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The 5 Best Substitutes for Corn Husks in Tamales

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There’s nothing quite like warm and delicious tamales wrapped in corn husks. But if you don’t have any husks, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this delicious food. There are several viable replacements.

The best substitute for corn husks in tamales is banana leaves. Like corn husks, banana leaves impart a distinct, earthy flavor to the tamales. This characteristic is often lacking in other wrapping alternatives, like parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Here are more the 5 top substitutes for corn husks in tamales:

1. Banana Leaves

Tamales made with banana leaves

Banana leaves are considered by many to be the best substitute for corn husks in tamales. While the flavor it imparts on the food is distinct from that of corn husks, it’s still a significant improvement to the dish’s taste profile.

Aside from that, history shows that banana leaves have always been used to wrap food. This practice is especially prominent in Asian cuisine. 

In the Philippines, sticky rice desserts are usually packed inside rolled or shaped leaves. These desserts are typically steamed, similar to tamales. 

In Indonesia, dishes made of fish, chicken, and other meats are neatly packed into banana wraps. 

Furthermore, specific cultures and recipes use banana leaves as the primary wrap for their tamales. 

Guatemalan Tamales 

The recipe for Guatemalan tamales uses pork shoulder, ancho chile sauce, and masa harina or corn flour dough. It then uses fresh or frozen (then thawed) banana leaves to assemble and pack all the components. 

To ensure the tamales don’t burst open during steaming, you may cover them with foil or tie them with kitchen twine

While you can thaw frozen banana leaves, it’s always best to use fresh ones when you can. 

Oaxaca-Style Tamales 

Meanwhile, tamales Oaxaqueños recipe uses chicken and a chile sauce made with ancho chile and mulato chile for extra spice. It also uses masa harina, with some chicken broth added to it for more flavor. When all the elements are ready, softened banana leaves are used as wrapping.

Pros

These are the benefits of using banana leaves to wrap tamales: 

  • Imparts flavor 
  • Biodegradable 
  • Often used to wrap other food 

Cons 

These are the downsides of using banana leaves to wrap tamales:

  • Flavor is different from corn husks 
  • Not available everywhere
Woman preparing tamales with banana leaves and cornmeal

2. Vegetable/Fruit Leaves

Cabbage leaves in the garden

If you don’t have banana leaves, there are other ways to wrap your tamales without using corn husks. One such ingenious method is to use vegetable or fruit leaves. 

These are the recommended vegetable leaves you can use to wrap your tamales:

  • Cabbage
  • Chard
  • Turnip leaves 
  • Grapevine 

Like banana leaves, leafy vegetables have been used over the ages to wrap foods. 

A familiar example is cabbage rolls, a dish popular in Asia and Europe. Stuffed grapevine leaves are also popular in Lebanese and Greek cultures. 

Among those vegetables, though, chard is the most popular for use with tamales. If you’re unfamiliar with chard, it’s also known as spinach beet. It’s a nutritious beet that can be eaten raw or cooked

Since chard leaves are pretty sturdy, you need to break them a bit before you can roll them around. 

Veracruzan Tamales 

The Veracruzan tamales recipe was designed to have a chard wrapping. It also has chicken breast and masa. The leaf is washed and crushed to make it more flexible. Afterward, the cooked chard tamales are served with green salsa. 

Swiss Chard Tamales

This recipe for Tamales de Acelgas con Salsa Verde or Swiss Chard Tamales with Green Sauce was adapted from a hotel in Jalisco. It does not use any meat, only corn masa with Mexican crema. The tamales are wrapped carefully in chard leaves and served with a tomatillo sauce; you can eat the tamales along with the chard leaves. 

