This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
Roll up your sleeves and let’s learn how to make masa for tamales! This light, fluffy corn masa dough is essential for creating crowd-pleasing tamales every time. All you need are a handful of ingredients and a little bit of patience to create this authentic Mexican dish.
Perfecting masa for tamales is your first step in crafting one of Mexico’s most beloved dishes — tamales. A major player in Mexican cuisines, tamales are popular throughout much of Central America and have actually been around for thousands of years. Tamales can have a variety of different fillings from cheese, chiles, beans, meats and even fruit.
However, the ingredient that makes a tamale a tamale is — you guessed it — corn masa dough. I will teach you how to get your tamale dough light, fluffy, and perfectly spreadable. This recipe sets a foundation, and from here, you can start putting your own unique spin on your final product.
Table of Contents
Rule of Remember
For every cup(s) maseca you’ll need equal cup(s) liquid. In this recipe that liquid can either be 8 cups water, 8 cups broth, 8 cups liquid from your filling (like my chile colorado red sauce, chile verde sauce, or braising liquid from Biriria de Res, etc.), or any combination. As with working with any form of dough: if the dough is too dry, add more liquid. If it’s too wet, add more Maseca.
Masa for Tamales
I use white corn masa harina from either Maseca brand or Masienda, which also has yellow, blue and red corn varieties.
If using the Maseca brand use the white bag instead of the brown. I know the brown one says its for tamales, but I prefer the finer grind white-corn and final texture for my tamales, but feel free to use what you like.
- Maseca – This is my preferred brand, but any instant corn masa mix will do. Look for it in the international aisle or the baking aisle.
- Lard – Check the international aisle or your local Mexican market. Some stores have it with the other oils or with the meat. Vegetable shortening can work in place.
- Liquid – Keeping with a 1:1 ratio of masa to liquid I mentioned, you can use water, broth, cooking liquid from the meat of your choice, or a combination.
- Chile Rojo Sauce – This red sauce comes from my Chile Colorado recipe and is one example of a cooking liquid you can choose. Remember, you can also use my Chile Verde Sauce or the braising liquid from Birria de Res.
Grab a teaspoon of the mixed masa and drop it into a glass of cold water. If it floats it’s mixed well and light. If it sinks, it needs more mixing.
- Whip the Lard. In a large bowl or mixer, whip the lard until it’s light and airy, almost like cake frosting before adding the baking powder and salt.
- Combine Ingredients. Add 1 cup of Maseca and 1 cup of chile rojo sauce or your preferred liquid. Mix together, then keep adding the Maseca and liquid (alternating 1 cup each) until all 8 cups have been blended in. Beat the mixture for 5 minutes until it becomes light and fluffy.
- Adjust Consistency. You are looking for spreadable smooth consistency — think spreadable hummus. Adjust for dryness by adding more liquid or add more Maseca if the corn masa dough is too wet.
- Do a Float Test. To test the consistency of your masa, scoop out a teaspoon of the dough. Drop the spoonful into a glass of cold water and see if it floats. Floating means it is light and airy enough. If it sinks, simply continue mixing to get the right texture.
- Use or Store. Once fluffy enough, use the masa dough right away or store it in the refrigerator to be used within 3 days.
- Large mixing bowl
- Electric mixer
Storing and Reheating
- Fridge: To store prepared masa, place in an airtight container or freezer bags in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Freezer: Place in a tightly closed container or freezer bags and for up to 6 months.
- Thaw: Thaw frozen dough in the refrigerator overnight, then allow it to come to room temperature before using your masa for tamales.
Share this recipe on Pinterest!
Love this recipe? Share it with the world on Pinterest.
While both are made from corn, they are not interchangeable.
Masa is the main ingredient in several Mexican and Central American dishes including tortillas, pupusas, and, of course, tamales. It is made from ground hominy, which is corn that has been treated with an alkali agent. This process, known as nixtamalization, makes the corn easier to grind while also releasing nutrients and improving flavor. As a result, masa harina has a more savory flavor than cornmeal.
Cornmeal, on the other hand, is simply corn that has been coarsely ground. It can be used in a wide variety of dishes like polenta, cornbread, and casseroles or as the breading for fried foods. It can vary in texture and will not have the smooth consistency of masa harina.
You don’t have to worry about overworking masa for tamales the same way you would with wheat flour, but you still don’t want to overdo it.
Wheat flour is easy to overwork because wheat gluten will activate and create a gummy, sticky texture. Corn does not contain these same proteins, but it does have a form of gluten that could cause the corn masa dough to become dense and tough if worked excessively.
That depends on the dish you are planning on making it with. While you can use it right away, allowing a rest period allows the liquids to soak in, fully hydrating the masa.
When making masa for tamales, I recommend letting the dough rest for 30 minutes to an hour before spreading it onto husks. With a little patience, you’ll end up with a smoother, more spreadable dough and tastier tamales too!
Masa for Tamales
- Rule of thumb: 1 cup maseca to 1 cup liquid (reserved cooking liquid from meat filling of choice, broth, water or combination).
- In a large bowl or mixer, whip the lard until it's light and airy, almost like cake frosting before adding the baking powder and salt.
- Add 1 cup of the maseca and 1 cup of chili rojo sauce (or cooking liquid from filling of choice). Alternate 1 cup maseca to 1 cup liquid until all 8 cups are mixed together. Beat 5 minutes until light and fluffy.
- You are looking for spreadable smooth consistency — think spreadable hummus. If the dough is too dry, add more liquid. If it's too wet, add more maseca.
- Float Test: Grab a teaspoon of the mixed masa and drop it into a glass of cold water. If it floats it's mixed well and light. If it sinks, it needs more mixing.
- Cover and let rest for 30 minutes to fully hydrate. Use the dough immediately or cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- For the liquid in this recipe you will need equal parts to the Maseca – Instant corn masa mix. That liquid can be either 8 cups water, 8 cups broth, 8 cups liquid from your filling (like my chile colorado red sauce, or chile verde sauce, or braising liquid from Biriria de Res etc.) or any combination. As with working with any form of dough: if the dough is too dry, add more liquid. If it’s too wet, add more maseca.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.