Tamales with Ancho Chile Sauce

I’ve had it in my mind for some time to come up with a recipe for healthy tamales. A Christmas tradition for many Mexican families and ours was no different. Tamales are traditionally made with corn or masa, mixed with lard, filled with pork or chicken, wrapped in corn husks and then steamed. The process can be quite laborious, however, the end result is worth the few hours it takes. In my family, several of my aunts will get together and devote an entire day to tamale making. While my aunts will make hundreds in an afternoon, we will be making only a dozen or two. A couple tamales paired with my Mexi “Cauli” Rice and you have a delicious, healthy and very filling meal.

My Mexican grandmother passed away when I was in the 4th grade. Although my memories of her making tamales are quite vivid, there is no record of her recipes. She couldn’t read or write and spoke very broken English, she didn’t own cookbooks or have access to the Food Network. Instead, she measured with her hands and cooked from her heart. I regularly have lunch with one of my aunts, who has been able to help me with my Mexican cooking. Last week, we talked about tamale making over a burger which was just the inspiration I needed to bite the bullet and get in my test kitchen.

5 Easy Steps to Making Tamales

Follow these steps and your tamales will come together without a hitch.

Printable Recipe

Step 1. Masa or Corn “Dough”

Traditional masa or tamale dough is made from masa harina, which just means corn flour. Some Mexican markets sell fresh masa as well. We are using neither as both are higher in carbohydrates than I would prefer. While the tamale filling and sauce are simply healthy protein, fats and a little vegetable matter, the masa was needing “healthifying”. In order to reduce the carbs, which, by the way, I was able to significantly, I had to devise a dough that tasted similar using something other than corn flour. Imagine my surprise while wandering Whole Foods, when I stumbled on Native Forest Organic Cut Baby Corn. Not only is the can BPA-free, the corn Non-GMO, the whole shebang is <8 g carbs! The recipe as written makes enough masa for one dozen tamales. Incidentally, each tamale is 2 g net carbs, woot, woot!

Low Carb Masa Harina Image

Low-Carb Masa



1. Drain corn.
2. In food processor or Vitamix, process corn until no chunks appear.
3. Scrape corn mush into medium mixing bowl.
4. With a spoon, mix in sifted coconut flour as well as spices and then finally lard.
5. Refrigerate masa until ready for use.

Step 2. Meat Filling

While there are many different variations of tamale filling, my grandmother preferred shredded pork shoulder with ancho chile sauce. I regularly make pork shoulder roasts, as Carnitas are a staple meal around here. If you don’t regularly cook shoulder roast, you’ve got a couple options for how to do so. My preferred method is in the pressure cooker. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can use a Crock-Pot as well as the oven. However, be prepared, these two methods take several more hours. If the shoulder roast is cooked properly, you will be able to shred easily with a fork. This will make enough filling for one dozen tamales with plenty leftover to accompany your morning eggs or atop a bed of lettuce taco salad style, minus the chips.

Tamales with Ancho Chile Sauce

Pork Shoulder Roast


  • 2-3 lb. Boneless Pork Shoulder Roast
  • 1 c. Water


Slow Cooker
Add water to Crock-Pot. Do not trim or cut roast, instead place whole roast in Crock-Pot, cover and cook on low 8 hours.

Oven Method
Add water to a casserole dish Do not trim or cut roast, instead place whole roast in dish, cover and cook at 275°F for 8 hours.

Pressure Cooker
Add trivet to bottom of pressure cooker along with water and then the steamer basket. Trim roast, cut into large chunks and place in steamer basket. Cover cooker, bring to high pressure then reduce temperature and cook for 50 minutes. Remove pressure cooker from heat source and release pressure.

Step 3. Soften Corn Husks

Corn husks are easy to find in the Mexican section of your local grocer. They will cost you about $5 for a bag large enough to make several batches of tamales. The corn husks are softened in hot water, making them pliable enough to wrap your tamale in. It is best to start soaking the corn husks while you are working on your ancho chile sauce. It’s real simple, count out your corn husks plus a few extras and put in a large stock pot. Cover with hot water and place on burner at medium-high heat. We’re not boiling the husks, just keeping the water hot and the husks softening. The husks will float to the top of the water, so weigh it down with a plate or a lid smaller than your pot. The husks should be soft and pliable in about 30 minutes or so.

Step 4. Sauce

Ancho chile sauce is what my grandmother used to flavor the shredded pork. It gives it a lovely red hue as well as heat. I enjoy a little heat in my Mexican dishes, but if I want my kids or husband to enjoy them, I have to keep it to a simmering. This sauce is quite mild as written, however if you want to turn it up a notch or so, just add more of the reserved seeds.

Pork Tamale with Ancho Chile Sauce Image

 Ancho Chile Sauce


  • 3-4 Dried Ancho Chile Peppers
  • Water
  • 1 Organic Garlic Clove
  • 1/4 tsp. Cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp. Ground Cloves
  • 1 tsp. Celtic Sea Salt
  • 1 tsp. Ground Cumin
  • 1 tsp. Black Pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/8 tsp. Ancho Chile Seeds


  1. Remove stem and seeds from peppers by simply slicing across the top and down the middle.
  2. Reserve some of the seeds to add back in for “heat”.
  3. Place peppers in small saucepan and cover with water.
  4. Bring to boil and then remove from heat. Let sit 15 minutes.
  5. Add softened peppers, spices and 1 cup of soaking water to blender and process until smooth.
  6. Sprinkle in 1/8 tsp. of seeds, process and test for heat.
  7. Pour sauce back into saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes.
  8. Remove from heat and whisk in olive oil.
  9. Pour sauce over cooked and shredded pork. Mix thoroughly.

