Salsa Roja Pork Tamales Recipe

Salsa Rojo Pork Tamales

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Prep: 40 mins
Cook: 2 hrs 15 mins
Assembly: 60 mins
Total: 3 hrs 55 mins
Servings: 15 Servings
Yield: 30 tamales
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
589 Calories
43g Fat
33g Carbs
19g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 15
Amount per serving
Calories 589
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 43g 55%
Saturated Fat 16g 79%
Cholesterol 80mg 27%
Sodium 574mg 25%
Total Carbohydrate 33g 12%
Dietary Fiber 3g 12%
Total Sugars 2g
Protein 19g
Vitamin C 5mg 26%
Calcium 188mg 14%
Iron 5mg 26%
Potassium 477mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

This delectable red salsa pork tamale recipe is a collaboration that spans generations. The pork filling is by contributor Ubish Yaren. And, the masa dough originates with senior editor Adriana Velez's paternal grandmother, Maria Estevez Velez, as transcribed by her mother, Norma Mendez Velez.

Ubish's family makes their pork tamales for celebrations, like Mexican Independence Day, when all the family gathers to eat and drink. It is simple, yet delicious. Much of the flavor comes from guajillo chiles mixed with cumin seeds, which is a typical mix of spices used a lot in central and northern Mexico.

The basic structure of this ancient dish (which originated in Mesoamerica around 8000-5000 BC) starts with a starch-based dough. To this, a meat, fruit, or vegetable filling is added, and everything is wrapped in plant leaves, then steamed. In Mexico, the most typical tamales are made with corn masa, and they are wrapped in dried corn husks. Countless varieties of tamales abound, but the pork tamale with a red chile sauce is perhaps the most popular.

While freshly-ground masa makes a superior tamale, it's difficult to source. So we've created a recipe for any brand of masa harina you might find in the Latin American section of your grocery store. Please note that you cannot substitute with masarepa (a cooked corn flour such as PAN masarepa). Corn husks and dried chiles will most likely be found in the same section of your grocery, or at a Latin American food market.

You will need a large stockpot with a strainer or steamer basket deep enough to hold the tamales vertically. You can find steamer baskets at kitchen supply, home goods, and grocery stores.

Tamales take time. You can make the filling up to three days in advance. Assembling tamales is considered a group activity, especially popular around Christmas. Family and friends gather to share the labor of preparing copious numbers of tamales, and everyone brings home at least a dozen to enjoy through the holiday season.

To eat, you open the corn husk envelope, discard, and eat the tamale inside with salsas and other condiments, like escabeche. Once cooked, the tamales will last around one week in the fridge. They also freeze very well.

"This tamale recipe is worth every minute. The filling is rich and flavorful, and the dough is fluffy, light, and very tender. None of the steps in this recipe are difficult. It does take time, because there are several components, which is normal for a tamale." —Heather Ramsdell

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A Note From Our Recipe Tester


For the Filling

  • 30 dried corn husks

  • 2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 3-inch cubes

  • 1 small onion, halved

  • 2 cloves garlic 

  • 3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

  • About 4 cups water, divided

  • 3/4 ounce dried guajillo chile peppers, about 4, (or similar dried chile)

  • 1 pound plum tomatoes, about 4

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

For the Masa Dough

  • 2 cups lard

  • 2 tablespoons baking powder

  • 1 tablespoon chili powder, such as ancho

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 5 cups masa harina

  • 2 cups reserved pork broth or chicken broth, warmed

Steps to Make It

Make the Pork Filling

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    ingredients to make pork filling for tamales

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  2. Prepare the corn husks. Separate about 30 husks and submerge in hot (not boiling) water. If the husks float, place something heavy (like a cereal bowl) over them. Allow to soak about 10 minutes.

    cornhusks and water in a large bowl

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  3. Put the pork shoulder with half of the onion, 1 of the garlic cloves, and 2 teaspoons salt in a heavy pot. Cover completely with water and simmer, partially covered, until the pork is soft and tender, about 3 hours.

    If you have a pressure cooker, put the pork shoulder, onion, garlic, and salt into it, cover completely with water, about 2 cups. Set to pressure cook for 1 hour. Release.

    pork shoulder and onion in large stock pot

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  4. Strain the cooked pork, reserving the broth for later. Discard the onion half. Shred the pork into thin strands.

    bowl of shredded pork and container of broth

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  5. Stem and deseed the guajillo chiles. Hold the end of a chile with one hand, use a very sharp knife, and cut off the stem and calyx (the part that connects the stem to the chile). Then pour out any remaining seeds. Set aside.

    removing the stem and seeds from dried peppers

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  6. Place the tomatoes and guajillo chiles in a large pot, cover with 2 cups of water, and boil until both are very soft, about 15 minutes.

    tomatoes and chiles boiling in large pot of water

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  7. Strain the tomatoes and chiles, discard the liquid, and put solids in a blender. Blend into a purée.

    tomato and chile puree in a blender

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  8. Strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove any remaining pieces and reserve the sauce.

