Have you ever wondered how long it takes to cook tamales on the stove? You can use a tamalera pot, or a Dutch Oven or regular pot – I’ll also show you a pressure cooker method. These are the best way to to cook this traditional Mexican dish and get the best results for your homemade tamales.
Tamales seem like a daunting thing to make if you’ve never tried before, but they can actually be surprisingly simple sometimes. It doesn’t matter if you make them with fresh masa or masa harina, nor the type of tamale you make, we can all agree that this traditional dish from Mexico is perfect for celebrating special occasions and of course the holidays.
Make sure to check out the other countless tamale making tips and all my homemade tamales recipe all ready here on the blog. But also don’t skip these very helpful tips on the steaming process for making homemade tamales.
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How Long to Cook Tamales
How long tamales take to cook will depend on the situation, but if you’re making fresh tamales from scratch, they will often need to steam for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours before they are ready to eat.
If you are cooking already cooked frozen tamales, it should take about 30 minutes to steam four of them. Thawed tamales can be cooked in about 20 minutes. Keep reading to discover the different ways you can cook your delicious tamales.
How Long Do Tamales Take to Cook
Cooking tamales isn’t tricky at all, just follow my easy guide with these simple steps and you’ll have perfect tamales every time. Promise!
The cooking time of your tamales will depend on the size and thickness of your tamales. Please notice that the cook time for tamales that have previously been cooked or are frozen will differ, but more on that below.
Additionally the type of different fillings used can impact tamale cooking times. For example the traditional tamales filled with shredded beef, chicken salsa verde, or red tamales with pork filling will take a little longer to cook than vegan or vegetarian tamales.
When it comes to meat you don’t want to risk it, so make sure that it’s fully cooked before placing it onto the corn dough for steaming. Meat tends to be denser than vegan tamale fillings so it can slow down the cooking process of the masa.
Generally speaking if you’re making tamales from scratch, you are going to need to cook them for about 11/2 to 2 hours on the stove top, so be aware of that before you start.
The long cooking time ensures that the masa dough is fully cooked through, specially the center, so it’s important to make sure that they steam long enough.
Let’s explore a few of the different ways that you can cook tamales.
How to Cook Tamales in a Steamer
The traditional steamer for cooking tamales is called a tamalera. They vary in sizes and can be made of steel or aluminum. You can buy them at your local Hispanic grocery store or also on Amazon.
These instructions are for steaming tamales on the stovetop with the traditional tamalera steamer pot.
Step 1: To steam tamales on the stove, you will first need to fill your steamer or tamalera pot with water to the indicated water level line on the pot.
Step 2: Then place the steamer tray that comes with the pot.
Step 3: This step is optional but a lot of us Mexican cooks will do this: Line the bottom of the tamalera pot with hydrated or soaked corn husks. This is extra prevention so that water doesn’t getting into your tamales as they steam.
Arrange the tamales on the steamer tray, make sure to stand them upright. Make sure you place the folded side against the inside of the pot, so they don’t unfold. You want to pack the pan firmly but not so tightly that the tamale dough can’t expand.
Also, make sure that the tamales do not touch the water or you’ll end up with soggy tamales.
For tamales made with banana leaves you stack them on top of each other.
Step 5: Cover the steamer with the lid and bring the pot to a boil over high heat. Make sure the lid seals tightly and if not you can cover the pot with aluminum, make a small hole in the center then place the lid on the steamer pot. Alternatively you could also use extra hydrated corn husk wrappers to cover the tamales then place the lid to steam.
Step 6: Once the water is boiling you can then turn the heat down to medium low. Keep it boiling lightly and top up the water whenever the pot starts to dry out, so that it never boils dry and burns.
Step 7: Steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes and then check for doneness.
How to Check That Tamales Are Cooked Through
After steaming your tamales for a minimum of 1 hour, lift one out of the pot and let it stand for a few minutes.
After about 5 minutes see if the husk will easily peel away from the dough, and check that the dough stays smooth; this indicates it is done.
If the tamales don’t peel away easily from the husk, then steam for another 30 minutes then check again. But hardly ever will you need to steam longer than 2 hours. The amount of tamales steaming, of course, plays a roll in the steaming time. Small batches sometimes are ready in 45 minutes.
