Tamales are a Mexican dish consisting of a filling, such as meat, beans, or vegetables that is stuffed into pieces of a cornmeal-based dough. The separate pieces are then traditionally wrapped with corn husks to form bundles, and steamed until the dough is firm and the filling is cooked through. Tamale casserole is a variation on the traditional Mexican dish. Some versions of the casserole utilize prepared tamales and combine them with other ingredients and bake it, while other versions mix together ingredients to mimic the flavors of traditional tamales without actually using them in the casserole.
Frozen tamales, commonly with chicken or beef filling, form the base of casserole recipes calling for whole tamales. To add moisture and flavor, melted cheese, chopped tomatoes, or peppers are also often used in the dish. Other tamale casserole recipes tend to call for cooking chicken, beef, or any other preferred filling ingredient, with cream or broth, and combining it with chopped tomatoes or peppers. Some cooks may opt to use prepared salsa or enchilada sauce to flavor and moisten the filling instead of making their own base. To mimic the flavor of traditional tamales if prepared tamales are not being used, casserole recipes often call for using a cornmeal-based ingredient, such as prepared polenta or cornbread muffins pieces, as a topping.
Tamale casserole is generally made and baked in one dish. If frozen prepared tamales are being used, they are usually recommended to be thawed and then cut in half before being topped with cheese, chopped vegetables, or salsa. Other recipes may call for spreading the filling ingredients across the bottom of a baking dish and topping it with the preferred cornmeal-based topping.
Since tamale casserole recipes usually use ingredients that have already been cooked through, they do not tend to have long baking times. The dish is generally only required to bake until the ingredients are warmed through, and any cheese is melted. If polenta or another cornmeal-based mixture is used as a topping, the dish is baked until the topping is golden brown and no longer wet. Although baking times may vary, the casserole tends to take approximately 20 minutes at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176.67 degrees Celsius) to bake.
Tamale casserole is usually served warm or at room temperature. It may be eaten as an entrée or side dish. Although it may be served as is, recipes may recommend optional toppings, such as sour cream, salsa, or slices of avocado, for additional flavor.