Vegan Tamales Recipe

A Rich, Toothsome Mushroom Tamale Recipe

Vegan Tamales Recipe

LUNAMARINA / Getty Images

Prep: 80 mins
Cook: 2 hrs 15 mins
Soak: 5 mins
Total: 3 hrs 40 mins
Servings: 24 servings
Yield: 24 tamales

There are countless variations of tamales, and that goes for vegan tamales. Some are filled with squash, beans, tomatoes, and peppers to reflect the ancient milpa agricultural system in which those ingredients are grown together. Other vegan fillings include zucchini and tomatoes, beans and hoja santa herb, and rajas (roasted peppers) with mushrooms and cheese.

This rich, toothsome vegan tamale recipe uses a stuffing made from mushrooms cooked in a guajillo sauce, similar to the sauce used for our pork tamales. It allows the flavors of the spices and chiles to shine. We prepared the mushrooms in a similar way to our recipe for mushroom tacos. The mouthfeel of the mushrooms is meaty, like the fillings in tamales you'll find sold by street vendors throughout Mexico.

The apple cider vinegar in the sauce helps bind the flavors of the mushrooms and the guajillos together, and the sauce makes a mildly spicy, tart contrast to the creamy dough.

While the recipe could be made more quickly, a slow and low method rewards by unlocking deeper, more complex flavors. The recipe for the sauce makes enough for the filling and for saucing the tamales to serve. You can simmer the serving sauce while the tamales steam.

"This recipe makes for a very soft, fluffy masa dough that reheats beautifully. The mushroom filling is rich and toothsome, and its earthy flavors complement the masa well. I found the salsa pretty mild; if you prefer more fireworks, you may want to use a hotter chile like cascabel or throw in some chiles de arbol." —Adriana Velez 

Vegan Tamale Tester Image
A Note From Our Recipe Tester

Ingredients

For the Filling

  • 1 pound large oyster mushrooms, or other flavorful mushrooms

  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, or olive oil, or other neutral vegetable oil

  • 1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the Salsa

  • 1/4 cup grapeseed oil, or olive oil, or other neutral vegetable oil

  • 1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled, divided

  • 1 1/2 ounces (36 grams) dried guajillo peppers (about 5 peppers) or other dried peppers

  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 4 whole cloves

  • 1 cup hot water

  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons sea salt or other high-quality salt

  • 1/2 yellow onion, coarsely chopped

For the Masa

  • 3 cups masa harina

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

  • 1 tablespoon sea salt

  • 1 cup grapeseed oil, or olive oil, or other neutral vegetable oil

  • 3 to 4 cups vegetable stock, or water, divided

  • 50 corn husks

Steps to Make It

Make the Filling

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Clean the mushrooms. Tear or cut them into 1-inch-sized pieces.

  3. Heat grapeseed oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add sliced onions and salt and cook until the onions are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking on medium-low heat until softened, about 5 minutes. If not using right away, store cooked mushrooms and onions in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Make the Sauce

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Confit the garlic: In a small saucepan on medium-low heat, heat 1/4 cup grapeseed oil. Add half of the peeled garlic cloves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cloves of garlic turn light golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat immediately and allow garlic to cool.

  3. Stem and deseed the guajillo chiles. Hold the end of a chile with one hand, use a very sharp knife, and cut off the stem and calyx (the part that connects the stem to the chile). Pour out any remaining seeds. Set aside.

  4. In another pan on medium-high heat, toast the dried peppers on each side until the skin darkens and their fragrance is released, about 1 1/2 minutes. Do this in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pan.

    Vegan Tamales

    The Spruce Eats / Maricela Vega

  5. Remove and add the chiles to a blender. Set aside.

  6. Toast the coriander, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, and cloves in the same pan over medium heat until they release their fragrance, about 30 to 45 seconds. Remove spices from heat immediately and set aside in a small bowl to cool.

  7. Add hot water, vinegar, and salt to the toasted chiles in the blender. This is an acidic saline solution that will soften the peppers. Cover with the lid and allow to steep until the chiles are soft, about 2 to 3 minutes.

  8. Once the peppers are soft, add the toasted spices, the remaining garlic cloves, and the chopped onion, and blend until smooth. Slowly drizzle in the garlic confit (the garlic and the oil it cooked in) and continue to blend to create a smooth, emulsified base.

  9. Pour half of the sauce and the mushrooms into a saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the filling to cool before using. If not using right away, store filling in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

  10. Add the other half of the sauce to a saucepan and simmer over low heat for an additional 10 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, so it does not stick to the bottom. The longer the sauce cooks, the more fully developed the flavors will be. If not using right away, store sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Make the Dough

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. In a large bowl, mix together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt. Slowly drizzle the grapeseed oil into the flour, mixing with an electric mixer as you pour.