Once the tamale peels away easily from the husk, slice it open and check that the corn masa in the center with the tamale filling is also well heated and cooked throughout. If the insides are squishy or sticky, the tamales need longer.
When they are done, remove them from the steamer and allow them to sit on the counter and cool for a few minutes before serving. Resting will allow the tamales to become even more firm.
Once your tamales are cooked through, you can leave them in the steamer pot to keep warm, just turn off the heat.
How to Steam Tamales in a Dutch Oven or Pot
If you don’t have a tamalera pot or a steamer pot then you can use a Dutch Oven with a steamer basket or a regular large to steam your tamales.
I have a whole dedicated step-by-step guide for this and you can read it here: How to Steam Tamales Without a Steamer.
Remember these instructions below are for fresh uncooked tamales, reheating times for tamales are further down.
But a quick run through is:
- Fill the Dutch Oven or a large pot with about 1 to 2 inches of warm water, then place the steamer basket or steam rack into the pot. You can line the basket or rack with hydrate corn husks.
- Arrange the tamales inside the pot in an upright position without overcrowding them. For banana leaf tamales just stack them on top of each other.
- Cover the Dutch Oven or pot with aluminum foil, make a small hole then place the lid on the pot.
- Bring the water to a boil, once boiling reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 45 minutes before removing one tamale to test for doneness. Cooking time will be anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 and a half hours.
- Make sure to check now and then for enough water and add more water as necessary.
- Once cooked through leave to rest for a few minutes before serving. Resting will allow the tamales to become even more firm and they’ll have extra flavor when allowed to sit and cool.
How to Cook Tamales in a Pressure Cooker
A more detailed guide for steaming tamales in an Instant Pot or pressure cooker can be found on my in-depth guide: How to Steam Tamales with an Instant Pot or Pressure Cooker.
But here’s a quick run through: Pour hot water into the pressure cooker, place the steaming rack or steaming basket inside – make sure the water doesn’t go above the steamer rack.
Arrange the tamales in an upright position, or stacked for banana leaf tamales. You won’t be able to fit too many, it’ll depend on the size of your pressure cooker – as well as the size of the tamale you’re cooking. Secure the lid on, then set steam valve to sealing, select Pressure Cook on high pressure for 35 minutes.
Allow the Instant Pot to finish the cooking program then let is fully naturally release, carefully open the pot and let it sit for a few minutes before removing the tamales.
How Long Do Pre-Cooked Tamales Take to Steam?
If you’re reheating tamales, you don’t need to steam them for nearly as long; you are only trying to ensure that they are heated through. In most cases, this will take about 15 minutes of steaming, although you should cook large batches longer.
That might seem like a long time for something that is already cooked, but because tamales have an outer corn husk, it can take some time for heat to penetrate through to the center. Again, be careful not to overcook the tamales, or they will fall apart when you try to cut into them.
How Long Does It Take to Cook Frozen Tamales on the Stove?
Frozen tamales, that is already cooked then frozen, will usually only take about 30 minutes on the stove, but if you’re making a big batch, you should give them up to 40 minutes. This ensures that the heat can penetrate them fully and they can steam evenly.
If you don’t want to wait this long for the tamales to cook, you may wish to thaw the tamales first. To do this, place the frozen tamales in the fridge 24 hours before you wish to cook them, and then take them out and place them in the steamer and use one of the easy method of your choice from above.
Defrosting first should cut down on the cooking time, as they will not need to defrost on the counter for hours before they can be heated through.
How to Keep Tamales Warm
You can keep tamales warm by leaving them in the steamer with the lid on to keep the steam in. Turn the heat off, and they should retain their heat for some time. This can also help to soften the dough and enhance the flavors and will allow them to cook a little more.
If you’re taking tamales to a party and don’t want to carry your steamer pot with you, a great way to carry them would be to place the tamales on a baking sheet and cover with aluminum until ready to serve.
Any leftover tamales can be allowed to come to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, or wrap tightly with plastic wrap, or place inside a large plastic bag in the refrigerator or frozen for later consumption.
Can You Overcook Tamales?
You can overcook tamales, yes. Over-steamed tamales may turn soggy and fall to pieces if they spend too long in the steamer, so keep a close eye on them and get them out as soon as you think they are ready.
