These easy step-by-step instructions will show you how to make tamales vegan, gluten-free, and without any hassle (even if it's your first time).
Don't be intimidated — we can't wait to show you how simple this process is!
Table of Contents
Raise your hand if you've always wanted to make tamales, but have been afraid to try.
If you're sitting in front of your computer with your hand raised, we promise you'll soon be whipping up tamales like nobody's business!
Tamales may seem overwhelming because there are a lot of moving parts, new ingredients, and an element of unfamiliarity.
This is a good thing! It means you're expanding your worldly kitchen skills by making this tasty antojito.
You're learning new things and developing your brain! Give yourself a pat on the back.
In all honesty, if you're a fan of Mexican food, learning how to make tamales is a must.
To really appreciate this food we think it's necessary to know where it comes from.
History of the tamal
Originating in Mesoamerica as early as 7000 BC, tamales are thousands of years old!
How cool is that?
During the Aztec era, tamales were made with teocintle instead of corn. In reality, they're both similar (think of teocintle like the older brother to corn).
Tamales were used by the Aztecs and Mayans for their portability when they needed to travel long distances and on hunting trips.
What is a tamal?
Tamales are formed with different ingredients depending on where it's made. They're found all over Central and South America.
Mexican tamales (the ones we're making) were traditionally made using three ingredients: corn husk on the outside, a layer of masa, and some type of meat, cheese, or bean on the inside.
We wanted to keep this recipe as authentic as possible while making sure it's still vegan. That means no lard or animal-based broth, which both came into the picture later on.
Is it worth it?
Yes! You definitely won't believe your taste buds when you bite into your creation.
You'll have full control of the fillings too! Vegan tamales are delicious served sweet or savoury. They're actually the perfect food for meal prep (they even come in a plastic-free wrapper!).
Is there anything tamales can't do?!
These are completely plant-based, gluten-free, and so easy to make once you get the hang of things.
So, are you up for learning a new skill? Tie up your apron, grab your husks, and let's do this!
🍲 Key ingredients
For a complete ingredient list and step-by-step guide, scroll down to our recipe card.
What is it: masa harina (or dough flour) is essentially just instant corn flour. It's a specific type of corn that's been soaked in lime water (not the fruit, but the mineral) so it's high in calcium and niacin, making it easier to digest.
We like to use the white variety, but it comes in yellow and blue as well. They all work for this recipe and are generally pretty interchangeable.
Taste: in powder form, masa has a nutty flavor with a mineral-like undertone (due to the lime-water soak). When it's cooked, masa takes on a sweet, corn flavor and has a soft, doughy texture. This is essential in tamales.
Health: masa is naturally gluten-free, making it ideal for those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Additionally, you'll receive a nice little boost of iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Where to buy: you can find masa in many grocery stores around the world. Supermarkets that have ethnic aisles or Mexican food aisles are a great spot to start looking.
For more information, check out our detailed guide on masa harina.
Refined coconut oil
Taste: we use refined coconut oil for its neutral scent and flavor. We suggest opting for coconut oil, but you can use other neutral vegetable oils.
Health: there's a lot of debate when it comes to coconut oil, saturated fat, and health. It's something we could go on about and goes beyond the scope of this recipe. What we always say is eating foods in moderation is the best approach to health (and the easiest to sustain).
Dried corn husks
What are they: corn husks are the outer covering of an ear of corn and are synonymous with tamales. They hold tamales together and prevent them from drying out while allowing steam to penetrate and cook the dough. The corn husks you'll be using are sun or air-dried.
Where to buy: a lot of grocery stores sell dried corn husks, but if you can't find them there, you can order online.
Note: make sure to soak the husks in hot water for at least 30 minutes before making your tamales so they're extra pliable. This should also go without saying, but don't eat the corn husks.
Taste: this odorless leavening agent is used to help the tamal dough rise and provide a light texture. It's not essential if you're using a stand mixer, but if you don't have one (we don't either), using baking powder will prevent dense tamales.
Fun fact: what is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Baking powder already contains an acid, whereas baking soda is alkaline and needs an additional acid to be activated. Long story short, both cause foods to rise in different ways.
The best part of learning how to make tamales is learning how to customize them. Some of our favorite fillings are:
- Refried beans and salsa roja
- Soy curls or textured vegan protein
- Black beans and sweet potatoes
- Potatoes in adobo sauce
- Cream cheese and pickled jalapeno
- Cinnamon and apple
- Strawberries and cream
If you have an extra saucy filling, you don't have to top these vegan tamales with anything else. But we're pretty big sauce people, so we always recommend it! Here are a few ideas to get you started:
If you have questions about this vegan tamales recipe, don't forget to check out our FAQ section at the bottom of this post.
