Living a gluten-free life is inconvenient. There's no denying it. It seems like gluten always finds its way into the most delicious food. Countless times I've found myself drooling over something in the grocery store, only to find it has gluten in it.
But in the face of this frustrating reality, there's a reason we stick to this diet. While our reaction to gluten will depend on the severity of our intolerance (celiacs being the most severe), there is one common theme between us all.
We feel better without it.
So it begs the question...
are tamales gluten-free? And if not, which ingredients should I look out for?
In this article, you will learn the various ingredients of a tamale, the gluten-filled elements to look out for, and some possible recipe replacements to make your homemade tamales genuinely gluten-free.
Related Article: Is Italian Dressing Vegan
Are Tamales Gluten Free?
Having 100% confidence your tamales are gluten-free requires knowing the ingredients and where they came from. While this sounds like a tedious task, tamales are actually one of the easier dishes to break down. Let's first start with where your tamales come from.
You'll have a much easier time sticking to gluten-free ingredients if you make your tamales at home. Here are the four major constituents of traditional tamales:
Corn Husk, Plantain or Banana leaves = Gluten Free
Masa (Corn dough) = Depends
Fillings = Depends
Sauce = Depends
I've dedicated the rest of this post to provide you with a detailed guide to finding and creating gluten-free masa, gluten-free tamale fillings and gluten-free tamale sauce.
Store Bought Tamales
Companies that sell pre-made tamales may be deceptive in how they sneak gluten into their products. Gluten is such a cheap and useful source for shelf-stable foods that manufacturers have to go out of their way to make something gluten-free.
Always gravitate towards manufacturers who take the extra step in getting the "gluten-free" stamp on their packaging. Companies that follow through with this step show they are willing to pay the capital to ensure their product is to the consumer's standards.
If the packaging doesn't display a "gluten-free" stamp, it's possible (and likely) the product contains gluten. You may need to take a few extra steps to ensure your food is gluten-free.
Gluten Free Masa
Masa is simply ground corn (cornmeal) thats been soaked in an alkaline solution, making it naturally gluten-free. But some manufacturers will implement other wheat-based ingredients to add extra taste, texture, or preservative properties. Here are some popular gluten-free varieties...
When in doubt, always look for the gluten free label.
Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free
Gold Corn Masa
Maseca Gluten Free
Gold Mine Gluten
Gluten Free Tamale Fillings
While most of the traditional tamale fillings are naturally gluten-free, here is a list to aid you in your search.
As you can see, there's some cross-over here. Naturally, most foods are gluten-free, but many of the preservatives used in packaged products contain gluten.
I'll probably say it repeatedly in this post, check the packaging for a gluten-free label. If manufacturers are smart and their product is gluten-free, they'll endure the testing to get the label rights. If they don't have the label, chances are the food has gluten in it.
There are plenty of gluten-free spice distributors that have built a solid reputation for themselves. Durkee's claims that 99% of their spices are gluten-free. All of Magic Seasonings' spices are gluten-free, except for their "Breading Magic" and "Gumbo Gracy Magic" seasonings (as of 12/21/2019).
Gluten Free Tamale Sauces
Tamale sauce is generally made with gluten-free ingredients, and if the sauce is homemade, you should be in the clear. But the diversity of tamale sauces on the market makes it harder to guarantee a gluten-free product. Here are the majority of ingredients found in any mole, salsa, red chili or enchilada sauce.
Again, I know there is some cross-over here. The ingredients that made both lists require a little extra research on your part.
How Gluten Gets into Tamales
Here are some of the ways gluten can make its way into your tamale ingredients. Again, many of the elements in tamales are naturally gluten-free, but manufacturing practices can cause gluten contamination.
While 100% corn may be gluten-free, the transportation and processing from farm to store can cause gluten contamination. This happens most frequently when:
The cornfield is next to a wheat field.
The corn is processed (in a factory) with wheat products.
The corn is transported with wheat products.
To ensure you're not getting any of these gluten contaminated products, look for the gluten-free label on the packaging. Adherence to this label means the product must be below 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten (1).
Certain additives can contain gluten. These are some of the more common ingredients to look out for:
This is not an exhaustive list, but a good baseline of ingredients to become familiar with. If you want to abstain from gluten entirely, watch out for these sneaky ingredients.
What is Gluten?
While we're all aware of the gluten intolerance epidemic, what exactly is this protein, and why are some of us so sensitive to it?
Gluten is found primarily in wheat products like wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). While it's extremely simple to search for these products in the ingredient list, the food industry has found ways of sneaking these ingredients into a TON of additives. This makes it harder to know what is positively gluten-free.
What is a Tamale?
The Tamale is traditionally a steamed corn dough (masa) cooked within a corn husk. Tamales were thought to be first formulated in Mesoamerica between 8000-5000 BC (1).
