These Killer Serving Ideas Will Make Your Tamales Amazing

Few foods are as versatile as tamales, but they can often present problems when it comes to serving them. One of the issues people often face when thinking about how to serve tamales is keeping them from drying out.

Another big concern when serving tamales is what you're trying to achieve. You can shoot for an exotic appeal by using the wraps that were employed in cooking them as part of the presentation.

Thanks to the wide range of regional variations in the dish, there are also a number of different sauces that go well with tamales. You can select from a variety of side dishes while serving your guests. Let's take a look at some of the choices available to cooks.


Tamales is easy to be dried out, especially if you're using store-bought masa dough. Tamales, however, lend themselves to a variety of options for both presentation and accompaniments. This makes it easier to find ways to keep them from drying out.

What Is Required

The requirements for serving tamales depend heavily on your specific choices. Tamales present you the opportunity to play a very fun game of mixing and matching. Feel free to try new things and see what works well for you and your diners.

Plating Options



Some days, you just want to microwave a store-bought tamale and throw it on a plate. If, however, you'd like to impress a number of guests, there are a few other approaches.

You can serve your tamales using the corn husks or banana leafs that were employed during the cooking process. Both materials are very durable, and they can be reused with little effort. You can also grab a batch of clean, non-steamed husks or leaves and use them for plating.

If you're going for an extra sense of the exotic, you can simply serve the meal on a leaf or a husk rather than placing it between the food and the plate. That's right: There's no need for a plate! This presentation will wow your guests, and it also saves you time on cleanup.

If you're going to serve your tamales with some type of sauce, a set of small bowls may also be necessary. A bowl about the size of a teacup should be sufficient.

You'll also want to make sure you have enough bowls for each of your diners and a few spares in case someone wants to sample multiple sauces.

Side Dishes



In most traditional versions of tamales in Mexico, the dish is served with one of four sides. In some areas, rice is a popular choice.

The farther north you go in Mexico, the more likely you are to see tamales served alongside beans. Refried beans are an excellent choice if you're shooting for a more "authentic" experience.

If you continue into the U.S., you'll see Tex Mex versions that are served with Southwestern-style chili. Near Mexico City, however, tamales may be seen alongside chilies.




Cooking your tamales with a filling is not necessary, but it does allow you to spice things up a bit.

If you're looking to use a filling, the two most common choices are shredded pork or chicken. If you choose to use pork, it's a good idea to purchase a pork butt and cook the meat in the style of a traditional American pulled pork.

Beef is a less common option, but it's appearing more often as tamales become internationalized. If you're looking for meatless options, you can also try spinach or cheese.

A thoroughly reduced salsa can also be used a filling. Whatever filling you use, it shouldn't be runny.




This is where things get fun. It's not unusual to see tamales served in Mexico without any sauce. The tamale is, after all, traditionally a peasant dish. However, sauces offer you the chance to really add your own twist on tamales.

Mole sauce: One of the most common sauce choices is mole. Mole sauces are more regionalized around Mexico than tamales themselves are. You can make a mole negro, which features chilies and chocolate.

Mole verder: Mole verde is created using a mixture of pumpkin seeds and green chilies. Green tomatoes are also sometimes incorporated in mole verde.

Americanized pumpkin mole: A more unusual option that uses pumpkin filling. It tends to play nicely with chicken tamales. For a less wild approach, you can choose to simplify by going down from a mole to a plain chili sauce.

Salsa: It is a slightly less common choice. Most cooks who go the salsa route choose to use a salsa verde. Tomatillo salsas are a good choice for serving with tamales.

Crema: If you'd like to try something more exotic, crema is an interesting choice. If you don't have access to Mexican crema, you can use American sour cream. You can give the sauce a little more kick by adding lime, cilantro and a clove of garlic.

How To Serve Tamales - Step By Step

Step 1 - Cook Your Tamales



Tamales are very simple to make. You just open up your husk or lay out your banana leaf. You then spread the masa dough around the inside of the husk or leaf. You can learn more about how to make the masa dough at here.

If you're using a filling, you'll want to place that on top of the masa in 1 small spoonful or 2. Wrap everything up and throw them in a steamer for between 1 and 2 hours.