Step 1: remove the husks from their package and separate them. Sort through them and discard any husks that have holes or damage.
Step 2: add the husks to your kitchen sink or a large bowl of hot water and soak for 30 minutes. This will make the husks more pliable and easier to work with during assembly. If they are extra dry, soak them for a few hours or overnight.
Step 3: add the masa harina, salt, and baking powder to a mixing bowl. Mix together using your hands or a whisk. Then, add the room temperature coconut oil and vegetable broth and mix with your hands.
Step 4: continue mixing and kneading the dough until all the ingredients are well combined and the dough has a light, fluffy consistency (about 4-5 minutes).
Note: the dough should not be very sticky. Use the “palm trick” (slap the dough with a clean hand and if lots of dough sticks to your palm, add more oil in 1-2 tablespoon at a time).
Step 5: dry the husks off with a tea towel to remove excess water. Lay one flat on your counter, making sure the smooth side faces up and the wider end is closer to you.
Step 6: scoop 2-3 tablespoon of dough in the middle of the husk. Spread the dough towards the wide end into a ¼-inch thick layer using a spatula, butter knife, or plaster knife.
Step 7: top with 1-2 tablespoon of filling. We used potatoes & beans in adobo sauce for this recipe, but you can try a combination listed above or any others you can think of!
Step 8: fold both sides of the husk towards the center to close the dough around the filling, then tuck one side of the husk underneath and fold the second side over top.
Step 9: fold the bottom portion up and secure the tamales with a string of leftover husk. Continue this process until the rest of the dough, filling, and husks are gone.
Step 10: prepare your pot for steaming by adding 3 cups of warm water to the bottom. Then, place the steamer rack inside and cover it with a layer of extra corn husks. Begin leaning the tamales around the steamer in an upright position. Continue working inwards in a circular fashion until the pot is full.
Step 11: cover the tamales with another layer of cornhusks and a tea towel on top. Cover your pot with the lid, bring it to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and steam them for 40-45 minutes.
Step 11: to check if they are fully cooked, remove 1 tamal at 40 minutes. Let it rest for 2-3 minutes, then attempt to open the husk. If the tamal separates from the husk easily, you're good. If the dough still sticks, close it up and steam for an additional 5-10 minutes.
Step 12: when the tamales are finished cooking, remove them from the pot and let them rest for about 10 minutes to allow the dough to firm up. Serve while still warm on their own or with salsa on top!
Tamales are a great dish to make in large batches to have on-hand for snacks! To keep them super fresh, follow our storage instructions.
Vegan tamales will store in your fridge for up to 3-4 days. Make sure to keep them wrapped in the husk in order to keep them moist.
If you don't eat them all within the first few days, keep your tamales in the freezer for up to 3 months. A freezer-safe bag works best for two reasons: you can press the excess air out, and it's a space saver.
Re-steam your tamales for about 10-15 minutes or a little longer if they're frozen.
Bake them for 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees F, or until warm. You can either put the tamales on a baking sheet or wrap them in foil.
Microwave your tamales in 30-60 second intervals until they're warmed all the way through.
If you want to split your time up, make both the masa dough and filling up 2-3 days in advance of cooking them. Store both in your fridge.
You can also pre-make the whole recipe (including wrapping in corn husks) and freeze the uncooked tamales for up to 5-6 months.
💭 Tips & variations
We'd like to share some tips and variations we learned while experimenting with this vegan tamales recipe:
- Don't spread the dough all the way to the end of the corn husk (this helps with folding).
- When you roll the tamal, tuck the dough so it doesn't get folded into the husk. It takes a little practice.
- Don't put too much filling in. You want to be able to enclose it with the dough and husk.
- Check to make if there's enough water in the steamer frequently. You can place a heat-safe object in the bottom to hear the water boiling if you're worried.
- Once you get into a groove, tamales are really straightforward to make. We recommend doubling or tripling this recipe to have lots of leftovers!
🍴 Tasting notes
We love these tamales so much, and we know you will too. They're:
If you try this vegan tamales recipe, please rate it and leave us a comment below! Want to stay up-to-date with new recipes? Subscribe to our newsletter or connect with Broke Bank Vegan on social media. Happy eating!
