Perfectly cooked tamales are more of an art form than an exact science. However, once you learn what to look for and how to “test” when they are done, making them awesome is a straightforward process.
Tamales are finished when all of the dough is completely cooked, the masa dough is firm, and you can remove the husk easily. There should not be any uncooked dough left. If the masa dough sticks when you open a tamale, it is not finished. Fold it back up again and put it back into the oven for another few minutes.
Here are 4 ways to tell if your tamales are finished:
1. By Sight
If you have cooked tamales a few times before, you may be able to tell if they are finished just by looking at them. If they look finished from the outside, they will be finished inside as well. People who have very rarely or never cooked tamales may not be able to tell.
2. Sticky Husk Test
The best way to tell if the tamales are finished is if it is easy to remove the husks. If the husks are and not easy to remove, the tamales are not done. Another five minutes is about right if your tamales are not finished. You might overcook them if you give them another ten minutes.
When tamales are done, the leaf/husk should separate from the masa dough easily. If the husk sticks to the dough, you need to cook your tamales some more. While a bit of dough sticking to the husk around the edges is normal, the husk should come off fairly cleanly.
3. Check the Dough
You might also cut one of your larger/thicker tamales open to see if the masa dough inside is cooked. Well-cooked dough should be firm. If the dough is still soft, put them back and cook them some more. Use a larger tamale to do this test because smaller tamales cook faster. If one of your thicket tamales is done, the smaller ones will all be.
4. The Taste Test
You can eat one or part of one of the tamales to see if it is done. If it isn’t cooked properly, you can tell by the taste. You can also tell by whether or not the tamale keeps its shape when you eat it with a fork. If it is finished, it should be firm and not fall apart.
How Long Does it Take to Cook Tamales?
Steamed tamales usually take 30 or 40 minutes. Put 2 cups of water in a pot, put your tamales in a strainer, cover them, and steam them for half an hour or somewhat more than that. If it is not easy to remove the husk, your tamales are not finished and need another five minutes.
The more water you add to the pot, the longer your tamales will take to cook. You don’t need a huge amount of water to make steamed tamales.
Adding more water won’t make your tamales turn out any better. All it will do is make it take longer for the water to heat up. Even 40 minutes might not be long enough if you add an unnecessary amount of water to your pot. Again, as little as two cups is usually enough.
Frozen Tamales Take a Lot Longer to Cook
Thirty or forty minutes is not long enough if you are cooking tamales from scratch. If you are cooking more tamales, it can also take longer to cook them. Sometimes, it can take people well over an hour to cook their tamales, although I never find that it takes this long.
Can Tamales be Undercooked?
You can easily undercook tamales, and they aren’t nearly as good if they are not cooked properly. If you undercook tamales, they end up being tough and chewy. Many of the ingredients in the tamales may be undercooked, including the meat. Test one to see if they are finished and put them back in the steamer for at least a few more minutes.
Can You Overcook Tamales?
It is possible to overcook tamales. If you overcook tamales using a steamer, they end up being soft and watery. They break apart when you try to cut or eat them. They don’t taste good if they are too waterlogged.
To avoid overcooking tamales, check on them regularly. Don’t ignore them for too long, or they may end up soggy and waterlogged. Keep in mind that many things affect how fast tamales cook.
If you are cooking fresh rather than frozen tamales this time, they will cook significantly faster. If you are cooking more than a few at a time, they will take longer to cook also. Don’t assume that they will take as long to cook as they did last time.
Can Tamales Break Apart if Cooked for too Long?
Tamales will tend to break apart if cooked for too long, although this has more to do not with preparing the tamales the right way than cooking for more than needed. If you overstuff a tamale with fillings, it may break apart.
Make all of your tamales the same way. If you put more than necessary into some and less than necessary into others, they might break apart or not cook properly. Tamales are supposed to be a reasonably simple dish that doesn’t need too many different ingredients.
Can you Cook Tamales in an Instant Pot or Pressure Cooker?
You can use a pressure cooker if you want to cook tamales faster than normal. In my experience, they turn out roughly as good if you use a pressure cooker or instant pot. The taste is only slightly different and not necessarily better or worse.
Do Tamales Need to Sit After Steaming?
Tamales do need to sit after being steamed. Definitely don’t eat them right away. Like many other foods, tamales taste better if you let them sit for a while before you eat them. If you let it set, the meat will absorb the moisture and be tasty and juicy. If you don’t do this, the meat may be a little dry.
How Long do Tamales Take to Set?
Usually, it only takes ten minutes for tamales to set. By then, the meat should be as tender and juicy as possible. Don’t let your tamales start getting cold. You don’t need to let them set for 15 or 20 minutes.
