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How To Steam Tamales – The Ultimate Guide

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Numerous simple but incredibly tasty dishes have survived from ancient cultures to modern civilization to become favorites to millions of people worldwide. 

This dish we will discuss today was prepared by the ancient Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas of Central and South America.

It was such a staple dish in these ancient cultures that the warriors used to take it with them on camping trips and even battlefields. 

Even today, you can find it everywhere on the streets of Mexico and we urge you to accept the offers of the street vendors because you will surely see many that offer it. 

No, we are not talking about Doritos or tacos. This incredible dish is called a tamale (or tamal in Spanish) and we will teach you how to cook it at home. 

So how do you steam tamales? The simplest method for steaming tamales, which requires little to no knowledge of steaming, is to use a steamer. However, you can also steam tamales in a steamer basket, in a pressure cooker, on the stove, and in the oven.

There are many ways to cook tamales but we recommend steaming them for the best results. You can always throw them in a steamer and be done with it, but this requires no knowledge whatsoever. This is why we will focus on alternative methods.

If you truly want to become a master of steaming tamales, or simply don’t own a steamer at home, try out another method.

Read on for this ultimate guide to steaming tamales to achieve perfection.

How to Steam Tamales – The Basics

If there is one thing to remember about steaming tamales, it is that you need them to be in the steam but never in the water.

The steam will cook them and the moisture that surrounds them will protect them from becoming dry, but you don’t want them to actually be wet when cooking or reheating them. Tamales that have continuous contact with water become soggy and unpleasant.

Another rule to remember is to always arrange them with the opening facing upward so that no boiling water can get directly inside the tamales. That is, in case you plan to steam them lying down.

If you want to steam them standing up, always have the closed end facing the bottom

There are several ways to cook tamales but steaming them is widely accepted as the most suitable method. While using a steamer will always be the easiest way to do it (I personally love this inexpensive tamale steamer you can pick up on Amazon), not everyone has a steamer at home. 

And since we believe you do not need a guide to use a steamer, we will focus on the alternative methods of steaming tamales that you may utilize in case there is no steamer at hand. 

How To Steam Tamales Without a Steamer

If you have a steamer basket, that is the second simplest way to steam tamales. Whether it is a regular pot, a pressure cooker, or an instant pot, all it takes is a steamer basket and you will be left out with no work at all. 

In case you don’t own a steamer basket at home, there are alternative options but you will have to use your creativity to keep the tamales out of the water. For instance, you can use a heat-proof plate or in a worst-case scenario – a splatter guard. 

Assuming you have a bunch of plates at home, we will only discuss this method besides all others involving a steamer basket. Here is how to steam tamales without a steamer: 

Steaming With a Steamer Basket

1. Choose a large pot and fill it with enough water.

Assuming you are making a large batch of tamales, which is common, you’ll need a large pot. Of course, if the batch is smaller you can always go smaller. 

Add water. Make sure there is enough to reach just slightly below the bottom of your steamer basket. If there is water above the bottom of the steamer basket, you will need to pour some out to get it to the correct level. 

2. Arrange the tamales in the pot.

Since you will not have the comfort of the steamer bottom here and there is a higher chance of boiling water to get inside the tamales, always arrange them vertically. As previously mentioned, the closed side should be at the bottom. 

3. Bring to a boil.

Now that you have arranged the tamales, bring the water to a boil before reducing the heat to medium.

You do not want it to boil throughout the entire cooking process since it could make the bottom of your tamales soggy. Instead, you need the water to bubble lightly which is why you need the heat on medium. 

4. Add more water from time to time to keep the steam going.

Since tamales normally take from 60 to 90 minutes to cook thoroughly, you will most likely need to add more water every 20-30 minutes. Be careful not to spill the water inside the tamales, though. 

5. Check for doneness.

Tamales give an obvious sign for doneness, but you will most likely need to take one out to check for sure. Allow it to rest for a minute or two before trying to peel the husk. 

When a tamale is ready, the husk should come off without any pressure. Other than that, cooked tamales should be firm. If any of these factors are not present, return to the pot and continue simmering. 

Steaming in a Pressure Cooker With a Steamer Basket

The basic steps here are identical to those we discussed above when using a regular pot – with the small difference that steaming in a pressure cooker takes less time to cook. Your tamales can be ready in just 30 minutes or so using this method.

My personal favorite pressure cooker can be picked up on Amazon for not too much. And then just get a steamer basket like this one.

1. Add water and a steamer basket.

Obviously, you need to add water first, ideally around 2 cups but this may depend on the size of your basket. Just remember not to let the water get too high.

2. Arrange the tamales in the steamer basket.

Once again, you need to arrange them vertically, open side up, to prevent any boiling water from getting inside and ruining your tamales.

3. Close the lid and set pressure cooker to high heat.

Before you get to the regular steaming on low pressure you need to get it to the very maximum. 

4. Reduce pressure and cook. 

Once the pressure reaches the maximum, reduce to the lowest possible setting, and leave your tamales to cook for up to half an hour. Generally, this method takes around 20 minutes but it depends on your own pressure cooker. 

5. Release the pressure and check for doneness.

Once around 20 minutes have passed, turn off your pressure cooker and release the pressure naturally over the course of 10 minutes or so. 

Once the pressure is gone, pick a tamale and check for doneness in the same way we mentioned above. If it needs more cooking, steam for an additional 5 – 10 minutes. 

