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Slow Cooker Tamales: Recipe and Alternate Filling Ideas

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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:

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

  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.
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.

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

  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

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 08, 2021:

Audrey, what a joy to find you here today. (With the Maven problems it's an "Alice down the rabbit hole" to find each other, isn't it?

Thank you for your sweet comment. Blessings to you.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 08, 2021:

Is there anything better than a good tamale? Not in my book. It's at the top of my list. I love your recipe. I just need a little more time to work this into my schedule. And I will!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 05, 2021:

Adrienne, not everyone has a steamer, but I think almost every household has a slow cooker--that's why I wrote this article. I love tamales and don't make them often enough. I'm glad you enjoyed this and that perhaps I've given you enough encouragement to give them a try. Thanks for stopping by.

Adrienne Farricelli on May 05, 2021:

Having lived in Arizona for many years, tamales are something I am very familiar with. One of my friend's mom makes the best tamales in town and she would sell them on special occasions. I have never tried making them, but a Mexican store near me sells all the ingredients. I have a slow cooker, so now with your recipe I may feel more encouraged to try making them one day.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 04, 2021:

Don't beat yourself up, Sis. What's important is that it tasted good, the interior of the tamale was intact and you found a new way of making them for busy home cooks that don't have the time to babysit this complex dish. Kudos to you!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 04, 2021:

Yeah, I know. I was in a rush. But they probably prep ahead of time and then steam as needed. Whatever. I agree with you it's what I woulda/coulda/shoulda done. Next time I'll do better.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 04, 2021:

On the TV cooking shows, especially Diners Drive-In and Dives, the chefs tie the tamales before putting them in the steaming vessels. That way they don't open up during the process.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 04, 2021:

Shauna, tying them is probably a good idea, but I was being lazy, and if you snuggle them close together I'm not convinced that tying is necessary. Yes, that sauce is good enough to drink from a spoon. I'm using my leftovers as a simmer sauce for chicken tomorrow.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 04, 2021:

Linda, I have a bag of masa and don't know what to do with it. My crock pot is oval, so if I try this technique, I'll have to employ one of your improvisational methods to hold the tamales upright.

I notice you didn't tie your tamales closed. I think if I did that I could probably put them straight in the crock pot, couldn't I?

I like your recipe for the red sauce. That's the one I'd probably go with.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 02, 2021:

Bill, it's just a few years away. I know the two of you will have many happy years together and tamales is certainly more when you're not doing it alone.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 02, 2021:

Chitrangada, thank you. It is good to hear from you; I have been concerned about you. I pray that you and your family stay safe and well.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 02, 2021:

Pamela, thank you so much. Tamales are time consuming, but you could break the work down into several steps (even several days). And, I don't see why you couldn't make them while you are sitting down. I would be a fun family activity.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 02, 2021:

Maybe when Bev retires we will both have time to do more cooking. Until then, with our schedules, I'm afraid we will continue to eat on the fly. Thank goodness I'm comfortable with this type of nourishment preparation. :) Happy Sunday my friend!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 02, 2021:

The Tamale recipe sounds wonderful. Thank you providing the details about it, along with the variations. I have eaten it at restaurants, but haven’t tried myself.

Your article is going to be a good guide for me.

Thank you for sharing.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 02, 2021:

I wish I had found this article before Maven put 'Welcome to Hubpages' as a stationary block to the top of the page.

Now that I have had a short rant, I found this article to be very interesting as I have never made tamales. I have eaten them a couple of times but never considered how they were made.

The tamales look so delicious. I have a slow cooker that would probably work. I don't cook much these days but I will keep tamales in mind. I appreciate learning about tamales, and I hope I can et motivated. This is a terrific article, Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 01, 2021:

Iqra, it's really not any easier than the traditional method, but it's more forgiving in allowing you to let it cook unattended. Thank you for your kind comment.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 01, 2021:

Oh John, I'm sorry if you can't find mass. There's really no substitute. Good luck on your quest.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 01, 2021:

Linda these tamales look and sound wonderful, unfortunately I doubt some of the necessary ingredients are available here, though as for everything I guess we can adapt. I will take a closer look at the Mexican food section in our International food aisle at the local supermarket, but I am quite certain 90% of it is just taco related.

Iqra from East County on May 01, 2021:

Slow cooker tamale recipe sounds delicious, This is a simple tamale pie recipe that tastes very similar to authentic tamales without all the work. Thanks, Linda for sharing this yummy recipe.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 01, 2021:

Flourish, Tex-Mex is just the start. The last one (with shrimp and miso) was a real eye-opener for me. Of course, there are sweet tamales also (chocolate anyone?) and I didn't get into that aspect at all. Thanks so much for commenting.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 01, 2021:

Misbah, you are first in line. Glad you were able to find this before the Maven magic wand waved and made comments go "poof."

I enjoy foods with flavor, but not necessarily HOT and spicy. (At my age I just can't handle the heat anymore.) Thanks so much for commenting. If you can find masa I know you will enjoy making these.

Blessings to you my dear.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 01, 2021:

What a delightful Tex Mex recipe! I used to cook for tons of high school kids doing projects and clubs and weekend robotics sessions. This would have been perfect for them. Sometimes I miss those days.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Rebels. on May 01, 2021:

Linda, what a delicious meal. I have never tried Tamale. Your recipe sounds so yummy. Looks like you love to eat spicy foods. As an Asian, I love eating hot and spicy foods. The red sauce recipe is authentic.

Thanks for sharing the recipe and for adding so much information. I love it.

Blessings and Peace

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