Zarela Martinez' Basic Tamal Dough

There are dozens of dishes called ‘tamales’ with nothing in common except that they are folded in a wrapping, usually corn husks or banana leaves, before cooking.

This particular formula, in which masa is beaten very light with lard, is probably the most versatile tamal filling. The important things to bear in mind are that no matter what quantity you make, you will almost always use the same proportion by weight of masa to lard (in my recipes, 3 to 1) and that the mixture must be beaten until it is not just light but practically ethereal.

Though the amount of salt may seem excessive, a lot of the salt will be lost when the mixture is steamed inside the tamal wrapping. You can reduce the amount somewhat, but remember that the particular flavor of masa in tamales is complemented by salt.


3 pounds fresh masa (or 4½ cups masa harina and 4 to 5 cups warm chicken stock)
l pound lard (preferably non-hydrogenated and without preservatives)
Additional chicken stock as needed
2½ tablespoons salt


If using masa harina, place it in a large bowl and reconstitute by adding 4 cups warm stock. Beat with a wooden spoon or mix with your hands until you have a stiff, smooth dough like a medium-pliable bread dough. Use a little more stock if necessary, but the mixture should not be loose.

Beat lard in the large bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until very fluffy and fully aerated, about 3 minutes. It may take longer if your mixer is not very powerful. (A heavy-duty machine such as a KitchenAid is best.) The best alternative to a mixer is not a spoon but your bare hand: whip and beat the lard with a rapid folding motion until you feel it lightening and continue to whip until it is fluffy and full of air. It should be as light as butter creamed for the lightest butter cake.

Keeping mixer on medium speed, begin adding masa to lard a handful at a time. Stop to scrape down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. If mixture becomes too stiff to beat, add tepid chicken stock, a little at a time, up to one cup. Alternatively, if the mixture isn't stiff enough, beat in masa using your bare hand as a whipping and folding tool. When all masa has been incorporated the mixture, it should be very light and delicate, the texture of buttercream frosting. Beat in salt.

The mixture is now ready to be filled or spread onto corn husks, banana leaves, or other wrappers, along with a filling such as the pork with red chile sauce. After filling, wrap and and then steamed your tamales.

Want to know how to put everything together? It's easier seen that explained, so check out my videos.

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