Why You Need to Try Turkey Tamales

Thanksgiving leftovers take on a whole new life with turkey tamales.

Turkey Tamales
Homemade tamales if you live in Texas; she crab soup in Charleston. Photo: Alison Miksch

We could be biased, but we like to think the South is the best place in the whole country to celebrate Thanksgiving. In some states, it's still warm enough in November to stretch buffet tables from one end of the porch to the other and enjoy an al fresco holiday feast. Those tables will be so laden with sweet potato casserole, green beans, layered salad, potato salad, and ambrosia—that's just a partial listing—that you'd think they might collapse at any minute.

Kids will be sneaking pinches of pecan pie well before supper. Ditto chocolate and red velvet cake. You can count on an endless flow of conversation as the relatives come and go. And you just never know when unpredictable family members might do unpredictable things, ramping up the entertainment value for the whole crowd.

It's Not Thanksgiving Without Leftovers

There are so many reasons why we love this food-filled holiday. And here's one more: Thanksgiving leftovers. You're not getting out of a Southern Thanksgiving without at least one takeaway container stuffed with Turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce. Just try. If we have to, we'll chase you down the driveway with a to-go bag of goodies "so you won't have to cook tomorrow."

If you've already had your fill of traditional Thanksgiving fare, try taking your leftovers to a whole new Tex-Mex level with our unique recipe for leftover turkey: turkey tamales. According to an age-old tradition that made its way from Mexico to Texas, every year when the weather cools for the holiday season, it's tamale-making time. Holiday tamales are now a such a large part of the Lone Star State's culture that it's hard to imagine Texans ever going back to ho-hum turkey sandwiches. Many families and friends gather during this season for "Tamaladas," or tamale-making parties.

Turkey Tamales Made Simple

Although we're never opposed to a holiday gathering, you won't need an army of family members to make our version of holiday tamales with a Southern Tex-Mex twist. This clever and flavorful turkey recipe uses all those Thanksgiving leftovers you have stored in Tupperware, taking up way too much refrigerator space.

Wrapped in the traditional cornhusks and steamed to soft, flavorful perfection, these tamales offer a savory blend of tasty cultural traditions. Top them with leftover cranberry sauce (plus a few spicy additions) for an irresistible finishing touch. You'll never think of Thanksgiving leftovers the same way again.


  • 1 roasted turkey carcass, meat removed

  • 25 to 30 dried corn husks

  • 2 cups masa harina

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 2 cups shredded turkey meat

  • 1/2 cup prepared mole sauce


Make the Turkey Broth and Lard

  1. Gather the ingredients. Place the turkey carcass—bones, skin, cartilage—into a large pot and cover it with water. Cover the pot and boil over medium heat for 2 to 3 hours, adding hot water as necessary to keep the bones covered. Take the broth off the heat and allow it to cool down somewhat.
  2. Strain your broth, discarding all the solids. Refrigerate it overnight.
  3. The next day, scrape off the white fat that has accumulated at the top of the broth. Measure 2/3 cup of the fat and set it aside; this is what we will use for the tamales. (If for some reason there is not enough turkey fat to equal 2/3 cup, add pork lard to make up the difference.)
  4. Measure out 2 cups (1/2 liter) of the turkey broth for our tamale-making; use the rest for another purpose (such as making turkey noodle soup) or freeze it for another occasion.

Prepare the Corn Leaves and Masa

  1. Place the corn leaves into a large container and cover them with hot water. Allow them to soak for an hour or so, until they are quite soft and pliable. Once they are ready, drain off the water.
  2. Combine the masa harina with the baking powder, salt, turkey fat, and turkey broth. Stir very well, first with a wooden spoon and then with your hands, until very well mixed.
  3. Continue to stir with a wooden spoon for at least 15 minutes more, without stopping. The more you beat the masa, the lighter and fluffier your tamales will turn out.

Assemble the Tamales

  1. For each tamale, spread some of the masa in the center of a corn leaf. Place a few pieces of shredded turkey and a tablespoon of mole or other sauce on top of the masa.
  2. Fold the corn leaf in such a way that the masa completely encloses the filling. Fold in the two ends of the leaf. If you like, wrap this little package of goodness inside another corn leaf, then tie it up with a long strip torn off of another corn leaf. Repeat this until you run out of masa.
  3. Place your tamales into a tamale pot or other steam cooker. Cover and seal the pot well. Steam your tamales for about an hour, until cooked through.
  4. To know if the tamales are done, grab one with tongs and open it. If the filling falls easily away from the corn leaf, the tamales are done. (If not, wrap it back up, put it back in the pot, and steam for a while longer.)
  5. Once the tamales are done, take them off the heat and take the lid off the pot. Let them sit for at least a couple of hours so that they can firm up.
  6. Serve and enjoy.
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