The Ultimate Guide to Steaming Tamales: Master the Art of Perfectly Cooked Delights

How to Steam Tamales – The Ultimate Guide

Steaming tamales is a traditional cooking method that ensures a moist and flavourful result. Whether you’re a fan of Mexican cuisine or simply looking to explore new flavours, learning how to steam tamales is a valuable skill to have in your culinary repertoire. In this ultimate guide, we’ll take you through the different methods of steaming tamales, providing step-by-step instructions and tips for achieving perfection.

The origins of tamales

Tamales have a rich history dating back to ancient civilisations such as the Mayan, Aztec and Incan peoples of Central and South America. These delicious treats were considered a staple food and were even eaten by warriors during camping trips and battles. Today, tamales are still a popular street food in Mexico and can be found in abundance from street vendors. So let’s dive into the world of tamales and learn how to steam them to perfection!

Why steam tamales?

Steaming is widely considered the best way to cook tamales. It allows the corn masa dough to cook evenly, resulting in a tender and moist texture. Steaming also allows the flavours of the filling to meld, creating a delicious and satisfying taste experience. While there are alternative cooking methods, such as baking or microwaving, steaming remains the preferred choice for optimal results.

The basics of steaming tamales

Before we get into the specific methods of steaming tamales, let’s cover some basic principles that apply to all techniques:
1. Avoid direct contact with water: Tamales should never be submerged in water while cooking. The steam generated by the water will cook the tamales, while the surrounding moisture will prevent them from drying out. However, direct contact with water will make the tamales soggy and unpleasant to eat.
2. Arrange them properly: When steaming tamales, it’s important to arrange them correctly to ensure even cooking. If they are to be steamed lying down, place them with the opening facing up to prevent boiling water from entering. If they are to be steamed standing up, the closed end should face downwards to keep the filling intact.

Steaming tamales with a steamer basket

If you have a steamer basket, this is the easiest and most convenient way to steam tamales. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a large pot and fill it with enough water. The water level should be just below the bottom of your steamer basket.
  2. Place the tamales vertically in the pot with the closed end facing down.
  3. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium. You want the water to bubble, not boil.
  4. Check the water level regularly and add more water if necessary to maintain the steam. Be careful not to spill water on the tamales.
  5. After steaming for 60 to 90 minutes, check for doneness. The tamales should be firm and the shells should come off easily. If they need more time, continue steaming until they reach the desired consistency.

Steaming tamales in a pressure cooker

If you have a pressure cooker, you can use it to steam tamales faster. Follow these steps:

  1. Fill the pressure cooker with water, making sure it’s below the maximum fill line. Place a steamer basket in the cooker.
  2. Place the tamales vertically in the steamer basket, open side up.
  3. Close the lid of the pressure cooker and set it on high heat to build up pressure.
  4. When the pressure has reached its maximum, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook the tamales for about 20 minutes.
  5. Allow the pressure to release naturally over a period of 10 minutes. Carefully remove the tamales from the cooker.
  6. Check for doneness by peeling back the husks. The tamales should be fully cooked and have a firm texture. Steam for a further 5 to 10 minutes if necessary.

Steaming tamales without a steamer basket

If you don’t have a steamer basket, don’t worry! You can still steam tamales using alternative methods. Here’s one way:

  1. Choose a pot and a heat-resistant plate that will fit in it.
  2. If the tamales need more time, continue steaming until they reach the desired consistency.


Mastering the art of steaming tamales opens up a world of culinary delights. Whether you use a steamer, pressure cooker or alternative methods, the key is to ensure that the tamales are cooked through while retaining their moisture. Remember to arrange them properly, avoid direct contact with water and enjoy the delicious results of your efforts. So go ahead, embrace the flavours of Mexican cuisine and savour the joy of perfectly steamed tamales!


Can I steam tamales without a steamer basket?

Yes, you can. If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can use alternative methods such as a heat-resistant plate or a makeshift steamer. See the ‘Steaming tamales without a steamer basket’ section for detailed instructions.

How long does it take to steam tamales?

Steaming time can vary depending on the size and thickness of the tamales. On average, it takes about 60 to 90 minutes to steam tamales until they are fully cooked and have a firm texture. However, it’s important to check for doneness by testing for firmness and ease of peeling.

Can I freeze steamed tamales?

Absolutely! Steamed tamales freeze well and can be a convenient option for future meals. Once they have cooled, you can wrap them individually in plastic wrap or aluminium foil, place them in a freezer-safe container or bag and store them in the freezer for up to three months. When you are ready to enjoy them, simply defrost and reheat using your preferred method.

How do I keep the tamales from sticking to the husks during steaming?

To prevent sticking, it’s important to soak the corn husks before assembling the tamales. Soaking them in warm water for about 30 minutes, or until they are pliable, will help the masa dough slide off the husks during cooking. Spreading a thin layer of masa on the husks before adding the filling can also provide a protective barrier.

Can I steam frozen tamales?

Yes, you can steam frozen tamales. Just take them out of the freezer and steam them without defrosting. The steaming time may be slightly longer than for fresh tamales, so check for doneness by testing the texture and making sure they are cooked through. Steaming frozen tamales is a convenient way to enjoy them whenever you’re in the mood for a delicious homemade treat.

How long can I keep leftover steamed tamales in the fridge?

Leftover steamed tamales will keep in the fridge for up to four days. Put them in an airtight container or wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or foil to keep them fresh. If you want to reheat them, you can steam them again or use alternative methods such as microwaving or frying.