These red chile pork tamales are the real authentic Mexican deal. And they taste as though they were lovingly crafted by the loveliest abuela imaginable, crafted to be slightly spicy with pulled pork. Here’s how to make them at home, step by step.
Red chile pork tamales that are authentic Mexican through and through—sweet corn masa dough enveloping a richly spiced, knee-wobblingly tender pork filling. Consider yourself warned, though, you’re going to end up with a holy abundance of red chile pork filling, which is actually a godsend seeing as you can put it to lovely use tucked into tacos, plopped atop rice, or simply inhaled by the forkful.–David Leite
Why Our Testers Loved This
We’re not gonna lie. Making this tamale recipe does require some time and effort. However, our testers will happily tell you that they are worth every minute.
Carlin B. is calling them “a plateful of tasty comfort food,” and Sandy O. declared them to be “absolutely wonderful.” Makes you want to try them, doesn’t it?
Notes on Ingredients
- Pork shoulder–You may see this labeled as Boston Butt at your store. They are the same cut. Choose one that is well-marbled, as that will give you the most tender pork.
- Guajillo chiles–This is the dried form of the mirasol pepper and is commonly used in Mexican cooking. They are available at some supermarkets and specialty grocers. If you can’t find them, dried ancho chiles would be the best substitute.
- Masa–This is treated ground corn flour and is available in most major supermarkets. It is commonly used for making corn tortillas for tacos or tortilla soup.
- Corn husks–You will need about 32 husks for this recipe. A 1-pound bag contains between 80 and 100 husks.
How to Make This Recipe
- Pat the pork dry and rub it all over with olive oil. Combine 4 tablespoons of salt with the chipotle pepper and rub all over the pork. Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Heat the oven to 275°F. Place the pork in a roasting pan, cover with two layers of foil, and roast until tender and falling apart. Let the pork cool for 30 minutes.
- Shred the pork into strands. Discard any gristle and strain and reserve the cooking liquid.
- Toast the chiles in a hot skillet for about 30 seconds per side. Place in a bowl, cover with hot water, and let them soak for 30 minutes.
- Blend the soaked chiles, garlic, cumin, 1 teaspoon of salt, and cold water until smooth. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pot until very hot. Add the chile puree and cook until it darkens.
- Stir the pork and cooking liquid into the pot. Simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before assembling the tamales.
- Make the tamale dough. Mix together the masa, water, then add in the lard, baking powder, stock, and salt and mix well to combine.
- Cover the corn husks with water. Soak until pliable, then remove from the water, separate the husks, and pat dry. Tear a few husks into 1/2-inch strips and tie a knot at the end to create ties for the tamales.
- Fill the tamales. Working with one husk at a time, spread 1/4 cup of the masa harina over the smooth side of the husk, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Top with 2 tablespoons of the pork, then roll the tamale and secure the bottom with one of the ties, leaving the top open.
- Prepare a steamer in a large stockpot partially filled with water. Stand the tamales upright in the steamer and cook until the masa pulls away from the husks, adding water as needed. Let the tamales rest in the steamer until they begin to firm up before serving.
What’s a tamale?
Tamales are a Mexican dish made with tender masa dough and filling that’s steamed inside a corn husk until tender. They’re popular year-round, but particularly during the Christmas holidays. The masa dough can be filled with pork, beef, chicken, and even vegetarian fillings, as in these sweet potato tamales, are available.
What do you serve with tamales?
The tamales themselves can be topped with mole, sour cream, salsa, a squeeze of lime juice, or cotija cheese. For side dishes, try serving them with refried beans, rice, or Mexican corn.
How do you eat a tamale?
To eat the tamale, remove the corn husk from around the filling. You can either discard the husk or use it as a plate. Eat the masa filling with your fingers or a fork and knife.
- Extra pulled pork filling can be used in tacos, sandwiches, enchiladas, or as a topping for a rice bowl.
- When filling your tamales, make sure you spread the filling on the smooth side of the husk. This will allow the filling to release easily from the corn husk.
- Store leftover tamales in a sealed container or resealable bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Gently reheat in a steamer.
