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How to Cook Frozen Tamales in 2022 (using equipment you have)

Learn how to cook frozen tamales with or without a steamer. Discover 15 techniques for large or small batches, using the cooking equipment you already have.

There is no one way to cook frozen tamales. Just as there is no one way to eat an Oreo, load the dishwasher, or teach your dog a new trick. But there are efficient and disastrous ways to do all these things.

Which cooking method you choose to use depends on your needs and the equipment you have in your kitchen.

Let me introduce you to 15 cool ways to cook frozen tamales. And only one of those ways involves a tamale steamer.

Steaming is the best way to cook a large batch of frozen tamales. A microwave oven is the quickest method to cook one or two tamales. And an Instant Pot is the way to go if you crave convenience.

infographic showing length of tamale cooking time for each cooking method

Each cooking method has pros and cons. Some techniques are better for specific needs. Learn it all here and discover your best go-to tamale cooking method.

The Aztecs and Mayans who created tamales back in 5000 BC likely cooked them over an open fire. If they cooked them at all.

Tamales were designed as a portable food to take on hunting trips and other long journeys. People ate them warm or cold. Today, our indigenous friends would be amazed at the variety of ways we can cook tamales.

Use the instructions in this article for precooked frozen or thawed tamales, not for uncooked tamales.

The raw dough in homemade tamales increases the cooking time.  But that is not all. Some of the cooking methods listed here are not ideal for uncooked tamales.

Most prepackaged frozen tamales from a grocery store are precooked. If they are raw, it will be written on the package.

pile of cooked tamales with lime and red bell pepper in background

How to Cook Frozen Tamales with a Tamale Steamer

frozen tamales in steamer

Cook frozen tamales the traditional way using a tamale steamer. The steamer method is the best way to heat a dozen or more tamales. They get incredibly moist and delicious when steamed.

If the Christmas dinner party is at your house, easily make dozens of chicken tamales or pork tamales with a large-capacity steamer.

However, if you are transporting the tamales, I recommend using a slow cooker (crock pot) instead of a steamer. See why below.

If you have a steamer pot with a steamer rack, perfect. But if not, you can still steam tamales in a large pot, if you have a steamer basket or an over-the-top bamboo steamer.

Pros

  • Cook a dozen tamales (or more) at once, depending on the tamale steamer size.

  • Soft tamale dough stays incredibly moist.

  • Steams the tamales evenly if the pan is not overloaded.

Cons

  • Must keep an eye on the water level and refill with boiling water if the level gets too low.

  • Hard to transport tamales in steamer.

Directions

  1. Remove the tamales from the plastic bag, along with any plastic wrap. Keep the corn husks intact on the tamales while they cook.

  2. Add 1 to 1 ½ cups of water to the bottom of the pan. The amount of water depends on the size of the pan. Water should not touch the tamales when the steamer insert is in the pan.

  3. Place tamales upright in the steamer basket or insert. Place the frozen tamales in a circular pattern with the open end up. Lean the tamales against each other to stay upright.

    Sometimes you need something in the middle to help the tamales stay upright. Try placing a ball of crumpled aluminum foil or a small ramekin in the middle of the upright tamales to help them stand up. Do not overfill the basket or the tamales may not cook evenly.

  4. Place the steamer insert into the steamer and place the lid on the pan.

  5. Bring the water to a rolling boil.

  6. Reduce heat to low and steam for 25 to 30 minutes for frozen tamales or 20 minutes for thawed tamales.

  7. Turn off the heat and remove the hot steamer from burner.

  8. Carefully open the lid away from you to prevent the steam from burning you.

  9. Remove the tamales. Serve warm. Guests remove the corn husks themselves.

No Steamer? Try a Faux Steamer/ DIY Steamer

You can make your own faux steamer using the double broiler method. You need a stock pot and a steamer basket, bamboo steamer, or an insert that fits in the pan when the lid is on.

  • Use a steamer basket in any pot as long as the lid still fits on the pan with the basket inside.
  • Bamboo steamers are a great substitute if you do not have a steamer pot. But they are only big enough to fit a couple of tamales.