You should watch that your water doesn't boil, and it's also wise to keep a tea kettle nearby in order to replace water that might evaporate during the steaming process. Never let the water touch the tamales.

Step 2 - Check For Doneness



There's a very easy way to check that your tamales are done. Take up the edge of one of your tamales and try to pull the wrap away from the masa dough. Corn husks and banana leaves are very durable, so there's not much to be afraid of as long as you make sure the steamer doesn't run out of water.

  • If the wrap comes away cleanly, then your batch of tamales is done.
  • If not, simply let them cook longer.

Step 3 - Cooling Your Tamales



Because of the heat, it's not safe to serve tamales directly out of the steamer. You want to remove the tamales, wrap and all, from the steamer and place them on a rack or a plate.

If you're worried about dryness, avoid using the rack. Tamales don't need to cool for very long. About 5 minutes of cooling time will usually do the job.

Beyond that point, they're likely to begin drying out, so try to serve them as quickly as possible.

Step 4 - Plating



One of the biggest joys in cooking tamales is engaging in the presentation process. If you're simply serving your tamales with the leaf or husk as a plate, then all you need to do is open them up. You may want to transfer them to a fresh husk or leaf that was not in the steamer.

If you're using a serving plate, you can choose between unwrapping them yourself or letting your guests do that. When there's a long gap between cooking and serving time, it's better to leave them wrapped during the plating process.

You can also offer buffet-style serving options and keep all the tamales together in a dish or on a large platter.

Step 5 - Matching Side Dishes



It's a good idea to place your side dishes on the plate, husk or leaf before adding anything else. This allows you to clearly present each side separately and ensure that things don't blend together.

Rice or beans can go in a rather simple pile. If you're using chilies, however, they can be sliced and presented in a manner that allows you to add color, texture and shape to your presentation.

Sides can be plated separately, but your presentation may look more inviting with everything together.

Step 6 - Add Sauces



If you've elected to serve a sauce with your tamales, you now have to make a choice: Do you serve the sauce directly on the plate or in a small bowl?

If you're using a runny sauce, it may be a good idea to place it in a small bowl. This prevents it from running across the plate and mixing prematurely with the side dishes and the tamales. It also allows you to create a cleaner presentation.

Pro Tips

Have Time To Soak Your Husk

Additional soaking time will make your husks more pliable, and this will be especially beneficial if you're using the husks as part of your presentation. None of your guests want to fight to open up a tamale. If you are fresh to this, there are some tips on making tamales for beginers that you can learn.

Heat Your Bowls

Heat your small bowls because serving cold sauce with tamales is often unappetizing. One way to avoid this issue is to place them in an oven at 200 degrees and warm them up.

This approach will buy you some extra time when moving food from one room to another. It's an old chef's trick that your guests will appreciate. Also, make sure that any serving bowls you use are designed to withstand the heat.

Make An Artistic Impression

Tamales offer you endless chances to mix and match, and this extends to the presentation of the dish itself. If you're using a green filling like spinach, try serving your tamales with a red sauce for contrast.

As any chef can attest, utilizing a range of colors adds interest to a dish. It's also a good idea to space the food out. This allows diners to see what's on the dish and mix things according to their tastes. You'll get fewer complaints about issues like spiciness, and the presentation will look cleaner.

Lesley Téllez
Lesley Téllez Culinary Guide

Hydrate Your Husk!

Culinary guide Lesley Téllez tells her readers to give any husks they use for tamales a good soaking before cooking them.

Most recipes recommend soaking husks for about 10 minutes in water before cooking with them. Téllez, however, recommends an hour of soak time. Your greatest fear when making tamales is dryness, and soaked can husks address the problem.

Final Thought


Tamales lend themselves to a range of serving options. You can play with colors, sauces and even the plate itself.

The beauty of the tamale is that there is no single correct way to serve it. Tamales are simple to make and offer you the chance to unleash your inner culinary artist.

Do you have your own clever way of serving tamales? Tell the world about your method in the comments below. If you found this article to be helpful, take some time to spread the word on social media!

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