Tamales are a traditional Latin American dish made of masa or dough that is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. They are often filled with meats, cheeses, chilies and other delicious ingredients. Tamales are best cooked by steaming which helps the masa become light and fluffy while also cooking the filling. Choosing the right steamer is key to getting perfect tamales every time.
What is a Tamale Steamer?
A tamale steamer is a special pot used specifically for steaming tamales. It has a base with a removable basket or rack inside. The tamales are placed vertically in the basket, and boiling water is poured into the base creating steam that rises up and cooks the tamales. Tamale steamers are typically tall and cylindrical in shape with a lid. They are made from aluminum, stainless steel or ceramic.
Benefits of Using a Tamale Steamer
Using a tamale steamer has many advantages over other steaming methods:
– Even steaming: The tamale steamer allows steam to circulate evenly around the tamales cooking them evenly on all sides. Pots or improvised steamers can create uneven cooking.
– Vertical steaming: Standing the tamales upright allows any excess masa to drip down keeping the tamales light. Laying them flat causes them to become dense and soggy.
– Large capacity: Tamale steamers can hold dozens of tamales allowing you to make large batches efficiently.
– Steams thoroughly: The tight seal ensures no steam escapes so tamales cook thoroughly all the way through.
– Consistent results: Once you find the right timing for your recipe, a tamale steamer will give reliable, consistent results every time.
– Easy to use: Tamale steamers come with racks to easily load and unload tamales. There’s no need to improvise steaming contraptions.
Types of Tamale Steamers
There are a few common types of tamale steamers available:
Aluminum Tamale Steamers
– Lightweight and inexpensive option
– Heats up quickly and evenly
– Can react with acidic foods so best for only tamales
– Subject to dents and scratches over time
Stainless Steel Tamale Steamers
– Durable, heavy-duty construction
– Heats evenly without hotspots
– Resists corrosion and scratches
– More expensive than aluminum
– Retains some heat when done steaming
Ceramic Tamale Steamers
– Beautiful artisanal look
– Made from clay or porcelain
– Retains heat very well
– Heavy and prone to breaking if dropped
– Most expensive option
Electric Tamale Steamers
– Plug-in appliance with built in heating
– Automated so no need to monitor water
– Consistent results every time
– Can have digital controls or timers
– Most expensive type of steamer
Important Features to Look for
Here are key features to consider when selecting a tamale steamer:
– Size – Choose a steamer with capacity to make the amount of tamales you need. Bigger is better for large batches.
– Rack design – A removable two-tier rack allows more tamales to cook at once. Racks with adjustable heights can accommodate different sizes.
– Construction – Durable aluminum or stainless steel will last many years. Ceramic looks lovely but requires careful handling.
– Lid fit – A tight fitting lid traps steam for efficient cooking so check the seal is snug.
– Steam vent – Vents release excess pressure. Models with adjustable vents give more control over steam levels.
– Handles – Cool touch handles make lifting and moving the hot steamer safer and easier.
– Base shape – A wide base provides more stability while tall, narrow ones take up less space.
– Easy to clean – Steamers with removable parts and dishwasher safe materials simplify cleanup.
Choosing the Right Size Tamale Steamer
One of the most important considerations is choosing a tamale steamer with adequate size and capacity for the amount of tamales you want to make. Here are some common steamer sizes:
– Small – 12 to 20 quarts: Ideal for home use to make 2 to 3 dozen tamales at once. Great if you make tamales only occasionally.
– Medium – 20 to 30 quarts: Allows you to make 4 to 6 dozen tamales per batch. Suitable for large families, parties or small get togethers.
– Large – Over 30 quarts: For making very large batches of over 100 tamales at once. Best for tamale catering businesses, restaurants or big events.
– Extra large – Over 100 quarts: Commercial grade extra-large capacity for steaming hundreds of tamales at a time. Used by professional tamale makers.
