Tamales Rojos de Puerco (Red Pork Tamales) Recipe

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Why It Works

  • A blend of California, guajillo, and chipotle chiles adds fruity, earthy, and smoky notes to the sauce.
  • Peanuts and sesame seeds add nutty flavor and ensure a creamy texture in the red chile sauce. 
  • Charring the tomatoes and tomatillos deepens the filling’s flavor.

Puerco rojo is one of the most popular tamale fillings throughout Mexico, and it’s easy to see why: The saucy pork and red chile mixture has a bold, fruity, smoky, and spicy flavor that you’ll appreciate at first bite. The red chile filling is so concentrated in flavor that it might at first taste too strong if scooped up and devoured by the spoonful; but when it’s spread into a thin layer and cradled snugly in a rich and pillowy masa (corn dough) to form a tamal, its intense flavor is balanced by the rich corn dough.

I grew up eating tamales rojos de puerco—red pork tamales. For family gatherings and celebrations, my mom and aunts would typically get the masa and fillings ready and invite all the kids to the kitchen table to hop in and help wrap the tamales. They were so good that we’d intentionally make a lot so that there would be leftovers to enjoy for breakfast the next day with family. The tamales rojos de puerco recipe I’m sharing here is based on my family’s version that I grew up eating. It features a thick, aromatic red chile mole (sauce) made with charred tomatoes and tomatillos blended with sesame seeds and peanuts for a rich and creamy sauce that coats tender shredded pork. It’s tucked inside a pleasantly spongy savory masa, shaped, and steamed to make the tamales rojos de puerco.


I’ve included my recipe for making the masa and shaping the tamales here, but I recommend reading my guides on how to make tamales for more tips for making the masa and shaping the tamales. Here I’ll focus on the red chile pork filling that makes this version of tamales so special.There are two key components to getting the filling right—the pork braise and the red chile sauce, or mole— and I take no shortcuts in making either. This ensures that the filled tamales have pronounced flavor in every bite. Here’s how.

Tips for a Succulent Shredded Pork for Filling Tamales

Choose pork shoulder and don’t rush the braise. Pork shoulder is the standard cut cooked in tamales rojos de puerco filling. It’s tough and flavorful connective tissue is ideal for cooking slowly at a low temperature until it’s tender enough to pull into spoonable shreds. 

Braising the collagen-rich and fatty pork shoulder slowly at a gentle simmer breaks down its connective tissue to ensure the pork shreds easily into bite-sized pieces. This will take a few hours, but don’t rush it. Once finely shredded, the pork can readily soak up the red chile sauce to make a cohesive filling mixture that holds its shape well when spooned down the center of each tamal.

Simmer the pork with aromatics to build a flavorful broth. Simmering the pork with water, onion, carrot, garlic, and bay leaves results in not just tender cooked pork, but a flavorful pork broth as well. Building a flavorful broth is important as the broth is used to thin the red chile sauce. I also recommend using the pork broth to make the tamal dough. You will have more broth than you need for this recipe, but do not under any circumstances throw out the flavorful broth that you just took hours to develop! Any unused broth can be refrigerated or frozen to use for your next batch of tamales or use it in a pork-based soup or stew.


How to Make the Thick and Flavorful Red Chile Sauce for Your Tamales

Use a combination of chiles. Using a combination of California, guajillo, and chipotle chiles adds layers of smoky and fruity flavor to the sauce.You can read more about each chiles’ distinct flavor in our chile guide. Take the time to briefly toast the chiles in the oven until aromatic and just charred to deepen their flavor. Briefly soaking them in water softens the dried skins—a step that ensures the mole will blend until smooth, avoiding any unwanted flaky bits of chile skin. 

Char the tomatoes and tomatillos and toast the nuts and seeds for deep flavor. Broiling the tomatoes and tomatillos until well charred builds smoky savory depth of flavor in the final sauce, while roasted peanuts and toasted sesame seeds add a rich and nutty backbone. I recommend buying untoasted sesame seeds and toasting your own in a dry skillet. It takes just a couple minutes to toast. On the other hand, store-bought already roasted peanuts work well here—no need to roast or toast your own. 

Blend the sauce until smooth and thick. The red chile sauce in this recipe is concentrated and bursting with flavor. It also has a thick, paste-like texture, which ensures that the filling does not bleed out of the tamales once steamed. To make a sauce that’s thick enough, start by blending just a small amount of the reserved pork broth into the sauce. If the mixture doesn’t initially blend easily, scrape down the sides of the blender jar and try reblending. 

Overseason the filling (just a little). Once the shredded pork is coated with the velvety red sauce, go ahead and sneak a taste. The filling may seem overly seasoned and spiced at first bite, but this is actually on purpose. A heavily seasoned filling balances the mild masa that will wrap around the filling. Once you bite into a fresh steamed tamal filled with this red pork, you’ll fully appreciate the filling’s punchy flavor.


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