Chicken Tamales Recipe

Tamales in a Classic Salsa Verde (Green Salsa)

Chicken Tamales

The Spruce Eats / Ubish Yaren

Prep: 20 mins
Cook: 110 mins
Assembly: 60 mins
Total: 3 hrs 10 mins
Servings: 24 servings
Yield: 24 tamales

The filling for this savory, barely-tart tamales recipe is chicken with salsa verde, a classic tomatillo salsa with onion, garlic, epazote, serrano chile, and cilantro. It has just the right amount of mild, warming spiciness. Because the filling is made with a salsa, it does not need to be served with a salsa.

Don't be too intimidated by the steps. With the right planning—invite some friends or family over to help—many hands make light and enjoyable work. The masa is the main component, so getting good masa harina is how you will unlock the best flavors. We recommend Bob's Red Mill or Masienda. Otherwise, Maseca is sold in most U.S. grocery stores.

A tamale is a steamed corn dumpling, often with a filling, and wrapped with a corn husk or banana leaf. This maíz-based staple has been around for over 7,000 years. It was created in Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Central America). This is where the corn processing technique nixtamalization was developed. It's also the region where the agricultural method of milpa (also known as the Three Sisters for the combination of squash, corn, and beans) was invented. Both of these traditions are still in use. They go hand in hand in precolonial rituals for cooking. Nowadays, a mesh of many worlds represents what a cook will create.

Tamales are a daily meal in Mexico, right alongside tacos and tortas, part of the famous Mexican diet of Vitamin "T". Because tamales have been around for so long, touched by so many different cultures, there is a wide variety of styles and recipes from one region to the next.

All good cooking is usually slow food. Take the time to make a really good filling and sauce, and whenever possible, use seasonal local ingredients. Your taste buds and body will thank you for cooking with intention.

"These were tasty tamales and not difficult. I cooked the chicken and the tomatillo mixture one day, then finished with the masa harina dough and assembly the next day. Filling and wrapping take a little practice, but once you do a few, it goes quickly. " —Diana Rattray

Chicken tamales tester image
A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

For the Filling

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, or thigh

  • 1 medium white onion, halved, divided use

  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled, smashed, divided

  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

  • 1 serrano pepper, or jalapeño pepper

  • 2 pounds fresh tomatillos, husks and stems removed, washed

  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro

  • 1 teaspoon crushed epazote, or 3 whole epazote leaves

For the Masa

  • 3/4 cup lard, or shortening, unsalted butter, or grapeseed oil

  • 2 1/2 cups masa harina

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock from cooking the chicken, or vegetable stock

  • 30 corn husks

Steps to Make It

Make the Filling

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Add the chicken, half an onion, 1 clove of garlic, and 1 teaspoon of salt to a pot. Cover with water and simmer on medium until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes.

  3. Remove from heat. Place chicken on a plate or bowl and allow to cool. Strain the chicken stock into a bowl and reserve, covered in the refrigerator.

  4. Cut off the stem and the calyx (the part that connects the stem to the pepper) of the serrano pepper. Remove the seeds and slice crosswise.

  5. Add the tomatillos, serrano chile slices, remaining half onion, remaining clove of garlic, cilantro, and epazote to a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat.

  6. Lower to medium heat and cover loosely; simmer until tomatillos are soft, about 20 minutes.

  7. Drain cooking liquid, add ingredients to a blender, and blend to an even consistency. Set this green salsa aside.

  8. Shred the cooled chicken, and toss with the green salsa you just made. Taste and add salt, as needed to taste. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Make the Masa

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. In a large bowl, beat the lard, shortening, or butter until creamy.

  3. Add the masa harina, baking powder, and 1 teaspoon of salt. With an electric mixer, whip the mixture to blend. If using oil, gradually beat it into the dry ingredients.

  4. Gradually beat in 1 1/2 cups of chicken stock. Continue beating until the dough is light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. If it looks dry, add more chicken stock. Whipping aerates the dough to form a fluffy texture. Your consistency should feel smooth, thick, and creamy, like ricotta.

  5. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Store in an airtight container until ready for use.

