Skip to content

Adobo Chicken Tamales

December 19, 2013

Making Adobo Chicken TamalesPin it!

This year marks the third Christmas since Paula and I started dating.

Not that we’ve gotten to spend all of those Christmases together… Last year I’d been visiting family in Wisconsin on my own, and I planned to fly home to California on Christmas morning to spend the holiday with Paula, but my flight got cancelled. (And not even for weather-related reasons! The entire crew had called in sick. Or possibly “sick”; I’m not sure which one.)

After initially being told that the airline couldn’t get me on another flight until early January (?!), I considered it to be a miracle when they found me seats with a different airline the very next day.

Adobo Chicken and Chile Cheese TamalesPin it!

So I resigned myself to an additional 24 hours of keeping my back muscles tensed against the cold Wisconsin weather, before I could finally make it back to California and relax them. (And before I could see Paula, who had spent Christmas day solo, eating Chinese take-out and biking to the beach.)

Making Adobo Chicken Tamales

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you may remember that the very first Christmas after we started dating, Paula and I began a yearly tradition of making tamales together. But with my trip to Wisconsin last winter, we never made time for a major Tamale-Making Event. So I suppose it would be more accurate to call it an every-other-yearly tradition.

Tamale Masa Harina

Anyway, the tradition is back! And this time we even made our own vegetarian (!) tamale masa (dough) from scratch. It was just a little more effort, but very very worth it.

Seeding and deveining guajillo chile peppers

We actually made these tamales on Thanksgiving day, squeezed in between our two Thanksgivnukkah dinner parties. Then we stored most of the tamales in our freezer to last us until Christmas and beyond… (they freeze really well).

Besides making masa from scratch, we made a few other changes this year, too.

Guajillo Adobo Sauce

Whereas last time we made green chicken tamales—with homemade roasted tomatillo salsa—this time we made red chicken tamales, with a filling based on the guajillo adobo sauce recipe in Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibañez.

Rajas (green chile pepper strips)

Last time we made vegetarian tamales by roasting and peeling our own poblano chile peppers, which was such a pain that I wasn’t convinced it was worth it (until I got to eat them…). This year, having no patience for pepper peeling, I invested in a can of mild whole green chiles and simply sliced them up: instant rajas that are delectable, smushed inside a tamale along with melty sliced pepperjack cheese.

Folded tamales, ready for steaming

We skipped the bean + cheese combination this year (and skipped making strawberry dessert tamales, although we still made apple cinnamon ones… stay tuned!), opting for efficiency and quantity over variety, and wow did we succeed in the quantity department: we made 30 chile+cheese tamales, 34 apple cinnamon tamales, and 56 adobo chicken tamales. Pair them with rice and beans, and two or three tamales make a meal. That means we made over 30 freezer meals (and just as many desserts) in one day—not bad!

Adobo Chicken and Chile Cheese TamalesPin it!

We also folded them a little differently (i.e., better!), by first folding the husks in half to press the masa dough together at its edges, sealing the masa in a rectangular shape around the fillings in the center, before rolling up the excess sides of the husks around the tamales and folding up the bottoms to keep it all together.

Folding up the end of the tamalesPin it!

But I haven’t even gotten to the most important difference from last time yet: I really lucked out at the Mexican grocery store. First when I was buying masa harina (a flour made from dried corn), a woman who worked there confirmed that I should buy the tamale masa harina, specifically for making tamales (versus other masa harina that’s better for tortillas). Later, the cashier took one look at all of the corn husks in my basket and asked if I was making tamales (he said he hoped I wasn’t making that many on my own and that I’d have help!).

Making Adobo Chicken TamalesPin it!

Then he gave me the best tamale-making tip ever: apparently the bumpy, ribbed corn husks have a rough side and a smooth side—even though both sides seem pretty rough until you examine them closely. His tip for perfect tamales that don’t stick to their husks after steaming: make sure to add your fillings to the smooth side, keeping the rough side out!

Adobo Chicken and Chile Cheese TamalesPin it!

Paula and I both couldn’t believe we’d never noticed or heard that before—it really makes a difference, for perfectly smooth steamed tamales that just tumble out of their husks every time.

Adobo Chicken TamalesPin it!

(It turned out the woman who’d recommended the tamale masa harina to me was the cashier’s wife, and the two of them had just made a big batch of tamales that weekend.)

Tamales with green chile and pepperjack cheesePin it!

