'Tis the season for tamale making and here in Texas everyone and their dog is cookin' 'em and sellin' 'em! I couldn't call myself a true Texan if I didn't know how to make these darn things!
Thanks to the pressure cooker, you can cook this authentic Mexican dish in over half the time and, boy oh boy, are they delicious!
This is my personal recipe that I have been using for years! The first year I bravely decided to undertake this Christmas tradition, I went on a mission to make the most flavorful, authentic tamales to ever be eaten in America (or close to it).
After watching many Mexican grandmas show me how they make theirs, I have developed my own way of doing things based on traditional ingredients but with modern day appliances (hello stand mixer and hello Instant Pot!).
Flavor is very important to me and my family, so bland tamales just won't do! In this recipe, you'll make a red chili sauce (purée) that will be added to the meat filling and masa (dough) for a hint of spice, along with other traditional seasonings. The meat filling and dough are so tender, moist, and melt-in-your-mouth delicious!
What are Tamales?
Tamales have been around since pre-Columbian times and are thought to have originated in Mesoamerica. The Mayans and Aztecs needed a nutritious, hearty food that was easy to travel with and consume...thus, the tamale was created!
Today in Mexico and America (or at least in Texas), tamales are considered a comfort food and holiday tradition. Families come together in crowded kitchens to assemble these tasty rolled-up goodies!
They are traditionally made with a filling, masa (dough), and wrapped in either a corn husk or banana leaf before being steamed. The filling usually consists of seasoned pork or chicken, vegetables, or beans and cheese. I hear there are even sweet fillings but I haven't been brave enough to try those yet!
Since the assembly process can be quite laborious, it helps to set up an assembly line on the counter or on a table. If you have plenty of friends and family close by, I highly recommend hosting a tamalada (tamale making party)! Now let's get to partying!
How to Make Red Chile Pork Tamales
Since making this dish can be tedious and time consuming, I usually divvy up my cooking into two separate days.
On the first day, I cook my pork, shred it, and strain the pork's broth into a bowl. I cover both the meat and broth with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.
Next, I make my red chili purée and stir 1 cup of it into my shredded pork. Then, I pour the purée into a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator.
That night, I rinse my corn husks, place them in the sink or a large pot, and cover with warm water to soak overnight.
On the second day, I drain the corn husks and spread them out on a towel to air-dry while I mix the masa dough. (Don't lay corn husks out until 30 minutes before you are ready to use them or they will dry out. It helps to lay another towel on top to keep them from drying out so quickly.)
Next, I lay everything out on the counter in an assembly line and begin to assemble my tamales.
Once finished, I cook them in the Instant Pot and allow them to cool for at least 15 minutes (in order for them to set just right) before serving.
That night, me and my family celebrate all my hard work by devouring as many yummy tamales as possible before drifting off to sleep with full bellies!
If there's plenty leftover, me and the kids will load up and distribute bagfuls to hungry friends and family who've gotten wind of what I've been whipping up in my kitchen for the last 2 days!
Cooking Pork in the Slow Cooker
If you don't have a pressure cooker or you need to be away from the house on the day you cook your meat, simply use the Crockpot instead.
Place your pork and the same ingredients listed in the recipe (below) into your slow cooker. Close the lid and set to cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 5 hours (until meat easily pulls apart with a fork). Don't forget to remove and discard your bay leaves after cooking, and don't forget to strain and save your broth!
Steaming Tamales on the Stovetop
This is how I use to cook my tamales until my sweet mother-in-law bought me an Instant Pot!
- Fill the bottom of a large steamer pot with water (about 2 cups) until it reaches the bottom of the steamer insert without going over it - you don't want your tamales to touch the water! (If you don't own a steamer pot, you can use a large stockpot instead with a steamer basket inserted inside.)
- Stand tamales upright inside the pot with open ends pointing up. Lay soaked corn husks or a damp towel on top of the tamales and close the lid.
- Place pot over high heat until water comes to a boil, then turn heat down to medium-low and simmer for 1 hour.
- Check if done by removing one tamale (using metal tongs) and trying to unfold it. If the dough cleanly pulls away from the corn husk, they are ready. If the dough still looks wet and sticky, steam for 15 more minutes. Repeat until done.
- Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
How to Eat Tamales
When you're ready to devour these yummy rolled up goodies, simply slide the tie off and unfold the corn husk, allowing the filling to slowly roll out onto a plate. Discard the corn husk (don't eat this, yuck!).
Top with leftover red chili sauce, pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream, and/or cilantro. Serve with Mexican rice, refried beans, and chips and salsa. Yum!
Eat them with a fork or pick the whole thing up with your fingers and dig in! You've earned it!
Printable Recipe Card
Instant Pot Red Chili Pork Tamales
- 5 to 6 pound boneless pork shoulder or butt (trimmed and cut into large chunks)
- 1 Tablespoon cumin
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 2 teaspoons (4 cloves) minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 cube chicken bouillon (crushed)
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 cups water
Red Chili Sauce
- 1 pound (2 cups) pork lard
- 4 cups pork broth (reserved)
- ½ cup red chili sauce (reserved)
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 5 ½ cups Maseca Tamal Instant Corn Masa Mix
- 1 pound bag dried corn husks
Prepare Corn Husks
- Rinse the corn husks to remove any dirt, hairs, or dust (and sometimes bugs, yuk!).
- Place in the sink or a large pot and cover with warm water. Lay something heavy on top of the corn husks to keep them submerged. (I use a large pan.)
- Soak corn husks overnight or for at least 2 hours, until they are soft and pliable.
- Pat them dry or lay on a towel to air dry for 30 minutes before using. (Don't air dry for longer than 30 minutes or they will start to dry out.)
