Vegetarian Tamales

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Vegetarian Tamales made with roasted poblanos, masa, and cheddar cheese are the perfect meal to make at family gatherings and holidays. They’re flavorful and versatile, and there’s always plenty to share.

These tamales pair perfectly with a side of refried beans, Mexican rice, Cilantro Lime Rice, or Restaurant Style Salsa!

Side view of a tamale laying on a corn husk.

Tamales with Green Chiles and Cheese

Have you tried my Instant Pot Tamale recipe? This one is very similar except I make it on the stovetop in a large, steamer basket. The ingredients are almost the same, but the method varies slightly.

My family and I love vegetarian tamales, and we’ve been making them from scratch for almost 15 years. This variety of tamales uses roasted poblanos, strips of sharp cheddar cheese, and seasoned masa all steamed in corn husks to make a flavorful main dish.

Let me be clear when I say, I’m a self-taught tamale maker. I don’t pretend that these are authentic Mexican tamales, that the masa is spread just right, or that the husks are folded correctly.

These tamales are especially great if you have an assembly line set up with several people to help. That’s what makes them perfect for the holidays. Many people have family visiting that can help with the roasting, mixing, and wrapping which makes tamale making a breeze!

Open tamale laying on a corn husk.

What are tamales?

Tamales are a popular Mexican dish made of masa, which is wrapped around a sweet or savory filling. They can be filled with anything from chicken to cheese, and are often served with salsa or chili sauce.

Cheese and green chile tamales are a popular variation of the traditional tamale. Our tamales are made by stuffing the dough with cheese and green chiles, then wrapping them in corn husks before steaming.

What are vegetarian tamales made of?

These are just the main ingredients. Scroll down to the recipe card for a full list of ingredients and their amounts.

  • Poblano peppers – These are mildly spicy with a great flavor. Substitute these peppers with jalapeños, Anaheims, or Serranos for more heat. For an even milder pepper, try banana peppers.
  • Vegetable broth – To keep this recipe 100% vegetarian, vegetable broth is the way to go. Otherwise, chicken or beef broth works great. Beef broth does have a stronger flavor than chicken and vegetable broth, and I’ve found that it changes the taste of the tamales slightly.
  • Masa Harina – I like Meseca brand masa harina. It’s in a green, yellow, and white bag. Make sure you don’t use cornmeal. It’s processed differently than masa and won’t work to make tamales.
  • Canola oil – Commonly used in place of lard. You could also use vegetable oil, another neutral-tasting oil, or even vegetable shortening. If you’d like to use lard, that works well, too. We’ve used lard, beef tallow, duck fat, and pork fat. All work very well and each gives the tamales a distinct flavor. If using an animal product the tamales are no longer considered vegetarian.
  • Sharp cheddar cheese – This cheese is my favorite because the sharpness cuts through the masa and blends nicely with the roasted peppers. Monterey jack, pepper jack, and mozzarella are other good options if you’d rather not use sharp cheddar.

How to Make Vegetarian Tamales:

Here’s a quick rundown of how I make vegetarian tamales. For the full recipe with ingredient amounts, keep scrolling for the recipe card below.

