Tamales de Puerco

pork tamales

pork tamales

Photo by Leela Cyd

For our Holiday Hostess Giveaway last week I asked you all to share the dishes that mean Christmas, Hanukkah or simply “holiday” to you and your family. In my home, the holidays mean tamales. I’m so happy that Santa Barbara Magazine did a feature on our annual Tinsel & Tamales party in their current issue.

red sauce

In Southern California, and especially Santa Barbara, homemade tamales are a coveted Christmas treat. Our city has such a rich Mexican heritage that is showcased deliciously during this festive season.

pork tamale recipe

Tamales are perfect party food; they can be made in advance, vegetarian and meat options are equally delicious and masa is gluten-free. Even more, they feel special and festive. All you need to round out the meal is a big bowl of winter greens and a glass of Champagne or tequila!

The recipe for these mouth-watering tamales came from Rica’s kitchen, a cooking tradition that has been a part of her family for generations. Rica is our amazing housekeeper, dear friend, and favorite cohort in la cocina. In all the years this recipe has been passed down it’s never been written down — until now.


The amazing Rica and a make-up free Val.

An important part of making tamales is to make them together with people you love. The time together prepping and cooking together is part of the magic. Some of my favorite holiday memories are with my favorite people gathered around the bowl of masa.

making tamales

These pork tamales are the perfect combination of spicy filling surrounded by moist masa. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.



Always the hands. This snapshot is from my Tamale Workshop at Four Season Biltmore last week.

Stay tuned for all my insider tamale making tips on Monday.

Tamales de Puerco

Tamales de Puerco 

This recipe makes approximately 18-20 tamales and is easily doubled to accommodate a bigger crowd.



Many recipes will tell you to use flour to thicken the red sauce but Rica says no way! The ancho chiles in the recipe help to thicken the sauce without the need for flour and using three different chiles adds great, deep flavor.

*Store left over dried chiles in the freezer


For the pork:

2 pounds pork butt

2 cloves garlic

½ large white onion, peeled

1 tablespoon, plus 2 teaspoons salt

1 bay leaf

Place the pork into a large pot and fill with enough water to cover the pork. Add the salt, garlic, onion and bay leaf. Place on medium-high heat and bring to a boil and skim the foam off the top with a spoon. Return to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat, partially cover the pot and cook the meat until tender, about 2 hours. Make sure the meat is covered with liquid while it is simmering and add more water if needed. Remove the pork from the pot to cool and reserve the cooking liquid. Shred the pork with your fingers or with two forks.


For the Red Sauce:

2 Ancho peppers, cleaned, seeds removed

7 Guajillo peppers, cleaned , seeds removed

3-5 Pulla peppers, cleaned, seeds removed (if you like it spicy go with 5)

3 cloves garlic

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted

Wash the chiles thoroughly and place in a pot of water over high heat. Bring the chiles to a boil and then turn the heat off. Let the chiles soak for 15 minutes. Drain the liquid and in a blender, puree the chiles with one cup of the pork juice, 3 garlic cloves and the toasted cumin. Blend until smooth and taste for seasoning.

Over medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a large sauté pan. Add the shredded pork, cooking until the meat is heated through. Stir in the red chile sauce and the remaining 1/3 cup of pork liquid. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

Each Tamale with have about one heaping tablespoon of pork.



For this recipe you can use the more traditional, lard or the non traditional, vegetable shortening. The lard will make a more authentic, delicious tamale but, the choice is yours. This is a very straightforward recipe but if you’re not up for making the masa, you can buy pre-made masa at most Mexican markets.  I love the masa from La Bella Rosa on San Andres on the west side in Santa Barbara.

Masa is corn that has been dried, soaked in lime water, washed and then ground while wet. The masa is dried and made into masa harina. You can buy masa harina at most grocery stores. Maseca is a good choice. If you want to go the organic, non-GMO route, use Bob’s Redmill Masa Harina. Both flours are gluten free.

Yields 2 1/2 lbs masa, approximately 18 tamales (can be doubled easily)

2 cups masa harina

3/4 tsp baking powder

1 3/4 cup cold water

3/4 cup cold lard or vegetable shortening

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

In a bowl, mix the water and masa harina and baking powder with your hands or with a wooden spoon until totally moist throughout. Set aside.

Combine the lard or shortening with the kosher salt in a mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix on high speed until it is fluffy and glossy about 2-3 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the masa mixture in spoonfuls making sure that it is fully incorporated before adding the more to the mixture. Combine until you have a soft, smooth dough. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to 2 days. The masa should be brought to room temperature before assembling.



1 masa recipe

1 package of dried corn husks (you will have extra)

1 package deli paper

Remove the corn husks from package and pull them apart making sure to remove all the corn hair or as Rica says “the pelo.” Soak the corn husks in hot water for 20 minutes. Drain the water and shake them a little if there is any excess water. If you have any extra husks just dry them on racks and they can be reused.

Determining which side to spread the masa can be tricky. It can be hard to tell which side of the husk to spread the masa on but it does matter. You want to spread your masa on the smooth side of the husk.  One side is more bumpy than the other and if you spread the masa on that side – it will be difficult to peel the tamale out of the husk. The masa will get stuck and your tamale will fall apart when it gets unwrapped. Feel the husk carefully to determine which side is smooth and which side has ridges.

Some corn husks will be smaller than others. It should span at least six inches at the base so you’ll be able to fold it over. You can add the two small pieces together using the masa as glue to piece them together.

Place the husk on top of the masa bowl and using a spoon or dough scraper, spread the masa in a ¼ to ½ inch layer on the corn husk all the way to the sides and on the bottom, leaving the top ¼ of the husk untouched. In the middle of the covered husk, place one large tablespoon of the pork filling in the center of the tamale. Fold the husk right side over, left side over, then fold the top over towards you.

Wrap each with tamale in deli wrap like a sandwich. This keeps the tamales moist during cooking.



Steam in a collapsible vegetable steamer set in the largest sauce pan you own.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and cook for 1 hour. Unwrap from the paper and serve warm.  To reheat, I like to use this method.