How to keep Tamales Warm and ways to Reheat Them

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Written By Chad Kelley

With 25 years of culinary experience, Chef Chad passionately crafts delectable dishes while juggling life as a dedicated spouse and parent to two wonderful kids

Tamales wrapped in dryed corn husk in a steamer basket with a red bowl in the foreground. A hand holding black tongs attempts to pull a single tamale from the steamer.

Tamales are a fantastic dish for a group. You can either have a tamale party to prep, make and cook the homemade tamales or just grab some pre-made tamales. But once you get them warm, how do you keep tamales warm for your party? The best way is to use a warming dish like a chafer. If you have groups over frequently this is worth the extra investment. You can also use a slow cooker. All ideas I will cover below. 

As for the tamales themselves, I am hoping you have a place near you that specializes in fresh tamales and you are not buying the ones from costco or your grocery store. Not that there is anything wrong with those but the ones you can get from places like Delia’s in South Texas are so much better. If you are unfamiliar with Delia’s take a look at their site, you can even order frozen tamales to be shipped to you. 


Every year my wife and I end up with several dozen from friends and family that send us Delia’s tamales for Christmas. Tamales are a traditional meal around Christmas so if you plan to get some for the holidays place your order weeks in advance. Seriously, the farther out the better as many tamale factories stop taking orders the week before Christmas, sometimes earlier. 

Reheating and Keeping Tamales Warm

The most important part of warming tamales, or reheating them, is moisture. Moist tamales vs dry and crumbly tamales is the difference between a great experience and one where you wonder what went wrong. Tamales are classicly steamed after they are made so try to mimic this cooking method for the reheating process. I have never taken an internal temperature as you will know if they are hot or not really quickly.

For our family we have tamales either for Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas. There will always be at least 10 of us, plus kids, at the house so we got good at keeping them warm. It is not uncommon for us to have the tamales for breakfast, lunch, a quick snack before dinner and then again the next day. We use a few techniques to reheat our tamales and keep them warm.


Steamer Method

For reheating and keeping them warm I use a large pot that I normally use for cooking pasta. In the bottom of the pot, I put an artichoke steamer basket and a few inches of boiling water, about a cup of water is good. We then stand the tamales up with the open end facing up, and turn the heat up to let them gently steam. Keep this pot set over medium heat until the tamales are warm and then turn it to the lowest possible heat setting just to keep the water in the steamer warm. Since the tamales we buy are fully cooked we only need them to heat up. As we run low I will restock the pan with both more water and extra tamales. 

The steamer method may not be the fastest way to reheat tamales but it is your best bet to ensuring they come out moist, tender and flavorful.


Pressure Cooker Reheating

I use our Instant pot on low with a steaming basket on the bottom and just enough water to get to the bottom of the steam rack.  If space on the cooktop becomes an issue I will move the tamales to my Instant Pot that is set to slow cook or the steam function. This works well for smaller groups and I usually only do this when we start to slow down on the tamale feast. I have not personally done this but I understand you can also use a rice cooker to steam the tamales.


Tamales in the Microwave oven

For the next morning when a few of us want tamales I will use the microwave to reheat the tamales. The tamales we get are frozen in bundles of a half dozen and have an outer layer of aluminum foil. I will run some tepid water over the foil lining until I can get it to peel off. Then I wrap the tamales in a damp paper towel, just a few drops of water, and place them onto a microwave-safe plate and defrost them just long enough to be able to break them apart.

Once I can get them into pairs or singles I wrap each of those in fresh damp paper towels, and yes still in its corn husk, and then microwave on high for a minute. Turn them over and give them another minute. I repeat this process, occasionally sprinkling water on the paper towels, until they are warmed through. The cooking time depends on the microwave wattage of your microwave and how many tamales you try to stuff into it. I find this to be the best method for reheating tamales when you need less than a dozen.