Always steam a single layer of tamales at a time.

If you have a bamboo steamer, make sure it fits the top of your pot.

If you do not have either one of these options, try making your own steamer insert. Punch holes in the bottom of a tin pie pan to make a faux steamer insert.

This is not the easiest way to cook tamales and I would not recommend it unless you really want to DIY steam. However, this is a good way to cook tamales when camping. So keep it around for your camping trips.

Directions

  1. Remove the tamales from the plastic bag, along with any plastic wrap. Keep the corn husks intact on the tamales while they cook.

  2. Add 1 to 1 ½ cups of water to the bottom of the pan. The amount depends on the size of the pan. Water should never touch the tamales as they steam.

  3. Place tamales open end up in the steamer basket or lay flat in a single layer in the bamboo steamer.

  4. Place the steamer insert/basket into the pan and place the lid on the pan. (Or add the bamboo steamer over the top of the pan.)

  5. Bring the water to a rolling boil.

  6. Reduce heat to low and steam for 25 to 30 minutes for frozen tamales or 20 minutes for thawed tamales.

  7. Turn off the heat and remove the hot pot from burner.

  8. Carefully open the lid away from you to prevent the steam from burning you.

  9. Remove the steamer insert or bamboo steamer.

  10. Remove the tamales and serve.

Frozen Tamales in an Instant

My favorite way to heat frozen tamales is with an Instant Pot or my Fagor electric pressure cooker. It is quick and easy. Best of all, the tamales stay moist.

frozen tamales in electric pressure cooker

Pros

  • One-half to one dozen tamales can easily fit in an Instant Pot (depending on the size of the Instant Pot).

  • Quick method. It takes about the same time as steaming the tamales.

  • Hands-free. Just turn on the Instant Pot and you are done. No need to adjust the temperature.

  • The “Keep Warm” function on the Instant Pot keeps the tamales warm until serving time.

  • Tamales are moist and are evenly cooked, even when the pot is full.

Cons

  • You need a steamer basket insert with your Instant Pot.

  • You cannot check the water level when the Instant Pot is pressurized. Water could evaporate before the tamales have finished cooking. Be careful not to burn the pot.

Directions

  1. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  2. Pour ½ to 1 cup of water in the bottom of the Instant Pot. The amount of water depends on the size of your Instant Pot. Water should not come to the top of the trivet when inserted. Water should never touch the tamales. Be aware of the water level when the steamer basket is inserted in the inner pot of the pressure cooker.

  3. Place tamales upright in a circle, with the open end of the corn husk facing up. Lean the tamales against each other to stay upright.

    If necessary, place a ball of aluminum foil or a small ramekin (or other heat-proof container) in the middle of the upright tamales to help them stand up.

  4. Close the lid and set the cook time to 15 minutes for frozen tamales and 5 minutes for thawed tamales. If you are in a hurry, you can quick release the pressure, but a natural pressure release is best.

  5. When the tamales are done, the Instant Pot will automatically keep them warm until time to eat.

The Quickest Way From Frozen to Plate

Tamales make a delicious lunch. If you are cooking just for yourself, the microwave oven is the quickest, most convenient, and easiest way to cook frozen tamales.

Note: you can only cook only one or two tamales at a time in the microwave oven.

frozen tamale coming out of microwave

Pros

  • Quick method. No pan to heat up.

  • Convenient.

  • Easy.

Cons

  • Tamale may be slightly drier than if steamed.

  • Extra step needed. Wrap the tamale in wet paper towel before microwaving.

Directions

  1. Remove all plastic packaging. Keep the corn husks intact on the tamales.

  2. Place 2 paper towels under running water to get them wet. Gently squeeze out excess water.

  3. Wrap the damp paper towel around the frozen tamale and place the tamale on a microwave-safe plate. Put the plate in the microwave oven.

  4. Microwave on 50% power for 3 minutes. Turn the tamales over and microwave on full power for an additional 1 to 2 minutes.

