joe suggest but I have so many dried husks that I'll go the two husk route. See attached picture.

                                  1. re: HoundDogz

                                    Hi -- I wanted to mention a very good tamale cookbook: Tamales 101, A Beginner's Guide to Making Traditional Tamales. (This is a GREAT book, nice illustrations.)


                                    Very easy to understand instructions. Here in San Francisco, I go to a Mexican store called La Palma and buy simple masa (without lard) and you have a choice of "fina" or "quebrado" book says to get the coarser one, "quebrado." I use all BUTTER -- I like the taste.

                                    Many books and cooks will leave the top unenclosed but I prefer using another corn husk to enclose. I also think smaller tamales are nicer than big honking ones. I have trouble tying them with strips of corn husks so I take the easy way out and use kitchen twine.

                                    (You sound like me, going all over town to get the right ingredients!!)

                                    1. re: walker

                                      Thanks for the book info.

                                      Oh yeah I actually bought some masa from the Mexican store that was not prepared. DiningDiva pointed me out to the right stuff by telling me to buy masa "Sin Preparada" meaning not prepared so I can add my own lard. I already used all that up. Some of the best tamales I've had was from Me Gusta a gourmet place and they do make big honking tamales with margarine. I never thought I'd like big tamales but honestly the big tamales if done right are awesome. Small ones too but I kinda wanna emulate that Me Gusta tamale since it was so good so I'm shooting for bigger ones. I tried making some with Masa Harina and butter since I did not have margarine and it was okay but didn't like it too much. I would have used fresh masa but I ran out and had Masa Harina at home. This week I will pickup some Sin Preparada masa and try it with butter and see if it's like Me Gusta, if not I'll buy margarine and give that a go. I know fresh masa is way better than Masa Harina but I only had the Harina so I had to try that.

                                    2. re: HoundDogz

                                      I usually bring corn husks back with me from Mexico trips. The end of the husk where the cob once was is not cut off on Mexican husks thereby forming a nice wide "cup" in which to put the masa and spread out. It also makes closing them much simpler and secure too. I have not come across this style of corn husk in the U.S. Every corn husk I've ever seen NOB has the cob end of the leaf cut straight across. Doing that takes some of the width of the husk away. Yes, you can use 2 husks, overlap them about an inch +/-, to make a larger tamal.

                                      Banana leaves are great wrappers for a lot of things. Use them in place of foil for savory packet that can very easily be cooked on a grill. It's been my experience that the masa of tamales cooked in banana leaves is a little wetter and a little denser than those steamed in corn husks. The banana leaf isn't any better or worse than the corn husk, it just provides a little different results in the finished product.

                                      1. re: DiningDiva

                                        The Banana plant is an herbaceous plant and thus adds it own subtle perfume to the Tamale or anything else you cook in or with them.
                                        I love tamales in all their forms but the wrapper does make a difference in taste.

                                        1. re: chefj

                                          Ever have a Chinese tamale? They use banana leaves but load it with rice and other stuff, not masa. I guess that is what makes it Chinese. I have so many banana plants I could try that but not sure if I want that perfume added to mine. The Central Americans use the banana leaves, correct, but Mexicans the husks. Here is the Chinese tamale. I don't know if Chinese came to this country and came up with this after seeing the Mexican tamales or the Chinese did this in China for years. I'm part Chinese but have not a clue. I don't even like the way these taste.

                                          1. re: HoundDogz

                                            They usually use bamboo leaves for traditional Zongzi (粽子) but I have seen them made with lotus, banana, ginger and pandan leaves. They are said to have been created sometime after 277 B.C. to honor poet Qu Yuan.
                                            Banana leaves are used in Mexico especially south of D.F. and in Central America, as well as mashan and avocado leaves.
                                            If you want to use banana leaves then do I cant imagine the flavor will clash with any tamale recipe, but in the Northern and central parts of Mexico it would be corn husks. You can also use fresh corn husks.

                                            1. re: chefj

                                              Thanks for the background on tamales and Chinese Tamales aka Zongzi. I never knew they were called that, we just call them Chinese Tamales. My mom and relatives like those but I don't. My wife never knew they were known as Chinese Tamales, she thought that was funny that we call it that. My Chinese family don't know the real name for them so they have been called Chinese Tamales all these years. You taught me the name for these things. Now I can call them Zongzi and people, well Chinese will know what I mean otherwise they'll look bewildered when I say Chinese Tamales.

