Tamales are a traditional dish, commonly known as Mexican, that are typically meat filled corn dough meals that are steamed in a corn husk.
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Other fillings include beans, cheeses, vegetables, and often sweet fillings such as chocolate or fruit.
They are said to have originated from the Mesoamerican era, with variations deriving from different countries over time.
All About Tamales
Whilst they are considered to be a traditional Mexican dish, tamales actually have multiple traditional original recipes from a variety of countries.
As they originated from the Mesoamerican era, different versions of tamales are traditional to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, and Brazil to name a few.
With each version comes different traditions on how to eat them. Venezuela, for example, traditionally eats their “hallacas” at Christmas, El Salvador is well known for their sweet tamales, and Columbia has their tamales in ball shapes rather than the burrito form.
As each country has their own form and taste, we will stick to the classic Mexican tamale.
Tamales are essentially the most effective form of portable food. Wrapped in an encasement of corn husk or banana leaf is a filled corn dough, warm and moist and ready for devouring.
The filling can be a meat, for example pork, chicken, or beef. Other popular fillings include vegetables such as pumpkin, beans, cauliflower, or green chili.
This makes tamales an awesome versatile food for meat eaters to vegans, because it is all about the flavours you choose to use.
Original tamales used to be incredibly simple, filled with vegetables and mostly beans, until Europeans brought various meat to the (metaphorical) table, allowing for more exciting recipes.
Of course, interference from other countries hasn’t made tamales what they are today - original tamale recipes were a lot more inventive.
When the tamales travelled to the US, different states also adopted different versions of the tasty dish.
This is why there are so many ways of cooking and eating tamales. The sauce that keeps the main filling together is often a spicy one, for example a red or green chilli sauce, or even a more delicate garlic.
Surrounding the chosen filling is a corn dough, or masa. This is a simple dough to make, consisting of masa harina (corn flour), baking powder, salt, oil or lard, and a broth.
Our top tip is to keep aside the broth from steaming the meat or vegetables prior to making the masa, as these wonderful flavors help to make the masa stick together and work more cohesively with your chosen filling.
Making the masa is the messiest part of making tamales, but the hand-work is what makes it so good. It’s best to hand whip this dough to get it properly light and fluffy!
Once it’s done, the masa is spread across half of the banana leaf or corn husk, ready to hold the lovely filling.
Tamales look very similar to burritos in design. They are simply wrapped from every angle except the top, and steamed for an hour to an hour and a half - depending on how long it takes for them to cook thoroughly.
It is important to remember that tamales are not meant to be mushy and shouldn’t stick to the husk, because this indicates that they are not cooked enough, so a lot of trial and error is involved.
How to Steam Tamales
How to cook tamales? The most common way of steaming tamales is by using a steamer with multiple compartments. A pressure cooker or slow cooker can do in a pinch. Homemade tamales are amazing, especially pork tamales.
There has to be enough water to create steam without making the tamales wet, and these steamers are designed to keep the tamales above the water level through an effective basket. You want to avoid soggy tamales at all costs, remember.
If you find that you are running out of water throughout this steaming process, feel free to add as much water as you need, but make sure to pour it down the side of the pot as opposed to on top of the tamales.
One tip for knowing if you need more water is to drop a coin down the side - if you hear it rattle against the bottom, you need more water.
Stack the tamales with the open tops of the husks facing the opening of the steamer - it helps if you make a large batch so they can stand upright for longer.
Make sure to put a heat proof cup in the center to help the tamales balance. Place other husks or clean cloths over the tamales to keep the steam close.
Bring the water to boil and then turn it down to a low heat and start your cooking time. This is the same as preheating an oven - the cooking time does not start when you are just beginning to heat up the water!
It takes usually between 1-2 hours to fully cook the tamales - just be sure to check around the 1.5 hour mark to see if the masa dough has kept the structure.
The best way to do this is by taking out one tamale and opening up the husk - if the masa is mushy and has stuck to the husk, they need longer to cook.
Remember to allow them to cool in their husk encasements for 5-15 minutes afterwards so they can set properly.
Another top tip from us - when spreading the masa onto the husk, try to avoid spreading it to the bottom to prevent spillage.
Try leaving a 2cm gap between the end of the husk and the masa. This will help with not only the quality of the tamales, but will prevent spillage that could make cleaning up a bit of a hassle.
Try not to overfill the husk or banana leaf either, because the casing will not wrap around the tamale enough and may cause leaking of both the filling and the masa - not a mess you want to sort out.
But, what if I don’t have a steamer?