If you are cooking a large batch of tamales, they will take longer to steam than if you do a small batch. For small batches, make sure you are keeping an eye on them, and check on them frequently. As soon as the dough separates neatly from the husks, it’s time to check the filling and see whether they are ready to come out.
Overcooked tamales are not the best, so make sure you are watching the pot closely and get them out as soon as you think they are ready.
Can You Eat Cold Tamales?
If you cut open a tamale and find that it is still cool in the center, you should not eat it.
This is specially the case for people who make meat tamales, the meat has not been heated to a safe temperature, and it will not be pleasant. For vegan and vegetarian tamales it’s a matter of them just not tasting good cold.
So put them back in the steamer and allow to finish heating through until the center is piping hot.
How to Reheat Tamales in The Microwave
If you don’t want to use the tamalera steamer to reheat tamales, you can instead put the tamales in the microwave and heat them.
However, this does tend to dry the dough out and can make it chewy, dry and fall apart, kind of unpleasant.
How to Cook Frozen Tamales in The Oven
Alternatively, wrap the tamales in a layer of aluminum foil and put them in the oven at 425 degrees F. Heat them for 10 minutes, and then flip them over and heat them for a further 10 minutes.
Check that they are hot throughout before serving.
How to Serve Tamales
Traditionally in many Mexican homes, tamales are served just on their own with maybe some salsa without side dishes.
But if you want a delicious side dish to go with your homemade tamales make some homemade refried beans. A basic salsa like a pico de gallo goes great, as does a salsa verde or a spicy chile de arbol salsa.
Check out my guide on What to Eat with Tamales .
If you are cooking tamales from scratch, it will take 1.5 to 2 hours for them to fully steam. Test them to see whether the dough is fully cooked, and the filling has reached the correct temperature, and then allow them to stand for a few minutes before serving to let the flavors develop.
Check out some of these tamales steamer pots on Amazon.
Tamales Recipes to Try
Here are very useful tips for making traditional Mexican authentic tamales, and also some delicious vegan tamales and vegetarian tamales recipes for you to try.
- Masa For Tamales | No Lard Recipe
- The Masa Float Test for Tamales
- How to Prepare Corn Husks for Tamales
- How To Spread Masa for Tamales
- How to Fold Tamales
- How to Store Tamales
- How Long do Tamales Last
- How to Steam Tamales Without a Steamer
- Easy Tamales Verdes Recipe | Jackfruit & Mushroom Vegan Tamales
- Vegan Tamales Recipe | Tamales Rojos
- Birria Tamales
- Sweet Tamales | Piña Colada Tamales
- Cheese and Jalapeño Tamales Recipe | Tamales de Rajas
- Pibipollo | Vegan Tamales for Day of The Dead
- Mexican Tamales Made Meatless
How Long Does It Take to Cook Tamales on the Stove?
- 1 Steamer Pot tamalera
- 20 small tamales
- water enough water for the steamer pot
- Fill the tamalera steamer pot to the indicated line, then place the steamer rack on it. Make sure the water doesn't leak through the steamer rack holes.
- Arrange the tamales upright on the steamer tray. Make sure you place the folded side against the metal, so they don’t unfold. You want to pack the pan firmly but not so tightly that the dough can’t expand.
- Cover the steamer with the lid and bring the pot to a boil. Make sure the lid seals tightly and if not you can cover the pot with aluminum, make a small hole in the center then place the lid on the steamer pot. Alternatively you could also use extra hydrated corn husks to cover the tamales then place the lid to steam.
- Bring the water to a boil then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 1 hour. After this time carefully remove one tamale from the pot and let it rest for 5 minutes before testing for doneness. Peel away the corn husk and if it easily peels away from the tamal then it's ready, if not continue to steam for another half our, check again and repeat if necessary.
- Once steamed or cooked through, turn the heat off and allow the tamales to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Nancy Lopez is a food blogger and author of the cookbook Mexican Tamales Made Meatless. Born in Mexico, raised in the US, and currently living in Southern Mexico, she has followed a meatless diet for almost 10 years. It is her passion and mission to share all she has learned about vegan Mexican cooking and vegetarian Mexican recipes. Mexican Made Meatless is a blog dedicated to preserving the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine just without the meat. It’s a place to celebrate Mexican culture and all it’s delightfully delicious traditional foods. Read more…