Tamales are a traditional Latin American dish made from masa (corn dough) that is stuffed with a savory filling and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. Determining how much meat to use when making tamales can be tricky, as it depends on the size of the tamales and how meat-centric you want them to be. Here’s a quick overview of how much meat per tamale you typically need:
For average size tamales (about 4 inches long), you’ll need around 1.5-2 ounces of meat per tamale. This equates to 30-40 grams of meatstuffing per tamale. The exact amount can vary based on the size of the tamales and how meat-focused you want the filling to be.
Tamale Filling Basics
Traditional tamale fillings are usually meat-based. Pork and chicken are the most common meats used. Beef, turkey, chorizo sausage, shredded fish, and even vegetarian proteins like beans can also be used. The meat is typically simmered and shredded. Traditional seasonings include garlic, onion, chile peppers, cumin, oregano, pepper, and salt.
In addition to the seasoned meat, tamale fillings also usually contain some combination of:
- Sautéed aromatics like garlic, onions, chiles
- Tomato products like sauce, paste or purée
- Spices and dried herbs
- Mild peppers or chiles for some heat
- Veggies like potatoes, corn, zucchini, spinach
- Beans or lentils
- Rice, quinoa or other grains
- Olives, raisins or other fruits
- Cheese like queso fresco or cotija
The meat acts as the central component and the additional ingredients lend flavor, texture, color and bulk to the filling. The exact ingredients and proportions used depend on the type of tamale being made.
When making tamales, you want to achieve the right balance of masa dough to meat filling. Too much masa and the tamales will be dense and doughy. Too much filling and they may burst or be difficult to roll properly. Here are some general guidelines on meat-to-masa proportions:
- 1 pound of meat will fill 12-15 average size tamales
- Use between 1.5 – 2 ounces of meat per tamale
- The meat filling should make up 25%-30% of the total volume of each rolled tamale
- The remaining 70-75% should be masa dough
So for every pound of meat you prepare, you’ll want around 4-5 cups of masa dough to properly fill out the tamales. It’s better to start on the lower end with the meat and add more as needed. You can always make extra masa dough. Too much filling is harder to adjust for.
Meat Amount by Tamale Count
Figuring about 1.5 ounces of meat per tamale is a safe standard amount. Here is how much meat you’ll need for different batch sizes:
To put it another way, for every 12 tamales you want to make, you’ll need around 1 pound of meat for the filling. Simply scale up for larger batches – 24 tamales = 2 pounds meat, 36 = 3 pounds, etc.
Meat Amount by Weight
Another option is to gauge the amount of meat needed based on the total weight of the batch. A generally accepted standard is to use between 25-30% meat by weight. Here are some examples:
- For 5 pounds total dough, use 1.25-1.5 pounds meat
- For 10 pounds total dough, use 2.5-3 pounds meat
- For 15 pounds total dough, use 3.75-4.5 pounds meat
- For 20 pounds total dough, use 5-6 pounds meat
So for a larger batch of tamale dough, simply take a quarter to a third of the total weight in meat. This will ensure you get the right meat-to-masa ratio.
The ideal amount of meat per tamale may also vary slightly depending on the size you make them:
- Small tamales (3 inches long): 1 – 1.25 ounces meat per tamale
- Average tamales (4 inches long): 1.5 – 2 ounces meat per tamale
- Large tamales (5 inches or longer): 2 – 3 ounces meat per tamale
For smaller tamales, err on the lower end of around 1 ounce per tamale. For larger ones, using 2-3 ounces of filling ensures you get good meat flavor and texture throughout. Adjust the total meat amount based on tamale size and how meaty you want them.
Filling Fat Percentage
The ideal fat percentage in tamale filling varies, but 15-20% fat is typical for a nicely flavored and moist filling:
- 15% fat – Leaner meat like chicken or turkey breast
- 20% fat – Fattier meats like pork shoulder or beef chuck
Fattier meats like pork butt or beef chuck help create juicy, flavorful fillings. Going too lean can make the tamales dry. When using leaner meats, incorporate some of the fatty pan drippings into the shredded meat to boost moisture and flavor.
Adjusting Meat Amount
The ideal amount of meat per tamale filling ultimately comes down to personal preference. Start with the guidelines above, then adjust to your tastes. Here are some tips:
- For more meaty tamales, go up to 2.5 ounces meat per tamale
- For milder tasting tamales, reduce to 1 ounce meat per tamale
- Add extra meat to larger tamale sizes
- Reduce slightly for smaller tamale sizes
- Add more fat/drippings to lean meats for moisture
- Increase total meat amount for very meat-focused tamales
It can take some trial and error to find your ideal meat-to-masa balance. The pointers above provide a useful starting point. Have fun experimenting!
While traditional tamales are filled with meat, vegetarian options are also popular. Some common non-meat fillings include:
- Cheese – queso fresco, Oaxaca, cotija
- Beans – refried, black, pinto
- Veggies – spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers
- Potatoes – mashed or mixed with other veggies
- Corn – kernels, poblano rajas (strips)
The same general filling guidelines apply to non-meat tamales. Use 1.5 – 2 ounces of cheese, bean or vegetable mixture per tamale. Make sure the fillings aren’t too wet or they may make the masa soggy.
Masa Ingredient Ratios
When making tamale dough or masa, here are some standard ingredient ratios:
- 2 parts masa harina (finely ground corn flour) to 1 part stock/water
- 1 teaspoon baking powder per 2 cups masa harina
- 1/2 cup lard or shortening per 2 cups masa
- 1 teaspoon salt per 2 cups masa
This makes a nice pliable dough that is easy to spread on the corn husks or banana leaves. The lard adds moisture and flavor. Too much liquid makes the dough runny and hard to handle. Too little produces a stiff, crumbly mixture. The ratios above will yield a good consistency.
Here are some additional useful tips when making tamale fillings:
- Simmer meats until very tender before shredding
- Save fatty cooking liquids to add moisture to fillings
- Sauté aromatics like garlic, onions, chiles in oil before adding to filling
- Use both fresh and dried herbs and spices for flavor
- Cook any vegetables before adding to filling
- Add a portion of the filling to a test tamale before cooking entire batch
- Steam tamales until masa pulls away easily from husk or leaf
Properly seasoned, cooked and balanced fillings are key to delicious tamales. Now that you know how much meat you need, you’re ready to start rolling!
Should I weigh the meat before or after cooking?
Weigh the meat raw, before cooking. Tamale filling quantities are based on the raw, uncooked weight. This ensures you cook the right amount to end up with the desired weight per tamale when meat shrinks during cooking.
How long does tamale filling last in the fridge or freezer?
Cooked tamale filling will last 3-4 days in the refrigerator. To freeze, cool completely then store in an airtight container for 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in fridge before using.
Can I freeze uncooked tamales?
Yes, uncooked tamales can be assembled then frozen for future use. Place in freezer bags with wax/parchment paper between layers. Thaw overnight in fridge before steaming.
What meat substitutes work in vegan/vegetarian tamales?
For vegan or vegetarian tamales, use minced mushrooms, jackfruit, tempeh crumbles, mashed tofu, vegan chorizo or textured vegetable protein. Season well for robust flavor.
Perfectly balanced tamale fillings require the right meat-to-masa ratio. For average size tamales, 1.5 – 2 ounces of meat per tamale is ideal. Use 25-30% meat by weight in the total batch. Adjust amounts based on tamale size, fat content of the meat and personal preferences. With the proper proportions, you’ll achieve scrumptiously stuffed tamales every time.