Should You Freeze Tamales?

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Tamales are a popular part of Mexican cuisine and culture. They consist of a corn-based starchy case called masa with a range of different filling options, steamed in a banana leaf or a husk.

Such fillings include pork, vegetables, cheese, fruit, and more. 

Tamales represent a large part of Mexican culture as the earliest tamale-making activities date back to the ancient Mayan culture. They were made and eaten in times of celebration.

As they are usually made in large batches for celebratory events and family gatherings, it’s not often that every single tamale can be eaten. 

So, can you freeze tamales? The answer is: yes! You can freeze cooked or uncooked tamales, as long as you follow the right freezing practices to ensure an easy cooking experience once they have defrosted.

Cooked tamales can be kept in a freezer for up to 6 months and not lose their texture or flavor!

Freezing tamales can be a time-saver for those who prefer to make large batches of tamales for future meals. However, it’s important to freeze them correctly so you don’t damage the masa or the taste of the fillings. 

Here is the ultimate guide on how to freeze cooked and uncooked tamales properly, including how to defrost and reheat them, so you can have tamales for dinner at any time.

How to Freeze Cooked Tamales

It is more common to freeze cooked tamales than uncooked tamales as it is easiest to make a large batch of tamales and freeze the leftovers. It is also faster to reheat pre-cooked frozen tamales after they have been thawed, so it’s a huge time-saver. 

Freezing cooked tamales also means that the flavors from the fillings have been frozen at their most flavorsome, so very little will change when they are reheated. 

If you are planning to freeze cooked tamales, make and cook them as you normally would. Some prefer to freeze the leftovers from a large batch. As always, make sure the masa structure encases the fillings properly as the husk is peeled away. 

After cooking the tamales, separate the ones you intend to eat immediately from the ones you want to freeze. This is because the first step to freezing tamales is to leave them to cool. 

Cooling the Tamales

Cooked tamales need to be left to cool at room temperature before they are put in a freezer. This should not take more than an hour, and it’s important to check them during this time. Leaving them out for too long will expose them to bacteria and can spoil them. 

This cooling time is important as it will prevent the tamales from creating condensation in the container whilst in the freezer. It will also help to solidify the masa casing even more. 

Storing the Tamales

After the tamales have cooled at room temperature, it’s time for them to be stored in the freezer. 

Some prefer to store their tamales in airtight containers as this helps to protect the tamales from being damaged by other frozen foods. However, there will be limited space inside the container for tamales, and these containers can take up space in the freezer. 

You can also use freezer bags. The best protection for this method is to individually wrap each tamale in aluminum foil or cling film a couple of times.

Lay them flat in the bag and in the freezer so they can retain their structure. This is so that if any air is trapped inside the freezer bag, the wrapping will offer an extra layer of protection. 

With either method, make sure to seal the container/freezer bag properly to prevent any air from getting in. 

Label the Container/Freezer Bag

This isn’t a necessary step if you only have one container or freezer bag full of tamales, but it’s a super handy tip for large batches. 

After sealing the container or freezer bag, label it with the filling flavor and the date of which you have frozen them. This will help you decipher which batches are which, and when they should be thawed and eaten. 

Finally, store the tamales in the freezer! Make sure to keep the tamales flat so they can freeze thoroughly and evenly. 

How to Defrost and Reheat Frozen Cooked Tamales

When you are ready to eat your frozen tamales, the best way to defrost them is to keep them in the refrigerator for one day until they have been defrosted completely.

You can then reheat the tamales however you wish. You can reheat them in a pan, in the microwave, in the oven, or in the steamer they were originally cooked in.

How to Freeze Uncooked Tamales 

The masa (a corn-based, starchy dough that encases the filling) is a soft and perishable part of tamales. When exposed to cold temperatures when it is raw, it has the tendency to fall apart. 

This is why some people are less inclined to freeze uncooked tamales than cooked tamales.

Freezing uncooked tamales means there is more chance of the masa not holding the filling together, which will cause a mess during the thawing and cooking process. This means the flavors and texture might not be as they should be if they were cooked beforehand. 

Despite this, it is still possible to freeze uncooked tamales if you follow the right steps. 

Wrap the Filling 

Prepare the tamales as you normally would prior to steaming them. Then, wrap them tightly in the banana leaf or husk. It is important to wrap them as tight as possible to encourage the masa to stay in place. 

You can also freeze the filling and the masa separately. Whilst this might be more fiddly and take up more space in the freezer, this means you can shape the masa around the filling yourself after it has thawed. 

Storing the Tamales

It doesn’t matter whether you choose to wrap the uncooked tamales in a husk or not, as long as you store them in an appropriate container.

An airtight, freezer-safe container is perfect for this. This is to prevent ice crystals and condensation from forming in the container, which would affect the flavor and consistency of the tamales. 