                                              I always thought they were banana leaves, I even told my mom yesterday I wanted to make my Mexican tamales with banana leaves like the Chinese Tamales and she told me, no, Chinese Tamales are made with bamboo leaves. I was sure she was wrong and were made with banana leaves then now you confirm that I am wrong and my mom is right that they are really bamboo leaves. So much for knowing my Chinese heritage. I'd blame that on being half Chinese but that is not a good reason, the Chinese side of the family doesn't even know much Chinese stuff either. When your family has been in the US since the late 1800s how can you know much Chinese stuff?

                                        2. re: DiningDiva

                                          DiningDiva, do you have a picture of this? I never seen these. I buy the husks at the Mexican market and they look Mexican but maybe they are made here in the US. I might try to make a big tamale with two husks.

                                          You all will cringe and scoff at the thought of fake corn husks but I'm entertain the thought of this. I might try these out because even tho not real they are made out of vegetable products so it's semi natural and I don't have to soak them then pat them down and get rid of excess water. My main concern is that the real husks often are split either in the bag or in the water soaking process and it's a pain to sift thru them for good ones and to soak and pat down and sometimes they are temperamental. I like the thought of making it easy on me. Like I say you all will probably not care for this but I have heard good things about these things. Take a look -

                                          1. re: HoundDogz

                                            One of the greatest things about summer, aside from Campari, is tamales made with fresh green corn husks. If there´s a little bit of tassel in there, all the better. Use some of the fresh corn in the filling, too.
                                            Nutty flavor, green and hot, like July! YUM!

                    2. Since I have done all this research and tried many tamales I cam getting to know what I do like or do not like about tamales. I love tamales but I mean what I like about certain manufactures of tamales and what I don't like about certain ones.

                      I love the so-called gourmet kind from Corn Maiden and from Me Gusta for example, all Los Angeles area made tamales. They don't use lard, but not sure if that's the big reason they taste the way they do. I love La Moscota in East LA and they use lard but theirs taste different.

                      Does anyone know how the so-called gourmet places make the taste and texture so light? Is it the margarine or butter or vegetable oil they use instead of lard or is it something else? Oh I know they use fresh corn husks, the green kind right off the corn, I wonder if that adds to the taste but I don't think it can add to the light texture and flavor. Also where do they get these husks, especially all year around?

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: HoundDogz

                        Large commercial producers use non trans-fat shortening (at least in CA) and chemical leavening which is why they are light and not very flavorful. Butter can be used but it has a very different flavor and is expensive.
                        Fresh Corn seems to be available year round in the grocery stores and that is where you get your fresh husks. As for bulk supply of fresh corn husks I have never seen them for sale.

                        1. re: chefj

                          Hi chefj, thanks for your input. Yes, I was thinking of fresh corn but I was hoping to buy in bulk but as you said I have never seen bulk fresh corn husks either. I wonder where these so-called gourmet places get them.

                          I don't find Me Gusta or Corn Maiden to be not very flavorful though. I think Me Gusta claims to use margarine believe it or not. Corn Maiden not sure but I think vegetable oil.

                          Could you give an example of what commercial leavening is?

                          I was thinking of buying some corn, strip the corn off the cob. Save the husks to wrap them in. Food process the corn into a paste and add some masa to that and see how the tamales would taste. I think those are referred to as green corn tamales or uchepos.

                          I also wonder if these gourmet type of places use a combination of fresh corn and masa as I want to make them. Maybe they buy tons of corn cobs for the fresh corn and the fresh husks because I don't know where they could buy their fresh husks separately.

                          1. re: HoundDogz

                            "Could you give an example of what commercial leavening is?"
                            Chemical leavening : Baking Powder.

                            1. re: chefj

                              I thought it was something else because a lot of people who make tamales are home use Baking Powder so I thought at the tamale factories their commercial leavening would be some other chemical.


                            2. re: HoundDogz

                              There are styles of Tamales that use fresh corn. I think it was already discussed above.

                              1. re: chefj

                                I gotta shift through the post then. I have read them before since I started this discussion but I forgot about reference to this. I will read it. Thanks much!