Steaming is the traditional way to cook tamales, the delicious Mexican party snacks. Wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, when tamales are steamed the steam heat in not only cooks the masa dough, but the moisture in the steam keeps the masa and the filling moist.
If you have a steamer in the kitchen, then great, as this is always the easiest way to cook tamales, but if not, you can still make tamales, as I show you how to steam tamales on the stovetop, in the oven, in a rice cooker, an Instant Pot, pressure cooker and more.
1. How to Steam Tamales in A Steamer
Before I take a look at the ways in which you can steam tamales without a steamer, let’s start by looking at how to traditionally steam them.
There is a specific type of steamer for steaming tamales called a tamalero. This is a large pot with a lid and handles which is also used to sell tamales on the street.
As tamaleros are the specialist option for steaming tamales, just go ahead and use a regular steamer pan, or even a bamboo steamer over a pan.
If you want to make a larger batch of tamales, use a larger steamer basket and pan. Place the steamer basket in the bottom of the pan and add water until it just below the bottom the basket. Remember that as the water starts to boil it may move into the bottom of the steamer basket and if it gets into the tamales, it will make the masa soggy. This is why tamales cooking in a steamer basket are best arranged standing up (vertically) as it reduces the risk of water getting into the tamales.
It is also important to reduce the heat to medium or medium/low once the water is boiling as this will also cut down the risk of water getting into the tamales.
Tamales should take around an hour to an hour and half to cook properly in a steamer but make sure you check on the water level regularly and add more boiling water if required.
To check they are done, take one out and allow it to rest for a few minutes before peeling the husk. If the tamale is done, the husk should peel away easily, and the masa dough will also be firm.
If you want to reheat already steamed tamales, they will take around 15 to 20 minutes to reheat in the steamer from chilled or around 30 minutes if frozen.
If you use a bamboo steamer with tiers to steam your tamales, you may need to lie them down horizontally with the seam up and also swap the tiers around during cooking.
2. How to Steam Tamales Without Steamer
In this section, I take a look at the other ways you can steam tamales – without the use of a steamer!
How to Steam Tamales on Stove
If you have a metal colander or mesh strainer, you can suspend this over a large pan with boiling water in the bottom as a simple steamer. Ideally, you want the lid of the pan to sit neatly over the colander preventing steam from escaping, but this may not always be possible.
To make up for this, add some extra cooking time, or instead of using the pan lid, make a temporary aluminum foil lid and place this over the colander and the edge of the saucepan to create a fitted cover. Just remember to move this foil lid wearing oven mitts or using a kitchen tong.
Unfortunately, this method will only allow you to steam a small number of tamales but there is another way for how to steam tamales with steamer which will allow you to steam more.
To do this, use a large pan which has a lid and is big enough to fit a heatproof plate inside it while leaving a gap of around one inch between the plate and the pan wall. Once you have sorted the right sized plate and pan, scrunch up a piece of aluminum foil into a two inch ball. Repeat this until you have three aluminum foil balls the same size. You may find it easier to do the next stage on the stovetop rather than the countertop.
Place the balls at the bottom of the pan as if points of a triangle towards the pan wall. These are what the plate and tamales will need to securely sit on. Sit the plate on the foil triangle and check it is well balanced before carefully adding water to the pan through the gap at the side of the plate. Fill until the water reaches around an inch below the plate. Do not fill any further as otherwise the tamales may get wet as the water boils.
Add the tamales to the plate, spreading them out carefully and evenly with the open part facing up. Add the lid to the pot and turn on the stovetop. Allow the water to boil and turn down to the lowest setting. The tamales should take around an hour to steam but check on them occasionally and add more boiling water if the water level gets too low.
After an hour, remove a tamale with a kitchen tong, check it and if not properly cooked, place back in the pan and allow them to steam for longer. Otherwise turn off the heat and leave the tamales to stand for a little while before serving.
Instead of the plate and aluminum balls steamer, if you have a suitable wire rack that will fit in the bottom of the pan – remember it will need to be deep enough to allow you to add the water for steaming – you can use that or even try the chopstick method. To do this, you will need to place a heatproof bowl upside down in the bottom of the pan and then use four chopsticks to make supports across the bowl. The tamales can then be placed across the chopsticks.
You can also steam tamales in a pressure cooker.
To do this, add one to two cups of water to the pressure cooker and the steamer basket. Place the tamales vertically in the basket and the lid on the pressure cooker. Allow the cooker to get up to high pressure and then reduce the heat/setting to low for between 15 and 20 minutes before manually releasing the pressure.
Check the tamales for doneness and steam for a few more minutes if not quite done.
How to Steam Tamales in The Oven
To do this successfully you will need a large roasting pan or Dutch oven. If using a roasting pan, you will need to place a wire rack in the bottom that will allow you to add an inch or so of boiling water to the bottom of the roasting pan that will not touch the tamales on the rack.
Once you have spread the tamales on the wire rack, cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven on its lowest setting. It is important to cook them on low to stop the water evaporating too quickly or the tamales from overcooking.
Likewise, if you use a Dutch oven, you will need to add either a wire rack or steaming rack to the bottom and then add boiling water before spreading the tamales out with the open end facing up.
They should take around an hour or so to cook in the oven.
