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Learn how to make tamales with my easy recipe and step-by-step instructions. Green Chicken Tamales are made with shredded chicken and a homemade tomatillo salsa wrapped in masa dough, then steamed in corn husks for a perfectly tender, flavorful tamale that everyone will love.
This versatile recipe is perfect for feeding a big crowd during the holidays or any time of the year. Or, make a double batch and freeze them for later!
Table of Contents
Ingredients for Chicken Tamales
Popular especially around the holidays, tamales feature a corn-based dough, or “masa,” wrapped around a filling and steamed in a corn husk. The filling is traditionally chicken, beef, or pork, but sweet tamales or cheese-filled are also popular. Chicken tamales are my favorite!
Here are the ingredients you need for my Green Chicken Tamales:
- Chicken Filling – Boneless, skinless chicken breast, garlic, onion, chicken bouillon, and water.
- Green Chile Sauce – Fresh tomatillos, onion, garlic, jalapeno and serrano chiles, chicken broth, salt, cilantro, and cumin. I love making the tomatillo sauce from scratch for the best and freshest flavor. If time is an issue you can use a jar of green salsa.
- Masa Dough – Vegetable shortening, yellow corn masa (I prefer Maseca brand Instant Yellow Corn Masa Flour), baking powder, salt, chicken broth, and green chile sauce.
- Corn Husks – You need about 30 corn husks for this recipe. You can find corn husks on Amazon, at most grocery stores, and at Mexican markets. They seem to also be readily available at Walmart. A 6-ounce package should contain 20-30 husks but could vary by brand.
- Queso Fresco
How To Make Chicken Tamales from Scratch
See recipe card below for ingredient quantities and full instructions.
While there are quite a few steps to making these green chile chicken tamales from scratch, they aren’t difficult to make. There are a number of shortcuts you can take as well, and I’ll include those in the notes below. In this section I will break down the recipe into easily manageable chunks.
Soak the corn husks. The husks need to be softened so they will be pliable and can be easily wrapped around the tamale. Separate the husks, remove any fine strands and soak them in boiling water (off of the heat) for about an hour.
Make the green chile sauce. Boiling tomatillos, onions, garlic, peppers and chicken broth, then blend the softened veggies with cilantro. Or if you prefer, you could roast the tomatillos and peppers like I do when I make Tomatillo Salsa. To make it less spicy, remove the seeds and membranes from the peppers before cooking them.
Cook the chicken. Boil the chicken in a large pot of water with garlic, onion, chicken bouillon. Remove the chicken to a bowl to shred, and strain the veggies from the liquid and save the broth to use later.
Make the filling. Shred the chicken and mix the green sauce with some queso fresco to form the chicken filling. Add a little of the broth if the chicken mixture seems dry.
Make the masa dough. The masa tamale dough is made with vegetable shortening, instant corn flour, baking powder, salt, chicken stock (from the boiled chicken) and some of the green sauce. The dough should be soft and fluffy and not sticky. Once the dough is formed, keep it covered with a damp paper towel so it won’t dry out as you work.
How to Assemble Tamales
- Dry the corn husks. Remove the corn husks from the water and pat them dry with paper towels.
- Spread the masa. Place corn husk in the palm of your hand with the rough side facing down, or place it on a flat source, like a kitchen counter or a cutting board. Carefully spread a thin layer of the masa dough onto the lower half of each corn husk using the back of a spoon, leaving a little space at the bottom. It may take some practice to get it just right – you want the masa to be thin, but not transparent so that it will completely wrap around the filling.
- Add the filling. Add a small spoonful of the chicken filling in the center of the masa and spread slightly. You only need a small amount or it will spill out the sides when you fold it.
- Fold. Fold in the sides of the husks, then fold the pointy end down (see photos). You can leave them like this and stuff them into the steaming pot, or tie them with a thin piece of husk or some cooking string.