    bowl of smooth sauce with a strainer

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  9. Cut the other onion half into thin slices. Heat vegetable oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and fry in the pan until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. 

    onion slices cooking in pan

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  10. Cut the remaining garlic clove into thin slices. Add to the pan and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.

    onions and sliced garlic cooking in pan

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  11. Add the sauce, cumin, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce is thick, about 10 more minutes.

    onions, garlic, and tomato sauce in a pan

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  12. Fold the sauce into the shredded pork until combined well. Store the filling in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

    shredded pork and sauce in a bowl

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Make the Tamale Dough

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    ingredients to make tamale dough

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  2. Add the lard to a large bowl. Cream the lard with a hand mixer or stand mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy.

    whipped lard in a bowl

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  3. Add the baking powder, chile powder, and salt to the lard and mix well. Then add the masa harina a quarter cup at a time, mixing well.

    a bowl of tamale dough

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  4. Pour in the reserved pork broth (fat skimmed from the top) slowly while mixing. Continue to mix another minute or two to form a fluffy dough.

    a bowl of tamale dough

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  5. Test the tamale dough to see if it's ready. Drop a tablespoon into a glass of lukewarm water. If it floats, it's ready. If it sinks, the dough is still too dense. Continue mixing.

    a piece of tamale dough floating in water

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

Assemble and Steam the Tamales

  1. Remove corn husks from the water and shake each to remove excess water. Place them in a large bowl. 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.

    whole corn husks with small strips

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  2. Warm the filling in a large pot, stirring, over medium-low heat until it's heated through, about 15 minutes. Or, warm filling in a glass container in the microwave until heated through, about 5 minutes, stirring halfway through.

    bowl of warm pulled pork

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

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

    corn husks, pulled pork, and masa dough

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  4. To assemble each tamale, open a husk over a clean flat surface. Spoon 1/4 cup of masa onto the husk, near the widest end. Spread evenly into a rectangle, leaving about 1/4 inch clearance on each side and the top edge. This is done easiest with wet fingers, so dip your fingers in the bowl of water before assembling each tamale.

    hand pressing masa dough on corn husk

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  5. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of pork and spread down the center of the masa.

    corn husk with masa dough and pull pork

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  6. To fold the tamales, carefully bring the sides together to meet at the center, enclosing the filling.

    hands folding the tamale

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

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

    hands folding the top of the corn husk down over the tamale

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  8. Take one of the husk strips and use it to tie the tamale together, crosswise. Place it vertically in a steamer, open-end-up, and repeat until the filling and dough is used up.

    a tamale tied with a strip of corn husk

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  9. Once you are finished assembling the tamales, you are ready to steam them. You can allow the tamales to lean against each other towards the center of the pot, forming a dome. This enables the air to circulate.

    large pot filled with tamales

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  10. Once all the tamales are in the steamer, cover them with a few extra husks. Fill the pot with 2 cups of water. Place the steamer inside the pot, cover with a lid, and bring the water to a boil. Steam until the masa becomes firm, about 30 to 40 minutes. You may have to add more water as the tamales steam, so have water boiling in another pot ready to use. Test for doneness by taking one out, and let it sit for a minute until cool enough to handle. If it doesn't stick to the husk and is rather firm, they are done.

    pot of steamed tamale with an open tamale on a plate

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  11. To eat, unwrap the tamale and discard the husk. You can enjoy it with hot sauce, salsaescabeche, or sliced avocado. A well-seasoned tamale that has not been overcooked is perfectly delicious without any condiments at all.

    a plate of pork tamales

    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga


  • After steaming the tamales, open 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.

Make Ahead

  • You can cook your filling the day before. Heating it before using it to fill the tamales will better infuse the flavors into the pork. Allow it to cool enough to handle before using.
  • If you want to use the pork broth for the masa, refrigerate it first. The fat will separate from the broth and float in a layer at the top. Then you can scrape off the chilled fat before using the broth.
  • Masa dough can be made fresh, just before you are ready to assemble the tamales. Or you can make it the day before, which allows the dough to hydrate.

Recipe Variations

  • You can use corn oil, coconut oil, or a neutral-tasting vegetable oil in place of lard.
  • To steam in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, you will still need a steamer basket. Stack the tamales the same way as the stovetop method. Use 1 cup of water and pressure cook for 20 minutes.
  • If you can't find dried guajillo chiles, you can substitute with dried ancho, pasilla, or cascabel chiles. The flavor will be different but also delicious.
  • 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.

How to Store and Freeze

  • To store, keep tamales in their husks and place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Press out any air before sealing the bag. They will keep for two to three days.
  • To reheat, steam tamales for 15 minutes for best results.
  • You can also reheat by microwaving for 1 to 2 minutes.
  • To freeze, keep tamales in their husks and wrap each in foil. Then place in a freezer bag, again squeezing out any excess air. They will keep in the freezer for about three months.
  • Fully defrost in the refrigerator, then reheat by steaming or microwaving.