Steaming tamales is much easier than rolling them. Even if you don't have a commercially made steamer, you can easily rig up a DIY steamer basket using anything heat proof that will hold the tamales above boiling water and allow the steam to penetrate them. You can also heat or reheat tamales using a method that doesn't involve steam, such as deep frying them or cooking them on a grill.

The Basics of Steaming Tamales

The goal of heating tamales is to cook them or heat them through so they'll be soft and moist. If your tamale recipe calls for cool or warm water when preparing your masa, you'll need to steam your tamales for 30 minutes to one hour because your masa won't be fully cooked when you start the steaming process.

If your tamale recipe calls for boiling water, or if you're preparing tamales that have already been fully cooked (such as the frozen ones available at the supermarket), you'll only need to steam them for 15 to 30 minutes. Exact timing depends on how many you're cooking at once and whether they're warm, cold or frozen when they hit the steamer.

Add enough water to the bottom of your pot to keep it from boiling out. However, don't use so much water that your tamales are sitting in the liquid because direct contact with the water will make them soggy. An inch or two of water should be plenty if you're reheating tamales for 15 to 30 minutes unless you use very high heat. You may need more water than that if you're cooking your masa from scratch, and your tamale recipe called for warm or cool water, so check the liquid level periodically and add more as needed.

Arranging the Tamales

You can arrange your tamales lying down, piling them on top of each other, or you can arrange them standing up. If you're lying them down, face the opening of the corn husk upward so the insides don't fall out when you lift the tamales out of the pan. If you arrange your tamales standing up, arrange them so the open end is facing up. Whichever way you arrange your tamales, the ones around the edges will cook more quickly than the ones in the middle, so check tamales in different parts of the pot for doneness.

Steaming Without a Steamer Basket

Metal and bamboo steamer baskets aren't the only setups that work for steaming tamales. Other techniques may take some ingenuity and finesse, but they can certainly get the job done.

  • Metal strainer. A mesh strainer or metal colander is a worthy vessel for steaming tamales, although you'll encounter some logistical challenges. You'll need to suspend the strainer or colander over the boiling water, which shouldn't be difficult because most strainers have some kind of lip or handle for hanging. Also, if you use a strainer or colander, the lid of your pot won't fit snugly, so allow extra cooking time to make up for the heat you'll lose.

  • Bowl and chopsticks. You can raise your tamales up out of the water by placing an upside down bowl in the bottom of the stockpot. The bowl should have a circumference a few inches smaller than the pot to leave room for the water you'll boil. Arrange three or four chopsticks on top of the bowl and then arrange the tamales on top of the chopsticks. This method can work for up to half a dozen tamales, but don't try stacking them because that will be too precarious.

  • Oven and roasting pan. Although a conventional oven isn't a conventional way to steam tamales, you can do the trick by arranging them in a covered baking pan with some water and figuring out a way to lift them out of the water while they're steaming. A roasting pan with an insert is ideal, but you can also ball up some aluminum foil and arrange the tamales on top. Your tamales may take twice as long to heat in the oven, but you can minimize the cooking time by starting with boiling water.

Other Methods for Heating Tamales

Steaming isn't the only way to heat tamales, although it is arguably the best method because of the abundant moisture. Some of the other methods won't get you a traditional outcome, though they will still yield tasty food.

  • Microwave. Of all the methods for preparing tamales without steaming them, microwave preparation will produce results closest to a steaming method. Simply place up to two tamales on a microwaveable dish and heat them for two minutes. Allow extra time if you're heating additional tamales. You can wrap your tamales in a damp paper towel to provide extra moisture, but you'll get good results even without this extra step.

  • Barbecue. To heat tamales on an outdoor grill or barbecue, leave them in the husks and arrange them on your barbecue grate. Use a relatively low flame and heat them until they're hot all the way through. The husks will blacken a bit, but the insides won't burn as long as you turn the tamales regularly and keep the heat low. This method will give your tamales a wonderful smoky flavor.

  • Pan frying. Pan frying tamales in a bit of oil gives them a satisfying, slightly crispy exterior. Remove the tamales from their husks, use enough oil to coat the bottom of your pan and cook on medium low to medium heat until the tamales are heated through. Use lower heat if you're using a cooking oil with a low smoke point, such as olive oil. Use higher heat if you're using a cooking oil that can stand up to it and if you like your tamales nicely browned.

  • Deep frying. You can also deep fry your tamales for a wonderfully crunchy result. The success of this method depends on having the tamales as dry as possible before immersing them in oil. If you're using frozen tamales, microwave them for a minute first to take off the chill. Also, pat down your tamales with paper towels before frying them. It will take two to three minutes for them to cook through and develop a fine, crispy exterior.

Testing Tamales for Doneness

Cooking tamales fully is important for both quality and food safety. An undercooked tamale can be gummy and pasty. It can also present a risk of foodborne illness, especially if your filling includes a protein such as meat or beans.

If you're reheating tamales or your masa for tamales has been prepared using boiling water, you'll only need to heat them through for them to be fully ready. Test your tamales with a metal-stem thermometer to make sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If your tamale recipe calls for warm rather than boiling water, you'll also need to make sure that the masa is fully cooked. Break off a bit with a fork and taste it. If it's both firm and tender, it's ready. If it's mushy, continue cooking and check it again at regular intervals.

It's possible to overcook a tamale in a steamer, and the result will be rubbery and unappealing. However, this will take over an hour, so it's unlikely to happen unless you forget about your tamales or accidentally fall asleep.

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein

Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.