Learn how to make this incredibly easy masa for tamales or tamales dough recipe. This masa can be used with all sorts of savory fillings for your favorite tamales. You only need 5 ingredients which are easily found anywhere you live. In this recipe you can use either masa harina or fresh masa from the tortilleria. This recipe is authentically Mexican and vegan and perfect for your Christmas tamales!
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Masa for Tamales
Tamales are a huge part of our Mexican culture.
We make them for the holidays, special occasions or simply when the cravings for these delicious small steamed corn dough pockets strikes.
If you’ve never made tamales from scratch, don’t worry. I know at first they can sound intimidating but in fact aren’t really that difficult to prepare. You only need to learn the foundations and making tamales will become second nature to you.
Tamales are a labor of love but there’s nothing quite like homemade tamales!
The most important part of tamales, or the foundation of tamales is the masa.
You need to have a flavorful, light, airy and creamy masa to make delicious tamales — both savory and sweet!
This recipe is a basic masa or masa dough recipe with easy to find ingredients. Below I also share the method for making the tamales masa using fresh masa you can purchase at a tortilleria. The recipe is vegan and it’s incredibly easy to make and the texture and taste are absolutely perfect!
If you want to learn how to make tamales masa with oil and basic sweet masa for your sweet tamales, then make sure you check out my tamales ebook. It has loads of additional tips and tons of savory and sweet tamale recipes.
What Kind of Masa to Buy for Tamales
The majority of you won’t have access to fresh masa from a tortilleria, so the second best, or most convenient, thing is to use dried masa harina. Which you can get at nearly any grocery store, or of course there’s always Amazon too.
The most common masa harina brand is Maseca. Though it can be controversial amongst many, it is the one most readily found. My friend Rocio Carvajal has recommended another brand you can get on Amazon.
Is Tortilla Masa The Same as Tamales Masa
When I make tamales using masa harina I always use masa harina specifically labelled for tamales.
The texture between this and the regular masa harina, the kind used for making corn tortillas, gorditas, and sopes, is a bit different. I personally feel that the “tamal” specific one gives a better texture for tamales — however, I previously on several occasion used regular masa harina and still have had good results.
Get whatever is easiest and more budget friendly for you. Make your tamales with lots of amor and they’ll be amazing!
Ingredients Used for Tamales Dough
The ingredients used in making tamales dough are quite simple and not too many.
• Fresh Masa or Masa Harina :
You can use fresh masa from the tortilleria, or grind up your own corn to make the masa. Make sure you’re getting just masa and not masa preparada or prepared masa. This dough is ready to use and usually has pork lard and animal broth — and needless to say we don’t want that!
At the tortilleria ask for unprepared masa or the same masa used to make their corn tortillas — do confirm that it’s fresh corn masa or nixtamalized corn dough. There’s a big difference between the two. From a tortilleria you want freshly ground corn masa.
If you can get the fresh masa then reach for the bag of masa harina.
• Baking Powder :
Baking powder is a leavener, of course, and it’s used to help make the masa less dense. In olden days they didn’t use it, instead the masa was just whipped enough to add that airiness. But it really is a great addition and I suggest you don’t skip it. It helps make the dough airy, light and fluffy and therefore a better smoother texture in the tamales.
• Salt :
Salt is seasoning used to help bring out the flavors of other ingredients. Don’t skip the salt, it makes the masa taste much better.
• Fats :
The traditional fat used is pork lard, and of course we don’t want to use that!
To mimic the most traditional recipes and textures I use vegetable shortening. I know it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s what I most commonly use for tamales.
If you don’t want to use shortening, you can use solidified coconut oil — but keep in mind that it may add a bit of flavor to the masa. Another option is to use vegetable oil, which is my second preferred option after the shortening. Some people also like to use olive oil, I have personally never done this because the olive oil that I buy has a strong taste. But you can experiment with whatever you like.
One of my sister uses butter to make both sweet and savory tamales. The butter I have access to is a very pure buttery taste so in my case I don’t enjoy that strong butter taste in my tamales. But if the butter you use is lighter in color and not a strong butter taste then it’ll work just fine.
In my recipe here I’m using shortening.