After about a 10-hour day of cooking chicken, making adobo sauce, mixing up tamale masa, filling and folding the tamales (while listening to an audiobook of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on our ipod speakers), then steaming the tamales in batches while eating Thanksgivnukkah leftovers and watching movies, Paula and I both agreed that it was a lovely way to spend a day.

Packing the tamales into the steamer basket

We also agreed that it was completely worthwhile to put the time and effort into making our own tamales, to stock the freezer and share with family, and that we should totally do it more often. In fact, we decided we should do it again sometime soon, maybe even before Christmas time next year. You know, just as we’d also agreed two years ago, the last time we made them.

Assembling the Adobo Chicken TamalesPin it!

Print this recipe. (PDF)


Adobo Chicken Tamales
(Adapted from Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibañez)

(Makes about 28-30 tamales) (We doubled this.)

Active time: 2.5 hours; Total time: 5-5.5 hours, plus soaking husks overnight.

For the Vegetarian Tamale Masa (Dough):
~ 3 cups tamale masa harina
~ 1½ tsp. baking powder
~ 1 tsp. fine sea salt
~ 2 cups warm (room temperature) water or vegetable broth
~ 1 cup vegetable shortening (or 1/2 cup shortening, 1/2 cup vegetable oil)
~ ⅔ cup vegetable oil (in addition to any used instead of shortening)

For the Chicken:
~ 1½ pounds chicken
~ half an onion, peeled but kept intact
~ 1 clove of garlic, peeled
~ ½ tsp. salt
~ ¾ cup vegetable broth (reserved until later when combining with sauce)

For the Guajillo Adobo Sauce (freezes well):
~ 1½ oz. guajillo chiles (6), seeded and deveined
~ ⅓ cup water (or more if needed, to blend the chiles)
~ 1 clove of garlic, peeled
~ 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
~ ¼-½ tsp. fine sea salt, to taste
~ ¼-½ tsp. sugar, to taste
~ ¼ tsp. ground cumin

For the Tamales:
~ about 60 tamale husks (for 30 tamales, since some will be used to cover tamales while steaming, and some will be un-useable)

Special equipment needed:
~ an electric mixer
~ a blender
~ a pasta pot with a steamer basket, or other way of holding tamales upright for steaming

Vegetarian Variation: Instead of chicken in adobo sauce, fill the tamales with slivers of mild green chiles (from a 13-15 oz. can, drained, seeded, and sliced), and slivers of pepperjack cheese.

How to make it:

1. Soak the corn husks in a large bucket or stockpot of water overnight, weighing them down to submerge them if necessary.

Soaking the corn husks

2. Make the masa: In a medium bowl, whisk together the tamale masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Then pour in the water or broth and mix well with a rubber spatula (or your hands). In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the shortening for 5-6 minutes until fluffy (if substituting some vegetable oil, do not add any oil yet). Add half of the dough mixture from the medium bowl to the shortening in the large bowl, and beat with the mixer. Then add the remaining dough along with all of the vegetable oil, and beat for 10-15 minutes until the whole thing is the texture of frosting. Set aside until you’re ready to assemble the tamales.

Beating the vegetable shortening              Frosting-textured tamale masa seasoned with vegetable broth

3. Cook the chicken: Add the chicken to a large stockpot and fill with water. Add the half onion, clove of garlic, and salt, and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken to a plate to cool and discard cooking liquid. Once cool, shred chicken using fingers or forks.

Toasting the guajillo chile peppersSoaking the toasted guajillo chile peppers

4. Make the adobo sauce: Heat a skillet over medium-low and toast the seeded, deveined guajillo chiles, turning them often with tongs, until fragrant (about 45-60 seconds each). Then soak the toasted chiles in a bowl of cold water for 30 minutes or until soft. Discard soaking water and place the chiles in a blender along with the remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth, adding a little more water if needed. Optionally strain for a smoother sauce.

Adobo Chicken for Tamales

5. In a large stockpot, add the adobo sauce to the shredded chicken along with ¾ cup vegetable broth and simmer for 30 minutes, covered, then an additional 15-30 minutes until the liquid has reduced. (Watch for splattering.) Let cool and drain/discard any remaining liquid.

6. Assemble the tamales: drain the soaked corn husks; inspect them for holes, mold, or insects (and discard any bad ones); then pat dry and stack on a clean dish towel. To fill a tamale, first identify the smooth side of the husk, then place a heaping spoonful of masa near the top of the center of the smooth side and use a spoon or silicone spatula to spread out the masa into a square (leaving the bottom half of the husk and the two side edges uncovered). Then place a few small pinches of chicken down the center of the square. Holding the two edges of the husk, bring them together so that the masa square seals around the chicken filling; then roll up the rest of the husk around the tamale and fold up the bottom. Stack on a plate, tray, or baking sheet until the tamales are all folded and ready to steam.

