How Long Do Tamales Last?

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Tamales are a Mexican delicacy based around a thick blanket of corn stuffed with a mishmash filling that can include vegetables, meat, cheese, and sometimes fruit. All those different ingredients with different shelf lives may have you wondering, “Exactly how long do tamales last?”

Although it depends a lot on what’s in the filling, a good rule of thumb is to keep your tamales at room temperature for no longer than two hours. Keep them in the fridge for about a week tops and in the freezer for around six months.

Here are more tips for keeping your tamales delicious as long as possible.

Shelf Life Of Tamales

Here’s a quick overview of tamale shelf life:

  • Cooked tamales – 2 hours at room temperature
  • Uncooked tamales – 1 hour at room temperature
  • Cooked or uncooked tamales – 1 week in the fridge
  • Cooked or uncooked tamales – 6 months in the freezer

How Long Can Tamales Stay Out?

If your tamales are already cooked, you can safely keep them out at room temperature for a couple of hours before Montezuma begins to take his revenge. That revenge will, of course, be in the form of bacteria and other pathogens colonizing your tamales.

chicken tamale

Meat-based tamales containing chicken or pork can be especially dangerous to leave out for over two hours. This is because your body is also made of meat. The harmful contaminants that start to feast on the meat in your countertop tamales are also well suited to feasting on you.

When you eat contaminated vegetables and fruits, the bacterial cities inside are geared toward harvesting energy from cellulose and other plant matter. Their waste products can still be highly toxic to meat-based humans, but the effects are rarely as bad as ingesting bacteria that actually eat meat.

You also have to be careful with uncooked tamales. Cooking food destroys bacterial populations, forcing them to start over from almost zero. Uncooked tamales may have all kinds of contaminants growing inside with a head start that you can only imagine.

If you’ve prepared or purchased the world’s best-uncooked tamales, but you don’t plan to cook them immediately, don’t let them sit out for longer than an hour.

How Long Do Tamales Last In the Fridge?

If you follow our tamale storage tips below, your cooked tamales will keep most of their quality for about a week in the fridge. They’ll still be safe to eat for a little while after that, but fridge temperatures wreak slow havoc on the corn dough.

The longer you wait, the stiffer the dough will get. After about a week, you’ll be left with a brittle, crumbly corn disaster. You can try to reheat tamales, but the stubborn texture won’t be worth the mouthful.

Most refrigerated uncooked tamales should also last for about a week. If their filling contains meat, though, we recommend cooking them within two to four days, just to be safe.

How Long Do Tamales Last In the Freezer?

If you’ve frozen a batch of cooked tamales, try to finish them within around six months. They’ll probably still be edible after that, but freezer burn can start to set in and give them a weird taste and texture.

Frozen uncooked tamales will also last about six months, but there may be complications. Ice crystals can react strangely with the uncooked corn dough, changing its structure over time in a way that your mouth might not agree with.

Although the official tamale science doesn’t have a final word yet, most of the Internet tamale aficionados we read recommend only freezing your tamales after they’ve been cooked. If you have to freeze an uncooked tamale or two every once in a while, make sure to follow our instructions in the below section on How To Store Tamales.

How To Tell if Tamales Are Bad

good tamales

Tamales don’t usually go bad subtly. Here are a few telltale signs:

  • Sour smell
  • Dark green or gray mold spots
  • Leaking fluids
  • Corn dough changing color from yellow to pink or orange

The smell is usually the first thing you’ll notice when a tamale starts breaking bad. It can be hard to say which of the many ingredients was initially breached by bacteria, but the sickly, pungent odor will generally be the first noticeable harbinger of tamale doom. Wherever it started, by the time it smells, it’s over for your poor tamale.

Tamale mold tends to be dark green or gray. You’ll usually see it speckling the corn husk wrapper first before it spreads its way inside. Don’t just toss the wrapper and chow down, though. Spots on the outside usually mean spores on the inside. Even if you can’t see them, spores can make you sick.

If your tamales are leaking sour fluid, that’s usually a sign of more advanced decay. One leaky tamale is probably a sign that the whole batch is bad.

One of the prettier signs of decay is when the outer corn dough starts to turn pink or orange. If it started out a normal yellow and is now a different color, you can admire the light show for a second, but then it’s time to play a game of toss the tamale.

Can Tamales Make You Sick?

If you leave them out too long, your tamales can be taken over by all kinds of nasty things. If they contain meat, they can be contaminated by salmonella, Clostridium or Campylobacter.

Even without meat, tamales can quickly be overrun by staph bacteria. All of the above terrors can make you very sick.

The problem with staph bacteria infestations is that, even if you manage to kill the bacteria itself by cooking it to death, you won’t be so lucky with the toxins those bacteria produce. Staph toxins can stay active and toxic even at high temperatures.

Don’t tempt fate by cooking and eating old tamales. It’s much wiser to just order new tamales.

How To Store Tamales

Here’s a quick recap of tamale shelf life:

  • Cooked tamales – 2 hours at room temperature
  • Uncooked tamales – 1 hour at room temperature
  • Cooked or uncooked tamales – 1 week in the fridge
  • Cooked or uncooked tamales – 6 months in the freezer

If you need to keep them at room temperature for a while, it’s safest to cover your tamales with plastic wrap. This helps keep contaminants at bay for a little bit longer. It also helps keep air away from any pathogens that are already inside, which will slow their growth.

If you plan on refrigerating or freezing your tamales, wait till they’ve cooled down to room temperature first. In the fridge or freezer, an airtight rectangular container will keep tamale quality for longer without deforming them. A Ziploc bag with the air squeezed out will also work.

If you need to stack tamales, put a napkin between each layer to suck up extra moisture. This is especially important in the freezer. The more moisture the napkins soak up, the less there will be to form the ice crystals that can conflict with the corn dough.

Final Thoughts

The variety of ingredients in any given tamale makes it a bit hard to pin down the overall shelf life of this delightful treat.

In general, if you keep them under plastic wrap, cooked tamales will be safe at room temperature for two hours and uncooked tamales for one hour.

In an airtight container or vacuum-sealed Ziploc bag, cooked and uncooked tamales will stay delicious for around seven days in the fridge or up to six months frozen. You can slip some paper napkins into the container or bag to help absorb extra moisture and keep ice crystals out of your corn dough.

Written By Justin Micheal

Justin is not just the creator but also an author and editor for KitchenSanity. He does the majority of the cooking at home with his wife. His friends and family look forward to eating his delicious creations, which often leads to many questions about how they can replicate his meals at home. In his writing, he shares his passion and knowledge as a home chef from his kitchen to yours.