Consider how often you make tamales and for how many people to choose the most practical size. Too small and you’ll have to steam multiple batches. Too big is cumbersome if you don’t need the huge capacity.
Top Tamale Steamer Models
Based on performance, features, durability and buyer reviews, here are 5 excellent options to consider:
VICTORIO VKP1100 Stainless Steel Stovetop Tamale and Steamer Pot
– 20 quart capacity
– Stainless steel construction
– Removable steamer rack
– Works on any stove top
– Folding handles for compact storage
IMUSA 12-Cup Aluminum Tamale and Steamer Pot
– 12-cup capacity
– Aluminum for even heating
– Removable perforated insert
– Traditional tamale steamer design
– Great value under $20
Cuisinart 7 Quart Stainless Steel Tamale Steamer with Glass Lid
– 7 quart capacity
– Stainless steel pot with glass lid
– Steams up to 24 tamales
– Dishwasher safe parts
– Electric and stovetop options
NESCO 18 Quart Roaster Oven and Tamale Steamer
– 18 quarts to steam about 100 tamales
– Electric roaster with adjustable temp
– Steaming rack and lifting handle
– Large oval shape tamale capacity
– Bonus features like slow cooker
ExcelSteel 100-Quart All-in-One Tamale Steamer and Seafood Boiler
– Massive 100-quart commercial size
– Huge 304 stainless steel pot
– Two tier rack holds 500 tamales
– Ideal for restaurants and caterers
– 20,000 BTU propane burner
Tips for Using Your Tamale Steamer
Follow these tips to get the most out of your tamale steamer:
– Season it first – Before first use, season the steamer by filling it with water and letting it boil for 30 minutes then drain and dry well. This prevents sticking.
– Use plenty of water – Fill the base at least halfway with water so it doesn’t boil dry. Add more as needed during longer steaming.
– Stand tamales upright – Position them vertically in the rack so excess masa can drip down for a lighter texture.
– Allow space for expansion – Don’t overpack tamales or they could stick together. Leave about 1/4 inch between them.
– Keep the lid on – Resist removing the lid to check them. This releases steam and increases cooking time.
– Use a timer – Set a timer according to recipe directions for most accurate results. Times range from 45-60 minutes usually.
– Check doneness – Use a corn husk pull test or thermometer to check inner masa reaches 185°F when done.
– Let rest 10 minutes – Allow to stand for 10 minutes before carefully removing tamales from the steamer.
Troubleshooting Tamale Steamer Problems
Having issues with your tamale steamer? Here are some common problems and fixes:
Not steaming properly
– Ensure the lid is fully closed and sealed
– Add more water to the base if level is too low
– Check for clogged steam vents blocking steam release
– Make sure the steamer is not overpacked with tamales
Tamales sticking together
– Stand tamales upright in the rack so masa can drip down
– Allow a bit more space between tamales for circulation
– Use corn husks or banana leaf as a divider between tamales
Tamales too dense and heavy
– Don’t open the lid during steaming
– Make sure enough steam is able to circulate
– Ensure tamales are standing upright in rack
– Check masa recipe isn’t too heavy on corn flour
Tamales fall off the husk
– Steam longer until masa firms up if undercooked
– Ensure husks are moistened to be flexible
– Check masa consistency isn’t too thin
– Lower heat setting if using stovetop steamer
– Check water level and replenish if boiling dry
– Remove tamales promptly when done
Cleaning and Caring for a Tamale Steamer
Proper care keeps a tamale steamer in good steaming condition:
– Hand wash only – Do not put aluminum steamers in dishwasher or chemicals can react.
– Use a mild detergent – Avoid abrasive cleaners that could scratch the finish.
– Rinse thoroughly – Rinse away all soap to avoid imparting flavors to food.
– Dry immediately – Always fully dry after washing to prevent mineral deposits.
– Remove buildup – Use a non-abrasive scrubber to gently remove any hardened masa or corn residue.
