How to Steam Tamales

Steaming tamales is a traditional cooking technique that has been passed down through generations in Latin American cuisine. Tamales are a popular dish made from masa (corn dough) and filled with a variety of ingredients, such as meats, cheeses, and vegetables. They are typically wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and cooked until the masa becomes firm and the flavors of the filling meld together.

Understanding the art of steaming tamales can greatly enhance the taste and texture of this classic dish. The process is straightforward, but attention to detail and timing are essential to achieve the best results. This article will guide you step by step through the process of preparing and steaming tamales, allowing you to enjoy this delicious and nutritious meal in the comfort of your own home.

Before diving into the how-to’s, it’s important to gather the necessary tools and ingredients. A large steamer or tamale pot with a steaming basket is the ideal cookware for this process, ensuring the tamales are evenly cooked and allowing the steam to circulate freely. In addition, fresh corn husks or banana leaves are essential for wrapping the tamales and imparting extra flavor during the steaming process.

Understanding Tamales

Tamales are a traditional Mexican dish made from masa (a dough made from corn) and filled with various ingredients, such as meats, cheeses, and vegetables. They are typically wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf and then steamed until fully cooked. This section will delve into the traditional ingredients, popular fillings, and types of tamales.

Traditional Ingredients

The primary ingredient for tamales is masa, which is made from:

  • Nixtamalized corn: Corn soaked in an alkaline solution, which softens the kernels and removes the pericarp.
  • Lard or vegetable shortening: To provide a tender texture to the masa.
  • Broth: Chicken, beef, or vegetable broth is used for extra flavor and hydration.
  • Baking powder: For leavening, creating a lighter, airier dough.

Tamales are wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves before steaming. These wrappings add flavor and aroma to the dish and provide a natural, eco-friendly packaging for the dish.

Popular Fillings

Tamales can be filled with various ingredients, catering to different preferences and regional specialties. Some popular fillings include:

  • Meats: Pork, chicken, and beef are common choices in meat-filled tamales. The meat is typically slow-cooked and shredded, then seasoned with spices and sauce.
  • Cheeses: Milder varieties such as queso fresco and Oaxaca cheese are popular choices for cheese tamales.
  • Vegetables: A variety of vegetables, such as poblano peppers, potatoes, mushrooms, and corn, are used in vegetarian tamales.

Types of Tamales

There are various types of tamales, differentiated by their wrappings, fillings, or regional variations:

  • Dulce Tamales: Sweet tamales made using sweetened masa and fillings such as fruits, chocolate, or cinnamon.
  • Oaxacan Tamales: These tamales are larger, use banana leaves instead of corn husks, and commonly feature mole sauce as a filling.
  • Gueritos Tamales: Pale-looking tamales made with white corn masa and filled with mild ingredients such as cheese and vegetables.
  • Colombian Tamales: Wrapped in plantain leaves, these tamales use a rice-based masa and have a unique, regional filling such as pork, chicken, and boiled eggs.


Steaming Tamales on the Stovetop

Using a Pot and Steamer Basket

To steam tamales on the stovetop using a pot and steamer basket, follow these steps:

  1. Fill the pot with water up to 1-inch below the steamer basket.
  2. Bring the water to a boiling state over medium heat.
  3. Place the tamales in the steamer basket, with open-side up, and avoid overcrowding.
  4. Cover the pot with a lid.
  5. Reduce the heat to a simmer and steam the tamales for 60-90 minutes.

Using a Dutch Oven

If you don’t have a pot and steamer basket, you can use a Dutch oven instead by following these steps:

  1. Add about an inch of water to the Dutch oven and heat it on medium heat.
  2. Place a heat-proof plate or trivet on the bottom, acting as a makeshift steamer.
  3. Arrange the tamales on top of the plate or trivet, with open-side up.
  4. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot with a lid.
  5. Steam the tamales for 60-90 minutes, maintaining a low simmer.

Monitoring Water Level

While steaming tamales, remember to check the water level in the pot or Dutch oven to ensure it doesn’t run dry:

  • Check every 20-30 minutes and add more boiling water if necessary.
  • Ensure that water remains 1-inch below the steamer basket or plate/trivet.
  • Maintain a consistent heat to avoid overcooking or undercooking the tamales.

Alternative Steaming Methods

Using a Pressure Cooker or Instant Pot

To steam tamales in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, follow these steps:

  1. Place a trivet or steamer basket at the bottom of the pot.
  2. Add 1-2 cups of water, ensuring it doesn’t touch the tamales when they are placed inside.
  3. Place the tamales vertically, with the open end up, in the basket.
  4. Close the lid and set the pressure to high for 15-20 minutes.
  5. Allow the pressure to release naturally, and carefully remove the tamales with tongs.

In the Microwave

Microwaving tamales is a quick alternative, although not the most traditional method:

  1. Place tamales on a microwave-safe plate with a 1-inch gap between each.
  2. Cover tamales with a damp paper towel to keep them moist.
  3. Microwave for 3-4 minutes, checking for doneness after the first 2 minutes by carefully opening one tamale.

Using a Slow Cooker

Tamales can also be cooked in a slow cooker or Crockpot:

  1. Insert a steamer basket or heat-proof dish upside down to create a raised surface.
  2. Add water, ensuring it doesn’t touch the tamales.
  3. Arrange the tamales vertically, open end up.
  4. Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours, checking periodically to ensure enough water remains.