More great Mexican recipes
☞ If you make this recipe, or any dish on LC, consider leaving a review, a star rating, and your best photo in the comments below. I love hearing from you.–David
Red Chile Pork Tamales
- Bamboo steamer or steamer tray for your stockpot
For the red chile pork tamales filling
- 5 pounds pork shoulder
- 1 tablespoon mild olive oil or vegetable oil plus more for coating the pork
- 4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoon chipotle powder
- 14 dried guajillo chiles seeded and stemmed
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3 cups cold water
For the tamale dough
- 3 1/2 cups masa harina
- 2 1/4 cups warm water
- 10 ounces lard or vegetable shortening
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 32 dried corn husks
Make the red chile pork tamales filling
- Pat the pork shoulder completely dry with paper towels. Rub the pork shoulder all over with just enough oil to coat it.
- In a small bowl, combine 4 tablespoons (60 grams) salt with the chipotle powder. Rub the mixture on the pork, completely covering all surfaces. Let the pork rest at room temperature for 1 hour. (But for no longer than 1 hour or the salt will draw moisture from the pork and make it tough.)
- Preheat the oven to 275°F (135°C).
- Place the pork in a roasting pan, fatty side down. Cover the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil and roast for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, until the pork falls apart when pressed with the back of a fork and reaches an internal temperature of 195°F (91°C). Remove the pork from the oven and let it rest, without uncovering, for 30 minutes.
- After the pork has cooled for 30 minutes, use 2 forks to pull the pork into long strands. Resist the temptation to chop the pork into chunks! Discard any gristle or chunks of fat. Strain the cooking liquid. You should have anywhere from 2 to 4 cups (473 to 946 ml) of liquid.
- Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Once the skillet is hot, toss in the chiles and cook for approximately 30 seconds per side, until they’re slightly toasty. Be careful not to over toast the chiles or let them blacken or the resulting sauce will be bitter.
- Remove the toasted chiles from the pan and place in a bowl. Add enough hot water to submerge the chiles. Let the chiles soak for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, use a slotted spoon to transfer the soaked chiles to a blender and discard the soaking liquid. Add the garlic, cumin, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and cold water to the blender. Puree until the mixture forms a smooth paste.
- Heat the 1 tablespoon (15 ml) oil in a heavy, large stockpot over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot and begins to shimmer, pour the red chile sauce into the pot and immediately stir. Be careful as the sauce will splatter. Cook the sauce, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sauce thickens and begins to darken.
- Add the reserved pork drippings and the pulled pork. Bring the mixture to a simmer and gently cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
- Let the red chile pork filling cool slightly before preparing the tamales. (You can cover and refrigerate the pork overnight.)
☞TESTER TIP: You’ll have a lot of red chile pulled pork, so you’ll need to either make a double batch of tamale batter or be prepared to serve the leftover pork in soft tortillas or over rice or in any of countless other incarnations.
Make the tamale dough
- In a large bowl or the bowl of stand mixer, blend the masa harina with the warm water. Stir the mixture thoroughly to create a solid ball of rehydrated masa. Add the lard, baking powder, stock, and salt, whisking thoroughly or, if you are using a mixer, blend on medium speed for approximately 5 minutes. Set the mixture aside until ready to assemble the tamales.
Assemble the tamales
- Separate the corn husks and place them in a large bowl or your kitchen sink and add enough warm water to completely submerge them. Let the husks soak until they become relatively soft and pliable, at least 30 minutes.
- Remove the husks from the water, separate completely, and pat them dry with a clean towel.
- Prepare the ties for your tamales by tearing several of the husks into strips 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) wide until you have 24 strips. Gently tie a knot at a narrow end of each strip and tear the opposite end to double the strip length to about 12 inches (30.5 cm) long. Repeat with the remaining strips.
- Place a large corn husk on a clean flat surface with the shortest side facing you and the smooth side facing up. Spoon approximately 1/4 cup (60 grams) masa dough on the upper center of the husk and, using a butter knife or the back of the spoon, spread it into a square shape across the width of the husk to approximately 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick. Be sure to leave approximately 1/2 inch (13 mm) on the top and sides of the husks plain to allow for easier rolling.
- Spoon approximately 2 tablespoons (30 grams) pork mixture in an even line along the center of the masa and gently fold the husk over widthwise to completely encase the filling and form a tight tube. Fold the bottom of the husk up toward the center of the tamale and tie with the prepared strip of corn husks. Be sure to leave the top of the husks open. Repeat with the remaining corn husks and masa dough.