Assemble the Tamales

  1. Remove corn husks from the package and submerge all into a deep bowl of hot water. Soak until soft and pliable, about 5 minutes.

  2. Working with 2 to 4 husks at a time, or 1 at a time, if you are a beginner, shake off excess water before laying the husk out onto a clean work surface area.

  3. Take 2 or 3 of the husks, and tear them lengthwise, following the grain, into quarter-inch-thick strips. Set aside on a small plate.

  4. Set out your ingredients in an assembly line: your corn husks, your masa, a small bowl of water, and your filling.

  5. Spoon 3 to 4 tablespoons of dough onto the center of each husk, topped by 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough.

  6. Now you are ready to fold the tamales. Carefully bring the sides together to meet at the center, enclosing the filling.

  7. Then, fold the bottom tip of the husk over the filled section.

  8. Take one of the husk strips and use it to tie the tamale together, crosswise. Set aside.

  9. Set a steamer basket inside a large pot and pour water just until it reaches the basket. Bring the water to a simmer. Begin layering in the tamales, folded-end down. Cover with a lid and cook over medium heat. Steam for 45 minutes.

  10. Once tamales are cooked, remove from pot and let cool until they can be handled. Eat immediately, drizzled with more salsa.

Warnings

  • After steaming the tamales, open the lid slowly and carefully. The steam released can be hot enough to burn skin.
  • Take care to wash your hands thoroughly after handling chiles. Some people use gloves or wrap their hands in plastic bags to protect themselves. Oils from the chiles can irritate your eyes and nose if you handle chiles and then absentmindedly touch your face.

Tips

  • We recommend Bob’s Red Mill masa harina, available at most grocery stores.
  • Chiles, masa harina, and corn husks may be found in the International section of your grocery store, or at a Latin American market, or via Masienda.com.
  • All parts of the recipe can be broken up over the course of two days: two days ahead make the filling, and one day ahead make the dough and soak the husks. Just be sure to keep everything refrigerated and in an airtight container. The husks can stay out at room temperature.

Make Ahead

You can make the masa and filling one to three days ahead of time if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Recipe Variations

  • If you have access to fresh masa, use the same measurements of masa dough ingredients, except for the stock. You will most likely need less liquid, so be careful to add stock gradually.
  • Playing with the techniques in each component of the sauce will give you a different version with different depths.
  • Try fire roasting your onions, soaking your peppers in saline hot water, seasoning with acids, and confiting your garlic.
  • Sometimes, your tamales only need a little crema and raw onions.
  • Day-old tamales can get the grill or comal treatment by toasting each side for about a minute or two, unwrapped. This transforms them into crispy tamales. 
  • Make the tamales with banana leaves instead of corn husks. Trim the leaves to 8-inch squares. Use the same method to fold and then tie shut with kitchen string.
  • For extra flavor, add a dash of cumin or chili powder to the tomatillo mixture.
  • For a spicier filling, keep the seeds in the chile pepper; for more pepper flavor, add an extra serrano or jalapeño to the pot with the tomatillos.

How to Store and Freeze

  • Store cooked and cooled tamales in an airtight container, a zip-close bag, or vacuum-sealed bag in the refrigerator.
  • Keep tamales in the refrigerator for up to one week.
  • To reheat, steam in husks for 5 to 8 minutes, or reheat in the microwave for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • To freeze tamales, wrap individually in foil, then place in a freezer-safe bag.
  • Thaw frozen tamales overnight in the refrigerator and re-steam for 5 to 8 minutes. Or, skip thawing in the fridge and re-steam for 15 minutes.

Notes From the Authors

"Most of my memories of tamales stem from the winter holidays and birthday celebrations or milestones. Before we'd even made any, our mouths were already drooling, thinking of her savory, pillowy bites of dough and spicy, tender filling. The scent of comforting ancestral steamed hot pockets never gets old. It was always a big deal when my mother would bust out her tamales pot and large bowls. Between my mom and two or three other sets of hands, tamales were formed, steamed to perfection, and joyfully consumed." -Maricela Vega


"In Mexico, we never eat tamales without atole, a corn starch drink with different flavors. It's easier to cook many tamales than a few. That's why tamales are related to celebrations like Christmas." -Ubish Yaren