How To Eat Tamales

What Is A Tamale

How Tamales Are Made

How To Eat Tamales

Are There Other Types Of Tamales

How To Steam Precooked Tamales

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


What Is A Tamale

At its most basic, a tamale is a steamed bundle of masa and a tasty filling, all wrapped in a corn husk. Tamales used to be easier to find, at least in many Chicago neighborhoods, according to chef Jorge Miranda. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies, or any preparation according to taste, and both the filling and the cooking liquid may be seasoned.

Tamale is the anglicized version of the Spanish word tamal (plural: tamales, from Nahuatl languages: tamari ). Tamal comes from the Nahuatl word tamari via Spanish where the singular is tamal and the plural tamales. The word tamale is a back-formation of tamales, with English speakers assuming the singular was tamale and the plural tamales.

A basic tamale can be broken down into three components:

1. Masa: Masa, a key ingredient in Mexican cooking, is a dough made from ground corn that has been treated with water and lime. Like many chefs, Jorge moistens his masa with a fat, such as lard or vegetable shortening, before pouring it onto the tamale wrapper. Per Jorge, each tamale should be about 60% masa, 40% filling.
2. Filling: A tamale is still a tamale, even if the chef stops at the masa. Typically, though, the masa is filled with pork or chicken marinated in a mole or salsa. It may also be filled with veggies, beans, and/or cheese.
3. Wrapper: Corn husks are wrapped tightly around the masa and filling, making for a wrapper that keeps its contents intact.

How Tamales are Made

As they are time-intensive labors of love, Mexican tamales are traditionally crafted at home, often with an extended family gathering in the kitchen to form a hot tamale assembly line, with each station taking over one of these steps:

  1. Washing, then soaking the corn husks for flexibility
  2. Coating the inside of the husk with masa
  3. Coating that layer of masa with the filling
  4. Rolling the husk tightly into a cylinder, and folding, much like a big egg roll

Once the tamale is wrapped, it’s ready to be steamed. The wrapper, while inedible, acts as a biodegradable packaging that makes it super-portable. Street vendors often keep tamales warm in coolers; in Chicago, you can still spy these vendors on street corners in some neighborhoods.

How to Eat Tamales

Tamales, relatively small packets generally wrapped with a corn husk (but sometimes with banana leaves or corn leaves), are a traditional Mexican food. Eating a tamale can be somewhat confusing thanks to the tough and potentially inedible layer on its outside. After heating tamales at home or ordering them at a restaurant, you must remove this outer wrapping before you can eat the moist, generally flavorful food inside. If you do not enjoy the flavor of plain tamales, you may top them with salsa or a sauce of your choice after unwrapping them.

To the inexperienced eye, a tamale can look unwieldy, perhaps intimidating. Part of the magic, though, is the ritual of unwrapping the tamale and watching the steam rise. Here’s how to dig in:

  1. Unwrap it by hand, carefully, so you don’t burn yourself.
  2. Discard the wrapper.
  3. Top it with salsa.
  4. Eat it with a fork or your fingers (if you dare).

Things You’ll Need

  • Salsa or sauce, optional
  • Fork
  • Knife, optional


Eating Step 1


Unroll or unfold the tamale’s wrapping carefully. The tamale will probably be very hot, so do your best to avoid burning your fingers as you do this. You should end up with a tamale sitting on a corn husk. Unwrap the tamale with your fingers rather than a fork or other utensil.

Eating Step 2


Slide the corn husk out from under the tamale by pulling on the husk with one hand and holding the tamale in place with the other. Discard the husk.

Eating Step 3


Top the unwrapped tamale with salsa or another sauce if you wish. This is not strictly traditional but is nevertheless a common practice in many Mexican or Southwest restaurants.

Eating Step 4


Eat the tamale with a fork. You may use a knife if you wish, but it is not generally necessary; most tamales are soft and tender enough that you can easily eat them with only a fork.


Heating Step 1


Place the tamales upright on a steamer rack in a pot containing 1 to 2 inches of water. The open end should face up, while the folded part of the wrapping should be tucked under the bottom of each tamale.

Heating Step 2


Bring the water to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Steam the tamales for approximately 60 minutes for refrigerated tamales or 90 minutes for frozen tamales.

Heating Step 3



If the tamale is especially firm and you are not topping it with salsa or another wet topping, you may eat it with your hands instead of with utensils.

Are there other types of tamales?

Yes, many regional variations abound. They’re made for big gatherings, celebrations, festivals.

Wrapper Variations

  • In the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, where one of Jorge’s grandmothers was from, tamales are wrapped in agave leaves (yes, the same plant used to make tequila), imparting the masa with a minty, anise-like taste.
  • In Oaxaca, they use banana or plantain leaves, which give tamales an earthy, herbal flavor.

Filling Variations

  • Tamales nejos have no filling, just pure corn masa, and are often served with a side of beans and a cup of coffee.
  • Dessert tamales are also a thing! For these, the masa is sweetened, often with sugar, and filled with fruit.

How to Steam Precooked Tamales

Tamales are wrapped in corn husks so that they do not fall apart when you cook them. They are Mexican food that consists of cornmeal, meat, spices, and sauce. After you place them in the refrigerator or freezer, you need to reheat them properly to prevent ruining the texture and taste. Steaming the tamales is the preferred method because it ensures that they will not become soggy and crumbly.

Things You’ll Need

  • Dutch oven
  • Steamer basket or rack

Step 1

Fill a Dutch oven with 1 ½ to 2 inches of water. Bring the water to boil on the stove.

Step 2

Place a steamer basket in the Dutch oven. Place the tamales in the basket so that the folded husk rests against the seam side of the tamale and steam them, and then place the lid on the Dutch oven.

Step 3

Reduce the heat so that the water simmers. Steam refrigerated tamales for 15 to 20 minutes and frozen tamales for 20 to 35 minutes.

Step 4

Check often to make sure that the water does not boil away. The tamales are cooked thoroughly when the husk separates from the dough, and they are no longer sticky. The precooked tamales need to be heated through to the center before you can safely consume them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to eat hot tamales?

If you’re not sure how to eat tamales, hold a tamale in your hand and peel back the wrapper, which is usually made from corn husks or plantain leaves. You can then eat the inside of the tamale, but you should never eat the wrapper itself.

2. What do tamales taste like?

They all have the nice, crumbly feel with the corn taste. It’s almost like corn cake, only a little steamier. Then there are special ones like the sweet ones (that can taste like a strawberry corn cake), and the salty/spicy ones like Rajas, Oaxaqueñas, and Verdes. Ah, I want a tamale now.

3. What is traditionally served with tamales?

According to average American reviews, there is a wide variety of side dishes people enjoy with tamales. While this is a common Mexican dish, it is popular and commonly served with tamales. White rice can be served, but Mexican rice has more flavors and is more popular. Yellow rice also makes a good dish.

4. How long do tamales steam for?

Then add a steamer basket, fill it with your tamales, and steam until the tamales are hot and cooked through and the masa separates easily from the corn husks, about 30 minutes on the stovetop or 20 minutes (high pressure, natural release) in the Instant Pot.

5. Why are tamales wrapped in corn husks?

Corn husks are perfect for cooking tamales. They can withstand the steam and help to contain all the moisture and flavor in the tamales. … If not easily accessible, plantain or banana leaves serve as a great substitute to wrap your tamales in.