The best thing about steaming tamales is that you don’t need to have a proper steamer to do the job. You can afford to be a bit creative with this simple recipe. Cooking tamales can be easy.
Some steamers come with different sections that allow multiple foods to be steamed at the same time, which is ideal for large families or gatherings. A large saucepan or pot can suffice instead of a steamer, as long as it is deep enough.
If you are using a pot, you can use a strainer or even the lid of another pot to keep the tamales steaming above the boiling water instead of a steamer basket.
Again, make sure to put a heat proof cup in the middle of the colander/strainer/lid (or whatever you chose to use to keep the tamales above water) to help the food balance upright.
To keep the steam both in the pot and as close to the tamales as possible, you can cover the tamales with leftover husks or banana leaves and a clean cloth before placing a lid on the pot.
Back in the Mesoamerican days, tamales were steamed over the fire, or often grilled, boiled, or roasted.
I want to reheat or steam frozen tamales...
If you have not made the tamales fresh from scratch, or perhaps have frozen a batch, you can definitely still steam frozen tamales.
If you have frozen a batch of pre-cooked tamales, they will only need 25-30 minutes of steaming. Pre-made frozen tamales take about 3 hours to steam, just make sure to check they have cooked all the way through.
Fortunately, all tamale fillings are cooked beforehand anyway, so you only have to worry about the masa cooking properly.
If you choose to defrost your frozen tamales before steaming, you can leave them in the fridge the day before.
Alternatively, you can defrost them quickly in the microwave by placing them in a microwaveable container with a teaspoon of water for each tamale (3 tamales = 3 spoons of water).
Put a lid or covering over the top and heat them up for several minutes until they have defrosted, before steaming them in whatever method you prefer.
Reheating tamales is also simple - if you have a microwave, simply wrap the tamales in a damp paper towel and place them on a microwaveable plate for about 1-2 minutes until they are reheated.
This often has the potential to dry them out, but if you want to eat them quickly then that is the fastest method.
You can also reheat them in an oven at 350 degrees fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes, just make sure to turn them over halfway through.
To maintain the moisture, you can tightly wrap them in tin foil or husks. This also goes for heating them on the grill, just be sure to have it on a low heat.
Tamales were often originally grilled back in the day, so this is a nice way to pay homage to that method!
So, can I bake tamales in the oven instead of in a steamer?
Absolutely! There are countless ways to steam your tamales, as long as they are encased in the vital corn husk or banana leaf coverings.
The best way to do this is by preparing your tamales as usual and keeping the heat in the oven low to ensure the warmth of the water without potentially drying out the tamales.
A casserole dish is great for baking tamales in the oven, just make sure to use a rack to keep the tamales and water separate.
The same rules apply with a steamer - keep an eye on the water and don’t let it either disappear or touch the tamales.
Place a lid on the casserole dish and wait about 40 minutes, and then open one of the husks to check if the masa has cooked properly.
The oven steaming method is a lot quicker, but does run the risk of potentially dryer tamales.
It is also possible to make an open tamale in the oven that does not require corn husks. This is often known as a tamale pie, and is a really simple way of feeding large families or gatherings without the fuss of having to check the corn husks.
Of course, this may not have the desired moist texture every time as opposed to steaming, but if you prefer a golden crunch to the masa, this is an effective method.
The tamale pie is a southern comfort food, reportedly originating from Texas.
My tamales are mushy or have stuck to the husk...
This is a sign that they have not been left in the steamer, pot, or oven long enough to cook properly.
As the filling is already pre-cooked, your only worry is the masa corn dough. The corn husk or banana leaves are a really important part of making tamales as they help to keep the structure without disrupting the taste or texture.
It is always best to take out just one tamale after an hour to an hour and a half of steaming to check if it is fully cooked.
If you peel away the husk and the masa has stuck, broken, or appears too mushy, then you need to keep the tamales in for longer.
Each tamale recipe will have different time recommendations, but in reality, you have to treat every batch of tamales differently.
The way you make the masa will not always be the exact same as the last time, and that’s okay! This is what might put people off making tamales, but the key is to just be patient.
Remember, you don’t have to worry about the safety of the filling inside as it is already cooked - this is very useful for meats in particular.
It might be worth making a slightly larger batch of tamales than anticipated so you can have trial and error tamales.
The beauty of this is that you can put the remaining tamales in the fridge or freezer for the next meal!
Where did I go wrong with my tamales?
Making tamales as a beginner isn’t always the easiest thing to do. There is skill and a whole lot of luck involved to make every batch perfect every time.