How to fold a tamale            How to fold a tamale

7. To steam, pack tamales tightly together—open side-up—into a steamer basket of a pasta pot, or into any type of steamer that will keep the tamales suspended over at least an inch of boiling water. Cover the tamales with additional corn husks then a damp kitchen cloth (to keep all of the moisture and steam in), then the lid, and steam for about 1 hour, until a tamale that has been taken out and cooled for 5 minutes separates easily from its husk when unwrapped. Remove steamed tamales carefully and let cool at least 5 minutes. Serve warm with hot sauce, and a side of rice and beans.

To freeze tamales, wrap individual tamales (or bunches of 2-3) in plastic wrap, then place wrapped tamale bundles into a large freezer bag. Defrost overnight in the fridge, then re-heat by microwaving them while still in their husks.

Print this recipe! (PDF)

Making Adobo Chicken TamalesPin it!

Adobo Chicken and Chile Cheese TamalesPin it!

Related recipe posts:

Christmas Tamales with Chicken and Poblanos Avocado Chicken Tacos Mole Poblano with chicken, pinto beans, and Spanish rice Layered Chicken Enchiladas & Spanish Rice
Christmas Tamales with Chicken and Poblanos Avocado Chicken Tacos Mole Poblano Layered Chicken Enchiladas & Spanish Rice
50 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2013 10:00 am

    What a glorious post! Being from California, tamales will always mean Christmas to me. After reading this, I admire all the work you’ve put into the tamales. Thanks for the hints. Now, I am inspired to dig out my recipe for pork tamales.

    • December 19, 2013 10:14 am

      Thanks for your comment, Arlene! :) Tamales are a lot of work, but in a wonderfully rewarding way. I think Paula and I always really mean it when we say “we should make these again sometime soon” even if we don’t get around to it until the next Christmas…

      I’m glad we could inspire you to look for your pork tamale recipe… and just in time for Christmas!

  2. December 19, 2013 1:00 pm

    Amazing! Honestly, tamales are one of my favorite totally-time-consuming-but-so-worth-it-especially-if-you-have-good-company-to-help projects. The difference between a homemade tamale and a restaurant tamale is just so vast.

    Love the tips about the masa/husks, too! I had no idea.

    This whole post is just wonderful–sounds like you ladies had a great day! Happy holidays!

    • December 20, 2013 9:19 am

      Thank you, Danguole! I agree—our homemade tamales turned out better than most restaurant tamales we’ve eaten in the past year (not an insignificant number), and they definitely turned out better than the last tamales we made two years ago, both because of the homemade masa and because of the tip about using the smooth side of the husks. Happy holidays to you, too!

  3. December 19, 2013 3:07 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post, I got a sense of concentrating over a dish that requires time and love. Your pics are fab, I hope you have a lovely Christmas x

    • December 20, 2013 9:20 am

      Thank you, Deena! That’s exactly what a cooking project as big as tamale-making requires—time and love. Merry Christmas to you, too!

  4. December 19, 2013 4:33 pm

    so you know those recipes that turn out so beautiful you feel bad eating them?

    yeah, well, i’m never going to make your tamales because they would just sit around on my counter. you might want to start making your food far uglier if you want me to try cooking it. ;)

    as always allison, super impressed. i hope you and paula have a great new years.

    • December 20, 2013 9:25 am

      Aw, I will take that as high praise, but I still think you’d somehow muster the appetite to eat your tamales, especially after all of the work it takes to assemble them. :)

      (Also, I would like to thank the Mexican grocery store cashier for making my tamales look (more) beautiful with his smooth-side-of-the-husks tip.)

      Hope you have a great new year’s, too! よいお年を!

  5. December 19, 2013 4:51 pm

    Love it. So glad you posted the recipe because I’ve always wanted to make tamales, but didn’t know how. Now I’ll be able to do it. I also didn’t know the corn husks were smooth on one side, and we raised corn for years. Just never occurred to me to really look at the husks after spending several days shucking and freezing it.

    • December 20, 2013 9:27 am

      Wow, that’s funny that you’ve had so much hands-on experience with shucking corn and didn’t notice the smooth/rough side thing, either! That makes me feel less bad that we didn’t notice it the last time we made tamales—it’s hard to tell unless you look/feel very closely…

      I hope you do try making tamales! It’s a lot of time and work (and don’t try it without at least one other person to help you!), but very worth it.