Why are My Tamales Soggy?
Tamales get soggy if you overcook them. The steam is supposed to give the tamales moisture as well as heat, but this can go too far in the right direction. If you steam your tamales for longer than necessary to cook them well, they will get soggy.
How do I Fix Soggy Tamales?
Sometimes, you can fix overcooked tamales by putting them in the microwave for a short time – only about 20 seconds or so. If you put them in the microwave briefly, you can get rid of some of the moisture.
Wet and soft tamales are not always ruined. Sometimes, you can salvage them, although they won’t be quite as good as tamales that didn’t get soggy in the first place.
If your tamales are soggy from being undercooked rather than soft from being overcooked, you should put them back in the steamer for a little while longer. Undercooked tamales are much easier to fix than overcooked ones, so be careful not to cook tamales for too long.
Can You Steam Tamales Without a Steamer Basket?
It is possible to steam tamales without a basket. You can improvise with things you already have in your kitchen. You might be able to use a metal strainer, although it is not ideal. Of course, you might also not be able to get a lid on top of the pot with a metal strainer and may need to hold them there.
You need to keep the tamales above the boiling water while letting the steam get to them.
Pro Tip: An even more basic method that may work pretty well is to use an upside-down bowl with chopsticks on top of it. Put water in the pot, then turn a large bowl upside down, and put chopsticks on top of the bowl. Put a small number of tamales on top of the chopsticks, and the steam should cook them well.
While the chopstick method works, there is the risk of your tamales falling into the boiling water and being ruined. You have to be careful, and it won’t always work. Don’t try to steam more than a few at a time this way.
Any way of allowing your tamales to get steamed without touching the boiling water may work. You could even use balls of aluminum foil to hold the tamales up over a roasting pan with boiling water in it.
If you plan on steaming tamales or anything else more than a few times, you should get a proper steamer basket. It is much easier with the right utensils.
What are the Ways to Cook Tamales?
You can use a slow cooker, oven, grill, fryer, microwave, and more to cook tamales. Steaming them is the traditional way and usually the best way, but you can make perfectly good tamales in many other ways.
Steamed tamales usually taste the best. You can make great tamales with a steamer, whether you are cooking frozen or fresh ones and whether you are cooking only a few or a large batch.
Here are 6 alternative ways to cook tamales:
Using a microwave is not the best way, but it is the fastest and most convenient way. You can cook frozen tamales in only five minutes with a microwave.
If they are fresh, you might be able to cook them in two or three minutes. Since microwaved tamales are not as tasty as those you cook more slowly, a microwave isn’t the best idea. If you are spending time preparing tamales, you might as well cook them slowly.
2. Toaster Oven
While this is not a good or efficient way to cook tamales, it does work, and they may turn out reasonably well. Wrap your tamales in foil and put them in the toaster oven for a long time, probably more than 45 minutes.
You can only put a few tamales in a toaster oven at a time, and it is slow. It is not the best way to cook tamales slowly. However, a toaster oven does work. It won’t ruin the taste of the tamales.
Grilled tamales are great, even though steamed tamales are my favorite. Use medium or low rather than high heat. Wrap your tamales in tinfoil properly. You need to protect them from damage. Again, don’t use high heat; you can ruin them this way.
An oven also works, although it is somewhat slow. Your tamales usually won’t be as tasty as steamed or grilled tamales are, although some people would disagree. The trick is to cook your tamales slowly.
Can You Bake Tamales Instead?
Although I prefer steaming them, you can bake tamales as well. Use a reasonable temperature (eg, 425 degrees), use aluminum foil, and don’t forget to turn the tamales over. Baked tamales are good – I don’t like baked tamales as much as steamed tamales, but I do like them. Baked tamales are faster, although they still take 20 minutes.
6. Rice Cooker
A rice cooker also works for cooking or reheating tamales. These are just as good as tamales steamed in any other way. A rice cooker may not be big enough to cook a lot of tamales at once.
How Safe is it to Leave Tamales out Overnight?
Cooked tamales won’t immediately spoil if you leave them out, but you do have to be careful. Many people get food poisoning and other sicknesses from eating spoiled or undercooked food every year, so be on the safe side.
Overnight is too long. There is some risk of getting sick if you eat tamales you left out overnight for more than eight hours. Five hours is a better maximum amount of time. If it is hot out, even five hours is much too long. If it is more than 80 degrees out, any more than 90 minutes is risky.
Thanks for stoppin’ by!
For more, don’t miss What to Do if Tamales Are Soggy (And How to Avoid It).
Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
Lovingly known as “Jelly Grandma” by her grandkids, Anne hopes your visit here has been a sweet one.