• Broth :
Always, always use vegetable broth to hydrate your savory masa for tamales!
Water will make your masa taste bland. So use either homemade vegetable broth, the cartons of vegetable broth or mix hot water with vegan bouillon powder flavored in vegetable, or vegan chicken broth or vegan beef bouillon.
• Milk and Juices for Sweet Tamales Masa :
When making sweet tamales you can use either milk or fruit juices to hydrate the masa.
For the milks it can be dairy for a vegetarian option. For the fruit juices it will depend highly on what the flavor of your tamales is.
I have used coconut milk, almond or soy milk and pineapple or apple use for my sweet tamales. You can see those recipe samples in my tamales ebook.
Variations of Tamales Masa Dough
My tamales masa is very flavorful, it really is the best masa and it’s easy to make both for beginners or the seasoned tamales maker.
You really don’t need to add anything else to it to make it taste delicious. But there are regional and family variations of tamales masa dough. You can experiment if you’d like, let me give you some suggestions.
- Some regions add chile sauce, made from red chiles like guajillos, to the masa to make red tamales. I’ve never seen salsa verde added though.
- Spices like onion powder, cumin powder, garlic powder can also be added to the masa harina or corn flour.
- When making sweet tamales sugar is added. The more traditional sweet tamales also has red dye added to it.
My tamale masa recipe without lard is perfect for all different kinds of tamales recipes with savory fillings. I’ll give you my basic sweet tamales masa recipe another time. But be sure that this recipe is going to get you through tamales season with no problems.
Is This Recipe Vegan
Short answer, Yes!!!
Instead of lard we’re using vegetable shortening.
Instead of chicken or beef broth, we’re using vegetable broth.
If you want lots of vegan savory tamales filling recipes then make sure you get a copy of my Mexican Tamales Made Meatless cookbook.
How to Make Tamales Masa | How Do You Make Masa For Tamales
Making tamales masa or dough for tamales is incredibly easy!
Make sure all of your ingredients are at room temperature so they combine better.
The first step is to whip the shortening until it’s softened and has a light an airy texture. You can do this either in a stand mixer bowl or with an electric mixer or hand mixer. Use a very large bowl or make sure that your stand mixer has a large mixing bowl capacity.
Next you’re going to add half of the masa harina into the whipped shortening. Then also sprinkle in the baking powder and the salt. Carefully on low speed begin to mix the ingredients until well combined. The results will be coarse breadcrumb texture.
Use a spatula to wipe down the sides and bottom of the bowl in order to help incorporated the ingredients as best as possible.
Next you’re going to add the remaining masa harina to the mixed bowl then pour in about 1 cup of the broth. Again use the spatula to scrape down the sides. Then slowly begin to mix the ingredients.
Little by little begin adding more and more of the broth until you have a well hydrated masa that is light, airy and well combined.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl then give it another mix.
The Tamales Dough Float Test
Once you have mixed all of the ingredients and you feel your masa is ready, you can do the masa “float test”.
Fill a small glass or bowl with room temp or warm water. Then grab a small amount of the mixed masa and drop it into the glass and it should float back to the top straightaway.
If the masa doesn’t float then it needs to be mixed more to have more air whipped into it. You can test again after more mixing.
So not everyone does this masa float test. You don’t have to do it, but I like to. This way I feel the ingredients are well combined, the masa is well hydrated and that the tamales won’t come out super dense.
Once the tamales masa mixture is prepared, and you’ve done the float test, you are ready to begin the process of spreading it on corn husks or banana leaves and stuff with your favorite filling.
Can You Make The Masa The Day Before
Yes you can! You can mix and prepare the masa one day and then the next day use it to make your tamales.
Store it in the refrigerator covered. The next day let it come to room temperature. You can also test it to see if it’s thickened up a bit too much. Test this by grabbing a soaked corn husk and use the back of a spoon to spread it. If it’s easy to spread you’re good to go, if it’s too difficult you may want to mix in a bit of vegetable broth.
Want to Try a Tamales Recipe
If you’ve been following my blog for a while now you know that I love authentic, easy recipes that are bursting with delicious flavors.
When I wrote my tamales cookbook I made sure to only include tamales recipes that were all of this. They are all delicious and even meat approved.