      • December 20, 2013 9:06 pm

        I’ll make them when my granddaughter is spending the night with me. We love doing things together. I’ve made chimichangas alone and it took two days to accomplish, but always make enough for the freezer. Broke my shoulder 2 weeks ago, so eating out of the freezer right now. Glad I filled it so full during the summer. You and Paula have a great holiday.

      • December 21, 2013 10:26 am

        Wow, that’s lucky you cooked enough to fill your fridge over the summer! I hope your shoulder heals quickly and that you have a great holiday, too!

  6. December 19, 2013 5:44 pm

    Hell yes tamales!

  7. December 19, 2013 8:18 pm

    Love this post, beautiful background story and pictures – as always! Looks like a lot of work but worth it!! If I get a hand of those corn husks, I must try it!! ;-) Thanks for sharing and I wish you a wonderful Christmas!! Enjoy!!

    • December 20, 2013 9:38 am

      Thanks, Sylvia! It shouldn’t be too hard to find corn husks in Miami—I got mine at a Mexican grocery store. They just come in plastic packages, maybe 50 or 60 to a pack. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas, too!

  8. afracooking permalink
    December 20, 2013 3:08 am

    I have never even eaten tamales so it is so wonderful to read that for you they are even a tradition. Well, if I ever find corn husks I will certainly make them! Wishing you a warm and loving christmas together!

    • December 20, 2013 9:40 am

      Thanks! I hope you can find corn husks to give them a try! (Like I just said in response to the comment above, I bought the husks for these tamales at a Mexican grocery store and just picked up a few plastic packs that each came with 50 or 60.) Wishing you a wonderful Christmas, too!

  9. debbeedoodles permalink
    December 20, 2013 5:33 am

    This looks amazing! Mexican food is so addicting!

    • December 20, 2013 9:42 am

      Thanks! I know; I am huge fan of Mexican food, and I feel so lucky that Paula knows so much about making it—we based this off a recipe in a cookbook, but often our Mexican recipes just come from Paula’s memory!

  10. December 20, 2013 5:36 am

    Lovely! And what a nice nearly annual tradition!

  11. December 20, 2013 10:03 am

    Wow these look amazing. It’s funny that you mention strawberry tamales. I had them for the first time at a posada (christmas party). I prefer savory tamales, but definitely an interesting combo! I’ve never tried making tamales but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Guatemalan tamales are different than the Mexican ones (like the kind you made here). I’ll need to get an awesome recipe and try it.
    Wishing you and Paula a very Merry Christmas!

    • December 21, 2013 10:31 am

      Yes, I would love to make strawberry tamales again—ours were really tasty last time, but I had cooked the strawberries down too much, until they were a little too liquidy to make a nice tamale filling, so they were also pretty messy… maybe I’ll try again next year and get it right. This year we only made sweet cinnamon apple ones (and I’ll be posting the recipe for those in early January!).

      I’m curious about in what ways Guatemalan tamales are different from Mexican ones? I’d be really interested to see any tamale-related recipes you post! :)

      Hope you have a very merry Christmas, too!

  12. December 20, 2013 12:47 pm

    oh my goodness – I want some of these but actually what I mean is that I just want to fly out to California and try yours! SO fabulous looking. Merry Christmas to you both.

    • December 21, 2013 10:32 am

      Haha, well you’d be very welcome to do so! My parents are here visiting me from Wisconsin, so we just re-steamed a bunch of tamales that’d been in the freezer for our dinner together last night!

      Merry Christmas to you, too!

  13. December 20, 2013 7:20 pm

    What a wonderful tradition! And those tamales look great.

    • December 21, 2013 10:42 am

      Thanks, Michelle! I know, I hope we can turn our every-other-yearly tradition into an actual yearly one; it only takes one (entire) day!

  14. December 20, 2013 8:12 pm

    I love tamales..the shell just makes my mouth water!

    • December 21, 2013 10:43 am

      Thanks, Brittany! I love tamales, too! I’m so grateful that Paula is just as into making them as I am (and that she’d made them enough times in the past to really know what she was doing!).

  15. December 22, 2013 8:12 am

    I love cooking traditions, and this sounds like a lovely one! How lucky to have some stashed away to eat in the New Year :)

    • December 26, 2013 4:42 pm

      Thanks, Heather! I know; it’s an awesome tradition, not just for the enjoyable productive day in the kitchen but also for the freezer tamale stash it creates! We already enjoyed a nice meal with my parents who are visiting just by cooking up some Spanish rice and re-fried beans to serve alongside the tamales. :)

  16. December 22, 2013 7:17 pm

    Oh my gosh, these look divine. I’ve only made “Chinese tamales” before (the kind in lotus leaves with sticky rice). I’d love to try these sometime. And love your unique Christmas tradition — this is the first Christmas that Bowl #2 and I are spending together, so hopefully we can start making one just as fun as this.

