Learn how to steam tamales the RIGHT way, step-by-step with our easy to follow instructions!
You can use a fancy multi-tier steam pot, a tamale steamer, or just a plain old stock pot with a steamer basket.
No matter what, we’ve got you’ve covered, so let’s go!
For the uninitiated, tamales may seem intimidating.
Wrapped in corn husks and tied, they resemble tiny packages more than something you want to eat.
But that incredibly rich and decadent fragrance of spiced meat and corn wafting out between the folds is more than enough encouragement to put aside any doubts and dive right in.
Conquering the eating part might not take a lot of courage, but the steaming part, well, that can be downright terrifying!
But steaming tamales shouldn’t be scary. In fact, it’s actually quite easy.
You just need the right tools and know how to do it, and this article will provide all the help you need to not only feel confident but have fun while learning how to steam tamales the RIGHT way the first time!
Begin With a Killer Tamales Recipe
Why go through all the work of steaming tamales if the filling isn’t going to taste amazing, right?
Well, if you don’t already have a tried-and-true tamales recipe in hand, do yourself a favor and ask someone whose food you love if they have one.
If you still can’t come up with a great filling recipe on your own, the good news is that there are a few good ones online, but also a whole lot of tamale-esque recipes that are best avoided.
Stay away from any recipe that claims to be “quick” or “easy” because authentic tamales take time and patience to produce, and taking shortcuts will only lead to disappointment!
Using the Right Equipment to Steam Tamales
Luckily, you don’t need too much equipment to cook tamales, but there are some must-haves and a few should-haves that just make things a whole lot easier.
Remember, folks have been cooking tamales for hundreds of years, using very basic cookware, so you probably already have everything you need in your kitchen!
Stock Pot with a Steamer Basket
The bare essentials for steaming tamales are a large pot with a tight-fitting lid and something to hold the tamales to keep them out of the water as they cook.
A 12 or 24-quart stockpot and an expandable steamer basket that fits inside the stockpot make a decent steaming setup for those who are just getting started.
The only problem is that you won’t be able to steam more than a few tamales at a time.
A much better option is to buy a dedicated tamale steamer, like the 24 Qt Tamale Steamer Vaporera Stock Pot Premium Aluminum Tamalera.
This thing will easily hold enough food to feed a crowd, but you can buy a bigger or smaller size based on your needs.
Multi-tiered Steamer Pots
An alternative to buying a dedicated tamale steamer is to get your hands on a multi-tier steamer pot like the VENTION Thick-bottomed Stainless Steel Steamer Pot.
This type of steamer is a particularly good option for people who want the option of steaming more than just tamales, but there are two significant downsides.
First, since the tiers are not tall enough to stand the tamales upright, you will need to lay them down, increasing the space each will take up.
However, the multiple tiers somewhat negate this issue yet cause the second: You will have to rotate the tiers throughout the steaming process to ensure each tamale gets enough heat to cook through.
Other Tamale Steaming Tools
Besides a steamer, you will want something to help you remove the tamales from the steamer without burning yourself.
Some people like to use high-heat tongs with silicone tips, like OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs with Silicone Head, but wearing heat-proof gloves such as the ones made by Homemax makes things so much easier.
While you are shopping for new kitchen tools, maybe you should think about picking up a new masa spreader to churn out tamales with a lot less fuss than trying to use a spatula!
How to Steam the Tamales
Set Up the Stock Pot to Steam
Now that your tamales are all tied up, it is time to head to the stove!
Place the steamer pot on the largest burner you have and put the steaming basket inside of it.
Slowly add water until the level comes up to just below the holes in the steamer basket. You don’t want the water to be even with or above the holes, or else your tamales will become waterlogged.
At the same time, not adding enough water will result in the chance of the pot going dry and scorching.
Once the water is at the correct level, turn the heat up to HIGH.
After the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat until you get a gentle simmer that won’t cause the water to splash above the holes of the steamer basket.
Place the Tamales in the Steamer
Now, it’s time to start loading the tamales.
Ideally, you want to set the tamales upright with their open end pointing towards the top of the pot.
Positioning them in this manner will allow them to cook more evenly and limit the area of the tamales that can come into contact with the splashing water.
If you are making enough tamales to fill the steamer basket entirely, you can lean the tamales towards the middle and against each other so they will stand.
Otherwise, you can place a heat-proof bowl upside down in the middle of the steamer basket or ball up some aluminum foil to support the tamales.
Leave about an inch of free space around the edge of the pot to prevent burning the corn husks and provide a way to add more water without soaking the tamales.
For multi-tier steamers that won’t allow you to stand the tamales up straight, lay the tamales in the steamer basket with the corn husk seams facing up. Keep them away from the edges of the pan.
How Long Does it Take to Steam Tamales?
Cover the stock pot or close the steamer and set the timer for ONE HOUR.