Perhaps the most popular of the vegan tamales recipe that was loved both by non-meat eaters and meat-eaters alike, was my vegan birria tamales. I created this unique recipe for the cookbook and now it’s been such a joy seeing the great reception that it has received.
So if you only make one tamales recipe of mine this year, make sure it’s the birria tamales. You’ll thank me, promise. Click here to get the recipe. You can cook them in a tamalera, a pot with a steamer basket, or the instant pot with a steamer rack insert.
Masa for Tamales Using Fresh Masa
If you have access to fresh masa from the tortilleria then you use it instead of masa harina.
The process is the same except you’ll need to use much less broth or liquid to hydrate the masa.
Additionally you’ll need to break up and constantly slowly add chunks of the masa as you mix. It won’t be all in one go like the masa harina.
Also if you ever have the chance to make tamales with fresh masa, do so. The taste is quite a bit better than masa harina.
Tamales Masa without Lard
As previously mentioned there is no lard in my recipe. The recipe is 100% vegan!
Masa for Tamales with Oil
If you would like to use oil instead of shortening for your masa for tamales, it’s no problem at all. Using oil is also a slightly healthier way of making tamales masa.
Use vegetable oil and use 3/4 cups to 1 cup vegetable oil instead of the 1 cup of shortening used in my recipe.
Tamales without a Mixer
If you don’t have either a handheld or stand mixer you can still make masa for tamales.
You can use a wooden spoon or really getting in there with your hands is the best option.
The process is exactly the same. Use your hands to whip the shortening then begin adding the other ingredients slowly until you have a well combined masa.
It’s going to take more elbow grease on your part, but you can absolutely do it!
Tamale Masa Recipe Without Lard
Ok amigos, you’ve got all the tips and tricks I could pass on to you to make the most delicious tamales for Christmas Eve, January 6th, Dia de la Candelaria, Dia de Muertos, or any special occasion when you want to make tamales.
Please notice that my recipe is for a small batch of tamales. But you can easily double or triple it without any problems. I’ve done this before with great results.
Do let me know if you have any questions and make sure you keep coming back for more tamales recipes and tons of tips and tricks for making authentic vegan tamales and vegetarian tamales.
Masa for Tamales without Lard
- 7 oz shortening at room temp, this is 1 cup
- 1.1 lbs masa harina for tamales I use Maseca brand
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 3 to 5 cups low sodium vegetable broth (at room temp)
To Make with Handheld or Stand Mixer
- Place the shortening in a large mixing bowl, remember the end mixture is going to yield 3 lbs so your bowl needs to be large enough. Whip the shortening until it’s creamy, light and almost fluffy.
- Add half of the masa harina, all the baking powder and the salt. Mix for a few minutes on low speed to help start incorporating the flour into the shortening. Little by little begin adding 1 cup of broth — but don’t add it all at once, it won’t only splash up all over the place, but you may not need to use all of the broth to get the correct consistency.
- Start increasing the speed and start adding the remaining masa harina until it’s all been added, and keep adding in more broth until you have a smooth and spreadable texture.
To Mix by Hand
- In a large bowl mix the shortening until it’s a creamy, smooth texture. Next add the baking powder and mix again until well combined. Then add the salt and start incorporating the masa harina and the broth little by little.
- Little by little begin pouring in the warm broth into the bowl. Keep going until you have a smooth masa that is spreadable. Watch my video and look at the photos for reference.
Want Vegan Tamales and Vegetarian Tamales Recipes
If you are looking for the most delicious vegan tamales and vegetarian tamales recipes make sure to grab a copy of my tamales cookbook!
Use discount code BLOG10 to get 10% off at check out!
Nancy Lopez is a food blogger and author of the cookbook Mexican Tamales Made Meatless. Born in Mexico, raised in the US, and currently living in Southern Mexico, she has followed a meatless diet for almost 10 years. It is her passion and mission to share all she has learned about vegan Mexican cooking and vegetarian Mexican recipes. Mexican Made Meatless is a blog dedicated to preserving the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine just without the meat. It’s a place to celebrate Mexican culture and all it’s delightfully delicious traditional foods. Read more…