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!
Steaming tamales might seem intimidating at first, especially with their unique appearance wrapped in corn husks; however, don't let their looks fool you.
The amazing aroma of spiced meat and corn from these little packages is sure to entice you to give it a try. Not only is eating tamales an enjoyable experience, but learning to steam them properly can be fun and straightforward with the right guidance. In fact, it's actually quite easy.
In this article, we will provide step-by-step instructions on how to steam tamales the RIGHT way, so you can feel confident and enjoy the process.
Whether you have a multi-tier steam pot, a tamale steamer, or a simple stock pot with a steamer basket, we've got you covered. So let's dive into the art of steaming tamales together!
- Begin With a Killer Tamales Recipe
- Using the Right Equipment to Steam Tamales
- How to Steam the Tamales
- How Long Does it Take to Steam Tamales?
- How Do You Know When Tamales are Done Steaming?
- Serving Suggestions
- How to Reheat Frozen Tamales in the Microwave
- How to Reheat Frozen Tamales in the Oven
- How Long to Steam Frozen Tamales
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-inspired 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!
If you're crunched for time, Trader Joe's sells some delicious frozen tamales that can be steamed the same way you would steam freshly prepared tamales!
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 or feeding a smaller family.
The only problem is that you won't be able to steam more than a handful of tamales at a time.
A dedicated tamale steamer, like like the 24 Qt Tamale Steamer Vaporera Stock Pot Premium Aluminum Tamalera, is another great option. This steamer can hold enough food to feed a crowd, with different size options available based on your needs.
- Tamale and Seafood Steamer with 24-quart aluminum pot, steam rack, and lid
- Steam rack allows for healthy cooking of tamales, seafood, and vegetables
- Suitable for soups, chilies, and stews
- Coordinating lid helps retain heat and nutrients
- Riveted pot and lid handles provide safe, easy carrying, and cooking
Multi-tiered Steamer Pots
A multi-tiered steamer pot, like the VENTION Thick-bottomed Stainless Steel Steamer Pot, is another alternative for steaming tamales, especially if you want to steam various items simultaneously.
However, since the tiers aren't tall enough for upright tamales, you will need to lay them down, increasing the space each takes up. Additionally, you'll need to rotate the tiers during the steaming process to ensure even cooking.
Other Tamale Steaming Tools
When steaming tamales, it's essential to have tools to remove them from the steamer without burning yourself.
High-heat tongs with silicone tips, like OXO Good Grips 12-Inch Tongs with Silicone Head, or heat-proof gloves such as the ones made by Homemax make the job much more manageable.
As you shop for your kitchen tools, consider picking up a masa spreader to prepare tamales more efficiently than using a spatula.
How to Steam the Tamales
Set Up the Stock Pot to Steam
Now that our tamales are prepared, let's get our stock pot ready for steaming. First, place the steamer pot on your largest burner and put the steaming basket inside.
Then, slowly add water until it's just below the holes in the steamer basket. You may want to remove the steamer basket to add the water if you want to keep the inside of the basket dry.
The water level should not be even with or above the holes, as this would make the tamales soggy. On the other hand, not adding enough water could cause the pot to go dry and scorch.
When the water is at the right level, turn the heat up to high. Once it boils, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer that won't cause water to splash above the holes in the steamer basket.
Place the Tamales in the Steamer
With the pot and steamer basket ready, it's time to place the tamales inside.
Ideally, we want the tamales to be upright with their open ends pointing towards the top, allowing them to cook evenly and limit contact of the filling with splashing water.
If we're filling the steamer basket entirely, we can lean the tamales towards the middle and against each other for support. Otherwise, using a heat-proof bowl upside down in the middle or balled-up aluminum foil can help support the tamales.
Be sure to leave about an inch of space around the pot's edge to prevent the corn husks from burning and provide a way to add more water without soaking the tamales.
For multi-tier steamers, lay the tamales in the basket with the corn husk seams facing up and 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 for freshly made tamales (or 20-25 minutes for frozen precooked tamales like the ones from Trader Joe's).
Cooking times for tamales can vary based on factors such as 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.
While the tamales are steaming, there are a few essential tasks to take care of, such as maintaining the water level and maintaining the heat.
Maintain the Water Level
The most critical aspect to pay attention to while steaming tamales is maintaining the water level.
It's crucial not to let the pot run dry, but sometimes, it can be challenging to know if the water level is low.