  5. Carefully remove the damp paper towel and corn husk and eat.

How to Cook Frozen Tamales in the Oven Without Drying Them Out

Cook frozen tamales in the oven if you have a lot of tamales to cook, but do not have a steamer.

Wrap the tamales in aluminum foil to compensate for the dry heat the oven produces. Foil keeps the moisture in so the tamales do not dry out.

frozen tamales in pan to go into oven

Pros

  • Cook a large capacity.

Cons

  • Takes longer to prep. Wrap the pan of tamales in aluminum foil and prepare the water bath.

  • Baked tamales may not be as moist as steamed tamales.

  • Use caution if adding a water bath to the oven.

Directions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 325° F. Place the top rack in the middle of the oven. Place the second rack right below it, if adding a pan of water.

  2. Remove any plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Place the tamales in a baking pan and cover the pan with aluminum foil to prevent moisture from escaping.

  4. Optional: Place a pan of water on the second rack in the oven. This can produce a moister environment in the oven.

  5. Place the pan on the rack in the middle of the oven.

  6. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

  7. Remove the tamales from the oven and turn the oven off. If you added a pan of water, wait until the water has cooled completely before removing the pan. Do not try to remove a pan of hot water from the oven.

  8. Carefully remove the tin foil and serve at once. Diners should remove their own corn husks.

Bake a Smaller Batch in the Toaster Oven

If you want to bake your frozen tamales, but only have a few to do, consider the toaster oven. Although many toaster ovens are not as efficient as a regular oven, a toaster oven will not heat up your kitchen.

frozen tamales in toaster oven

Pros

  • Bake a few tamales without heating the kitchen.

Cons

  • Tamales may not be as moist as steaming.

  • Extra prep time to wrap tamales in foil.

  • It can take a long time to cook. Depending on the toaster oven efficiency, it can take up to 45 minutes to cook a tamale from frozen.

Directions

  1. Pre-heat the toaster oven to 325° F.

  2. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Double wrap the tamales in aluminum foil.

  4. Place the tamales in the toaster oven.

  5. Cook for 25 minutes. Flip the tamales over and cook for an additional 20 minutes. If necessary, flip over again and cook for 5 to 10 minutes.

Most Surprising Tamale Cooking Success

One day, I tried cooking my tamale on my panini grill just to see if it would work. Surprisingly, I loved it. It was quick to cook and the tamale stayed pretty moist.

I thought the grill would squash the tamale, but it did not. The tamale held its shape perfectly.

frozen tamales cooked in panini grill

Pros

  • Took the same length of time as steaming.

  • Masa stayed moist.

  • Good for cooking one or two tamales at a time.

Cons

  • Not hands-free. Flip the tamale over halfway through cooking.

Directions

  1. Heat the panini griddle on medium high heat.

  2. Remove any plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Place the tamale in the griddle and close the lid.

  4. Cook for 10 minutes. Open the griddle and flip the tamale open. Close the lid and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

  5. Serve immediately.

Have You Tried a Rice Cooker?

Cook frozen tamales in a rice cooker with a steamer basket.

Beware of the water cooking off before the tamales are finished. If you keep an eye on the water level, your tamales cooked in the rice cooker will be moist and tasty.

frozen tamales cooking in instant pot

Pros

  • As quick as other steaming methods.

Cons

  • Requires a steamer basket. If you have a steamer basket, cooking the tamales on the stove may be a better choice.

  • You must keep a close eye on the water level and refill with boiling water if the water level gets too low.

Directions

  1. Add water to the bottom of the rice cooker. The amount you add will depend on the size of your rice cooker. The water should never touch the tamales. Place the steamer basket or rack in the rice cooker and add water appropriately.

  2. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Place the tamales upright in a circle, with the open end of the corn husk facing up. Lean the tamales against each other to stay upright.

    If necessary, place a ball of aluminum foil or a ramekin (or other heat-proof container) in the middle of the upright tamales to help them stand up.

  4. Optional, but recommended: boil a cup or more water to be ready in case you need to add more water to the pan.

  5. Cook on high for 20 to 25 minutes.

  6. Halfway through the cooking time, check the water level. If water is needed, add some boiling water to the pan. Be careful not to pour water on the tamales as you add water to the rice cooker.