– Descale regularly – Use distilled white vinegar to remove mineral deposits on aluminum or stainless steel.
– Avoid metal utensils – Never use metal tools or abrasive scouring pads. Use wood, silicone or plastic.
– Store properly – Place carefully in a safe, dry spot to prevent dents when not in use.
– Check for damage – Inspect for corrosion, cracks or dents before each use. Avoid using if damaged.
– Replace worn parts – Get new steamer racks or other parts as needed over time.
Steaming Options Beyond Tamale Steamers
While tamale steamers are specially designed for the job, there are a few other steaming methods that can work too:
Steam Insert Pots
– Use a stainless steel or aluminum pot with a steaming basket insert
– Add water below the insert rack to generate steam
– Less efficient steam circulation than a tamale steamer
– Use the steamer tray attachment
– Great for smaller batches
– Keep an eye on water level
– Enable fast, pressurized steaming
– Require special setup with trivet and water
– Need to release pressure carefully
– Creative setups like a colander over a pot with lid
– Hard to get tight seal for efficient steam
– Increased risk of burning or uneven cooking
While handy in a pinch, these methods lack the ideal design of a true tamale steamer. Investing in a good steamer is worthwhile for ease and best results.
Common tamale steaming mistakes to avoid
Making homemade tamales takes some skill and there are a few common mistakes that can happen if you aren’t careful:
Not enough steam
If the tamales are not exposed to ample steam, they can end up undercooked and doughy in the center. Be sure to use a tight sealing tamale steamer filled with plenty of water. Keep the lid closed so steam can’t escape.
Sometimes tamales on the edges cook faster than ones in the center if steam doesn’t circulate well. Use a steamer with vents on the lid and a rack designed to allow steam flow all around.
Overly dense masa
It’s easy to add too much corn flour to the masa making it heavy. Keep the ratio of corn flour to fat and broth balanced. Stand tamales upright so excess can drip off.
Ripped corn husks
Poking holes in the corn husk wrappers makes them prone to tearing in the steamer. Handle tamales gently when loading the steamer to keep husks intact.
Overpacking the steamer
Cramming too many tamales into the steamer prevents proper circulation. Leave about 1/4 inch between tamales so steam reaches them all.
Opening the lid too much
It’s tempting to check if they are done but lifting the lid frequently lets steam escape. Use a timer and open only briefly to check.
Avoiding these common mistakes helps ensure you end up with perfectly steamed tamales every time!
Steamer Alternatives for Tamales
While a tamale steamer pot is the traditional and recommended way to steam tamales, there are some alternatives that can work in a pinch:
Vegetable Steamer Basket
You can place tamales standing upright in a metal steamer basket. Place this basket in a large pot with a lid, filled with a couple inches of water. The tamales steam as the water boils. Watch closely to prevent boiling dry.
Many rice cookers come with a steaming tray perfect for tamales. Simply fill the rice cooker bowl with water, place tamales standing in the tray, and steam on the appropriate setting. The rice cooker automatically stops when the water runs out.
Using a pressure cooker enables fast, pressurized steaming. Place a trivet and a couple cups of water in the pot, load with tamales, lock the lid, and cook at high pressure for 25-40 minutes depending on size. Slowly release pressure before opening.
A makeshift double-boiler method can be done in a slow cooker. Place an inserted small pot filled with water inside the slow cooker, loaded up with tamales. Cover and cook on high for 60-90 minutes. Replenish the water as needed.
While less efficient than a true tamale steamer, these methods can work in a pinch for smaller batches if needed.
Tamale steamers provide the perfect vertical steaming environment to cook tamales evenly with a light and tender texture. Choosing a steamer with adequate capacity and convenient features will make tamale making easy and efficient. Using the proper techniques for filling, wrapping and steaming results in delicious tamales the whole family will love. Tamale steamers allow you to continue this fun and tasty Mexican culinary tradition for years to come.