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Nine Things You Need To Know About Making Tamales


Tamales are as much a part of the holidays as eggnog, caroling and fruitcake. It’s not just the food itself, but the family effort to make them which makes tamales so special. Fronteras contributor Yvette Benavides explains the 9 rules for making the perfect Christmas tamale.

  1. Make the commitment. You can’t wimp into a tamalada. Someone sets the date. Duties are assigned. Indecision is vanquished. The annual Christmas tamalada is on.


  1. Everything, but everything is from scratch. You won’t be able to cheat with bottled ground cumin and pre-chopped garlic. Get out that molcajete. Be prepared to use lard for the first time since the last time you made tamales.


  1. Only one person is allowed to masar la masa. A second pair of hands will taint the masa and ruin everyone’s Christmas. In the event that the main masa mom is not able to fulfill her masando duties, you’ll have to step up.


  1. The water test must be performed. This is akin to the wall test for spaghetti. Although the tamal test is different. When you think it’s ready, put a dollop of masa in a glass of room temperature water. If it floats, it’s ready. If it doesn’t float, it’s not ready. Don’t proceed until it floats or you will single-handedly ruin everyone’s Christmas. And their new year.


  1. Select your spoon. For the rest of the day you will become one with the spoon spreading masa. If your spoon gets mixed up with someone else’s, you will know it as soon as you pick it up. It will feel different. You can tell.


  1. Everyone has one job in tamale-making, but be prepared to pinch hit. You might have to be in charge of soaking the corn husks, spreading the masa or filling the tamales with meat or beans. Just don’t stick your hands in the masa – unless you are “the one.” 


  1. Do a taste-test with the first dozen tamales. This is the one and only lull in the frenetic pace of the assembly line. You’ll already feel tired and question your sanity for agreeing to another Christmas tamalada. But when you taste that first tamal –it will be like Popeye’s spinach - you will be imbued with the strength to go on for 10 more hours of tamalada.


  1. In tamale making, there are sitters and standers. The back of your neck is going to hurt. Your feet will hurt, your legs, even your butt if you’re a sitter.  Feel the burn. This is for tamales. It’s worth it.


  1. Be present. It’s easy to zone out while spreading masa on oja after oja, but resist falling into that inner space of your mind. Join in the conversation, the chisme, the singing, the laughter and the tears. At no other time, except for weddings and funerals, will this same group of loved ones convene. Every time you open the freezer for anything else—for ice cubes or ice cream or frozen veggies—you’ll see the bags of tamales there piled high. You will feel a nameless emotion that makes your heart ache a little and remember the day—and all the other December days—you’ve spent together making tamales.