Truth is, unless you’ve been making them for years, not every batch will be perfect! Each time you make new tamales, you can figure out where you went wrong.
A common mistake when making tamales is pouring in too much water. Once this water gets to boiling point and flows over the steamer basket or strainer, you’ve already soaked the bottom of the tamales.
This can make the masa take longer to cook and makes the tamales too moist. To try and combat this, go by your judgement.
You can always add more water by pouring it down the side of the steamer or pan, but it’s a lot more of a hassle to take water away.
Each recipe will have a different measurement, but remember that your pan or steamer size may be different to theirs, so you have to go by judgement.
If your masa seems to be sticking and breaking to your husk or banana leaf, that’s a sign that they need more time to be steamed.
If you have kept them in the steamer for long enough, and the masa is still sloppy, you may have used too much lard or oil in the masa recipe.
When you are whipping the masa to the doughy texture, you can gauge how wet the dough is, and you can add more corn flour/masa harina to counteract this.
Do not use cornmeal instead of masa harina, as this will create a crumbly texture. For the best results, use fresh masa, or fino.
Whether you choose to whip your masa by hand or electric mixer, this process needs to go on long enough for the masa to stay together firmly.
Our top tip is to mould it into a firm shape at the end and let it set for a while under some cling film.
You also have to make sure the sauce in the filling isn’t lacking or too generous, as this could create a dry texture too.
It is recommended to do two parts sauce to one part filling to ensure a moist texture without making the tamale completely soggy.
When putting the filling inside the masa and husk, avoid overfilling it to prevent leaking. Remember, these tamales will expand as they cook!
What about the husks?
Corn husks or banana leaves are used to encase the tamale and keep them in their structure. Husks can often be quite stiff, so it is recommended to wash them thoroughly and peel them apart in cold water to loosen them up.
They have to stick around the tamale properly, otherwise the structure will fall apart, so they must be malleable to do so.
Once cleaned and separated, put them in a pot of water, bring it to boil, then let them sit in the hot water for one to two hours until they are soft. This is to fully ensure that they are pliable enough for the tamales.
There is not much of a difference between using corn husks or banana leaves other than preference. If you are using banana leaves, make sure to defrost them under cold water if they are frozen. Cut away the edges of the leaves.
Like with corn husks, keep them in warm water for up to an hour until they have softened.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you steam tamales without a steamer?
The key with steaming tamales without a steamer is to elevate the tamales from the water in the pot. To do this, find a large pot and put a lid of another pot, aluminum foil balls, or a strainer at the bottom. This will be like a makeshift version of a steamer basket.
Whatever you choose to use to separate the boiling water from the tamales, make sure it is even.
Then, place the tamales on a heat-proof plate on top of the makeshift steamer basket. If you’re using aluminum foil balls, make sure they are evenly distributed so the plate won’t tip over.
The water should be just below the plate. Bring the water to a simmer at medium-high temperature, and then reduce the heat and cover the pot with a lid. You should check the water level every 15 minutes to see how much has evaporated.
To keep the steam as close to the tamales as possible, put husks, banana leaves, or a clean cloth over the tamales so they are evenly steamed.
How long do you steam hot tamales?
Generally speaking, it should take about 30 to 40 minutes for tamales to steam on a stovetop. However, some factors could change the time it takes for them to steam.
Each batch of tamales will be different. Large batches will need longer to steam, for example. Nobody can make the same filling and masa each time, so some batches might need longer for the masa to stick together without falling apart. Some might need only 30 minutes, otherwise, they will oversteam and become too soggy.
You should always make one or two more tamales than usual in a batch to check whether they can peel away from the husk. You should also check the water levels every 15 minutes because you could accidentally be waiting longer if the water has evaporated.
Steaming tamales is pretty straightforward, but requires practice and a lot of prep work to assure everything is done correctly.
Every batch will be completely different, so any mistakes can be easily amended the next time.
It’s all about making sure the consistency of the filling and (most importantly) the masa is correct, so this will take time to perfect.
Make sure to properly prepare your husk or banana leaves, as this will make assembling the tamales so much easier.
A well-wrapped tamale will not only steam properly, but will prevent any leaking or mess.
Tamales are so versatile and can be steamed either in a steamer, pot, or the oven (amongst many methods). Just make sure to keep the water away from the fresh tamales and be patient. Mexican tamales with red chile sauce. Some folks use pork shoulder in their uncooked tamales. Chicken tamale is my favorite. I'm not a big fan of pork filling.