  1. Start by taking 24 to 26 dried corn husks and laying them out in a baking dish or deep bowl, and pour hot water over them. Then lay a heavy dish over the husks to keep them submerged in the water. The husks should stay submerged in water for about 1 hour to soften.
  2. Fill the bottom of a large steamer pot with water, and set it aside.
  3. Turn on your oven’s broiler, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the poblanos onto the baking sheet, and broil until the skins blacken and start to blister. The peppers may need to be turned over to ensure all sides blacken.
Poblanos on a sheet pan.
Blistered tamales on a baking sheet.
  1. Remove the peppers from the oven, and use tongs to drop them into a sealable bag or container to cool. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, carefully peel away the skins, cut off the tops, and remove the seeds. Cut the peppers into strips and set aside. Next, begin working on the masa.
  2. Place the broth, oil, chili powder, cumin, and salt into a large saucepan, and whisk to combine. Heat the mixture over low-medium heat until the liquid begins to steam then remove it from heat.
  3. Measure out the masa harina and baking powder and place them into the bowl of a stand mixer.
Seasonings in a pan of oil and broth.
Masa and baking soda in a mixing bowl.
  1. Using the paddle attachment, turn the mixer on low speed and slowly drizzle the vegetable broth mixture into the masa harina. Continue adding the vegetable broth until a soft dough forms. You’ll likely use all of the broth and can always add a little more if needed.
  2. Take one or two of the corn husks and tear them into long strips. Set the strips aside. You’ll use these strips to tie the tamales closed once they’re wrapped.
  3. Remove a single corn husk from the water and shake off any excess liquid. Feel the corn husk, and determine which side is the smooth side. Use a spoon to spread the masa mixture across the center of the husk leaving a little room around the edges. (I’ve also seen them made where the masa gets spread across most of the husk and about 1/3 of the pointed, smaller end is left uncovered. Make them whichever way works better for you!)
Seasoned masa in a bowl.
Masa, cheese, and chiles in a corn husk.
  1. Place a piece of cheese and a strip or two of peppers onto the masa. Fold one side of the husk over the center followed by the second side. Finally, fold the pointed (smaller) end of the husk upward so that the filling is completely enclosed in the husk. Use one of the husk strips to wrap the tamale and tie it closed. Place the tamale into the steamer pot, and continue assembling the remaining tamales.
  2. Once all the tamales are assembled and placed into the steamer pot, close the lid on the pot, and bring the water to a boil. Steam the tamales for 1 hour and 15 minutes then let the tamales cool slightly before unwrapping.
  3. Top with salsa verde, Mexican crema, chopped cilantro, sour cream, or queso fresco and enjoy!

Tips and Variations for Cheese Tamales:

  • Soak the husks in warm water for at least an hour before you begin to make the tamales. This makes them soft, pliable, and easy to work with.
  • Try Monterey Jack cheese, pepper jack, or mozzarella in place of cheddar cheese.
  • Don’t overfill the tamales, or they will be difficult to fold shut. They may even spill out as they steam.
  • Want to add even more flavor to the masa? My husband makes his tamales with extra chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and ground mustard. Ancho chili powder and chipotle powder add even more flavor.
  • For the ultimate shortcut, use canned whole green chiles or canned diced chiles. If you like spicy tamales, canned jalapeños are perfect for a quick filling option.
  • If you don’t have an electric mixer, a large bowl and large spoon work well to mix the masa dough.
  • You only need a thin layer of masa dough spread across a single corn husk. It shouldn’t be a thick layer; otherwise it won’t steam properly.

How to Store Green Chile and Cheese Tamales:

Refrigerator: Cheese tamales store well in the refrigerator in an airtight container for about 3 days. After that, they begin to dry out.

Freezer: Homemade tamales freeze remarkably well, which is great if you make a large batch and need to save time later. To freeze tamales, allow them to cool completely and leave them in their husks.

Wrap each tamale tightly in plastic wrap then drop them into a large plastic bag. They’ll stay good for about 2 months. The flavor and texture may change slightly, but they’ll still taste wonderful.

Reheating: To reheat leftover tamales from the refrigerator or freezer, leave them in their husks, and wrap the husks in a damp paper towel. Microwave on half power for 2 to 3 minutes (longer for frozen tamales) until heated through.

You can also reheat frozen tamales in the air fryer. It takes about 18-22 minutes and changes the texture a bit.

Batch of green chile and cheese tamales on plates.

What is the secret to moist tamales?

The key to moist tamales is to use plenty of fat. The majority of the fat comes from oil, lard, or other animal fat. Some of it comes from the cheese, but it’s important to add enough oil or lard when mixing the masa.

What should I put in my tamales?