    • December 26, 2013 4:45 pm

      Thanks! Just glancing at your comment, I totally first read your “Chinese tamales” as “Christmas tamales” and thought, but that’s the kind that we just made! Haha. Anyway, I loooove those lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice bundles, too; I’ve just never heard them referred to as “Chinese tamales” before, but that’s appropriate. :)

      You and Bowl #2 should totally create your own Christmas (or New Year’s, or whenever) cooking traditions to come back to year after year! (And I’m glad that just because Paula and I didn’t make time for this during our 2nd Christmas together, we’ve still already brought it back for our 3rd.)

  17. December 22, 2013 7:40 pm

    These are beautiful. I love tamales. It does seem like a worthwhile task. I’m so impressed. I think my mother in law from colombia would love these. You really set the stage so perfectly for these. Great photos. Really beautiful post. You’re such a versatile cook.

    • December 26, 2013 4:47 pm

      Thank you, Amanda! I always feel super inspired to continue my blogging efforts when I read your encouraging comments.

      Some of the versatility in my cooking is due to Paula—not just her tamale-making expertise, but also the fact that this is not the sort of recipe you should attempt without at least one other person to help! (And the rest of it is due to me constantly craving variety in terms of what I get to eat!)

  18. December 24, 2013 12:29 am

    I love these photos! I also love that you have tried so many different fillings for your tamales. My family and I have always make pork with red chile, beef with red chile and monterey jack with green chile but I would love to try something new. Your strawberry ones sound intriguing :) Anyway, thanks for sharing!!!

    • December 26, 2013 4:50 pm

      Thank you so much! Your tamales all sound awesome, too. I’m not sure if you took a look at my older post (the photos are old too, and not very nice…) where we made green chicken tamales in roasted tomatillo salsa, but that time we also made pepperjack + green chile and pinto bean + pepperjack cheese. Monterey jack would be delicious, too—and in that case I’d pile in more rajas chile pepper strips since it wouldn’t be too spicy!

      The strawberry ones were delicious but messy! I actually cooked the strawberries down too much so they ended up a little too liquidy to make for a nice tamale filling. The applesauce ones (while not traditional) worked out much better—and actually I’ll be posting a recipe for those next Thursday! :)

  19. January 2, 2014 12:41 am

    Loved this post. So, so nice hearing about how you and Paula started the ‘bi-annual’ tradition… hopefully it’ll become annual from now on! I’ve never made nor eaten a tamale. They don’t seem to be common in Mexican restaurants here in West Australia, we’re more into the burrito and taco type of food… which probably means that most of the restaurants aren’t really that authentic. Hm, I think I’ll have to try your recipe and sample me some tamale deliciousness!

    • January 2, 2014 10:11 am

      Thank you, Laura! I also hope this will become a real annual tradition of ours—I’m planning on it!

      That’s too bad you can mostly only get burritos & tacos in West Australia… I can imagine the dearth of Mexican food (and necessary ingredients!), having lived in Japan—where there aren’t even burritos or tacos!

      I would love to hear back from you if you’re able to find the corn husks and masa harina there to make your own tamales! (I don’t think I’d ever tried a tamale growing up in the midwest of the U.S.—maybe not until I’d moved to California.) They are seriously delicious!

  20. January 7, 2014 4:51 pm

    My family would make tamales every Christmas. All of my aunts, and some cousins would come over and we would make a day of it. I recently moved away from them and this post is a nice reminder to revisit some of my family’s traditions. Great post!

    • January 10, 2014 10:29 am

      Aw, well I’m glad to have been able to remind you of what sounds like such good times. :) Hope you and your family can have a reunion tamale-making session at some point soon, whether it’s around Christmas time or not!

  21. olgafanin permalink
    February 12, 2014 8:14 pm

    Ok I want one now! Absolutely love tamales….and now I’m craving some :)


  1. Cinnamon Apple Tamales | spontaneous tomato
  2. Chicken Pozole (Guest Post) | spontaneous tomato
  3. Taquería-Style Creamy Avocado Salsa | spontaneous tomato
  4. The Wedding! | spontaneous tomato

Leave a Reply to superfoodista Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: