Tamale Pie is pure, old-school comfort food! A casserole of saucy, seasoned ground beef with onion, bell peppers, and corn is baked with a cornmeal crust until golden brown and bubbly.
I was always thrilled when my mom put Tamale Pie on the dinner table when I was a kid. I honestly didn’t know anyone, young or old, who didn’t love it. The combination of ingredients are hearty, wholesome, and crave-worthy and although this old recipe originated long before the 1970’s, its one of a collection of classic recipes that instantly transports me back to that time. This Tamale Pie recipe is the version I grew to love and that I still make frequently today.
It’s these nostalgic recipes from the past that I find myself craving the most. When I’m tired, stressed, or under the weather even just a little bit, I yearn for a meal like this.
Where Did Tamale Pie Originate?
Tamale Pie is thought to have originated in Texas in the early 1900’s and became a Tex-Mex staple over time. As it spread in popularity it was found on family dinner tables, school cafeteria menus, and became a classic potluck dish. It’s only vaguely similar to its namesake, tamales, but this was true of many vintage recipes. I have a recipe from my mom’s collection titled “Chinese Chicken” which is so NOT Chinese, but I’d never dream of calling it anything else.
Classic Tamale Pie Recipe
True, vintage Tamale Pie does not have a thick, cakey cornbread topping like many recipes out there. This more traditional recipe has a thin cornmeal crust with a light, velvety texture that forms a cozy blanket of goodness over the filling. As it bakes, juices from the filling seep up into the crust which gives it a rustic look. It utilizes canned goods and other pantry staples and even though it is referred to as a “pie” it is typically baked in a casserole dish. For an updated spin on Tamale Pie, you might like my Chili Cornbread Bake.
Ingredients in Tamale Pie
For the Filling
- Ground beef – Use 85% to 90% lean ground beef for the best flavor.
- Diced yellow onion
- Diced green bell pepper
- Minced garlic
- Canned diced tomatoes
- Canned tomato sauce – A small 8 ounce can.
- Frozen yellow corn – There’s no need to thaw it before beginning.
- Sliced black olives
- Seasoning – Chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
- Shredded cheddar cheese
For the Cornmeal Crust
- Milk – I use 2% milk.
- Cornmeal – You can use either yellow or white cornmeal. The only difference is the color and both work equally well.
- Shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- Eggs – Lightly beaten.
How to Make Tamale Pie
This is a quick overview of the steps of this recipe. You’ll find detailed instructions in the recipe card at the end of this post.
Tamale Pie Filling
- Brown the ground beef in a large skillet with the onion and green bell pepper. Drain off the excess grease.
- Stir in the garlic, tomatoes, tomato sauce, corn, olives, salt, chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, and black pepper and bring the mixture to a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the shredded cheddar cheese.
- Simmer until the cheese has melted and remove it from the heat.
- In a saucepan, warm the milk with the sugar, salt, and butter, until the butter has melted.
- Reduce the heat and stir in the cornmeal, a little at a time, stirring vigorously with each addition until smooth. Continue to stir vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes, or until thickened.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese.
- Slowly drizzle in the beaten eggs, stirring vigorously until combined. Remove the pan from the heat.
Assemble the Tamale Pie
- Transfer the filling to a casserole dish you’ve coated with nonstick cooking spray.
- Pour the cornmeal topping over the filling, smoothing it out carefully with a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. That just means the delicious filling will bubble up and around the edges of the topping as it bakes. Yum! Bake at 375 degrees F for 35 to 40 minutes.
I like to garnish Tamale Pie with a little cilantro for color and serve it with sour cream, hot sauce, and tortilla chips for scooping. It’s a meal in itself but you can round out this dinner with a simple green salad, roasted veggies, or rice. Here are some great choices.
Storage and Reheating Tips
Cover and refrigerate leftover Tamale Pie promptly for up to 3 to 4 days. Leftovers reheat beautifully in the microwave. To reheat in a conventional oven, cover with foil bake at 350 degrees F until warm.
To make ahead and freeze, bake the Tamale Pie in a freezer-safe dish and allow it to cool completely. Cover it in a layer of plastic wrap and then a layer of heavy duty foil (or two layers of regular foil) and transfer to the freezer for up to 3 months. Transfer the frozen Tamale Pie to the refrigerator the day before you plan to serve it to allow it to thaw completely before reheating.
For the Filling
- 1 ½ pounds 85% to 90% ground beef
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- ½ cup diced green bell pepper
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 14.5 ounces canned diced tomatoes
- 8 ounces canned tomato sauce
- 1 cup frozen yellow corn, no need to thaw
- 2.25 ounces canned sliced black olives, drained
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
For the Topping
- 1 ½ cups milk, I use 2%
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup cornmeal
- 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- sour cream
- tortilla chips
- hot sauce, like Cholula
- Preheat oven to 375 F degrees. Lightly coat a 13- x 9-inch (or slightly smaller) casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.
- In a large skillet over MEDIUM-HIGH heat, brown the ground beef with the onion and green bell pepper. Cook until the beef is no longer pink and then drain off as much grease from the pan as possible. Stir in the garlic, tomatoes, tomato sauce, corn, olives, salt, chili powder, cumin, crushed red pepper and black pepper and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to MEDIUM-LOW and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese and simmer until melted. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish.
- In a large saucepan over MEDIUM heat, warm the milk, 1 tablespoon sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons butter, until the butter has melted. Reduce the heat to LOW and stir in the cornmeal, a little at a time, stirring vigorously with each addition until smooth. Continue to stir vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Slowly drizzle in the beaten eggs, stirring vigorously until combined.
- Pour the cornmeal mixture over the meat mixture, smoothing it out evenly (it's okay if it doesn't go all the way to the edges of the pan).
- Bake at 375 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown and bubbly around the edges. Remove it from the oven and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with sour cream.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated using generic ingredients, and is an estimate not a guarantee. For more accurate results, please refer to the labels on your ingredients at home.
This post was originally published on February 18, 2015. It has been updated with new text and images.