Tamales are steamed until the masa dough becomes firm and easily pulls away from the corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. For a small amount of tamales, a large pot fitted with a steamer basket and lid will do the job. If you're making dozens and dozens of tamales, like we did for our New Year's party, it's worth it to pick up an inexpensive tamale steamer bucket.
There's an art to packing tamales for steaming. If the tamales are securely tied on both ends, you can simply randomly stack them in the steamer and turn on the heat. If, on the other hand, your tamales are open at one end, you'll have to carefully pack them in the steamer standing upright. Either way, whenever you first cook the tamales, pack them with additional corn husks as this will improve the flavor.
The photos below show how to pack a large tamale steaming bucket with layers upon layers of tamales, all wrapped in different styles. Between and around each layer are lots of wet born husks. When making lots of tamales at once like this, take the cooking times in tamale recipes with a serious grain of salt -- it will take much longer to cook a full bucket of tamales like this -- up to several hours.
Wrapping the tamales in additional corn husks, as shown below, has 2 purposes: it adds to the flavor of the steam, as well as allows you to pour more water into the steamer, when needed, without getting the tamales wet.
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1. Stack tamales upright in the bottom of the steamer, placing loose corn husks behind the tamales (these will be folded over once the first layer of tamales are in). If your tamales are tied at both ends, instead of open at one like the ones in the photo, you can just toss them in the steamer, this way and that, in a single layer, but still line the sides of the bucket with corn husks.
2. When you have a full layer of tamales covering the bottom of the steamer bucket, fold down the corn husks around the sides of the bucket, and place more corn husks on top of these so that the first layer is completely wrapped and covered in corn husks.
3. Repeat the process for the next layer, and further layers on top of that, depending on how many tamales you are making. Of course, the size of your steamer will also determine how many layers you can have.
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4. When you reach the top layer, make sure the edges of the bucket have corn husks all around the perimeter.
5. Photo 5 shows the tamales bucket, ready for the final layer to be covered.
6. Fold down the corn husks on the side down and over the top of the tamales. Add additional corn husks to the tops if you need them. Packing the steamer this way will allow you add too additional water to the steamer without getting the tamales wet. Simply put some water in a small pitcher or glass, open the steamer, and gently push some of the corn husks on the side of the bucket towards the center. This will makes a small "tunnel" where you can pour the water in down the side of the bucket.
Testing for Doneness
So how will you know when your tamales are finished cooking? Easy.
Most tamale fillings and sauces are already cooked, so when we test for doneness, we are really talking about testing the masa dough. Before you remove all the tamales from your steamer, take a pair of kitchen tongs and remove a single tamale. Carefully start to unwrap a small corner of the tamale -- if the masa is still wet and sticking to the corn husk or banana leaf, it's not done. Re-wrap your test tamale and put it back in the steamer for a while. Test another tamale a little later -- when the wrapping easily and cleanly separates from the tamale inside, the tamales have been cooked enough.