How To Steam Tamales
- To start, you will need a steamer pot. Fill the bottom of the pot with water and add the steamer basket.
- Stand tamales upright in the pot, with the open side facing up. I placed a ball of foil in the center which helps to keep the tamales standing in case they don’t fill the pot and also helps air to circulate.
- Cover and bring to a boil, then steam for about an hour.
Important Note – The tamales should never be sitting in water. They will get mushy instead of tender and fluffy.
Other Ways to Cook Tamales
Slow Cooker Tamales – Layer tamales in the slow cooker, seam side down. Cook on high for 4-6 hours. The outer ones will cook a little faster. Test for doneness by pulling the husk away – if it separates easily, it’s ready.
Instant Pot Tamales – Add a cup of water to the bottom of your Instant Pot or pressure cooker, then add a steamer basket. Fill the pot with your tamales, open side up, and steam for 20 minutes. Do a high pressure, natural release and check for doneness.
You can easily swap out the filling for shredded beef or Carnitas, or even do a simple and meatless green chile and cheese filling. Sweet fillings include fruit preserves, raisins, pineapple, and nuts.
Storing, Freezing, and Reheating Instructions
- Refrigerator Storage – Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4-5 days. Reheat in the microwave, wrapped in a damp towel for about a few minutes with the husk on. It can take anywhere from 1-3 minutes to reheat.
- Freezing Tamales – Freeze in an airtight freezer bag or container for up to 4-5 months. For best results, wrap each tamale in parchment or plastic wrap first, then place in the freezer bag. Thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- Reheating Tamales – Reheat completely thawed tamales in the microwave, wrapped in a damp towel for about a few minutes with the husk on. It can take anywhere from 1-3 minutes to reheat.
- Split up the work. Tamales are a labor of love and can be an intimidating process. They are actually very easy, but time consuming. Try cutting the process into two parts, making the chicken and sauce one day and storing in the fridge, then making the masa and steaming the tamales the next day.
- Make it a party! Invite friends and family over and make it a tamalada, or “tamale party”. The work is much easier when you have help!
- Make a double batch. If you’re already doing the work, why not double it and freeze a batch for later?
- Soggy tamales? If water gets into the husk while they are cooking, the masa won’t cook properly and the tamale will be soggy. It’s important to make sure you wrap the corn husk tightly.
- Quick shortcuts – This filling is made with poached chicken and a homemade tomatillo salsa. To save time you could use a rotisserie chicken or make a big batch of shredded chicken in the instant pot or slow cooker. You will need about 3 cups of meat, preferably chicken breast, but dark meat works too. For the sauce, use a jarred green salsa.
- Shortening? The base of the recipe, and what binds it together, is vegetable shortening or lard. Shortening is usually found in the grocery aisle with the oils. If you are concerned about using this ingredient, Crisco brand has no trans fats so it’s the best option. If you really don’t want to use shortening, or can’t find it, you can use regular vegetable oil. Just beat it with the dry ingredients, then slowly add the broth like the recipe states.
Serve Tamales With These Sides
- Authentic Mexican Rice
- Slow Cooker Mexican Beans
- Mexican Street Corn Salad
- Fresh Homemade Salsa
- Homemade Horchata
Green Chile Chicken Tamales
For the chicken:
- 1.5 pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast or chicken breast tenders cleaned
- 1 head of garlic cut in half lengthwise
- 1 large white onion peeled with the ends cut off
- 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon chicken broth powder
- 8 cups water or enough to cover the chicken with 1 inch to spare at the top
For the sauce:
- 6-7 large tomatillos peeled, washed and cut into four pieces
- 1 large white onion peeled and cut in half
- 6 cloves garlic peeled
- 2 jalapeños with the stems cut off
- 1 serrano chile with the stem cut off
- 4 ½ cups chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 bunch of cilantro
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
For the masa:
- ¾ cup vegetable shortening
- 4 cups instant yellow corn masa flour I prefer the Maseca brand
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
- 5-7 cups chicken broth from the boiled chicken
- 30 corn husks
- 10 ounces Queso Fresco (I prefer the Cacique brand)
Corn Husk Prep
- Separate the corn husks from each other and remove any threads of silk.