How to Make Tamales
- Mixing bowl
- 1 package (~25) corn husks ($1.60)
- 3 cups masa harina ($0.38)
- 2 teaspoon salt ($0.02)
- ½ tablespoon baking powder ($0.01)
- ½ cup + 1 tablespoon refined coconut oil ($1.26)
- 3 cups vegetable broth ($0.14)
- 2 cups filling of choice
- First, remove the husks from their package and separate them. Sort through them and discard any husks that have holes or damage.
- Then, add the husks to your kitchen sink or a large bowl of hot water and soak for 30 minutes. This will make the husks more pliable and easier to work with during assembly. If they are extra dry, soak them for a few hours or overnight.
- To a large mixing bowl, add the masa harina, salt, and baking powder. Mix together using your hands or a whisk. Then, add the room temperature coconut oil and vegetable broth and mix with your hands.
- Continue mixing and kneading the dough until all the ingredients are well combined and the dough has a light, fluffy consistency (about 4-5 minutes).
- Note: the dough should not be very sticky. Use the “palm trick” (slap the dough with a clean hand and if lots of dough sticks to your palm, add more oil in 1-2 tablespoon at a time).
- Dry the husks off with a tea towel to remove excess water. Lay one flat on your counter, making sure the smooth side faces up and the wider end is closer to you.
- Scoop 2-3 tablespoon of dough onto the middle of the husk. Spread the dough towards the wide end into a thin (¼-inch thick) layer using a spatula, butter knife, or plaster knife. Top with 1-2 tablespoon of filling (we used potatoes & beans tossed in adobo sauce).
- Fold both sides of the husk towards the center to close the dough around the filling, then tuck one side of the husk underneath and fold the second side over top. Fold the bottom portion up and secure the tamal with a string of leftover husk. Continue this process until the rest of the dough, filling, and husks are gone.
- Prepare your pot for steaming by adding 3 cups of warm water to the bottom. Then, place the steamer rack inside and cover it with a layer of extra corn husks.
- Begin leaning the tamales around the steamer in an upright position. Continue working inwards in a circular fashion until the pot is full.
- Cover the tamales with another layer of corn husks and a tea towel on top. Cover your pot with the lid, bring it to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and steam the tamales for 40-45 minutes.
- To check if they are fully cooked, remove 1 tamal at 40 minutes. Let it rest for 2-3 minutes, then attempt to open the husk. If the tamal separates from the husk easily, they are ready. If the dough still sticks to the husk, close it up and continue steaming for an additional 5-10 minutes.
- Note: make sure to keep a close eye on the water level of your pot during steaming. You don’t want to end up with a dry pot!
- When the tamales are finished cooking, remove them from the pot and let them rest for about 10 minutes to allow the dough to firm up. Serve the tamales while still warm on their own or with toppings. Enjoy!
- If your corn husks are quite large, you’ll want to trim them to about 5 or 6” in diameter (this will ensure you don’t end up with massive tamales). Use the scraps for tying the other tamales and the extra-small husks for lining your pot.
- You can also use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to make the dough, but we don’t find it necessary.
- Optional ingredients are not reflected in the price or calories of our recipes.
- We calculate nutritional information for our recipes with Cronometer
- Calories are only for a serving of the tamal dough itself. They do not include fillings.
- Recipe cost calculations are based on ingredients local to us and may vary from recipe-to-recipe.
- All prices are in USD.
♻️ Similar recipes
For more tasty Mexican-inspired dishes, check out our:
- Corundas for a different take on tamales originating from the state of Michoacán.
- Easy sopes for a traditional snack that's quick to make, easy to customize, and full of flavor.
- Tacos al pastor if you want your tacos meat-free, but still authentically flavored with spicy chilies, achiote, and fresh pineapple.
- Black bean and sweet potato quesadillas to learn how to make a quick, easy, and hearty meal that's great for weeknights.
- Crispy black bean tacos if you want a simple meal that's ready to drizzle all your favorite sauces over.
If you don't have access to corn husks you can use banana leaves or parchment paper instead.
You don't have to use coconut oil but we recommend it because of the saturated fat content. We think it emulates the texture of lard, which is typically used in non-vegan tamales.
You can make these ahead of time. The best bet is to make the masa and the filling up to 1-3 days prior.
The best way to defrost your tamales is to place them in the fridge overnight. The quickest way to defrost your tamales is to microwave them (in the husk) for 2-3 minutes on medium power. Flip and do the same for another 1-2 minutes.
If your masa isn't spreading, it's likely too thick. Add in 1 tablespoon of water or veggie broth until it becomes more spreadable.
If your consistency is too thin, add 1 tablespoon of masa at a time until you get a more spreadable consistency.