Pros

These are some advantages of using fruit or vegetable leaves:

  • Edible wrapping
  • They impart flavor 
  • Used to wrap other food 
  • Nutritious 

Cons 

These are the cons of using fruit or vegetable leaves:

  • The flavor is different from corn husks 
  • Some vegetable leaves may be hard to find 
  • Some leaves, like chard, may need extra preparation 

Notes

These are a few things you might want to keep in mind when making tamales with fruit or vegetable leaves: 

  • Cabbage is best for the savory kind. However, if you need them for sweet tamales, you just need to add more sugar to the dough. 
  • Soak grapevine leaves first. Grape leaves have a bitter taste to them, which gets washed off when you soak the leaves for an hour before use.
  • Prepare bigger quantities. These leaves have different dimensions from corn husks. For instance, you might need more grapevine leaves than usual because they’re much smaller than the husks. 
  • Turnip leaves need blanching. If you don’t blanch these leaves beforehand, they could leave a bitter taste on the tamales. 
  • Leaves impart flavor. When making tamales, you need to consider the flavors the leaves may contribute to your tamales.

3. Parchment Paper

Two sheets of crumpled parchment paper

Sometimes, the best substitute is one that’s immediately available. For most households, that may be the good old parchment paper in the cupboard.

Can I Use Parchment Paper Instead of Corn Husks for Tamales?

Parchment paper is a well-recommended alternative to corn husks for tamales. It’s readily available at home and has a similar texture to corn husks. However, it offers no flavor and does not improve the taste profile of tamales. 

Thus, the other tamale elements, like the meat, masa, or sauce, must be flavorful to compensate for the lack of flavor from the wrap. 

Tamales With Parchment Paper

To give you a better idea of how to use parchment paper to wrap tamales, I’ve included this recipe. These tamales use cornmeal, black beans, chicken broth, cheese, and spices. The parchment paper is cut into squares to wrap the tamale fillings easily. 

Pros

These are the upsides of using parchment paper:

  • Readily available
  • Cheap 
  • Easy to use
  • Leak-proof 
  • Same texture as corn husks 

Cons  

These are the downsides of using parchment paper: 

  • No flavor

4. Aluminum Foil

Food rolled in foil in the oven

Similar to parchment paper, most households have aluminum foil on hand. Thus, it’s handy for emergencies, like when you’re making tamales and fail to notice you don’t have corn husks. 

Can You Use Foil Instead of Corn Husks for Tamales?

To make tamales, aluminum foil can be used instead of corn husks. However, like parchment paper, it doesn’t impart a unique flavor to the tamales. Moreover, some people may be allergic to aluminum, and this must be considered before use. 

Pros

These are the pros of using aluminum foil: 

  • Readily available
  • Cheap 
  • Easy to use
  • Leak-proof 

Cons

These are the cons of using aluminum foil: 

  • Some people may be allergic 
  • No flavor

5. Wax Paper

Food Wrapped in Wax Paper

Wax paper is another convenient substitute for corn husks. It’s available in many homes and stores. 

Like parchment paper and aluminum foil, wax paper is easy to use. And there’s no need to soak or break it before wrapping your tamales.

A significant concern I have about wax paper is that it has low heat resistance compared to parchment paper and aluminum foil. Thus, it can melt at high temperatures. Use wax paper as a last resort to err on the side of safety. 

Pros

These are the advantages of using wax paper:

  • Readily available
  • Cheap 
  • Easy to use
  • Leak-proof 

Cons 

These are the disadvantages of using wax paper: 

  • Some people may be allergic to wax paper
  • No flavor 
  • Low-heat resistance 

Where Can I Buy Corn Husks for Tamales?

Overall, nothing beats hot and delicious tamales wrapped in corn husks. Thus, while I can give you a long list of alternatives, it’s really best to go for the original. 

Corn husks for tamales are available in many kinds of stores, including most Mexican stores and groceries. Other stores like Walmart also sell corn husks. They’re also available online through Amazon.

Nowadays, corn husks are much easier to find, especially online. Thus, you might not need substitutes after all.

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For more, don’t miss How Do You Know When Tamales Are Done? | 4 Ways to Tell.

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