Steaming Tamales Without a Steamer: The Ultimate Guide

How to steam tamales without a steamer

Tamales are a popular dish in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and many other regions. These flavorful delicacies are traditionally made by preparing a filling, rolling it in masa dough, wrapping it in corn husks, and steaming it. But what do you do if you don’t have a steamer? In this article, we will explore several methods to steam tamales without a steamer, so you can enjoy this delicious treat without special equipment.

Making Authentic Tamales

Tamales originated in Mexico and have gained popularity around the world. The traditional recipe for tamales includes a mixture of pork and lard, combined with a spicy sauce, wrapped in masa dough. The entire package is then folded into a corn husk and steamed for about an hour until cooked.
Tamales offer a balanced nutritional profile and a delicious combination of flavors. Unlike fried foods, tamales are a healthier alternative. While there is room for experimentation, tamales are best enjoyed when prepared in the traditional and unadulterated manner.

Preparing the meat

Before exploring alternative cooking methods, let’s start with the basics of tamale preparation. Regardless of the cooking method, the first step is to obtain good quality meat. Traditionally, tamales were made with leftover pork to minimize waste.
When selecting pork shoulders for tamales, look for diced, boneless pork shoulders with balanced marbling. The fat in the meat adds flavor to the tamales as it is rendered during cooking and helps emulsify the sauce mixture with the broth. If possible, choose fresh or recently butchered and prepared meat for the best results.
After purchasing the meat, rinse it under running water and pat dry with a paper towel. Store the meat in the refrigerator while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Making the sauce

To make authentic tamales and compensate for the lack of a steamer, it is crucial to prepare a flavorful sauce. The sauce brings the tamales to life and makes them irresistible with every bite.
Start by extracting the flavor from the meat. Prepare a thick and flavorful stock by combining caramelized onions, whole spices, garlic, herbs, and the pork shoulder. Searing the diced pork shoulders before adding water enhances the flavor of the broth and the meat.
Traditionally, the sauce for tamales includes ancho and guajillo peppers, which add an authentic and mildly spicy flavor to the mixture. Mix the ingredients with some of the broth and a little oil to emulsify. Mix the resulting sauce with the shredded pork to create a delicious tamale filling.

Making the masa

The masa, or dough, is essential to give tamales their distinctive shape and flavor, and to serve as a vessel for the filling.
Making masa is simple. You will need good quality masa flour, baking powder, kosher salt, lard, and some stock. Mix these ingredients until you get the consistency you want. Then roll the masa over the corn husks.

Hydrating the corn husks

The corn husks serve to protect the masa from falling apart and dehydrating during the steaming process. Before assembling the tamales, it is necessary to rehydrate the corn husks in warm water for at least 20 minutes.
When selecting the corn husks, make sure they are high quality and undamaged. Authentic tamales require the best husks available, as they act as a mold and create a barrier while the tamales are being steamed.

Making the tamales

To assemble tamales the traditional way, you will need the following ingredients: meat, broth, sauce, masa flour batter, and corn husks.
Start by placing some of the masa batter on a hydrated corn husk. Press down on the batter with a plastic wrap or any rounded object, such as the bottom of a skillet, to form a circular disk. Add a portion of the saucy meat mixture and fold the corn husk over, tying with string if desired.

Steaming the tamales

Traditionally, steaming tamales requires a steamer. But if you don’t have one, there are alternative methods that achieve similar results.
One method is to use an inverted mug. Place 3-4 ovenproof mugs upside down in a large saucepan. Fill the saucepan with water to halfway up the mugs. Cover the cups with a heat-resistant plate, making sure it is smaller than the diameter of the pot. Carefully place the tamales on the plate, either vertically or horizontally. Cover the pot and cook the tamales as usual.
Another method is the strainer steamer method. In this method, fill a large pot with water, leaving enough room for a heat-resistant strainer. Place the colander in the bottom of the pot, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Place the tamales on the strainer and cover the pot with a lid. Steam the tamales as you would with a traditional steamer.

Checking for doneness

To determine if the tamales are thoroughly cooked, remove one tamale from the pot and allow it to cool slightly. Unwrap it and check to see if the masa is fully cooked and firm. The tamale should separate easily from the corn husk without sticking.
If the tamales need additional cooking, return them to the pot and continue steaming until the desired doneness is reached.

Serving and Enjoying Tamales

Once the tamales are cooked, carefully remove them from the pot with tongs or a slotted spoon. Allow them to cool slightly before serving, as they can be very hot.
Tamales are typically eaten with a variety of accompaniments, such as salsa, guacamole, or sour cream. They can be served as an entree or as part of a larger meal.


While a steamer is traditionally used to steam tamales, there are alternative methods for those without this specialized equipment. By using improvised steaming equipment, such as inverted cups or colanders, you can still make delicious and perfectly cooked tamales at home. Remember to follow the steps of preparing the meat, making the sauce, preparing the masa, hydrating the corn husks, and assembling the tamales before steaming. With a little creativity and ingenuity, you can enjoy the authentic taste of tamales without a steamer.


Can I steam tamales without a steamer?

Yes, you can steam tamales without using a steamer. There are alternative methods that can be used to achieve similar results.

What are some alternative methods to steam tamales without a steamer?

Some alternative methods include using upside-down cups or creating a strainer steamer setup. These improvised setups can effectively steam the tamales.

Do I need to change the cooking time when steaming tamales without a steamer?

The cooking time remains relatively the same when steaming tamales without a steamer. However, it is important to check for doneness by testing the texture of the masa before serving.

How do I know when the tamales are done?

To determine if the tamales are fully cooked, remove a tamale from the pot, allow it to cool slightly, and unwrap it. The masa should be fully cooked and firm, and the tamale should separate easily from the corn shell without sticking.

Can I use any type of pot or pan for the alternative steaming methods?

When using alternative methods to steam tamales, it is important to use heat resistant pots or pans. This will ensure that the cooking process is safe and effective.

Are the alternative steaming methods as effective as using a traditional steamer?

While alternative methods may not produce the exact same results as a traditional steamer, they can still produce delicious and perfectly cooked tamales. The key is to follow the recommended steps and techniques for each method to achieve the desired result.