Healthier Tamales With A Twist That’s Sure to Please

Liz Merritt
December 12, 2016
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Having grown up in the desert Southwest, my love affair with tamales should be no surprise. When I discovered simple modifications to make healthier tamales at home, it made Tamale Tuesday a cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, traditional tamales are made with copious amounts of lard, which adds a rich texture and moistness to the dough, but also a piñata full of fat. An average homemade green chile chicken tamale can pile on more than 400 calories and 20+g grams of fat. So I searched for an alternative recipe for healthier tamales to fit my nutrition lifestyle.

By substituting avocado oil, using low-sodium salt, and skipping the cheese, this recipe adapted from the Houston Methodist Hospital Weight Management Center will be a staple at my holiday gatherings. I’ve made a few tweaks to the original recipe to suit my taste.

Tips to Make Assembly a Snap

  • Give dried cornhusks ample time to soak. If not, they won’t fold nicely. I dropped them into hot water, stacked some plates on top to keep them submerged and went to the gym. They were softened by the time I got back.
  • Feel free to adjust the seasonings to your taste. I like smoky flavors and a little more kick, so I added smoked paprika and fire roasted green chiles to the mix.
  • I prep my tamales in stages. Make filling, clean up, make dough, clean up, then assembled the tamales for steaming. Just store the filling in the fridge while you’re busy with the dough.
  • Divide the dough, as recommended, into 16 balls. This keeps the tamales relatively the same size and makes it super easy to mash the masa into the cornhusk with your fingers, a spoon or a spatula.
  • Normal steaming time is about 30 minutes. I stuffed a lot of tamales into my steamer pot, so it took about 45 minutes before they were all cooked through. Peek inside from time to time to ensure the dough is cooking evenly.
  • Serve with fresh salsa, plain Greek yogurt, chopped cilantro, or avocado slices.
healthier tamales

Healthier tamales are made with simple, fresh ingredients.

Healthier Chicken Tamales

(makes 16 tamales)

Filling Ingredients

  • 2 ½ lbs. chicken breasts (I used boneless/skinless)
  • 3 ½ cups water (or enough to cover chicken)
  • 1 teaspoon canola or avocado oil
  • Medium onion, diced
  • Medium bell pepper, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried chili peppers, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon low-sodium salt
  • ½ cup tomato paste
  • 1 can fire roasted green chiles


  • 4 cups masa corn flour
  • 4 teaspoons canola or avocado oil
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon low-sodium salt
  • 2+ cups chicken broth (reserved from cooking the chicken)
  • Dried cornhusks (start with 2 dozen, just in case some tear and have to be tossed)


  1. Soak the cornhusks submerged in very hot water for 45 minutes, or overnight in cool water (put a plate or bowl on top of them to weigh them down). You want to ensure they are pliable/foldable.
  2. Place chicken breasts in a large pot and add enough water to cover. Bring water to a low boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  3. Remove chicken from broth (save broth) and let it cool. When cooled, shred the chicken and add a little broth back to keep it moist.
  4. Heat oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion, garlic and peppers until tender. Add chopped tomato, cumin, chili peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika, low-sodium salt and pepper and stir. Add tomato paste and ½ cup of the chicken broth and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Puree the mixture in a food processor or blender and return it to the pan. Add the shredded chicken, can of fire roasted green chiles, stir and let the mixture simmer for 10-15 minutes on low heat. Allow to cool.
  6. Make masa mixture by combining all ingredients until the mixture clumps together. Add extra broth as needed to make the masa pliable, similar to play dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute. Divide the masa into 16 equal balls.
  7. Drain and rinse the cornhusks. Pat dry and keep covered with a damp towel. Tear 2 or 3 husks into ¼ inch strips to use as ties.
  8. Flatten the cornhusk on a flat surface. With your fingers, a spoon or a spatula, spread one ball of masa dough over the surface, leaving about a 1-inch margin around the edges. You can add a few drops of warm chicken broth to the dough to make it easier to spread. Place 2-3 tablespoons of filling in the center. Roll up lengthwise into a cylinder and fold the end up. Place a tie in the center of the tamale to hold it all together, or simply place the assembled tamales seam-side down in the steamer basket to ensure they don’t fly open while cooking. Fill the remaining husks using the same process.
  9. Place the tamales in a large pot with a steamer basket and set over one inch of boiling water. Cover tightly and reduce heat to steam the tamales about 30-45 minutes, or until cooked. Check frequently and replenish water as needed. Guard against over-cooking, or the dough will get a bit chewy.
  10. Serve immediately. Tamales can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, or frozen for longer storage. To reheat frozen tamales, place in a steamer basket for 30 minutes or until unfrozen. As an alternative, frozen tamales can be wrapped in a damp paper towel and microwaved on high for 3-4 minutes.

Nutrition Facts (per tamale): 253 calories, 5g fat, 26 carbs, 25g protein, 60 mg cholesterol, 3g fiber, 2g sugar, 358mg sodium.


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