Although we assume tortillas to be the most traditional Mexican dish, Mayans may have been scarfing down this delicious masa filled corn husk far longer (1). Either way, tamales have become a genuinely timeless dish for one reason and one reason only...
They're absolutely delicious when made right!
What are Tamales Made of?
Let's dig into the ingredients of a traditional tamale. Fillings and sauces will vary from region to region, but the basis of an authentic tamale is pretty universal.
Masa is a corn-based dough. Corn is dried and cooked in a water/lime mixture to help loosen up the kernel. The alkaline lime juices help break down corn to aid in texture, as well as improve digestibility.
The masa turns into a paste when mixed with warm water or broth, which helps it maintain its shape when placed into corn husk. The desired fillings are then added to contribute flavor and texture. Different fillings can include:
This is by no means a comprehensive list. Go anywhere in middle or South America and you'll never run short of new tamale dishes. It might surprise you how well some of these odd ingredients taste in a tamale.
Lastly, tamales are usually smothered in a savory sauce to add the final tang to this delectable dish. A skilled cook can make a tamale so moist and flavorful, the filling isn't even necessary.
Red Chili Sauce
A chili sauce comprised of dried chilis such as Pasilla, New Mexico or California Chilis. There is usually some garlic and cumin thrown in the mix to accentuate the flavor.
Typically a chocolate-based, earthy sauce that varies heavily from region to region. The only common theme I've found between varying moles is the earthy nature of the sauce.
Verde (green) sauce
Verde sauce is usually a mixture of tomatillos and jalapenos, with the chef's choice of accompanying ingredients.
Red salsa is usually a mixture of red tomatoes, chili peppers, garlic, onion and cilantro. While macro-scale salsa distributors will offer similar tasting products, this delicious filling is exceptionally diverse when made at home or in restaurants.
Delicious Gluten Free Tamale Recipe
Other Frequently Asked Questions
Is all Masa Gluten Free?
Masa is just ground corn. So yes, if the only ingredient is masa, then it is gluten-free. Buyers be warned though, not all masa features corn as the sole ingredient. Make sure and look at the label to ensure there are no hidden gluten elements. Some of the gluten-filled additives are labeled above.
Are Pupusas Gluten Free?
If you're buying pre-made pupusas, look at the ingredient list or ask the seller where they get their masa. Some distributors will add wheat flour to the masa to give it more texture. In this case, the pupusas are not gluten-free.
Also, make sure to check the filling in the pupusa. Most traditional fillings like cheese, pork rinds, chicken and beans are all gluten-free.
Is there Gluten in Corn Flour?
Corn flour is finely ground corn. This is gluten-free as long as the certified gluten-free stamp is on the packaging. Some corn is subject to cross-contamination of gluten in the processing plant or on the farm. Again, look for the gluten-free label.
Are Tamales Dairy Free?
Traditional tamales without fillings are dairy-free, but numerous types of tamales contain cheese fillings. Cheese is not dairy-free unless it's a certified vegan "cheese."
Are Costco Tamales Gluten Free?
Yes, the Del Real tamales from Costco are gluten-free. The packaging explicitly says so. If the package does not explicitly say so, please leave a comment below, and I will conduct some research. Some companies have their gluten-free certifications revoked.
Are Trader Joes Tamales Gluten Free?
Unfortunately, the packaging for the Trader Joe's tamales is not explicit on whether it's gluten-free or not. None of the ingredients on the back appear to have gluten, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's gluten-free.
Here is the caveat.
Manufacturers have every incentive to get the gluten-free label on their products. With a growing population of gluten intolerant people, a "gluten-free" label means selling more product. Since this packaging does not have the label, I'm inclined to believe it may not be 100% gluten-free. This is just my opinion. I'm hoping to get in contact with the manufacturer and will update this post as soon as I get a response.
Are Corn Tortillas Gluten Free?
Corn tortillas made from 100% corn are gluten-free. Be careful though. Some manufacturers will include wheat flour in their corn tortillas, which is not gluten-free.
Masa vs Masa Harina
Although these two tend to be used interchangeably, technically, they are not the same. While masa is ground corn, masa harina is ground corn after it has been cooked in lime-water. This cooking technique of the masa harina helps to break down the kernel into more flavorful compounds. It also makes the masa more digestible.
While the gluten-free journey can an arduous and frustrating one, it's actually made me far more knowledgeable. Living the gluten-free life has forced me to heavily research the foods I decide to eat, and therefore I'm far more intentional with the foods I put in my body.
Tamales were a no-brainer. No matter what, I knew I'd make a gluten free variation. Thankfully, it wasn't very difficult.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions below.
Founder of Robust Kitchen