Reheating in an Oven

This is an easy way to reheat the tamales if you have the time. If you plan to use the chaffing dish then start by using the pan that will go into the chaffer and layer the tamales, still in the corn husk, into the pan. There is no need to place tamales in a single layer in the pan since they are going to steam in the oven rather than bake.  Drizzle with some water, to help them steam and then wrap with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil.

Bake them at 425º for about 15 minutes if they are fresh and 30-40 minutes if they are frozen. Then take them straight from the oven to your chaffing stand and put the lid on. When uncovering be very careful. Steam will come out quickly and can burn your hand. It is always best to give it a few minutes to relax and cool down a bit before trying to remove the plastic and foil. 

The reason for both the plastic and foil is to create an airtight seal that will retain the steam. As the plastic warms it will melt into the foil and lightly binds to the pan. You can use just tin foil but it will not be completely air tight. Reheating in the oven is the best cooking process to reheat a large batch of tamales without taking up any space on your stove top. It may take some extra time but tamales for a group are usually not something that happens on a whim.

Chaffing Dish

If our tamale dinners ever become a more formal affair rather than a grab and go I would use our chaffing dish to keep the tamales warm after reheating them. You can use any method of reheating before transferring to your chaffer pan. Make sure you have plenty of hot water in the bath or the tamales will dry out.


In the Airfryer

For smaller quantities of tamales or those late night cravings the air fryer is a good choice. Keep the tamales in corn husk and wrap them in foil to keep them from drying out. Depending on your airfyer it could take a few minutes or 10 minutes. But regardless they will reheat well here as long as you keep them wrapped tightly. If you are only needing to heat up a few tamales this quick method is your best option. 


Reheating on a griddle

This is potentially the most controversial ways to reheat cold tamales. For us, the morning after our tamale feast we reheat the tamales on a griddle over high heat and serve them with eggs and barbecue sauce. When you reheat the chilled, not frozen, tamales on the griddle. The corn husk will absorb most of the heat and moisture and can impart a mild smoky flavor to the tamale. The tamale itself will develop a light crispy exterior. Top it with some barbecue sauce and serve it with eggs. Each member of our family has their own way of enjoying them as well. My mother in law will wrap a tamale in a piece of white bread with some barbecue sauce.

Find your favorite way and make it your tradition. No matter how people may judge it, its for you not them. The best way for you is what works for you and your family. Don’t overthink and keep exploring new ways until you find the best results.


Quick Note

This method works for reheating and storing Mexican Style Tamales that are wrapped in corn husks. Tamales wrapped in banana leaves will work with any of the above methods except for reheating on a griddle. These tamales are traditionally a little thicker and will more than likely burn on the outside before they fully heat in the center. If you are feeling up to the challenge of reheating banana leaf tamales on a griddle let me know how it works.


Hot Tamales

This tamale style is not acutally a mexican dish. This style of tamale was actually created in the Mississippi Delta region by African Americans who were working alongside migrant workers from Mexico in the cotton fields. The earliest known reference to these tamales is back in 1928. If you would like to learn more about the history of the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale, the Southern Foodways Alliance has a good overview.

If this is your first time hearing about this style of tamale let me begin by saying this. No it is not made from the candy. Delta Hot Tamales start with a very traditional mexican tamale but rather than being steamed the tamales are simmered in a peppery broth giving them their distinctive red color.

Although I have not tried to reheat a southern Hot Tamale I’m sure any of the methods above will work fine. The important part is to make sure the tamale stays moist while reheating. This is true for any of the tamales you find. The only exception is our familys version of searing left over tamales on a griddle. All the rules go out the window for this one.

Styrofoam box with a half dozen red hot tamales with sauce in them. Open Sign with faded red ink.
Photo Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

Storing Leftover Tamales

Whenever you have leftover tamales, and you will have leftover tamales. Make sure to wrap them well to help them from drying out. Keep them in an airtight container or wrap them in a paper towel and put them into a plastic bag. Leftover tamales will last you about a week in your refrigerator. After a tamale party you can also wrap the your cooked then cooled tamales in packs of 6. Wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and place these in a freezer bag. Frozen, the tamales will last a few months in this manner.

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