Best Way to Cook Tamales for Transport

Using a slow cooker to heat frozen tamales is one of the slowest methods you can use. However, this might be the best cooking method if you will be transporting your tamales.

You are using the steamer method with a slow cooker, so the finished tamales turn out moist and delicious.

Slow cookers are easy to transport with warm food inside. When you arrive at your party, plug the slow cooker in and reheat the tamales for a short time. Then keep them warm for the entire party.

Everyone will have a warm tamale, even if they are last in line for food.

frozen tamales in slow cooker

Pros

  • Hands-free cooking method.

  • Tamales stay warm after cooking until ready to serve.

  • Moist tamales.

  • Best way to transport tamales.

  • Easy to keep warm during a party.

Cons

  • It takes hours to cook.

  • Must have a steamer insert fits the slow cooker when the lid is on.

  • Tamales must be short enough to fit inside with the lid on.

Directions

  1. Pour water in a slow cooker and heat on high for 10 minutes.

  2. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Place the tamales upright in a circle, with the open side of the corn husk facing up, toward the top of the lid. Lean the tamales against each other to stay upright.

  4. Place the lid on the slow cooker and cook for about 45 minutes.

  5. Turn and rearrange the tamales to ensure they are all cooking equally. Cook an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Total cooking time can be up to 1 hour or longer.

Consistent Results with Sous Vide

Have you wondered how to cook frozen tamales in a sous vide cooker?

It takes an hour or more and only three or four tamales fit in a sous vide bag at a time. So why consider the sous vide cooker?

The perfect temperature control makes perfect moist tamales. If you can wait for them, you will not be disappointed.

Pros

  • Evenly cooked, moist tamales.

  • Temperature-controlled so tamales cook to perfection.

Cons

  • Takes an hour or more.

  • Smaller capacity than other cooking methods.

  • You must watch for leaks in the bag. You may be tempted to keep the tamales in the plastic packaging they came in. However, the plastic packaging was not intended for submersion, so it may leak.

Directions

  1. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  2. Place three or four tamales in a sous vide bag. Seal the bag.

  3. Preheat the sous vide cooker to 130° F.

  4. Drop the sealed bag into the water bath.

  5. Cook for 1 hour. Check the bag every once in a while, to make sure there are no leaks in the bag.

Try Cooking Tamales This Way When Camping

If you do not have a sous vide cooker, you can try to boil them with a pan of boiling water and a sous vide bag.

It is not the easiest way to cook tamales, but its good in a pinch.

Boiling in a bag reminds me of cub scouts making their own omelet in a bag for breakfast. The method is the same.

I do not recommend boiling the tamales in the bag they came in, because the bag might leak. Ziplock bags may leak also.

Sous vide bags are the best, but you can use what you have. Whatever bag you use, watch for leaks. Nothing worse than soggy tamales.

Pros

  • Good for camping.

  • Keeps the tamale moist.

Cons

  • Beware of leaky bags.

  • You must keep constant watch. No walking away from the cooking tamales.

Directions

  1. Bring water to boil in a large stock pot.

  2. Remove the plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Place 1 or 2 tamales in a sous vide bag (or other heat proof plastic bag) and seal the bag. (If you use a ziplock bag, double bag the tamales.) Depending on the size of your pot, you can add up to 3 sous vide bags with tamales to the pot at a time.

  4. Using tongs, carefully drop the sealed bags into the boiling water.

  5. Keep a close eye on the bags and stir with the tongs to prevent the bags from settling on the bottom or touching the sides of the pan.

  6. Boil for 20 to 25 minutes if tamales are frozen and 15 to 20 minutes if the tamales are thawed.

  7. Use tongs and a heat-proof and water-proof silicone oven mitt to remove the hot bags from the pan.

  8. Let them cool slightly. Open the bag away from you so you do not burn yourself with escaping steam.

How to Cook Frozen Tamales on the Grill

A grill is another good choice if you are camping. Or if you are having a barbecue. The tamales will not be as moist as they will if cooked with other methods. Grilling will give the tamales a slightly crisp outside.

cooking frozen tamales on gas grill

Pros

  • Grill dozens of tamales at once.