With a Bamboo Steamer

While not common, a bamboo steamer can also be used to steam tamales:

  1. Place a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of the bamboo steamer, with holes for steam.
  2. Place the tamales in the steamer, without overcrowding.
  3. Set the bamboo steamer over a pot of boiling water, ensuring the water doesn’t touch the tamales.
  4. Steam for 60-75 minutes, replenishing the water as needed.

Checking for Doneness and Serving

How to Test for Doneness

To ensure your tamales are cooked perfectly, it’s important to test for doneness. Once you’ve steamed them for the recommended time (usually around 90 minutes), follow these simple steps:

  1. Carefully remove a tamale from the steamer using tongs or a large spoon, as they will be hot.
  2. Allow the tamale to cool for a few minutes, which will help the masa firm up further.
  3. Unwrap the tamale and check the consistency of the masa. It should be firm, but not hard, and easily pull away from the husk. If the masa is still sticky or doughy, return the tamale to the steamer for an additional 10-15 minutes.

Remember that larger or more tightly packed tamales may take longer to cook, so adjusting your steaming time accordingly is important.

Serving Suggestions

When it comes to serving and enjoying tamales, there are numerous ways to plate and present them. Here are a few ideas to complement the delicious flavors of your steamed tamales:

  • Sauces and Dips: Offer various options for topping or dipping, such as salsa, guacamole, or a rich and savory sauce. These will enhance and complement the flavors of the tamales.
  • Garnishes: Add texture and color to your presentation by using cilantro, chopped onions, sliced jalapenos, or a sprinkle of crumbled cheese.
  • Side dishes: As tamales can be quite filling, light and refreshing sides like a mixed green salad or a zesty coleslaw are great options.

For sweet tamales, consider serving them with whipped cream or a fruit compote as a topping. This adds an extra element of decadence to the dessert.

With these tips in mind, you’ll be able to serve up a delicious and visually appealing feast of steamed tamales. Enjoy!

Reheating and Storing Tamales

Reheating Techniques

There are several methods to reheat tamales, whether they are fresh, refrigerated, or frozen tamales.

  1. Steaming: This method closely resembles the initial cooking process. Place the tamales in a steamer basket, standing up, and steam for 15-20 minutes (25-30 minutes for frozen tamales) until heated through.
  2. Microwave: Wrap each tamale in a damp paper towel and microwave on medium power for 1-2 minutes per tamale. If reheating a large batch, you may need to increase the time by another minute or two.
  3. Oven: Preheat your oven to 325°F (163°C). Wrap each tamale in aluminum foil and place them on a baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes (30-35 minutes for frozen tamales).

Remember to always check the internal temperature of the reheating tamales to ensure they are heated through (165°F or 74°C).

Storing Leftovers

Properly storing leftovers is essential to preserve the taste and quality of your tamales.

  • Refrigeration: Allow the tamales to cool down completely before placing them in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
  • Freezing: For longer storage, wrap each tamale individually in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, then place them in an airtight container or freezer bag. Label the bag with the date and type of tamales. They can be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months.

When you’re ready to enjoy the tamales again, follow the reheating techniques above for optimal taste and texture.

Tips and Tricks for Perfect Tamales

Preventing Soggy Tamales

When making homemade tamales, one common issue is soggy tamales. To prevent this, follow these tips:

  • Ensure the corn husks are completely drained and dried after soaking. Wet husks will introduce excess moisture to the tamales.
  • Apply a thin and even layer of masa on the corn husks. If the masa layer is too thick, it will not cook through and contribute to sogginess.
  • Steam the tamales with ample space in between each to allow steam to circulate evenly. Overcrowding can cause uneven cooking and produce soggy tamales.
  • Check steaming water levels regularly to make sure there’s enough water for steaming, but not too much that it touches the tamales.

Making Large Batches

If you are planning to make a large batch of tamales, consider the following tips:

  • Use a larger steaming pot or multiple pots to accommodate the quantity of tamales. This will provide enough space for steam to circulate and ensure even cooking.
  • Adopt an assembly line approach with family members or friends, which can make the process quicker and more efficient. Assign tasks such as masa spreading, filling, and folding to different people.
  • Prepare fillings in advance to save time on the day you assemble and steam the tamales. Fillings like shredded meat, vegetables, or cheese can be made ahead and refrigerated.
  • Consider freezing some tamales for later consumption. Allow the steamed tamales to cool completely, place in airtight bags or containers, and store in the freezer for up to three months. To reheat, simply steam the thawed tamales for a few minutes.

How to Steam Tamales

Quick and easy guide to steamed tamales.
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Course Main Course
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 4
Calories 543 kcal


  • Steamer
  • Mixing bowl
  • Saucepan


  • 1 package dried corn husks
  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup lard
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound cooked pork shoulder shredded


  • Soak the dried corn husks in a large bowl of warm water for at least 30 minutes.
  • In a mixing bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the chicken broth and lard until well combined.
  • In a saucepan, combine the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper with 1/4 cup of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes.
  • Add the shredded pork to the spice mixture and stir until well coated.
  • To assemble the tamales, spread about 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture onto the center of a soaked corn husk. Top with a spoonful of the pork mixture. Fold the sides of the husk over the filling and roll up tightly. Tie each end with a strip of soaked corn husk.
  • Arrange the tamales in a steamer basket and steam for 45-50 minutes, or until the masa is firm and cooked through.
  • Serve hot with your favorite toppings, such as salsa, sour cream, or guacamole.


Calories: 543kcalCarbohydrates: 38gProtein: 31gFat: 31g
Keyword How to steam tamales
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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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