Tamale Week Day 3: Assembly and Steaming

· by delijan · Read in about 7 min · (1279 words) ·

Even though I haven’t covered the fillings yet… Let’s take a look at how to assemble and steam traditional (wrapped in corn husk) tamales. It’s not difficult, and there are a lot of pictures here to guide you.


To begin, you will need many dry corn husks, one for each tamale, plus a few extras, in case something goes awry. I buy mine in bags at the grocery store. I try to find a brand that has a single stack of very flat husks. Look for ones that don’t have a lot of breakage, and are as clean as possible. If you see a lot of black, moldy spots, choose a different bag.

Bag of Dry Corn Husks

Take as many as you will need out of the bag and discard any that have obvious mold or anything too gross on them. (It happens!) Put the husks in a clean sink. Rinse them with the hottest water you can handle on both sides. If there is any dirt stuck in the grooves, you can use a clean toothbrush to gently remove it. Shake off as much excess water as possible and put the damp husks in a large bowl.

Cleaned Corn Husks

If it will be a while before you are able to start wrapping, cover the bowl with a bread cloth to keep the husks damp and pliable. Dry husks will crack when they are folded or rolled!

Keeping Husks Damp

Gather up all the parts you will need.

Prepared Masas

For this demonstration, I’m using three different masa mixtures. The bottom, left is the Chick Pea Masa. The other two are the same corn masa, but one has an additional cup of grilled sweet corn added to the mix.

Various Tamale Fillings

I’m stuffing them with three different fillings. The plain masa will have the red chile filling. The chick pea masa will have the sweet filling with the raisins and fruit, and the masa with the corn kernels will have strips of roasted Hatch chilies in the centers.

Take one of the corn husks and place it on the counter in front of you. Place three or four ounces of the masa in the center, or a little to the right side (if you are right handed) on the inside of the corn husk.

Note: The inside of the husk is the side where the edges want to roll into!

A measuring cup, or even better, an ice cream or cookie scoop is really handy for this.

Masa on Husk

Using a butter knife or a spatula, spread out the masa into a rectangular shape. This can be a little tricky because the husk is damp and the masa contains oil. Oil and water don’t mix, so the masa may have trouble sticking. If you’re having a lot of trouble, your husks are too wet. Shake the water off them more as you assemble.

It works for me to do this in one pass of the spreader, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. DH prefers to pick up the husk and hold it in his hand while he’s spreading. Use whatever technique works for you.

Masa Spread on Husk

Place a small amount of the filling in the center of the masa. For green chili, I just put a few strips, like this.

Stuffing the Masa with Chilies

For red chile or the fruit filling, I use about 18 cup, like this.

Stuffing the Tamale with Red Chile

Now pick up the corn husk with both hands and gently manipulate the masa on the sides over the filling. It’s ok if you don’t completely enclose the filling. Just do the best you can.

Wrapping Masa Around Filling

Tuck in the right side of the husk, rolled around the filling.

Wrapping the Tamale - Step 1

Fold up the bottom, right where the filling ends.

Wrapping the Tamale Step 2

Continue rolling towards the left until the remaining husk is wrapped around the tamale.

Wrapping the Tamale Step 3

That’s it! Pretty simple. You can get as fancy as you want with the husks. Some people like to fold down the tops, too. I don’t do it because, as you’ll see in a bit, I can tell by looking in the end (when it’s open like this) and see what kind of tamale it is.

On the other hand, you can fold over both the top and the bottom and make a pretty presentation by tying a strip torn from another husk around it to hold it closed. It makes an impression on guests! But it also really slows down the process. So unless you have many hands stuffing and rolling, it can take quite a while to make a large quantity of pretty tamales, lol!

Here’s how many all those parts you saw at the beginning made.

Completed Tamales

Several dozen!


While there are other ways of cooking tamales (see notes) the traditional way is to steam them in a large pot. I use my pasta cooking pot because it’s really big, can hold enough water in the bottom, and is fairly easy to clean. I can put the base on the stove with water it in and start it boiling while I’m putting the rolled tamales in the basket.

Keeping Tamales in Place in Steamer

The easiest way to load the basket is to lay it on it’s side and start stacking in the tamales. Put the folded over end in the bottom of the pot. When they are all in the basket, if it’s not full, you can use a trick. You see those butter knives in there? They are to keep the tamales upright while they are steaming. I didn’t quite make enough to fill the pot! The knives are stainless steel, so this works. Don’t do this with sterling silver or plastic! If you don’t have knives that fit, you can use a stainless prep bowl, or something similar. Just fill in the empty space with something heat safe and non-reactive that the steam can circulate around.

The normal steaming time is about 1 hour, or until the filling is hot, and the masa becomes cohesive and holds together when you unwrap and serve.

After the tamales are cooked, you can cool them and keep them in the freezer in plastic bags, if you’re making them ahead. To reheat them, you can thaw them in the refrigerator and then steam them just until they are heated all the way through.


You can use vegetable broth instead of water for steaming if you wish. You can add seasoning to the steaming water if you wish.

If you are using a different wrapper, you’re basically doing the same thing: make the wrapper room temperature and pliable using whatever method is recommended. Roll up the masa and filling and steam.

I have had tamales wrapped in parchment paper. I don’t recommend it, because in my experience, you can taste the paper. But it does work.

If you don’t have a steamer, another way of doing this is to use your oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pull out your broiler pan and put water in the bottom of it. Put the broiler tray on top of the pan (you know, the tray with the holes in it?) Lay the tamales out on the tray and cover with aluminum foil. Steam in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check often to make sure you haven’t run out of water in the bottom.


If you make all the fillings first, early in the week, you can hold them in the refrigerator for several days. That will give you time to make the masa at the end of the week. On the weekend, when the whole family is home and can assist, do the assembly! And then have them for dinner. Many hands makes the job much easier and it’s lots of fun to do as a group.

Tomorrow: Red Chile Filling