  • Crispy outside appeals to some tastes.

  • Smoky flavor

Cons

  • Tamales will not be as moist.

  • Extra work to cover tamales in aluminum foil.

  • Difficult to figure out when tamale is done cooking.

Directions

  1. Preheat the grill to medium heat.

  2. Remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  3. Double wrap each tamale with aluminum foil.

  4. Place the wrapped tamales on a grill pan and set the pan over indirect heat.

  5. Close the lid and cook for 10 minutes. Flip the tamales over and cook an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until done.

  6. Remove the hot tamales from the grill and let them cool slightly before removing the aluminum foil. Take care not to burn yourself from the escaping steam.

Using Coal: Cooking Tamales Like the Ancients

Cooking tamales over coals is a great way to cook tamales when you are camping. It is one way the ancient people in Mexico and Guatemala cooked their tamales when they were on hunting trips.

Cook thawed tamales with coals.

Pros

  • Convenient when camping.

  • Good way to involve everyone in preparing their own camp food.

Cons

  • May cook unevenly.

  • Each tamale needs to be cooked and watched by itself.

  • Difficult to tell if it is done cooking.

Directions

  1. Open the plastic bag and remove all plastic packaging from the tamales but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  2. Triple wrap the tamales with aluminum foil.

  3. Dig a small hole near the edge of the campfire and place the tamale in the hole.

  4. With tongs or a shovel, scoop hot coals from a burned down fire on top of the tamale in the hole.

  5. Let the tamales cook with the coals for 10 to 15 minutes. Use the tongs to flip it and recover the tamale with the coals. Cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

  6. Use the tongs to pull out the hot tamale. Let it cool for a few minutes before trying to unwrap it.

Alternatively, if you do not want to bury the tamale in the dirt, bury it in a pile of hot coals. It may cook faster.

Tried the Fried?

Deep frying or air frying is best for thawed, not frozen tamales. Frying adds a crispy edge and impacts the flavor of the tamales.

Try deep frying your leftover tamales for something new.

Pros

  • Crispy.

  • Quick.

Cons

  • Tamales must be slightly thawed, but still very cold.

Directions

  1. Thaw tamales but keep them in the refrigerator.

  2. Add the oil and heat the deep fryer to medium heat.

  3. Remove the plastic packaging and the corn husk.

  4. Place the tamales in the fryer basket.

  5. Lower the tamales into hot oil and fry for 2 to 3 minutes. They will turn a golden-brown color.

  6. Remove the hot tamales from the fryer and cool for two minutes on a wire rack or paper towel lined plate.

  7. Serve when still warm.

Quick Thawed Tamale Pan Fry

Convenient way to reheat thawed leftover tamales with minimal cleanup.

cooked tamale in skillet

Pros

  • Convenient.

  • Crispy edge.

Cons

  • Not as moist.

Directions

  1. Thaw tamales.

  2. Preheat a skillet on medium heat.

  3. Add a small amount of olive oil to the pan to prevent sticking.

  4. Remove the tamales from the sealed plastic bag they came in but keep the corn husks intact while they cook.

  5. Place the tamales with corn husks in the skillet and cook.

  6. Turn and rotate tamales, every 5 minutes or so. The corn husk will start to blacken. Total cook time is 15 to 20 minutes.

How to Serve Tamales

Now that you know just about every way to cook tamales, its time to think about the meal. Here are the top toppings and sides to go along with your tamales.

stack of tamales with cilantro

How to Store Leftover Tamales

Tamales can taste just as good the next day, so keep those leftovers.

Store tamales, with their corn husks intact, in airtight food storage containers. They can remain fresh in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

For best results, do not refreeze tamales previously frozen tamales in a thawed state.

Now that you know how to cook frozen tamales with a variety of cooking instruments, try a few methods. See which system fits your tamale needs.


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