Cooking times for tamales vary based on the thickness of the masa, the temperature of the steam, and the cooking method.
It will take about 60-90 minutes before the tamales are ready to eat.
But that doesn’t mean that you can wander off once they are in the steamer.
While the tamales are steaming away, you have a few jobs to do.
Maintain the Water Level
The first, and the most important, thing to take care of is to maintain the water level.
You don’t want the pot to run dry; however, it is often difficult to know if the water is getting low.
A traditional trick is dropping a coin along the inside edge of the pot and listening for a splash or a clang as it hits the bottom of the pot.
However, a much more hygienic method is watching the amount of steam escaping from the lid. If you are ever in doubt, go ahead and just add a little more water.
When you need to add water, make sure to remove the pot’s lid carefully.
To keep from getting scalded, tilt open the cover away from you and let the steam escape before removing entirely.
Pour the water along the inside edge, being careful not to wet the tamales. Fill the pot to just below the bottom of the steamer basket, and work quickly.
The longer the steam has a chance to escape, the longer you will need to cook the tamales.
Maintain the Heat
Your other primary duty is to adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
As the water level lowers, you will have to turn down the heat to avoid the water from coming to a rolling boil.
If you add more water, you will need to raise the heat temporarily to keep the water steaming.
Checking the water level on a multi-tier steamer is easy.
Just lift off all the steaming baskets and look to see how much water is left.
As you need to switch around the baskets every thirty minutes, you will have plenty of opportunities to ensure there is enough water in the pot.
How Do You Know When Tamales are Done Steaming?
After about 75 minutes, it’s time to see if the tamales are ready.
Carefully take one out of the pot and try to open it.
If the corn husk easily peels away from the masa, and it’s firm, it’s cooked.
Turn off the heat, remove the tamales from the pot and let them cool for at least five minutes before serving.
But, if it’s difficult to peel off the corn husk or the masa is still soft, steam the tamales for another 10 minutes and then try again.
How to Reheat Frozen Tamales in the Microwave
Most recipes make more tamales than you could possibly eat at one time, but the good news is that they store beautifully in the fridge for a few days or even in the freezer for a month or more.
If you choose to freeze your extra tamales, make sure to defrost them in the fridge for at least overnight before reheating.
The easiest way to warm up tamales is to pop them in the microwave and heat them on high for two minutes.
Unfortunately, microwaved tamales tend to turn out dry and crumbly, so it’s best to skip this method unless you are in a real rush.
How to Reheat Frozen Tamales in the Oven
A better method to reheat tamales is by placing them in a 350°F oven for 15 minutes.
Just be sure to wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and turn them over half through.
How Long to Steam Frozen Tamales
For the best results, try steaming your frozen tamales for about 45-60 minutes.
These heated or reheated frozen tamales are just as good as freshly made tamales in about half of the time!
Homemade tamales are not as complicated as they seem. Why not give it a try?
Other Fun Random How-To Recipes
How to Steam Tamales
- 12-24 Qt Stock Pot with Lid
- Steamer Basket for Stock Pot
- Long Handled Tongs or Heat Proof Gloves
- 4 cups Water depending on size of pot
Set Up the Steamer
- Place the steamer pot on the largest burner you have and put the steaming basket inside of it.
- Slowly add water until the level comes up to just below the holes in the steamer basket.
- Once the water is at the correct level, turn the heat up to HIGH.
- After the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat until you get a gentle simmer.
Position the Tamales
- Set the tamales upright in the steamer basket with their open ends pointing towards the top of the pot.
- You can place a heat-proof bowl upside down in the middle of the steamer basket or ball up some aluminum foil to support the tamales if needed.
- Leave about an inch of free space around the edge of the pot to prevent burning the corn husks.
Steam the Tamales and Maintain Water Level
- Cover the stock pot or close the steamer and set the timer for ONE HOUR.
- Watch the amount of steam escaping from the lid. When it starts to decrease, go ahead and just add a little more water.
- When you need to add water, make sure to remove the pot’s lid carefully.
- To keep from getting scalded, tilt open the cover away from you and let the steam escape before removing entirely.
- Pour the water along the inside edge, being careful not to wet the tamales. Fill the pot to just below the bottom of the steamer basket, and work quickly.
- As the water level lowers, you will have to turn down the heat to avoid the water from coming to a rolling boil.
- If you add more water, you will need to raise the heat temporarily to keep the water steaming.
Check the Steamed Tamales for Doneness
- After about 75 minutes, carefully take one tamale of the pot and try to open it.
- If the corn husk easily peels away from the masa, and it’s firm, it’s cooked. But, if it’s difficult to peel off the corn husk or the masa is still soft, steam the tamales for another 10 minutes and then try again.
- Turn off the heat, remove the tamales from the pot and let them cool on a plate for at least five minutes before serving.