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How do you cook frozen uncooked tamales?

Tamales are a delicious Mexican dish made from masa (corn dough) that is filled with savory or sweet ingredients and steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper. Pre-made frozen tamales provide a quick and easy meal solution, as they simply need to be thawed and heated before serving. However, cooking frozen tamales does require some special considerations compared to fresh tamales. Following proper thawing, heating, and steaming techniques will ensure your frozen tamales come out perfectly cooked with a soft, fluffy masa and hot, melty filling.

What are tamales?

Tamales originate from Mesoamerica and have been made for thousands of years. The Aztecs and Mayans used tamales in festivals and feasts, and the Incas also had their own version. The traditional process of making tamales is very labor intensive. First, dried corn kernels are cooked with lime and turned into masa dough. Then, the masa is spread on a corn husk or banana leaf, filled with ingredients like meat, cheese, chiles, beans, or sweet fillings like fruit or cocoa. The husk or leaf is wrapped around the filled masa and tied shut before steaming. Home cooks will often get together for a tamalada to make dozens or even hundreds of tamales.

Today, tamales are still hugely popular in Mexico and Central America, with many regional variations in fillings and wrapping styles. They are also beloved in many Southwestern U.S. states like Texas, Arizona, and California with large Mexican-American populations. While fresh tamales take a lot of work, frozen tamales provide a convenient shortcut while still retaining their delicious flavors.

Are frozen tamales pre-cooked?

Frozen tamales you buy pre-packaged are already partially cooked. The masa dough is steamed so it sets before being wrapped around the fillings and frozen. However, the fillings are still raw, and the masa is not fully cooked through.

This means you need to completely thaw and then steam or cook the frozen tamales before eating. You cannot eat frozen tamales straight out of the freezer! They require more cooking time to heat through the inside and soften the masa.

How long does it take to thaw frozen tamales?

Properly thawing frozen tamales is an essential first step, as trying to cook frozen or partially frozen tamales will result in undercooked interiors. Here are some tips for thawing:

Refrigerator thawing: This is the preferred method. Place frozen tamales in a single layer in a pan or on a plate. Thaw in the refrigerator for 16-24 hours. Rotate tamales occasionally so thawing occurs evenly.

Cold water thawing: Seal frozen tamales in a plastic bag. Submerge the bag in a bowl of cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes. This method takes about 2-3 hours for a pack of 12 tamales.

Microwave thawing: Not recommended, as this can start cooking the tamales unevenly. But in a pinch, microwave individual frozen tamales at 30% power for 30 seconds at a time until pliable.

Thawed tamales will feel soft and flexible when squeezed. The masa may still be a bit cold in the center when thawed, but should not feel frozen and stiff.

How do you steam frozen tamales?

Steaming is the best cooking method to heat thawed frozen tamales through evenly while softening the masa. Here is how to steam tamales:

Equipment needed:

– A steamer basket or collapsible steamer that fits inside a pot with a tight-fitting lid
– A heat-proof plate or corn husks to place tamales on
– Parchment paper


1. Fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat.

2. Arrange thawed tamales upright in the steamer basket or on a plate, not overlapping or crowding.

3. Cover the pot tightly and steam for 45-60 minutes. Check water level occasionally and replenish to prevent boiling dry.

4. Use tongs to carefully transfer tamales to a serving plate. Use caution as the tamales will be very hot.

5. Serve tamales warm with desired toppings like salsa, crema, cheddar cheese, etc. Enjoy!

The tamales are ready when the masa pulls away easily from the husk or wrapper.

Tips for steaming frozen tamales

– Don’t overcrowd tamales or stack horizontally – this prevents proper steaming.

– Use parchment paper to prevent sticking if stacking tamales on a plate.

– Check doneness by unwrapping a tamale and ensuring the masa is cooked through.

– Let rest 5 minutes before unwrapping to allow steam to distribute through fillings.

How to microwave frozen tamales

Microwaving is a quick method to reheat thawed frozen tamales when you don’t want to wait for steaming. Here are some tips:

– Microwave individual tamales placed upright around the edge of the microwave plate.

– Microwave at 70% power in 1 minute increments until heated through, about 2-4 minutes total depending on your microwave.

– Wrap each tamale in a damp paper towel to prevent drying out the masa.

– Allow to rest for 2 minutes before unwrapping.

– Check that fillings are piping hot and masa is cooked through.

– Microwave additional 10-20 seconds if needed.

While convenient, microwaving can create hot spots or uneven cooking. Steaming generally produces more consistent results, but microwaving is fine in a pinch.

How to cook frozen tamales in the oven

You can also use your oven to heat frozen tamales:


1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. Place tamales unwrapped on a baking sheet or oven-safe plate. Frozen tamales can go straight into the oven without thawing.

3. Heat for approximately 40-50 minutes until hot and masa pulls away from husk.

4. Check doneness and rotate pan periodically to prevent uneven heating.

5. Let rest 5 minutes before unwrapping.

Oven-heating works best for larger batches of tamales. Be sure to have a drip pan underneath as fillings can leak. The cooking time may need extending for very large tamales.

How to cook frozen tamales on the stovetop

To cook frozen tamales on the stovetop:

1. Place thawed tamales upright in a single layer in a skillet or saucepan. Add 1-2 tablespoons of water to the pan.

2. Cover and cook over medium heat for 25-35 minutes, until masa is cooked through and pulls away from husk. Add more water during cooking if pan becomes dry.

