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How to Cook Tamales

Tamales, a cherished staple in Mesoamerican cuisine, represent a fusion of corn dough, known as masa, enveloping a variety of fillings such as meats, cheeses, or vegetables, all wrapped snugly in corn husks.

These parcels boast a rich cultural heritage and include diverse adaptations across Latin American kitchens. When preparing these tamales, there are several cooking methods to consider:

  1. Steaming: The traditional method involves placing tamales in a steamer, allowing the gentle steam to cook them slowly, resulting in moist and tender tamales.
  2. Boiling: Immersing tamales in simmering water provides an alternate cooking approach, resulting in a softer texture.
  3. Baking: Cooking tamales in the oven, either wrapped in banana leaves or foil, yields a slightly drier exterior and a more concentrated flavor.
  4. Grilling: Grilling tamales directly over a fire or on a grill imparts a smoky essence and a delightful charred flavor.
  5. Instant Pot or Pressure Cooking: Using a pressure cooker like an Instant Pot offers a quicker cooking option, resulting in evenly cooked and tender tamales in a fraction of the time.

Each cooking method brings its unique touch to the preparation of tamales, allowing for diverse textures, flavors, and cooking experiences to suit different tastes and occasions.


Steaming

Tamales are typically cooked by a method called steaming. The traditional process involves the following steps:

  1. Prepare the Corn Husks: Soak dried corn husks in warm water to make them pliable. These husks will be used to wrap the tamale dough.
  2. Prepare the Tamale Dough (Masa): Make a dough using masa harina (a type of corn flour), lard or shortening, broth or water, baking powder, and salt. The consistency should be similar to peanut butter.
  3. Assemble the Tamales: Take a soaked corn husk, spread a thin layer of the masa dough on it, and add a filling of your choice (common fillings include meats, beans, or cheese). Fold the sides of the husk over the filling, creating a cylindrical shape, and fold the ends.
  4. Stack the Tamales in a Steamer: Arrange the tamales vertically in a steamer with the open end facing up. Make sure to leave space between each tamale for steam to circulate.
  5. Steam the Tamales: Place the steamer over simmering water and cover it with a lid. Steam the tamales for about 1 to 1.5 hours, or until the masa is cooked and firm. You can check for doneness by removing a tamale and checking if the masa easily pulls away from the husk.
  6. Let Them Rest: Once cooked, allow the tamales to rest for a few minutes before serving. This helps the masa set and makes it easier to unwrap.

Tamales can be filled with a variety of ingredients, and the cooking time may vary depending on the size and thickness of the tamales. The steaming method helps the masa cook through and absorb the flavors of the filling while keeping the tamales moist.

Boiling

Alternatively, instead of steaming, you can boil tamales by following these steps:

  • Place the tamales in a pot with enough water to cover them.
  • Arrange them vertically to prevent the filling from falling out. Boil for about 1 to 1.5 hours or until the masa is cooked through.

This method is a bit simpler than steaming but may result in a slightly different texture.

Baking

Another method that is sometimes practised is baking. You would take the following steps:

  • Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C).
  • Place the tamales, still wrapped in their husks, on a baking sheet. You can also unwrap them if you prefer a slightly crispier texture.
  • Bake for about 30-45 minutes, or until the masa is fully cooked and has a firm texture.

Do note that baking can give the tamales a different texture and flavor compared to steaming (so you may want to take this into account).

Microwaving

This is a fantastically quick method and useful for doing just 1 or 2 tamales. However, the texture may seem a little disappointing. That said, it is a matter of subjectivity, so it’s important not to dismiss this method outright. Therefore, proceed with the following steps.

  • Remove the husks and place the tamales on a microwave-safe dish.
  • Microwave on high for 4-6 minutes per tamale, turning them halfway through the cooking time.
  • Microwaving is convenient but may result in a slightly drier texture compared to steaming.

While these methods provide alternatives, steaming is often preferred for its ability to retain moisture and impart a traditional texture to the tamale.

Experiment with different methods to find the one that best suits your preferences and available kitchen equipment.

Choosing the Right Cooking Method for Tamales

Different types of tamales or specific recipes might indeed be better suited to certain cooking methods based on their ingredients or regional traditions. Here’s a breakdown:

Steaming

  • Traditional Tamales: Classic pork or chicken tamales with red chili sauce are ideal for steaming. They benefit from the gentle steam, preserving their moisture and allowing flavors to meld together perfectly.
  • Sweet Tamales: Steaming is also great for sweet tamales like pineapple or strawberry tamales. The gentle heat helps the sweet filling infuse with the masa.

