Easy homemade vegetarian or vegan tamales made with Mexican masa, black beans, chilies, and cheese. Steam on the stove or in the Instant Pot.
Here in California it’s hard to miss tamales during the Christmas season. Growing up, I remember my friends’ with Mexican heritage making tamales with their moms and giving them to us as holiday gifts. Like our Mexican Lentil Soup, tamales are perfect for warming up on winter days.
One friend from Mexico recently encouraged me to try making them myself, and I’m so glad I did. Tamales are fun to make and aren’t nearly as difficult as I’d imagined. Of course, since I don’t eat pork or chicken, we went with an untraditional vegan tamale filling of black beans, chiles and cheese.
What is a Tamale?
Tamales are cute little bundles of masa dough filled with whatever filling you like (traditionally pork or chicken and pasilla chilis). This tasty filling is wrapped up with corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. They are a traditional Mexican food that’s enjoyed all year, but more popular than ever during Christmastime.
Masa for Tamales
Masa harina, or instant masa, is corn flour with hydrated lime. It can be mixed with water an a little salt to make homemade corn tortillas, or with fat and broth to make tamale dough.
Depending on where you live, masa flour and corn husks may be difficult to find. Your best bet is a Mexican grocery store. I got mine, Maseca masa mix, at Santa Cruz Market in Goleta, per the recommendation of my friend Juanita who makes tamales often.
I’ve seen prepared masa batter a few times at El Rancho Market in Solvang, which is great if you want a shortcut. In the future I’d prefer to use an organic masa harina such as this one via my Amazon Affiliate link from Bob’s Red Mill.
While masa batter is traditionally made with lard and chicken broth, olive oil and vegetable broth work just fine for vegan tamales. Beat the ingredients in a stand mixer or by hand in a bowl until the dough is like a very thick cake batter.
Filling for Vegan Tamales
Tamales are usually filled with shredded chicken, pork, or cheese. There are so many other options though, so why not get creative?
For these vegan tamales we used black beans, green chiles, and shredded cheddar jack cheese (we used So Delicious).
Other great vegetarian/vegan tamale filling ideas:
How to Make Tamales
Soak the corn husks for a few minutes, rinse, and drain.
Spread about 1/4″ of masa over the corn husk (about 2 tablespoons), leaving at least 3 inches at the narrow end and 1 inch on the other sides.
Top with a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of the masa.
Close the corn husk by folding one side of the husk covered with masa over the fillings. Wrap the other edge without masa to enclose the tamale.
Fold the long bottom edge up and over the tamale. Use string or a long strip of soaked corn husk to tie the tamale closed.
Some people prefer to tie both ends with string, or to fold the top and the bottom down, rather than leaving the top open as I’ve done here.
Don’t be discouraged if wrapping the tamales is difficult at first. It may take a few tries to get the hang of it.
How to Cook Tamales
The traditional method of cooking tamales is to steam them. Place a steamer basket into a large pot and fill with a couple inches of water. Place the tamales, open side up, into the basket. Cover the pot and steam for one hour.
Instant Pot Tamales
The Instant Pot pressure cooker is perfect for steaming tamales. You can find the Instant Pot steamer basket I use via my Amazon Affiliate Link. See all my vegan Instant Pot recipes here! I know you’ll also love our Instant Pot Chipotle Burrito Bowls!
How to Eat Tamales
Freeze or refrigerate leftover tamales for later.
- 2 cups masa harina or instant masa such as Maseca
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 1/3 cups vegetable broth
- 1 package dried corn husks, soaked
Vegan Tamale Filling
- 1 1/2 cups black beans, drained and rinsed
- 4 oz. diced green chiles
- 1/2 cup shredded cheddar jack cheese (we used So Delicious brand)
- To prepare the masa, add the masa flour, salt, baking powder, and cumin to a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine. Add the oil and broth and beat until well combined and the mixture forms a thick dough. If it's too dry, sprinkle with water or broth, and if too wet add more masa flour.
- To make the black bean tamale filling, in a medium bowl, stir together the beans, chiles, and cheese.
- Remove the corn husks from the soaking water, rinse, and drain well. Tear one of the husks lengthwise into 1/2" strips to use to tie the tamales together.
- Place about 2 tablespoons of the masa dough on a softened corn husk. Press and spread to 1/4" thickness, leaving 3 inches on the narrow side, and at least 1" on the other sides (see images in the post).
- Add a heaping tablespoon of the black bean filling to the center of the masa dough.
- Close the corn husk by folding one side of the husk covered with masa over the fillings. Wrap the other edge without masa to enclose the tamale. Fold the long bottom edge up and over the tamale. Use string or a long strip of soaked corn husk to tie the tamale closed.
- Steam tamales, standing open-side-up, in a steamer basket, covered, in a large pot for 1-1 1/2 hours.
- Serve hot with salsa and or guacamole.
Instant Pot Tamales
- Pour 1 cup of water into the bottom of the Instant Pot liner. Fit with a steamer basket. Place the tamales standing right side up into the steamer basket.
- Lock the lid, with valve sealing. Set to pressure cook (high) for 25 minutes. Naturally release the pressure.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 433 Trans Fat: 0g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Sugar Alcohols: 0g