Steaming Without a Steamer Basket

1. Pick a pot & a heat-resistant plate.

We already discussed that you would need a plate for the best results in case there is no steamer basket around. Pick a plate that leaves some space on the sides for that steam to more. 

2. Use aluminum foil to create space beneath the plate.

Unfortunately, you would need a bunch of aluminum foil for this but since there is no better way, you will have to accept it as it is. 

Make at least three balls of aluminum foil that you will put on the bottom to support the weight of the plate and the tamales. If you are using a large pot (for example, 10+ liters), make the balls as big as your closed fist. 

3. Put the plate on top and add water.

Once you are done with the aluminum balls, put the heat-resistant plate on top and add the necessary amount of water. The water level should be right beneath the plate and be careful not to spill any on the actual plate. After all, you do not want soggy tamales. 

4. Arrange the tamales in the pot.

Like with any other method, we recommend arranging the tamales vertically but if you have a smaller batch that does not stand well and falls down, you can also do it horizontally. 

5. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat.

Once again, you want to close the pot with the lid and get the water to a boil before reducing the heat to medium. 

6. Add more water once every 20-30 minutes.

This method of steaming tamales takes around 60–90 minutes which means that you will need additional water to keep the steam going. Check on your tamales once every 10 minutes and add water when you feel like the levels have gone down. 

7. Check for doneness.

Nothing new here – take one tamale out and see if the husk comes right off or it needs additional time to cook. 

How to Steam Tamales in the Oven

In general, conventional ovens are not the most suitable place to steam tamales as there is no simple way to do so. But if you have no other option, here is how to steam tamales in the oven:

1. Turn on the oven and set the temperature to low.

Like with any other method of steaming tamales, you need the heat on low, just enough to keep the steam going without drying the actual pieces. This is why we recommend using the lowest temperature your oven has. 

2. Arrange the tamales in the cooking utensil of choice.

We recommend using a Dutch oven, but if you don’t have one, use a casserole dish that has a lid. 

The most important tool you will need is a steam rack. In either case, you will need to put a steam rack inside the pot or casserole dish. Then, you need to assemble the tamales lying down with the open end facing upwards. 

3. Add boiling water and cook.

The amount of water you will need depends on the dish you use to cook. It is important to add boiling water as steaming in the oven is not as simple as doing it on a stovetop. 

Generally, it should take from 40–60 minutes to steam tamales in an oven but you can always check for yourself. You already know how to check for doneness. 

Remember not to increase the temperature of the oven or you risk drying out the tamales. 

How to Steam Frozen Tamales

Fortunately, frozen tamales cook just as good as fresh ones which means that the concept is identical and you can practice all of the previously mentioned methods. 

1. Find a large pot with a steamer basket or use a dedicated steamer.

Nothing new here – it is best if you have a steamer but you can use any large pot or utensil with a steamer basket. In the worst-case scenario, you will use a plate to make for the absence of a basket. 

2. Add enough water and arrange the tamales.

Some people prefer to bring the water to a boil first and then add the tamales. In general, it doesn’t matter as long as you keep an eye on the pot. 

Leave some space between the water and the basket and arrange your tamales vertically with the open end facing upwards. Try not to pack them densely since they will expand once thawed.

There is no need to thaw in advance. You can throw in the tamales frozen just as they are and steam them from scratch. 

3. Give them enough time to cook.

It is important to reduce the heat to low once the water is boiling or the tamales will dry out and taste unpleasant. 

Fresh tamales usually need around 90 minutes to cook to perfection. Frozen tamales would normally need an additional hour, at least.

It solely depends on how thawed they were when you began cooking them, which is why we recommend checking on them once every 15-20 minutes after the original 90 minutes have passed. 

Reheating frozen tamales can take around 30 minutes. Even cooked, steaming is the best way to thaw and reheat them.

How to Keep Tamales Warm

If you already cooked the tamales but need them to remain warm for some time, we recommend aluminum foil since it is the perfect heat conductor. Wrap them individually or at least cover the dish they are in which will surely keep some of the warmth inside. 

Kitchen towels are another useful alternative. Get a couple of towels and wrap as many tamales as you can. There is no need to wrap them individually. Then, put everything in a thermal box and you can rest assured that they will remain warm for some time. 

Related – What Is the Best Way To Reheat Tamales?

Reheated tamales taste just as good as freshly cooked ones. We have a full guide to reheating tamales, but here’s an overview:

Professionals recommend steaming as the most suitable method to reheat tamales to perfection but we can suggest several alternatives. 

The process of reheating tamales in a steamer or regular pot is identical to when you cook them. The single difference is the time it takes. Cooking fresh tamales would take around 90 minutes while reheating pre-cooked ones takes around 20–30 minutes. 

As an alternative, you can reheat tamales in an oven. Set the heat to 420° or more and wrap each tamale in aluminum foil.

Double-check that they are completely sealed and leave in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes. Around the 10-minute mark, turn your tamales so that they heat well from all sides. 

Last but not least, you can reheat tamales in a microwave. Wrap them individually in paper towels and give them not more than a minute or two.

Be careful with the temperature and duration of the reheating. Check on the tamales once every 30 seconds to make sure that they do not dry out. 

Up Next: How To Reheat Enchiladas – The Best Way

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