The Calories in Homemade Tamales

Tamales vary in caloric count based on how much filling and masa get wrapped inside of each cornhusk.
Image Credit: Rhonda Gutenberg/Lonely Planet Images/GettyImages

Making tamales is a winter holiday tradition in Mexico and the southern United States. Friends and family often gather at a tamalada to share in the labor-intensive preparations. When it's time to eat up, it's good to know the number of per-tamale calories.

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Tamales vary in caloric count based on how much filling and masa get wrapped inside of each cornhusk — estimate 125 calories for an average-sized, low-fat chicken tamale, or 223 calories for a traditional meat tamale.

Size and Substance Matters

The USDA FoodData Central website lists a medium-sized tamale as weighing 128 grams, or 4.5 ounces. This modest size contains 223 tamale calories, as well as 11.6 grams of fat and 20 grams of carbohydrates.

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However, when you make tamales at home, you can vary the size based on how many calories you want to include in your diet. A small tamale weighing 84 grams — just under 3 ounces — delivers 146 calories according to the USDA. If you've planned more calories into your festive allowance, you might opt for a large (142 gram/5 ounce) tamale at 247 calories.

Read more: The Nutritional Benefits of Corn Tortillas

What you put inside your tamale is just as crucial for the total caloric count as size. A common ingredient is slow-roasted pork shoulder butt with an approximate count of 47.75 calories per ounce, according to USDA's Food Data Central. A beef roast offers nearly the same nutritional load, at 47.3 calories per ounce.

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Whole, oven-roasted chicken with its skin on delivers significantly more calories, containing 63.3 per ounce. However, you can reduce the calorie count to just 34.5 per ounce, by using just breast meat, removing the skin and stewing the chicken.

Keep the Tradition Alive

Traditional tamale fillings rest atop a layer of masa handmade with lard. One recipe published by the Smithsonian Institute's Folklife Magazine specifies 2 pounds of lard to 5 pounds of masa. Each tablespoon of lard — the approximate amount in a single tamale — adds 115 calories, according to the USDA.

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The mixture gets cut with 2 to 3 cups of broth from the cooked meat (approximately 2.1 calories per ounce) and seasoned with 1/2 cup of red chili sauce (10 calories per ounce), 1 tablespoon of cumin (22 calories), 2 tablespoons of oregano (28.62 calories), and 2 tablespoons of salt (0 calories). A couple of teaspoons of baking powder (4.85 calories per teaspoon) give the dough a lighter texture.

Read more: How to Cook a Frozen Burrito in the Oven

To make your tamale filling, heat 6 tablespoons of meat broth (1 calorie per tablespoon) in a large skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of flour (28.4 calories per tablespoon). Then stir in the chili sauce, oregano, cumin and salt, 1 teaspoon at a time. Keep track of how much you add so that you can add up the total number of calories going into your dish.

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Shred your cooked meat and add it to the pan, stirring until the meat is fully coated with the sauce. Once it cools, you're ready to spread soaked corn husks with masa, top it with meat filling, wrap them and tie them securely.

Cook your tamales in a deep pot on a tamale rack above one inch of water. Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat, and let the tamales steam for 2-1/2 to 3 hours.

Cut Tamale Calories

If you want the great taste of tamales without all the fat and calories, substitute for the most caloric-dense ingredients, suggests Texas A&M University. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is a start, but other substitutions will lower the count even more while delivering diet-friendly tamale nutrition.

To make the masa, you'll still use 5 pounds of corn masa. However, the 2 pounds of lard should be replaced with 3/4 cup of olive oil. That reduces the total calories per batch to 7,400, whereas the larded masa tamales contain 1,432.5 calories per batch.

Texas A&M University's recipe cuts calorie count in spices also. The formula eliminates flour, reducing the count by 56.8 calories. Zero-calorie chili powder replaces the red chili sauce, and a ½ teaspoon of minced garlic (2.5 calories) seasons the meat filling. Roll and steam the low-calorie tamales the same way you would a traditional tamale.

The university estimates its tamales provide roughly 250 calories across two tamales. Other macronutrients include 7 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein, and 36 grams of carbohydrates.

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