- In a stockpot over high heat, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the corn husks, making sure to keep the husks separate. Let them soak for at least 1 hour before using them.
- To a medium saucepan, add chicken breast, garlic, onion, chicken bouillon and 6-8 cups of water. Water should be an inch above the ingredients.
- Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through; about 10-12 minutes.
- Transfer chicken to a plate and strain the vegetables and broth through a fine mesh strainer, reserving and setting aside the broth to use again.
- Meanwhile, in another pot, cook the ingredients for the sauce.
- Add the tomatillos, white onion, garlic, jalapeños, serranos, chicken broth and salt to a large boiling pot and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the tomatillos start to turn yellow.
- Strain the vegetables from the broth (no need to reserve) and add them to a blender. Sprinkle in cumin powder.
- Let cool for 10-15 minutes, then blend until a smooth sauce forms. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Reserve about ¾ cup of the sauce and set it aside for use in the dough.
- Pour the reserved broth into one of the saucepans simmer over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Shred the chicken, add it to the large bowl of sauce and stir to combine. Stir in the queso fresco. If the chicken mixture seems dry, add the warmed chicken broth a little bit at a time until desired consistency is reached. Add salt to taste.
- To the large bowl of a stand mixer, add vegetable shortening and whip until fluffy and smooth (about 5 minutes).
- In a separate bowl, mix together the instant corn flour, baking powder and salt then beat into the shortening until well incorporated.
- Gradually add chicken stock, a little at a time, and beat on low speed until all broth has been added and a dough has formed. Increase speed to medium and beat for 10 minutes, until the dough is nice and fluffy. Pour in the reserve ¾ cup of green sauce and mix again on medium-low speed for several minutes. Taste and add more salt as needed. Cover with a damp paper towel so it doesn’t dry out.
Tamale Assembly (visual instructions are included in the post)
- Lay a cornhusk, rough side down, on a flat surface or hold it in your hand. Spread about 2-3 tablespoons of masa onto the lower half of the cornhusk, leaving a small border at the bottom. Spread the masa out evenly, not too thin or thick.
- Add 1-2 tablespoons of the chicken mixture to the center. Fold in the sides of the husks then fold down the top, like a burrito. Repeat until all of the filling is used. Discard any leftover masa.
- Optional: tie the husks with a small shred of husk or some cooking string. This isn’t always necessary, but will help to hold the husk in place and could be helpful in identifying if you are making different varieties of fillings.
Steam the tamales
- Add water to the bottom of a large pot and add a steamer basket.
- Add three or four small pieces of soaked corn husks to the bottom of the pot. Smash a large piece of aluminum foil into a ball and add it to the center of the pan.
- Place filled and wrapped tamales, standing open side up, into the pot. Lean against the foil and work your way out. Slide three or four large corn husks down the sides of the pan around the tamales and cover the pot with the lid.
- Turn heat to medium high and cook for one hour, adding water down the side of the pot every 15-20 minutes or whenever the water has run out. Be careful not to pour the water over the tamales and don’t fill above the steamer basket.
- To test for doneness, pull a tamale from the pot and try to remove the husk. If it separates easily, it’s done. If not, cook for an additional 15 minutes or more as needed.
- Remove the pan from the heat and let the tamales cool for 15-30 minutes before serving.
- Storage: Tamales can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4-5 days or frozen for up to 4-5 months. Thaw before reheating.
- Optional filling variations: For a simplified filling, shred 2-3 cups rotisserie chicken and combine with a 16-ounce jar of salsa verde (I like Herdez brand) and the queso fresco cheese.
- Instead of shortening or lard, you can use vegetable oil. No need to beat, just mix with the dry ingredients for the dough.