Boiling

  • Large Tamales (Zacahuil): In some regions, there are larger tamales, like the Zacahuil from Mexico, which are better suited to boiling due to their size. They might not fit easily into a steamer but can be submerged in a pot for cooking.
  • Tamales Pisques: Guatemalan tamales pisques, smaller tamales with a thick masa consistency, are commonly boiled and are delicious when cooked this way.

Baking

  • Oaxacan Tamales: In Oaxaca, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, such as tamales de mole or tamales de rajas, are often baked. This method allows for a slightly drier exterior and enhances the flavors of the fillings.
  • Central American Tamales: Some Central American tamales wrapped in banana leaves or foil, like Nicaraguan nacatamales, are baked for a more concentrated taste.

Grilling

  • Tamales de elote: Grilling is excellent for tamales de elote, which are sweet corn tamales. The grill adds a smoky flavor to the natural sweetness of the corn.
  • Tamales de Cambray: In some regions of Guatemala, tamales de Cambray are grilled, giving them a unique charred taste.

Instant Pot

  • Time-Sensitive Tamales: If time is a concern, any traditional tamale recipe can be adapted to the pressure cooker. Pork, chicken, or vegetarian tamales benefit from the faster cooking method while retaining their tenderness.

Each method offers its own benefits and may align better with specific types of tamales or regional recipes. However, many tamales can be adapted to different cooking methods based on personal preference or available equipment. If you wish to find more specific recipes on tamales, check out this article on regional tamales.

Additional Cooking Considerations

When picking your ideal tamales recipes, consider the following points:

Masa Consistency: Pay attention to the consistency of the masa dough. It should be spreadable but not too thick or too thin. Aim for a texture that is similar to peanut butter. Thus, adjust the liquid content as needed.

Filling Choices: Tamales can be filled with a variety of ingredients, such as meats, cheeses, beans, or even vegetables. Ensure that your chosen filling complements the masa and that the flavors work well together.

Seasoning: Seasoning is crucial for a flavorful tamale. The masa dough and the filling should both be seasoned well. Common seasonings include salt, cumin, chili powder, and garlic, but the specific seasonings can vary based on regional preferences.

Soaking Corn Husks: Soak the corn husks in warm water until they become pliable. This step is important to make the husks flexible enough to wrap the tamales easily.

Assembly Techniques: Learn the proper technique for assembling tamales. Spread the masa evenly on the husk, leaving enough space on the edges for folding. Also, learn how to fold and tie the tamales securely.

Steamer Setup: When steaming, ensure that your steamer is set up properly. Arrange the tamales vertically with the open end facing up, leaving space for steam circulation. Steam until the masa is fully cooked.

Testing for Doneness: Whether you’re steaming, boiling, baking, or microwaving, it’s crucial to test for doneness. The masa should be fully cooked and have a firm texture. It should easily pull away from the husk.

Resting Period: Allow the tamales to rest for a few minutes after cooking. This helps the masa set, making it easier to unwrap and giving the flavors a chance to meld.

Serving Suggestions: Consider serving tamales with traditional accompaniments like salsa, guacamole, or sour cream. The side dishes can enhance the overall dining experience.

Remember that making tamales may take a bit of practice to perfect, so don’t be discouraged if your first attempt isn’t flawless. Enjoy the process of learning and refining your technique.

Reader FAQs

We have put together some reader questions and prepared straightforward answers below:

How to best store tamales in the fridge?

Tamales can be refrigerated for up to one week. Ensure proper storage in an airtight container to maintain freshness and flavor.

If I want to eat tamales next week, how should I store them?

Freshly made tamales are best within 3-4 days. For longer storage, freeze them. Reheat by steaming for that freshly made taste.

How long are tamales good for in the fridge?

Tamales remain good in the fridge for 3-4 days. After that, freeze them for extended storage. Ensure proper reheating for optimal flavor.

How long does it take to make tamales?

Making tamales usually takes around 3 hours, including preparation and assembly. Plan ahead for a delightful homemade experience.

How long does it take to cook tamales?

Cooking tamales takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. Steaming is the preferred method, ensuring the masa is thoroughly cooked.

How will I know when the tamales are ready?

Cook tamales for 1.5 to 2 hours. Confirm doneness by opening one— the masa should be fully cooked and separate easily from the husk.

How to steam tamales without a steamer?

To steam tamales without a steamer, create a makeshift steamer by placing a heatproof bowl or rack in a large pot. Add water, then steam tamales on top.

How to cook tamales in the oven?

Preheat your oven to 325°F (163°C). Wrap tamales in foil, placing them on a baking sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until heated through.

Conclusion

We hope you found this article useful and it helps you with your cooking of tamales. If you want to send in further questions, please feel free to write in and we will do our best to get back to you.

Otherwise, buen provecho, for now!