- Fill a large stockpot 1/4 full with warm water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Line a steamer basket with several unfilled corn husks. Place the prepared tamales upright with the open tops facing towards the top of the steamer basket and top with additional corn husks. It's perfectly fine (and actually necessary) to stack the tamales one atop another.
- Cover the steamer basket with a tight-fitting lid and place on top of the stockpot with the boiling water and steam until the batter pulls away easily from the husks, checking occasionally to see if the pot needs to be replenished with water, about 1 hour total.
☞TESTER TIP: When heating the water to cook the tamales, drop a clean coin in the pot. As the water boils, the coin will rattle, letting you know that the water has not boiled dry. If the coin stops rattling, you know that it’s time to add more water. Or just set your iPhone timer for every 10 or 15 minutes and check the water level.
- Turn off the heat and let the tamales rest in the basket for at least 30 minutes, until they begin to firm. And then dig in! (It's astounding how quickly tamales disappear in contrast to how long it takes to make them!)
- Leftover pork–Extra pulled pork filling can be used in tacos, sandwiches, enchiladas, or as a topping for a rice bowl.
- Filling tips–When filling your tamales, make sure you spread the filling on the smooth side of the husk. This will allow the filling to release easily from the corn husk.
- Storage–Store leftover tamales in a sealed container or resealable bag in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Gently reheat in a steamer.
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We’d love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
OH MY GOODNESS!! These red chile pork tamales were delicious! Despite my feeble attempt of wrapping, folding, and tying, these red chile pork tamales looked wonderful!!
They looked nowhere near restaurant quality, but they really looked great!! And they tasted absolutely wonderful.
The taste of corn was a perfect balance with the seasoned red chile pork. The mixture of chile powder and salt was the perfect amount. Once the pork was covered with chile salt and had come to room temperature, I popped everything in the oven and roasted it for about 4 1/2 hours. I removed it from the oven and let it rest until cool enough to handle, a little over an hour.
Shredding the pork took me about 30 minutes. (It was a large piece of meat and still quite warm.) While the pork was cooling, I seeded the peppers and toasted them in a skillet. Although 14 seemed like a huge amount, I followed the recipe exactly.
After covering the peppers with hot water and letting them sit for 30 minutes, I threw them in my food processor along with the garlic, cumin, and salt. The addition of the water really helped to loosen the mixture up and turned it into a sauce-like consistency. I poured it into the pot and stirred constantly. It didn’t change color or thicken up much at all.
While the meat was cooling, I soaked the husks in the sink. I weighed them down and soaked them for a little over an hour. I also made the dough during the meat cooling period. I used shortening instead of lard. The dough came together very nicely although it was a very large amount.
I cleared my counter and lined up the meat, husks, and dough in a nice row with my steamer pot to the right. Here comes the “fun” part. Being that I have never made tamales, I totally went by the directions on how to spread and fill the husks. My husks were nice and soft but when I would spread the dough, the husks tore.
The addition of the meat was fairly easy, but the wrapping part was a fiasco! I did my best to just take my time and carefully fill and wrap. I tried wrapping them up with the strips of husk, but after a few, I just stopped trying to tie. Some of my tamales were fuller than others and they were in no way uniform but I kept on filling.
My pot was full after 3 dozen and I had plenty of dough and meat left over. I steamed them for 55 minutes, until the dough pulled away easily from the husks. I removed the steamer basket from the heat and let them rest while I finished cleaning up my unbelievable mess.
This is a very time-consuming and fairly labor-intensive dish. I had more dirty pots, pans, and bowls than I could ever remember ever having for one dish!
Next time I probably would really have to consider cutting the recipe in half…and invite friends and family over to help devour the red tamales!
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
These red chile tamales are terrific. They’re a bit of work but the result is a plateful of tasty comfort food. Even if you didn’t grow up eating tamales, which I didn’t, these are easy to master.
For the newbie, this is probably best tackled as a 2-day event because it takes a while to roast the pork and there are many steps to this recipe. Besides, the pork benefits from being cooked a day ahead and having a chance to soak in the chile mixture.
It can take a few tries to get the hang of how to assemble the tamales in the corn husks—although it’s not hard. But a quick video on YouTube can be very helpful if you’ve never seen it done.
This recipe easily makes 24 tamales and you will have leftover pork for a second batch or another use.