A traditional trick is to drop a coin along the inside edge of the pot and listen for a splash or a clang as it hits the bottom; however, a more hygienic method is to watch the amount of steam escaping from the lid. If you're unsure, just add a little more water.
When you need to add water, be cautious about removing the pot's lid. Tilt it open, away from you, and let the steam escape before removing it entirely.
Pour the water along the inside edge, being careful not to wet the tamales. Fill the pot just below the bottom of the steamer basket and work quickly.
The longer the steam escapes, the longer you'll need to cook the tamales.
Maintain the Heat
Your other primary responsibility is to adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
As the water level lowers, you'll have to turn down the heat to prevent the water from boiling rapidly. If you add more water, temporarily raise the heat to keep the water steaming.
Checking the water level on a multi-tier steamer is straightforward. Just lift off all the steaming baskets and see how much water is left.
Since you need to switch around the baskets every thirty minutes, you'll have plenty of opportunities to ensure there's enough water in the pot.
How Do You Know When Tamales are Done Steaming?
After about 75 minutes, we should check if the tamales are ready. Here's what we need to do:
- Carefully remove one tamale from the pot and try to open it.
- If the corn husk easily peels away from the masa and it's firm, that means it's cooked.
- In that case, we should turn off the heat, remove the tamales from the pot, and let them cool for at least five minutes before serving.
If it's difficult to peel off the corn husk or the masa is still soft, just steam the tamales for another 10 minutes and try again.
You can serve tamales with salsa, sour cream, and even guacamole. Simply peel off the husk and enjoy!
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.
It's essential to defrost frozen tamales in the fridge for at least overnight before reheating.
The easiest method to warm up tamales is to use the microwave for a quick fix. However, microwaved tamales might turn out dry and crumbly, so here's a simple solution to avoid that:
- Wrap the defrosted tamale in a damp paper towel.
- Place it on a microwave-safe plate.
- Heat on high for two minutes.
- Carefully unwrap the tamale and enjoy.
This way, you can have a tasty, moist tamale without much hassle; however, a better way is to use the oven.
How to Reheat Frozen Tamales in the Oven
For a better result than microwaving, we recommend reheating tamales in a 350°F oven for 15 minutes. Just remember to wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and flip them over halfway through.
How Long to Steam Frozen Tamales
For the best results, we recommend steaming frozen (previously cooked) tamales. This way, you'll enjoy delicious tamales that taste as good as freshly made ones, saving time without sacrificing flavor.
When steaming frozen tamales, you don't need to thaw them. Place the frozen tamales directly in the steamer basket and steam them for about 30-45 minutes, depending on the size.
Why not give homemade tamales a try? They're simpler to make than you might think!
Tamales should typically be steamed for 60-90 minutes, depending on their size and the method used. It's essential to ensure they are cooked through and have a firm texture. Check on them periodically while cooking to make sure they don't become overcooked or too soft. The should not stick to the corn husk when they are ready.
If you don't have a steamer basket, you can use other household items like a metal colander or a heat-resistant plate or dish placed on top of a rack or some crumpled aluminum foil in a large pot. Fill the pot with water, making sure the water level is below the improvised steaming surface, and steam the tamales for the usual 60-90 minutes. If you have a rice cooker or an instant pot, see below how to use either of these to steam tamales.
Yes, you can steam tamales in a rice cooker by placing them in the steamer basket that comes with the cooker. Fill the rice cooker with just enough water to avoid touching the tamales. Steam for the standard 60-90 minutes, and make sure to check them throughout the process for doneness.
Yes, you can steam tamales in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot. Arrange the tamales vertically, with their open ends up, in the steamer basket. Add about 1 to 1.5 cups of water to the pot and steam on high pressure for 20-25 minutes, followed by a quick release. Check this guide on steaming tamales in a pressure cooker for more information.
When steaming large quantities of tamales, it's essential to ensure proper steam circulation. Arrange the tamales vertically, with their open ends up, and avoid overcrowding them. It may be necessary to add more water to the pot and steam for an extended period to ensure they're thoroughly cooked. Alternatively, you can use multiple steamers or pots to steam the tamales in smaller batches, which will make it easier to manage and ensure even cooking.
To steam frozen tamales, there is no need to thaw them first. Simply place the frozen tamales in a steamer basket or other steaming method and steam them for a slightly longer period (around 90-120 minutes) than fresh tamales to ensure they are cooked through.
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.4 cups Water
- 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.Tamales
- 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.