3. Turn tamales halfway through cooking.

4. Check that fillings are heated through before serving.

The benefit of stovetop cooking is you can better control the heat and steam levels. Just be sure not to use too high heat or the masa can become dried out.

How can you tell when tamales are done cooking?

Here are signs that tamales are fully cooked:

– The masa easily separates from the wrapper.

– Masa is soft and tender but not mushy or falling apart.

– Fillings are steaming hot when you open the tamale.

– Masa appears cooked through without any raw spots.

– Frozen tamales have cooked for recommended time based on cooking method.

– Internal temperature reaches 185°F.

Undercooked tamales will have a stiff, gummy masa and cold or lukewarm fillings. Overcooked tamales can be dried out or mushy.

Can you overcook tamales?

It is possible to overcook tamales if you steam, bake, or boil them for too long. Signs of overcooked tamales include:

– Very soft, mushy masa that falls apart

– Ripped masa that separates from wrapper

– Dry, crumbling texture

– Hard or crunchy corn husks

– Dried out, rubbery fillings

To prevent overcooking, be sure to follow recommended cooking times. Start checking doneness at the lower end of time ranges. It’s always better to slightly undercook and then add more heating time as needed.

With steaming in particular, be careful not to leave tamales for over an hour or the masa can become too soft. Microwaving can also quickly dry out tamales if heated too long.

How should you reheat leftover tamales?

Leftover tamales can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat them using these methods:

Microwave: Best for small batches. Microwave 1-2 tamales at a time for 60-90 seconds until warm throughout.

Steaming: Place in steamer basket over boiling water for 8-10 minutes.

Oven: Bake at 300°F for 15-20 minutes for larger batches.

Stovetop: For a few tamales, cook in skillet over medium heat with a bit of water for 10-15 minutes.

Always allow tamales to rest for 2-3 minutes after reheating before unwrapping. Check fillings are hot before serving. Avoid reheating more than once.


Problem: Tamales are still cold in the center after cooking.

– Solution 1: Tamales were not fully thawed before cooking. Always thaw completely first.

– Solution 2: Tamales were overcrowded in the steamer or microwave. Give them more space.

– Solution 3: Tamales were not cooked for long enough. Increase cooking time.

Problem: Tamale fillings leak out while cooking.

– Solution: Use parchment paper or corn husks under tamales while steaming or baking to catch drips.

– Solution: Wrap each tamale individually in foil or parchment paper if needed.

– Solution: Don’t fully freeze tamales before cooking, just thaw slightly to reduce leakage.

Problem: Tamale masa is too soft and falls apart.

– Solution: Avoid over-steaming or microwaving. Reduce cooking time.

– Solution: When steaming, ensure water isn’t boiling too vigorously.

– Solution: Don’t unwrap tamales immediately after cooking. Let rest 5 minutes.

Storing leftovers

Cooked tamales can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Allow to cool completely before refrigerating in a covered container. Reheat leftovers using the microwave, steamer, oven, or stovetop as needed.

Cooked tamales also freeze well for longer term storage. Wrap each tamale individually in plastic wrap or foil before freezing. Thaw frozen leftovers in the refrigerator before reheating.

Uncooked frozen tamales can be kept frozen for 2-3 months for best quality. Ensure they remain well wrapped to prevent freezer burn or ice crystals. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before cooking.

Serving ideas

Thawed and heated frozen tamales make quick and easy meals or appetizers. Consider serving them:

– As an entree with rice and beans
– Wrapped in corn tortillas with salsa and guacamole
– With eggs for breakfast
– Topped with chili or mole sauce
– Alongside nachos or tacos for Taco Tuesday
– As an appetizer before Mexican meals
– For a savory snack

You can get creative with different toppings and sides based on your preferences. Almost any additions like cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, crema, cilantro, avocado, and hot sauce pair deliciously with tamales.

Popular tamale fillings

One of the joys of tamales is the variety of possible fillings. Common options include:

Filling Description
Pork Shredded seasoned pork, often in a red chile sauce
Chicken Shredded chicken breast in green or red sauce
Beef Shredded or ground spiced beef
Cheese Oaxaca, queso fresco, cheddar, etc.
Beans Refried pinto or black beans
Veggie Mixtures like potato, green chiles, spinach, zucchini
Sweet Fruit, coconut, chocolate, pumpkin, nuts

The filling possibilities are endless, so look for creative combinations! Just avoid very juicy fillings that can make the masa soggy.

Making your own tamales

While convenient, pre-made frozen tamales can’t quite match the flavor of homemade. If you’re up for a project, try making your own tamales from scratch. You’ll need:

– Masa harina (corn flour)
– Lard or shortening
– Broth
– Corn husks, soaked and patted dry
– Fillings of your choice

Mix the masa with lard and broth until a soft dough forms. Spread onto husks, fill, and tie off. Steam until masa is firm, about 1 hour. Fresh tamales freeze beautifully for up to 3 months.


Frozen tamales provide a quick way to enjoy tasty tamales anytime. Be sure to fully thaw, then use steaming, microwaving, baking, or stovetop cooking to heat frozen tamales until piping hot. Check for doneness to prevent under or overcooking. Use leftovers within 5 days and freeze extras for longer storage. With so many possible fillings, tamales make for versatile meals, snacks, or appetizers. Now go enjoy some warm tamales!