  3. Do the same with the vegetable stock, whipping at a higher speed. Continue whipping until the dough is light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. If it looks dry, add more vegetable stock. Whipping aerates the dough for a fluffy texture. Your consistency should feel smooth, thick, and creamy, like ricotta. Taste for seasoning. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate until ready for use.

Assemble and Cook the Tamales

  1. Remove corn husks from the package and submerge all into a deep bowl of hot water. Soak until soft and pliable, about 5 minutes.

  2. Working with 2 to 4 husks at a time, or 1 at a time, if you are a beginner, shake off excess water before laying the husk out onto a clean work surface area.

  3. Take 2 or 3 of the husks, and tear them lengthwise, following the grain, into quarter-inch-thick strips. You will use these to tie the tamales together; or you can use kitchen twine. Set aside on a small plate.

  4. Set out all of the components of the tamales in an assembly line: Husks, masa, filling, and shredded husks.

  5. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of dough onto the center of each husk, about 1/2 inch away from the widest end. Top with a heaping tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough. If your husks are very narrow, use two overlapping husks.

  6. Now you are ready to fold the tamales. Carefully bring the sides together to meet at the center, enclosing the filling.

  7. Then, fold the narrow tip of the husk over the filled section. Take one of the husk strips and use it to tie the tamale together, crosswise. Set aside.

  8. Set a steamer basket inside a large pot and pour water just until it reaches the basket. Bring the water to a simmer. Begin layering in the tamales, folded-end down. Cover with a lid and cook over medium heat. Steam for 45 minutes.

  9. Once tamales are cooked, remove them from the pot and cool until they can be handled. Eat immediately, drizzled with the reserved salsa.

Warnings

  • After steaming the tamales, open lid slowly and carefully. The steam released can be hot enough to burn skin.
  • Take care to wash your hands thoroughly after handling chiles. Some people use gloves or wrap their hands in plastic bags to protect themselves. Oils from the chiles can irritate your eyes and nose if you handle chiles and then absentmindedly touch your face.
  • Be on guard when toasting the spices and peppers. It is a quick process and your ingredients may easily burn if you are not mindful.

Tips

  • Save the stems of your mushrooms to make an umami-rich vegetable stock in the future.
  • Take time to invest in high-quality ingredients for the best-tasting, and most nutrient-rich results.
  • We recommend Bob’s Red Mill masa harina, available at most grocery stores
  • Chiles, masa harina, and corn husks may be found in the International section of your grocery store, or at a Latin American market, or via Masienda.com.
  • We recommend buying spices from Diaspora Co. for the freshest flavors.

Recipe Variation

  • If mushrooms are not your thing, substitute beans, canned jackfruit, spaghetti squash, or butternut squash.
  • Make the tamales with banana leaves instead of corn husks. Trim the leaves to 8-inch squares. Use the same method to fold and then tie shut with kitchen string.

How to Store and Freeze

  • Store cooked and cooled tamales in an airtight container, or in a zip lock or vacuum-sealed bag in the refrigerator.
  • Keep tamales in the refrigerator for up to one week.
  • To reheat, steam in husks for 5 to 8 minutes; or reheat in the microwave for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • To freeze tamales, wrap individually in foil, then place in a freezer bag. They will keep for about a month.
  • Thaw frozen tamales overnight in the fridge and re-steam for 5 to 8 minutes. Or, skip thawing and re-steam for 15 minutes.

Make Ahead

  • The filling and sauce can be up to a month in advance if frozen. Simply defrost and reheat in microwave, then cool the filling enough to use.
  • The dough can be made a day in advance if you are using masa harina; in fact, the dough will be better hydrated if it sits for a day.
  • If you make the dough from fresh masa (rather than from masa harina) you will need to use it right away. Otherwise, the dough will begin to ferment.
  • Husks can be soaked in room-temperature water overnight instead of in hot water.

What are vegan tamales made of?

Vegan tamales are made with a masa (nixtamalized corn-based dough) whipped with at least an equal part of liquid (vegetable stock or water) and vegetable oil. This dough is usually filled with stewed ingredients, in this case, a vegan filling like mushrooms, or legumes, squashes, tomato, peppers, and other vegetables. 

What can I substitute for lard in tamale masa?

Lard is a traditional fat used to make tamales, but there are alternatives. This recipe uses grapeseed oil. Other substitutions include vegetable shortening, palm shortening, avocado oil, olive oil, and coconut oil.