How to Steam Tamales Without a Steamer

Homemade tamales are best when enjoyed freshly cooked, but what if you don’t have a steamer? From crockpot to pressure cooker, here are the best ways to steam tamales at home.

How to Steam Tamales Without a Steamer

Whether you’re making tamales from scratch or reheating them, they are best when steamed. But what do you do if you don’t have a steamer? It’s time to get creative.

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If you have a crockpot or slow cooker, you can use it as a simple and easy way to reheat tamales. It involves simply placing the tamales on a rack in the pot. Most crockpots come with a rack that you can use for steaming purposes, but you can use a colander if you don’t have one. 

For this method, start by setting up the rack inside the crockpot. Pour water into the crockpot at a level just below the rack. Starting at a high heat setting, bring it to a boil, lower the heat to the slow cook setting. 

While the water is coming to a boil, wrap each tamale individually in foil. When the water is boiling, lay the tamales on the rack, cover the crockpot, and raise the heat to a high setting. Steam for 1–2 hours, until hot through before serving.

View of cooked tamales inside pot.

Metal Strainer

Another option that works similarly to a crockpot is a metal strainer in a pot on the stove.  To do this, you will have some technical know-how to figure out how to keep the tamales suspended above the water while keeping the lid closed so that the steam can work its magic and properly reheat the tamales. 

Pour water into a pot with a tight-fitting lid, then devise a way to prop a metal strainer or colander above the water and close the pot so that the steam doesn’t escape. Wrap each tamale individually in aluminum foil. Get the water boiling, place the wrapped tamales in the strainer, and put on the lid. Reduce the heat and steam for 1 to 2 hours. 

Bowl and Chopstick

You may also use a bowl and chopsticks within a pot on the stove. Unfortunately, this is not a full-proof method and needs a certain amount of expertise to play a balancing act, so the tamales don’t end up dropping into the water. The chopsticks act as the rack that suspends the tamales above the boiling water. 

Find a bowl that has a circumference a bit smaller than your pot to fit and allow room for the boiling water. Place the bowl inside the pot upside down. Then arrange four or more chopsticks across the bowl to create a rack. Place the tamales on top of the chopsticks. Using this method, you should be able to fit 10–12 tamales on the chopsticks. 


An oven may not seem like the best way to steam, but it does work. The challenge of an oven is that it usually dries food out. So if you want to reheat tamales and keep them soft and moist, you will have to prevent this from happening. 

To use this method, start by boiling water in a kettle and pouring it into a baking tray. Boiling the water first will help cut the cooking time considerably since water takes longer to boil in the oven. Place a baking rack into the baking tray, ensuring that it is high enough to keep the tamales out of the water. Place the foil-wrapped tamales on the rack, cover tightly with foil, and steam for 1–2 hours.

Rice Cooker

A rice cooker is a worthy substitute for a steamer since it relies heavily on steaming. Rice cookers often have a basket where the tamales can be raised above the steaming water. Pour water into the rice cooker until it’s about 2 inches deep, ensuring it doesn’t touch the rack. Then lay out the tamales in the basket in a single layer, so they will each get sufficient steam and be reheated evenly. 

As they are steamed, it’s essential to make sure the water doesn’t boil away. If it does, you will have to add more water.

Pressure Cooker

To use a pressure cooker to steam tamales, pour about two cups of water into the cooker,  then place the tamales in the basket before activating your appliance’s pressure setting. Allow the pressure cooker to heat up to the hottest setting. When the water is hot enough to produce steam, you can reduce the heat. Then steam the tamales for a further 15 to 20 minutes. This should be enough to get the tamales sufficiently reheated at the right moisture level. 

Expert Tips

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How to Steam Frozen Tamales

Frozen tamales can be steamed in any of the methods described here for fresh tamales. They will need to be placed more carefully so they are not overcrowded, and they will need extra time to steam—about two and a half hours if they were not cooked before freezing. If you’re merely reheating them, they will take about 30 minutes.

How to Keep Tamales Warm

If your tamales are already cooked, but you need to keep them warm, you can wrap them in foil, which is effective for holding in both moisture and heat. You can also wrap them in kitchen towels and put them in a thermal box. If you’re using foil, wrap each tamale individually. If you’re using towels, then you don’t need to wrap them individually.

Side Dish Ideas

The best sides for tamales are jicama slaw, pinto beans, and cilantro lime rice. Thanks to their shared Latin and Central American origins, the flavor combinations pair perfectly. See our guide on what to serve with tamales for more inspiration.

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