You can fill tamales with a variety of things, such as chicken and black beans, shredded chicken, red chile pork, shredded beef, or even vegetarian options like mushrooms and sweet potatoes. There are endless possibilities for what you can put in your tamales, so get creative!

Are corn husks edible?

No, they are not. Corn husks are a wonderful vehicle for steaming tamales, but they are tough and not very pliable. Discard the husks after removing them from the tamales.

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Close up view of a vegetarian tamale on a plate.

Vegetarian Tamales

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Author: Kimberly
Prep Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Cool Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours
Servings: 12 Servings

Ingredients

  • 24 to 26 dried corn husks
  • 6 poblano peppers
  • 3 ¼ cups low sodium vegetable broth, or chicken broth
  • 1 cup canola oil, or vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 cups masa harina
  • 1 ½ tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, or Monterey jack cheese cut into strips

Instructions
 

Prepare the Poblanos

  • Place the corn husks in a baking dish or deep bowl along with enough hot water to cover them. Then lay a heavy dish over the husks to keep them submerged in the water. The husks should stay submerged in water for about 1 hour to soften.
    24 to 26 dried corn husks
  • Fill a large steamer pot with water, and set it aside.

Prepare the Corn Husks

  • Turn on your oven's broiler, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the poblanos onto the baking sheet, and broil until the skins blacken and begin to blister. Turn the peppers to ensure all sides cook evenly.
    6 poblano peppers
  • Remove the peppers from the oven, and use tongs to drop them into a sealable bag or heat-safe container to cool.
  • When the peppers are cool enough to handle, carefully peel away the skins, cut off the tops, and remove the seeds. Slice the peppers into strips and set aside.

Make the Masa

  • In a large saucepan over low-medium heat, steep the broth, oil, chili powder, cumin and salt. Whisk to combine and once the mixtures begins to steam, remove from heat.
    3 ¼ cups low sodium vegetable broth
    1 cup canola oil
    2 tablespoons chili powder
    2 teaspoons ground cumin
    2 teaspoons salt
  • Place the masa harina and baking powder into the bowl of a stand mixer.
    4 cups masa harina
    1 ½ tablespoons baking powder
  • Slowly drizzle the vegetable broth mixture into the masa harina while mixing on low speed. Continue adding the vegetable broth until a soft dough forms. If the masa feels too dry, add a splash or two more of broth until the dough reaches a soft, fluffy consistency.

Assemble and Cook the Tamales

  • Take one or two of the corn husks and tear them into long strips. Then set the strips aside.
  • Remove a single corn husk from the water and shake off any excess liquid. Feel the corn husk, and determine which side is the smooth side. Use a spoon to spread the masa mixture across the smooth side of the corn husk leaving some room around the edges.
  • Place a piece of cheese and a strip or two of pepper onto the masa. Fold one side of the husk over the center followed by the second side. Finally, fold the shorter end of the husk upward so that the filling is completely enclosed in the husk.
    1 pound sharp cheddar cheese
  • Use one of the husk strips to wrap the tamale and tie it closed, and place the tamale into the steamer pot. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
  • Once all the tamales are assembled and placed into the steamer pot, close the lid, and bring the water to a boil. Steam the tamales for 1 hour and 15 minutes then let the tamales cool slightly before unwrapping.
  • Top with salsa verde, Mexican crema, chopped cilantro, sour cream, or queso fresco and enjoy! See post for tips, FAQs, and storage options.

Suggested Equipment

Notes

*The calories listed are an approximation based on the ingredients in the recipe card and a serving size of 2 tamales. Actual calories will vary.
*For more information, tips, and answers to frequently asked questions, please refer to the post.

Nutrition

Serving: 2tamales | Calories: 479kcal | Carbohydrates: 35g | Protein: 13g | Fat: 33g | Saturated Fat: 9g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 7g | Monounsaturated Fat: 15g | Trans Fat: 0.1g | Cholesterol: 38mg | Sodium: 917mg | Potassium: 417mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 1215IU | Vitamin C: 48mg | Calcium: 398mg | Iron: 4mg
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