It is best to keep the tamales well-packed to prevent the masa from falling apart. This will also help to keep the container airtight. 

Label the Container 

Make sure to label the container with the tamale fillings and the date you put them in the freezer.

If you have frozen the filling and masa separately, do the same. 

How to Defrost and Cook Uncooked Frozen Tamales

To defrost and cook uncooked frozen tamales, you have two options. You can either leave them to defrost for a day in the refrigerator, or you can steam them in their frozen form. 

The safest way to thaw the tamales is by leaving them overnight or for a day in the refrigerator. Then, you can put them in the steamer as you normally would with fresh tamales. The same goes for steaming them as they are frozen. 

You can also try cooking uncooked frozen tamales in an air fryer! Make sure to moisten the husk or banana leaf with cold water. Heat the air fryer to a medium temperature, and be careful to not overcrowd the tamales in the basket.

It should only take around 5 minutes for them to cook – though it’s worth checking one of these when you think it’s done to ensure the filling isn’t cold still. Large batches will need to be cooked separately in the air fryer basket. 

If you froze the filling and masa separately, these will need to defrost in the fridge overnight or throughout the day. Wrap the filling in the masa and husk, and then steam them as you normally would. 

How Long Can You Freeze Tamales For? 

As long as the tamales have been wrapped and frozen properly, both uncooked and cooked tamales can last up to 6 months in the freezer. As with most frozen food, the longer the time they are in the freezer, the more the quality of the food will deteriorate. 

It’s usually an unfortunate inevitability that the masa will be cracked, dry, and might fall apart. This is regardless of whether the tamales were cooked or uncooked before freezing. To avoid this, try not to leave them in the freezer for too long. 

Labeling the container or freezer bag with the date you put the tamales in the freezer is so helpful because it will give you an idea of how long they have left. 

How Long Can Tamales Be Kept in a Refrigerator? 

Tamales can be left in the fridge for up to a week. This is good for keeping leftovers fresh and eating them for lunch or a quick dinner.

They can be reheated in the steamer, microwave, pan, or oven as per usual. 

Do Fillings in Tamales Affect Freezing? 

As there are so many filling options for tamales, it’s important to know which are best suited for freezing. Meat and fish fillings can freeze really well, as they retain their flavor once they have been defrosted and reheated. 

Vegetable fillings, however, tend to become watery and mushy when frozen. It’s recommended to not overcook the vegetable filling, or not cook them at all, so the freezing process won’t cause them to become a mushy mess. 

Likewise, dairy fillings such as cheese aren’t usually accustomed to freezing. Frozen cheese can become crumbly and may lose its flavor. To prevent this, accompany the cheese with other ingredients to maintain some moisture.

Cheese tamales should only be frozen for up to 3 months instead of 6 months due to the short shelf life of dairy products. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Is it better to freeze tamales cooked or uncooked?

Either method is doable, but the best way is to freeze cooked tamales. This is because cooked tamales can retain the consistency, flavor, and structure better than uncooked frozen tamales.

Freezing uncooked tamales can often lead to a dry or cracked masa and flavorless fillings – particularly if the fillings are vegetables or dairy.  

Freezing cooked tamales also saves more time when it comes to defrosting and reheating. They can be thoroughly thawed in a refrigerator overnight or for a day, and then reheated either in a microwave, oven, pan, or steamer. 

What is the best way to cook frozen tamales?

If you have bought your tamales frozen from the store, follow the steps at the back of the packet. For homemade frozen tamales, you can either cook them in the steamer, microwave, oven, or in a pan. 

Cooking frozen tamales in the steamer is a simple and fast way to defrost and cook them. This is the same method of cooking fresh tamales, though it might take longer for the masa to stick together properly. If the tamales are pre-cooked, this shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. 

Cooking frozen tamales in an oven is another popular method. Preheat the oven to 325°F, wrap them in foil, and then place them on a baking tray in the oven. If the tamales were already defrosted, this should take 15-20 minutes. It will take an extra 10 minutes for frozen tamales. 

How many days can tamales stay in the fridge? 

Tamales can stay fresh in a refrigerator for up to a week. If you aren’t planning to eat your leftovers or pre-made tamales mix within 7 days, it is best to freeze them instead to prevent them from spoiling. 

Can you air fry frozen tamales? 

Yes! There’s nothing an air fryer can’t do. Heat the air fryer to a medium setting whilst you moisten the husk or banana leaves with cold water. Place the tamales in the air fryer basket without overcrowding them.

If you have a large batch, you will need to do several rounds of this. This is a very quick method of cooking tamales without any oil, and should only take 5 minutes! As always, make sure the filling isn’t still cold before you eat them.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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