5 Easy Steps for Steaming Tamales at Home

Steaming tamales at home is a process that involves starting with the right equipment, setting up your steamer correctly, placing the tamales in the steamer, maintaining the water level, and steaming for the right amount of time.

how to steam tamales

When you think of traditional Mexican food dishes, tamales may come to mind. The question is how to steam tamales. After all, tamales aren’t one of the easiest Mexican recipes to make. 

There are plenty of super easy Mexican foods (hello, tacos, fajitas and burritos!). On the other hand, Tamales require quite a few more steps, and the process has layers of complexity. Fortunately, you can learn how to steam tamales by breaking the steps down and following a clear set of instructions. 

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How to Steam Tamales in 5 Steps

Step 1: Start with the right equipment.

Cinsa Enamel on Steel 15-Quart Tamale/Vegetable/Seafood Steamer Pot with Lid and Trivet (Blue Color)

The first step to steaming perfect tamales is having the right equipment. Ideally, you will use a dedicated tamale steamer to make your tamales. Another option is a 12 or 24-quart stockpot with a steamer basket. 

If you don’t have a tamale steamer, you can use other tools. We’ve included some ideas at the bottom of this article in the FAQ section, including an Instant Pot, a slow cooker, or a multi-tiered steamer pot. 

Other tools you’ll need for steaming tamales include:

  • Tongs with silicone tips
  • Masa spreader
  • Heat-proof gloves (optional)

Step 2: Set up your steamer.

Once you’ve gathered together your equipment, you can start preparing your tamales. When the tamales are wrapped and ready to go, set up your steamer and get ready to cook. 

Place the steamer on your stove’s largest burner and place the steaming basket inside. Add water to the steamer slowly, just until the water level rises to be even with or slightly above the holes in the steamer basket. 

It’s important not to add more water than this. Water-logged tamales are no treat. Also, if you don’t add enough water, your pot will become dry and scorch. 

Once your water is added, turn the burner on to high heat. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. You don’t want the water to splash above the steamer basket’s holes. 

Step 3: Put the tamales in the steamer. 

Once you have your water simmering gently, it’s time to use the tongs to place the tamales in the steamer basket. 

Set your tamales upright in the steamer basket with the open ends pointing upward toward the top of the steamer pot. When you position the tamales this way, they’ll cook more evenly. You’ll also minimize how much of the tamales come into contact with the water. 

Ensure that you’re leaving an inch or so of free space around your tamales at the edges of the pot so that you avoid burning the corn husks. This will also allow you to add more water as needed. To do this, lean the tamales against each other towards the middle so they’ll stay standing up. 

If you’re not making enough tamales to fill the steamer pot, use a heat-proof bowl turned upside down in the steaming basket’s center so that your tamales will stand upright. Another option is to use some balled aluminum foil for supporting your tamales. 

If you’re using a multi-tiered steamer, you probably won’t be able to stand your tamales straight up. In this case, you can lay your tamales down flat, but be sure the seams of the corn husks are facing up. Keep them from touching the edges of the pot. 

Be sure to cover your pot so that the tamales are thoroughly cooked from the steam. 

Step 4: Maintain the water level in your tamale steamer.

While your tamales are cooking, carefully monitor them to make sure your pot doesn’t run dry. You’ll need to add water to the pot periodically. When you add water, avoid getting the water on the tamales. 

How do you know when the water in your pot is getting low? Cooks traditionally drop a coin along the pot’s inside edge and listen to see if they hear a clang or a splash. 

Another way to monitor water levels is to keep an eye on how much steam escapes from the lid. 

Step 5: Steam your tamales for the correct amount of time. 

Cooking times for tamales vary depending on a few different factors.

  • Ingredients used
  • The thickness of the masa
  • The steam’s temperature
  • Cooking method
  • The size of the tamales

Most tamales need an hour and 20 minutes to steam (or between 60 and 90 minutes. 

If your tamales are very small, you may be able to have them fully cooked in as little as 30 minutes. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions in the recipe you follow. 

What Are Tamales?

Essentially, tamales are a complete meal made up in a convenient, portable form. Most tamales are made from a mixture of various fillings with a corn dough (masa) mixture. 

There are nearly endless filling options for tamales, and fillings can include slow-cooked meat fillings such as chicken, beef, or pulled pork. Other fillings include dried fruits, cheeses, and even vegetarian or vegan options made with peppers, potatoes, corn, or carrots. 

Tamales are compiled by wrapping the corn dough and filling in a corn husk or banana leaf. Then, the tamales are steamed and become firm. Once your tamales are steamed, they’re ready to be unwrapped and enjoyed. The wrapper has to be removed before you can eat the tamales. 

How to Know When Tamales Are Fully Cooked

After approximately 75 minutes, check to see if your tamales are ready. Take one tamale out of your pot and open it up. If the husk peels away easily and the tamale is firm, it’s ready to eat. 

At this time, turn off the stove’s heat and remove the tamales from the pot. Allow them to cook for about five minutes before eating them. 

FAQs about Tamale Steaming

How do you steam tamales at home?

Follow these steps to steam tamales at home.

  1. Start with the right equipment.
  2. Set up your steamer.
  3. Add the tamales to the steamer pot.
  4. Maintain the water level in the pot.
  5. Steam your tamales for the right amount of time. 

How do I steam tamales without a steamer?

If you don’t have a steamer, you can still enjoy delicious tamales. Use any of these tools to steam your tamales.

If you’re steaming tamales with one of these alternative tools, find a detailed recipe or instructions online so that you can make sure your tamales are a success. 

How long should you steam tamales?

Cooking times can vary, but a good rule of thumb is to allow tamales to steam for one hour and 20 minutes (or 60-90 minutes). If you’re making very small tamales, they may be done in as little as 30 minutes. Be sure to follow the instructions in the recipe you follow. 

How do you steam already cooked tamales?

To reheat cooked tamales, follow these steps.

  1. Preheat your oven to 425°F.
  2. Use aluminum foil to wrap the tamales.
  3. Place the tamales in the oven on a cookie sheet.
  4. Cook for 20 minutes, turning the tamales halfway through the cooking time.

How do you steam frozen tamales?

If you have extra tamales, you have a great problem. Just pop them into the freezer to enjoy them at a later date. To steam frozen tamales, follow any of the methods found in this article. Frozen cooked tamales will need about 30 minutes. Frozen uncooked tamales will need to be steamed for about 2½ hours. 

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