Lard is the traditional fat used in tamales, and many other Mexican recipes. Luckily, if you don’t have lard, you can still make tamales. Lard substitutes for tamales include oils, tallow, ghee and butter. Read below for the full breakdown.
What is lard?
Lard is pure pig fat, rendered from fat from around the kidneys or the back. Both the meat and the fat of the pig are cooked until the fat melts away from the meat. The fat extracted is then rendered, which gives it the characteristic semi-solid texture. It’s also shelf-stable at room temperature. Lard is traditionally white or off white, and after it has been processed, it will no longer taste like pork. Lard also has a high smoke point at around 370°F. This means it won’t burn at temperatures under 370°F, which is ideal for making tamales.
Why Is Lard Used In Most Tamale Recipes?
Lard may not have originated in Mexico, but it has since become an integral part of many recipes in Mexican cuisine, including tamales. While there may be other substitutes that work just as well or better, lard is still widely used and the traditional fat in Mexican cooking. Most recipes you see will use lard as an ingredient.
The Role Of Lard In Tamales
Lard is used to make the masa dough that is under the corn husk of a tamale. It binds the dough and the fat affects the texture of the dough, making it savory and springy.
Lard is also said to make tamales fluffier and crispier, thanks to its moisture content. In most situations, though, lard is probably used in tamales because of tradition.
Lard Substitutes For Tamales
If you don’t have or don’t want to use lard, you still have many options. Luckily, like with most recipes, you can substitute certain ingredients and still get perfect results. The best lard substitutes for tamales are the following:
Tallow is a natural substitute for lard because it is rendered fat, but from a cow instead of a pig. Tallow may not be something you already have, but it’s a great substitute if you are avoiding pork for whatever reason. It is 100% fat, just like lard, and also has a similar room temperature texture, and high smoke point. Tallow has a slight beefy taste, but it’s not all that different from lard, so it shouldn’t throw off the flavor of your tamales.
To substitute tallow for lard, use the same amount of tallow as you would lard.
The most used lard substitute for tamales is butter. Butter is known for creating fluffy textures, just as you would expect from lard. Ideally, unsalted butter is the preferred option, unless you are under specific instructions to use salted butter. Unsalted butter won’t add any extra flavor or taste to the tamales, but it will still give them a fluffy and crunchy texture.
Butter has about 80% fat unlike lard, which is just about all fat. This difference means means you will have to adjust the amount. For every quarter cup of lard, you will need a quarter cup of butter with one extra teaspoon of butter. You can always try using less or more butter depending on your tastes.
Oil is another popular choice to substitute lard in tamales. The main reason why oil is an ideal lard substitute is that you most likely already have a cooking oil on hand, and if you don’t like the flavor one oil brings to tamales, you can always try a different one. Additionally, different types of oils have different fatty acid profiles and depending on the chosen oil, you may be getting superior health benefits. While oils may not make the tamales as fluffy as lard does, they still do the job. Keep in mind that oils also make the tamales dough swell a little, so wrap accordingly. I would recommend coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil as the best oils to use.
Seeing as oils have different fat contents, there will be different quantities of oil needed for the tamales depending on the chosen oil. Olive oil and coconut oils have similar fat contents as lard and will be a direct substitution. For one cup of lard, you would need one cup of olive or coconut oil. On the other hand, you will require less vegetable oil than lard, requiring about seven-eighths cups, for every cup of lard.
Ghee is another good substitute for lard in tamales. Ghee is a kind of clarified butter, or butter that has had all the milk solids and water removed so just the butterfat remains. It is 100% fat with a high smoke point, just like lard, and it will give the masa dough a similar texture as lard would. Ghee has a really unique, mildly buttery and nutty taste that will definitely complement and add depth to the tamale dough. The only downside to ghee as a lard substitute for tamales is that ghee can be somewhat pricey, so keep that in mind. That being said, I highly recommend giving ghee a try as it will give a great texture and taste to your tamales.
Ghee is a direct substitution, so use the same amount of ghee as you would lard.
Tips for Substituting
While it may not be the most important ingredient in making tamales, lard is still the binding of your masa dough, which is a major component. To ensure you still get a great outcome, make sure to be aware of the following:
- Compare the nature of fat: Lard is pure animal fat and the doesn’t usually melt when the dough is being mixed. Instead, it melts during the steaming. This effect comes from the fat content of lard and is often matched only by butter, ghee, tallow, and sometimes coconut oil.
- The added flavor: Lard adds a very slight porky, savory flavor to tamales, but different substitutes may have different effects. Unrefined or virgin coconut oil will add a coconut flavor while refined coconut oil won’t have any notable flavor. Other unconventional options like olive oil and tallow will bring their own stronger flavors to the tamales and alter the taste.
Can I bake tamales rather than steam them?
Yes, you can bake tamales instead of steaming them. The traditional method is steaming, but baking also works if covered. You can even make tamales in an Instant Pot!
Why are my tamales falling apart?
You probably didn’t wrap your tamale properly. Make sure the filling is completely surrounded by the masa dough. Then, ensure the corn husk is tightly wrapped and secured. If the filling isn’t surrounded by the dough, it will leak and cause the corn husk to get overly mushy and break.
What kind of tamale fat do you use?
The most traditional fat used is lard. But coconut oil, butter, ghee, tallow, and other vegetable oils can also be used. Knead the masa dough until it is similar to the texture of creamy peanut butter, and not overly sticky.
In summary, lard is one of the most prevalent ingredients in making Tamales. The biggest reason why lard is needed in making tamales is to give the masa a fluffy, airy texture that also crisps on the outside. Lard is ideal for this purpose thanks to its fat content and has been present in tamale recipes for centuries.