Cook the Meat
- Give your pork a good rinse in the sink. Trim the fat off and discard. Cut into large chunks.
- Place the pork chunks into the Instant Pot along with water and seasonings (cumin, salt, minced garlic, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, and a crushed chicken bouillon cube). Add 3 bay leaves on top (that way you can easily find and remove them when the meat is done cooking).
- Close the lid on the Instant Pot and lock into place. Move the steam release handle to the "Sealing" position. Set to cook on the manual high setting for 90 minutes. Once down, allow the pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, and then do a quick release by moving the steam release handle to the "Venting" position.
- Carefully open the lid after all pressure has been released. Remove the bay leaves and discard.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove pork (reserving the broth) and place in a heat-proof bowl. Shred with 2 forks. Stir in ½ cup of reserved pork broth and salt to taste, if needed. Cover and store in the refrigerator until you're ready to assemble the tamales.
- Lay a mesh strainer on top of a heat-proof bowl. Pour the remaining (reserved) pork broth from the Instant Pot liner through the strainer and into the bowl. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to make the masa.
Make the Red Chili Sauce
- Fill a medium-sized (2.5 quart) pot half-full of water. Place over high heat and bring to a boil.
- Add chilies, onion (cut into 4 chunks), and garlic cloves.
- Cook over medium-high heat for 15 minutes.
- Once cooked, remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove chilies, onion, and garlic and place in a blender along with ½ cup of liquid from the pot. Puree until smooth and then pour through a fine mesh strainer using the back of your spoon to push it through. (This will strain out any pieces of chili skin remaining in your puree.)
- Add 1 cup of the chili puree into the shredded pork and stir. Place remaining chili sauce and pork into the refrigerator to save for later.
Make the Masa (dough)
- Masa is easiest to spread when fresh, so try to make it right before you're ready to assemble the tamales.
- Turn mixer off and scrape the sides of the mixing bowl down with a spatula. Add pork broth, red chili sauce, baking powder, salt, and 1 cup of Maseca Tamal. Turn mixer on speed level "2" and mix until incorporated. Slowly add 4 ½ more cups of Maseca Tamal, 1 cup at a time, until completely incorporated (scrape sides down with a spatula as needed). Masa should have the consistency of smooth peanut butter.
- Test to make sure the masa is ready by dropping a dallop of dough into a glass of water. If it floats, your masa is ready. If it sinks, add ¼ cup more broth or water, mix for 2 more minutes, and then retest. Repeat until dough floats.
- Sort corn husks into 2 separate piles: a "usable pile" and an "unusable pile". Place husks that have large tears, holes, or are too narrow (less than 5 inches wide) into the "unusable pile". These will be used for tearing into narrow strips for ties. Place all other husks that are at least 5-6 inches wide into the "usable pile". These will be used for assembling your tamales. You will need at least 36 of these. Very wide husks can be tore in half or trimmed to about 5-6 inches wide (if you're slightly OCD like me).
- From your "unusable" pile, tear corn husks into 36 strips that are ¼ inch wide. These will be used to tie up tamales to prevent them from opening while cooking.
- Take one corn husk from your "usable pile". (One side will be smoother than the other. Make sure you spread your masa on the smooth side.)
- On the wide end of the corn husk, spread a thin layer of masa (about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick) using the back of a spoon or a small icing spatula. Spread masa over half the length of the husk and ½ inch away from the long edges. Add 1 to 2 Tablespoons of pork in a line down the middle of the masa.
- Trifold the long sides of the corn husk over the filling. (Fold one long side in over the meat filling and the other long side in over that.) Then, fold the corn husk in half so that both ends meet together (or close to it).
- Optional: Lay one corn husk strip perpendicularly under the middle of the tamale and tie together to keep it from opening while cooking.
- Repeat until all 3 dozen are made (or until you run out of stuff).
- Place tamales inside vertically with open ends pointing up. Make sure they are tight enough in there to prevent them from falling over while cooking. (I sometimes use a ball of foil to help keep them upright.) Close the lid and lock into place.
- Move the steam release handle to the "Sealing" position and pressure cook on manual high for 35 minutes. Once done, allow pressure to naturally release for 10 minutes, and then do a quick release by moving the steam release handle to the "Venting" position.
- Carefully open the lid at an angle to prevent moisture from dripping inside the tamales. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
- When ready to eat, simply slide the tie off and unfold the corn husk allowing the filling to slowly roll out onto a plate. Discard the corn husk.
- Top with leftover red chili sauce, pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream, and cilantro. Serve with Mexican rice, refried beans, and chips and salsa. Now dig in! You've earned it!
How to store cooked tamales:Place in a ziplock bag, press out all air, and seal. Will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator and 3 months in the freezer. (If freezing, allow to cool completely before placing them in the bag and then into the freezer.)
How to reheat in the Instant Pot:Follow the recipe cooking instructions listed under "Cook Tamales" except only pressure cook on manual high for 15 minutes and then let pressure "naturally release".
How to reheat on the stove top:
- Fill the bottom of a large steamer pot with water (about 2 cups) until it reaches the bottom of the steamer insert without going over it - you don't want your tamales to touch the water! (If you don't have a steamer pot you can use a large stockpot instead and insert a steamer basket inside.)
- Place tamales inside the steamer basket vertically with open ends pointing up.
- Lay leftover corn husks (soaked and moist) on top of the tamales and close the lid. (If you don't have leftover corn husks, you can lay a moist towel over the top of the pot before closing the lid. Be careful not to let the towel touch the burner!)
- Allow the water to come to a boil and then turn heat down to medium-low and simmer until tamales are heated through, about 15-20 minutes. (Add an extra 10-20 minutes if reheating from frozen.)