You can also reheat frozen tamales in the oven, just cook at a higher temperature – around 350°F or so for 20 minutes. You can also wrap each tamale in aluminum foil and place on a baking pan in the oven. You will need to cook them for around 20 minutes in a preheated oven at 420°F or above; turning them after 10 minutes.
How to Steam Tamales in an Instant Pot
Many Instant Pots can be used for steaming but do check that your particular pot has this function before using. How many you will fit in will depend on the size of IP and the tamales, but you should be able to fit just over a dozen in a 6 quart Instant Pot.
As an Instant Pot is so versatile, before you use it to steam tamales, you can sauté and cook your vegetables and meat in it before adding the broth and leaving it to cook. While cooking the filling, you can then prepare the masa and soak the corn husks.
Once you have cooked the filling, carefully clean out the Instant Pot and add the steam rack and one cup of water. If you have some spare husks, you may want to arrange one or two across the rack to stop the tamales from falling through.
Once you have added the masa and filling to the husks, folded and tied them off, stand them upright (vertical) on the steam rack, add the lid of the Instant Pot and set the steam program going. Steaming should take around 40 minutes or so at high pressure and then allow the steam to vent naturally for a while before venting and then opening. The tamales should be left to stand for up to 30 minutes before serving.
Steaming Tamales in A Crockpot
The tamales will take a long time to steam, but they can be cooked in a crockpot. You will need to cook the meat overnight in the crockpot before assembling the tamales.
Some people cook tamales ‘dry’ in the crockpot and if you want to do them this way, you will need to make sure the filling mix is a wet rather than dryer mix as the masa will need to absorb the excess liquid to cook properly.
You can also add water to the crockpot along with a DIY steamer rack. To make a simple rack, take an aluminum pie tin and make holes in the bottom. Then use aluminum foil to line the sides of the crockpot. Once the pot is lined, add around three cups of water to the bottom of the crockpot and place the pie tin upside down in the bottom of the crockpot. Space out the tamales and stand them up on the pie tin – you can always use a little more aluminum foil to fill in any large gaps in the pot and stop the tamales from falling over.
Add another layer of aluminum foil across the top of the crockpot before putting the lid on. This extra foil will keep the moisture inside the crockpot rather than allowing it to condense on the lid of the crockpot.
Cooking tamales ‘dry’ or steaming will take between four to six hours. Although this is a long time, the advantage of using the crockpot is that you can kind of forget about them for a while.
How to Steam Tamales in A Rice Cooker
A number of rice cookers come with steamer baskets or pots, which makes them ideal for cooking tamales in. If you do not have a steamer basket for your rice cooker, you will need to place a wire rack in the bottom of the cooker and add water – at least 2" deep is best – but not so much that it touches the rack.
The tamales can then be spread out in a single layer. There will be a little trial and error the first couple of times you cook tamales in a rice cooker as you will need to open it occasionally to check that there is still enough water in them and if not, to add more.
Once the lid is on and fastened, steam for between one and two hours – depending on the size of the tamales.
How to Steam Tamales in Microwave Oven
Although some of you may disagree with cooking tamales in the microwave you can actually cook a small quantity of them in the microwave. To do this, you will need to soften up the husks in warm water first before assembling the tamales with masa, stock, seasonings and choice of fillings. Make sure they are wrapped properly, and the ends sealed.
Once assembled, stack the tamales in a microwave safe bowl and cover with a suitable lid or plastic wrap. Cook them for six minutes and check them for doneness. If they need a little longer, continue cooking in shorter time bursts.
Otherwise, if done, leave them to stand a little time before eating.
You can also reheat tamales in the microwave by wrapping each chilled tamale in a damp paper towel before spacing out on a microwave safe plate and heating for one to two minutes.
If you want to heat frozen tamales, you are best thawing them in the refrigerator first to stop them from drying out too much in the microwave.
How Long it Takes to Steam Them
As you will have already cooked the fillings, the focus is on cooking the masa dough during the steaming process. Depending on how you steam them, masa will take between 30 minutes and an hour before it is cooked properly and firm. Ready prepared tamales such as the frozen ones from the store have been precooked so will not need as much cooking time – these usually take around 30 minutes or so to steam.
Frozen tamales that have not been steamed/cooked first may need as much as an extra hour’s cooking time when steamed from frozen compared with steaming fresh tamales.
When tamales are cooked, they should be cooked through and if the husk is not actually peeling away from the masa, you will be able to easily pull it away.
Tamales can be arranged for steaming either by placing them vertically or horizontally. If you cook them vertically (standing up) then the closed end should be at the bottom while the opening should be facing up if you will be steaming them vertically or lying down. It is important that they are always arranged properly to stop any boiling water from getting into the tamales as this will make the masa soggy and less than great tasting.
Whichever way you place them, the outer/end tamales will cook faster than the ones in the middle and how fast they do cook also depends on how much space there is between them to allow the hot moist air to circulate.
Depending on which method you use to steam them, you can shuffle them around during cooking if necessary, but if you steam them in a pressure cooker or rice cooker, it is more difficult to rearrange them during cooking, so you will need to adjust the cooking time instead to ensure they are all properly cooked.
Although a steamer is the traditional way to steam tamales, the good news is that you do not actually need to have a steamer to steam tamales.With the option to steam them on the stovetop, in the oven, in an Instant Pot, crockpot, rice cooker or even microwave oven, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot whip up a batch of tamales for the next big game!