These Vegetarian Tamales with green chiles and cheese are my absolute favorite flavor of homemade tamale! Impossibly tender with creamy jack cheese, smoky green chiles and the sweetness of fresh corn in every bite, they’re irresistible! Fresh tamales are fun to assemble and freeze beautifully too.
The first tamales I had were about the size of cigars, wrapped in something like parchment paper and pulled from a can. My mom wasn’t one for drive-thru eating, so this was her style of fast food. Sometimes, on a lazy evening, we would heat them in the oven with shredded cheddar over the top and call it dinner.
Then, a little more than a decade ago I tried a traditionally made tamale, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. As you’ve guessed, it was not at all like what we’d eaten from a can. Since then I’ve had it in mind to try making homemade tamales. But those little corn husk packets looked so fancy, so exotic. I assumed it would be an all day ordeal.
Then a couple of weeks ago a friend loaned me The Kingston Hotel Cafe Cookbook, and I spotted a recipe for vegetarian tamales. It was finally time to give it a try. After a few attempts and some changes to the amounts and method, I ended up with just the kind of tamale I was after.
I still think tamales look exotic, but I’m happy to tell you that they’re less difficult than they appear and are completely worth the effort.
Ingredients You Need To Make Vegetarian Tamales
- Dried Corn Husks: I prefer those that aren’t treated with preservatives. You can find these at a Mexican grocery store or some mainstream grocery stores (I bought the ones pictured along with the masa harina at Safeway).
- Masa Harina: Instant corn masa flour. (I used Maseca brand.)
- Butter: I used high fat, European style salted butter. If you use unsalted, increase the kosher salt by 1 teaspoon.
- Milk: Ideally whole milk.
- Corn Kernels: Fresh or thawed frozen corn.
- Baking Powder: This makes the tamales fluffier than they would be without it.
- Diced Green Chiles: Mild, medium, or hot – your choice!
- Kosher Salt: I used Diamond Crystal brand.
- Cumin: Ground.
- Jack Cheese: Cheddar or mozzarella would also be delicious.
You’ll need a wrapper of some sort to wrap around the tamale dough before steaming to keep it together. Corn husks (fresh or water-soaked dried husks), banana leaves, and parchment paper are all used as tamale wrappers.
Lard is the traditional fat used for tamales, but they can be made with butter to make a vegetarian masa for tamales or shortening (ideally non-hydrogenated) or vegetable oil to make vegan tamales.
For flavor and consistency, butter is the best vegetarian substitute for lard.
How to Make Vegetarian Tamales
Step 1: Soak dry corn husks in hot water until pliable (30 minutes or longer). Drain well.
Step 2: Meanwhile beat butter until light and fluffy in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (about 5 minutes).
Step 3: To make the masa dough, whisk together masa harina, salt, baking powder and cumin in a medium mixing bowl. Add milk and corn to a blender pitcher and blend until smooth. Pour milk mixture over masa harina mixture and stir well to combine.
Step 4: In three additions, add masa mixture to butter, mixing between each addition. Increase speed to high and mix until light and fluffy, about 8 minutes. Test dough by placing a teaspoon of it into cool water. If it floats, it’s ready. Otherwise continue to mix. Add cheese and green chiles and mix on high 2 minutes more.
Step 4: Scoop 1/4 up of tamale dough into center of soaked corn husk. Spread in an even layer 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick with spoon, fingers, or by folding one side of the husk over and flattening. Wrap one long side over filling then fold the other side over to overlap the first. Fold the bottom up and wrap with a strip of corn husk to seal. Repeat with remaining corn husks.
Step 5: Place tamales vertically in a stockpot steamer steamer basket set over boiling water, open side up. Cover and steam 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours (add more water as needed to be sure it doesn’t boil dry). To test tamales for doneness remove one from steamer and let stand 3 minutes. Pull the husk away – if it sticks, continue steaming. If the husk comes away cleanly, the tamale is done. Serve hot.
We ate these Vegetarian Tamales with Green Chiles and Cheese straight from the husks without any sauce. They’re rich and full of flavor as is, but they would also be wonderful heaped with Pico de Gallo and sour cream.
If you love tamales, you’ve got to try Pupusas – lightly corn masa cakes stuffed with gooey cheese! And here are a few more of my favorite Mexican food recipes: Albondigas Soup, Mexican Street Corn, Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas and Carne Asada!
Vegetarian Tamales with Green Chile and Cheese
- 35 corn husks
- 1 1/4 cups butter ideally high fat, European style butter
- 4 cups masa harina 480g
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 3 cups milk
- 1 cup whole corn kernels fresh or frozen
- 6 ounces grated jack cheese
- 8 ounces canned roasted and diced green chiles
- Place corn husks in a large bowl and cover with very hot water. Weight down with a heavy bowl or other kitchen item and set aside to soften for 30 minutes. Drain well and pat dry.
- Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat butter on high until very fluffy, light and doubled in size, about 5 minutes.
- While the butter is beating, whisk together masa harina, salt, baking powder, and cumin in a medium bowl.
- To a blender pitcher add milk and corn and blend until smooth. Pour over masa harina mixture and stir until well combined into a thick dough.
- Add masa dough to butter in 2 or 3 additions, mixing on medium-low to combine between each addition. Increase speed to high and mix until light and fluffy, about 8 minutes. Test your masa dough by placing a teaspoon of dough into a glass of cool water, it should float. If not continue to mix the dough and try again.
- Once your masa dough floats, add cheese and chiles and beat on high 2 minutes more.
To assemble tamales:
- Tear 3 of the soaked corn husks into thin strips for securing tamales once they're rolled.
- Lay one soaked corn husk on a work surface and scoop 1/4 cup dough in 2 equal scoops, one right above the other, on the center of the husk. Use the back of the spoon, your fingers, or fold one side of the husk over the filling and press to spread to an even 1/4 – 1/2-inch thickness, leaving the edges of the corn husk bare to avoid oozing. Starting at one long side, fold corn husk ends over the filling toward each other to overlap in the middle. Secure tamale by folding the bottom edge up and wrapping one or two strips of corn husk around and tying a knot. Repeat with remaining corn husks.
To cook tamales:
- Arrange tamales upright in a single layer, open side up, in a stockpot steamer rack. Set rack over boiling water in stockpot (fill with as much water as possible without it touching the bottom of the tamales); cover. Steam for 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours, adding more water as needed, until tamales are cooked through and the corn husk pulls away cleanly. Test one tamale by removing from steamer and allowing to rest 3 minutes. If it's not done, continue to steam and test again. Serve hot or let cool and freeze to reheat later (see recipe note).
- Leftover tamales freeze and reheat beautifully! Once you’ve steamed them, remove from steamer and allow to cool completely. Then freeze in a freezer safe bag or container. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and steam 15 to 20 minutes to reheat.