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Slow Cooker Tamales: Recipe and Alternate Filling Ideas

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Make a slow cooker fiesta for your family

Make a slow cooker fiesta for your family

The Original Fast Food

By definition, tamales are a steamed bundle of masa (cornmeal dough) plus a tasty filling, all bundled up in a non-edible wrapper. As such, they’re a portable meal; you might even call them the original fast food.

Tamales originated in Mesoamerica and date back to pre-Columbian times. In fact, the name is derived from tamalii, an Aztec word meaning “wrapped food.”

What Are the Basic Parts of the Tamale?

  • Wrapper: In some parts of Mexico tamales are enclosed in corn husks; however in the southern state of Michoacán corn husks are replaced with agave leaves and in Oaxaca, they use banana or plantain leaves.
  • Filling: This can be as simple as a dollop of canned refried beans, or as complex as pork simmered for hours until it is fall-apart tender, and countless things in between.
  • Masa: The key to any and every tamale is the dough; corn which has been specially treated with water and lime is ground very fine and then mixed with liquid and fat (lard is traditional) to create a smooth, creamy paste the consistency of soft ice cream.

Slow Cooker Tamale Recipe

Tamales are cooked with steam. The standard method of cooking is to place them in a steamer basket. I wondered if they could be assembled ahead of time, then steamed in a slow cooker (crockpot) to cook unsupervised. Here’s how I did it.

First, make the masa dough:


  • 2 1/2 cups masa flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups warm broth (chicken or vegetable)


  1. Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the oil and beat to combine.
  2. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the warm broth until the dough has a creamy texture. It should be the consistency of soft ice cream.

Then, choose your filling:

I had half a can of vegetarian frijoles languishing in the refrigerator so that was my go-to filling of choice. A shmear of beans, a strip of cheese, and a small dollop of red enchilada sauce filled my tamales. But tamales are wonderfully adaptable. If you need some inspiration, links to more recipes are below under the heading “Alternative Tamale Filling.”

Finally, select your wrapper:

Tamales are usually wrapped in corn husks. No, you don’t need to run out into a cornfield and start shucking corn. You can purchase properly processed corn husks in the Latin American food section of your grocery store. They’ll be in a plastic bag, cleaned, dried, and ready to use.

Place the corn husks in a large bowl. Cover with boiling water. They want to float to the surface, so I placed a plate on top and weighed it down with a large (30 ounce) can of tomatoes. Two cans of soup or vegetables would work just as well. (Let your imagination soar!) The husks need to soak for at least 30 minutes so that they will soften and be pliable. One hour is even better.

But, what if you don’t have corn husks? Never fear. Parchment paper will work just as well. Cut eight-inch squares.

How to Fold a Tamale

  1. Corn husks are shaped like a triangle; take one and position it so that the narrow end is pointing up (north) and the wide part of the triangle is south.
  2. There are two sides to a corn husk—a smooth side and a rough side. Make sure your husk is smooth-side up.
  3. Use about a golf-ball-size blob of masa to cover the bottom end of the corn husk. Don't be skimpy—there should be an even layer of masa with no corn husk showing through.
  4. Don't overstuff the tamale; use just a small amount of filling.
  5. Fold the corn husk from side to side so that the masa encloses the filling. Next, tuck the edge under. Finally, fold the point down. Tada! You've made your first (of many) tamales.
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Read More From Delishably

How to stuff and fold a tamale

How to stuff and fold a tamale

How to Make Tamales in Your Slow Cooker

I have a round slow cooker; the insert is XX inches across—and so it perfectly accommodates the eight-inch round tall cake pan that I used to hold my tamales.

Since there are only three of us I didn't make a huge batch; the amount of masa dough I had made was just enough for 24 tamales. To keep them standing upright, and to position them against the outer edge of the cake pan. I placed a small ramekin in the center. If you make enough tamales to completely fill your cake pan, you won't need a ramekin to keep them standing upright.

I can hear you mumbling out there. "What if you don't have such a large slow cooker (or an eight-inch cake pan to use as an insert)?" In that case, an aluminum foil pie tin, with a few holes poked in the bottom, will do quite nicely. Turn it upside-down in the cooker.

And, some of you might ask "what if you have an oddly-shaped slow cooker?" (I have a second one that is slightly smaller and is oval-shaped.) Take several sheets of aluminum foil, roll them into a rope shape, and then coil it (think of the spiral shape of a snail shell) to fit in the bottom of the cooker.

After you assemble your tamales, place them in the cake pan insert, or atop the pierced aluminum pie tin, or atop the coil of aluminum foil. Pour two to three cups of hot water into the bottom of the cooker. Cover, set the cooker to "high," and in four to six hours you will have perfectly steamed tamales.

  • Authentic Beef Tamales: Any recipe that calls for six pounds of beef brisket is going to be a labor of love, but will also reward you with tons of flavor. "Beef Loving Texans" provide step-by-step photos to help you make beef tamales for a crowd.
  • Green Chile and Cheese Tamales: These tamales are filled with poblano peppers and strips of pepper jack cheese. They're vegetarian and (of course) gluten-free.
  • Homemade Ground Beef Tamales: Let's assume you don't have 8 hours to simmer a beef brisket, but still want a beef tamale; you can use Mely's recipe for ground beef tamales. These picadillo tamales include ground beef, potatoes, and carrots for a rich, satisfying meal.
  • Mushroom (Vegan) Tamales: This recipe is for my vegan readers; it's simple to make, budget-friendly and so delicious. It's filled with mushrooms, vegan cheese, onion, and garlic—slightly spicy, but you can adjust the heat by reducing (or increasing) the amount of cayenne.
  • Poblano Chorizo and Cheese Tamales: Earthy peppers, spicy pork sausage, and melty manchego cheese—do you need anything more?
  • Pork Tamales: Making tamales can be a fun family project but from start to finish it can be time-consuming. Do yourself a favor and cook the pork one day and assemble the tamales the next day.
  • Shrimp and Corn Tamales With Miso Butter: Here is an entirely new spin on the tamale—sweet shrimp are paired with umami-rich miso/lime butter.

Green Chili Tamale Sauce: This recipe relies on Anaheim chili peppers for just a subtle kick of heat. Tomatillos add a bright puckery tang. This sauce is perfect for tamales made with poultry or when you're in the mood for a lighter sauce.

Pumpkin Mole: This mole is creamy, sweet, and savory, a less spicy version of the traditional chocolate mole.

Red Sauce

My favorite red sauce recipe is authentic—no tomatoes were harmed in the making of this sauce.


  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 cup stock (vegetable or chicken)


  1. Stir together the oil and flour in the bottom of a small saucepan.
  2. Simmer on medium heat for 2 minutes.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients; bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.

© 2021 Linda Lum

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