Step. 5 Assembly & Steaming

Let’s do a quick recap before the final step of assembly and steaming.  At this point, your masa should be in the refrigerator, the pork is cooked, shredded and swimming in sauce. The corn husks are softening in hot water and you are now starving! Let’s assemble. First things first, remove corn husks from water one at a time and gently dry off with a towel. Spread with masa, fill with meat, fold and place in steamer or pressure cooker seam side down. Steam for 45 minutes or pressure cooker for 15 minutes.

Tamale Assembly Image  

Now, before I could share this recipe with YOU, I had to test it out on my Dad, after all he is where I get my Mexican heritage from. I called him earlier in the day to tell him I had a special dinner prepared for him. I knew, if my low carb tamales passed his taste test, then they are most definitely blog worthy. He polished off a plate of three tamales along with some Mexi “cauli” rice giving it two thumbs up! That my friends, means a lot to me as he grew up eating authentic Mexican food. Special shout out to my Dad who is following my directive and eating low-carb. He lost 10 lbs. in just four short weeks. I am proud of you DAD!

Low-Carb Tamale with Pork Ancho Chile Filling and Mexi “Cauli” Rice

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Shauna says

    Thank you for alerting me to this post since you wrote it before I found you. I adore tamales. I am not sure I will go to all the work of making them very soon, but it’s nice to know I can. Where do you buy non-hydrogenated lard? Every time I find it, it’s hydrogenated.

  2. Grecia says

    I like your idea of making tamales healthier. I am on that route as well. I’d just like to mention though, the correct spelling for ”tamales” is tamal (no E). This has been perpetuated in many websites and sadly in Mexican restaurants because we continue to use the word incorrectly. I think it’s important to educate our audience in every respect when it comes to our culture. Keep up the good work!

    • HealthyLivingHowTo says

      Greica, I did not know this…and can’t find anything online regarding the proper spelling of tamal(e). I will ask my Dad and see what he says.

      • Josh says

        The singular is tamal. The plural is tamales. Carry on, healthylivinghowto. Grecia, if you’re gonna be a pedant, at least be correct.

  3. Beverly says

    Any thoughts on using the bacon fat from “clean” bacon as part of the lard component? All I can find is non hydrogenated palm oil, but I have plenty of bacon fat.

  4. Stephanie says

    Made these last night and they were amazing! This was my first attempt ever making tamales and now I’ll be making them often. Thank you!

  5. says

    I CANNOT wait to try these! Thank you so much… I am so happy I recently discovered your blog. My grandfather was Cuban and my Abuela was Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Mexican – so our food ran the gamut, as you can imagine. Tamales were always a great treat and I miss them so much… thank you again!

    • says

      I have made traditional tamales and now am trying to be healthier with age…………anyhow. I wonder if the coconut flour as the same texture as the masa? Also, I would try pork tenderloin (just learned it is the healthiest of cuts from nursing school). Thanks for your wonders!

  6. Nichole Keel says

    Hi I am so thankful for this recipe!!!! Can i use Bob’s Redmill Coconut flour instead? I know that different brands behave differently at times. My family is looking forward to making these!

  7. Eva says

    Have you tried to freeze these? If so, how did you reheat them? Also, do you think they’d work with a similar cut of beef? Can’t wait to try them!

  8. Peg says

    Happy New Year, Vanessa and a huge THANK YOU! I decided to make your low carb tamales for our New Year’s Day dinner. I am happy to say that my hubby and son thought these were just as good as the high carb variety. In fact I had been craving tamales and thought I’d just have to deal with the carbs when I found this recipe on your site.

    While I couldn’t find the brand of baby corn you used (our natural foods store is quite small–we aren’t lucky enough to have a Whole Foods that isn’t 50+ miles away) the masa came out just fine. My hubby kept remarking that it was just like masa!

    I’m going to try freezing them (wrapped individually) for when the tamale craving hits again.

    Thanks for all you do and I look forward to your new recipes this year.


  9. MrsAmyLW says

    Hello. Thank you so much for this recipe. I’ll be making it soon. I just wanted to let you know I found a better deal on the corn through Amazon. This is actually sold through Amazon and is eligible for Prime free 2 day shipping. It’s almost $10 less than the link you posted. It’s $15.54 for a pack of 6 cans.

  10. Mo says

    Thank you so much for this. My family just bought 125 pounds of roasted Hatch chiles in New Mexico (we’re green chile people), and I’m the only one who eats low-carb. I’m going to show this recipe to my mom. Tamal season starts in November. :) My mom makes them for us and sells them to make Christmas money.

  11. says

    Thank you for a great looking recipe! Can’t wait to try my hand at making tamales. I did want to say, after looking for organic corn husks online, you might consider recommending your readers (and you) use parchment paper. Aside from the fact that the corn husks are likely from GMO corn, who knows how many pesticides are on them. Just a thought. :)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *