What Are Empanadas: A Guide on Everything You Need to Know
From the sweet to the savory, there's no filling that isn't made better when it's wrapped in a delicate, flaky pastry.
Therein lies the magic of empanadas.
This popular Latin American food is renowned around the world as a decadent and filling main course. Today, we're uncovering the history behind this dish, how to make it, and the many variations that make it so unique.
Ready to make your mouth water? Read on for all you need to know.
What Are Empanadas?
Before we get too far, let's briefly discuss the history and origins of our subject: empanadas! What's the background of these rich and satisfying pastries, and how does today's version measure up?
Similar to an American turnover but far more versatile, an empanada is a fried or baked pastry shaped like a crescent moon. Once the bread has been made with flour dough or corn flour dough, it's then stuffed with myriad fillings depending on the occasion and your taste.
Then, you'll fry it up until it's golden brown and savor it one bite at a time!
The Origin of Empanadas
Throughout Latin America, you'll find many different kinds of doughs, fillings, and cooking methods used to make empanadas. Yet, most variations have their roots in the same place: Galacia, Spain.
Their first appearance took place during the Moorish invasions in Medieval Iberia. In fact, in 1520, a cookbook in Catalan describing regional Catalan, French, Italian and Arabian food mentions empanadas by name! At that time, bakers would create the pastries as round pies or in rectangular dishes. Then, they'd slice them into single servings.
Over time, Spanish colonists carried the dish to Latin America and the Philippines, and it wouldn't take long for empanadas to become synonymous with that country's culture. They're also an essential and popular dish in Argentina, available across Buenos Aires and the rest of the country as both fast-food fare and restaurant staples.
Fillings: Yesterday and Today
During those beginning days, the most common empanada fillings were chicken or tuna, along with bell peppers and onions. Now, almost every corner of the world has its own take on the meal.
Take Argentina, for example. Here, a typical empanada consists of a flour-based dough with various forms of meat fillings, including cubed or ground beef, ham, or chicken. You can also find hard-boiled eggs, olives, peppers, and onions folded into the mixture. Across the country, different regions take their own approach to the cooking process. In Salta, empanadas are usually baked, while in Tucumán, they're fried.
Around the world, a few of the most popular fillings include:
- Mexican chorizo
- Pulled pork
- Lobster or crab
- Baked potatoes
- Fruit (apples, guava)
While meat and vegetable reign supreme, it's not uncommon to find empanadas filled with fruit as an unexpected yet indulgent dessert.
The Many Names of Empanadas
As you travel the world, you'll hear empanadas called a variety of different names depending on where you go and who you speak to. For instance, Americans call them meat pies, and Jamaicans call them beef patties. At the same time, Indians call them samosas, and people in Latin America or Spain call them pastelillos or pastelitos.
The glory of this dish is that there is not a right or wrong way to cook it. Instead, you'll find that different regions and cultures prepare it in unique ways.
Traditional Empanada Preparation
Although modern kitchen amenities make it easier than ever to make empanadas at home, this wasn't always the case. Though they might be standard weeknight fare in many households, there was a time when their preparation was both difficult and time-consuming. Today, many cultures still preserve and practice these cooking methods.
In Galicia and Portugal, empanadas were usually baked as oversized pies. Used to feed the local laborers, the pies were then cut into large pieces so the workers could transport them more easily. Both hearty and portable, this meal became a fast staple.
In this region, you'll normally find empanadas filled with tuna, chorizo, or sardines, although they can contain codfish or even pork loin. Binding the meat together and adding a savory touch is the tomato sauce that traditionally contains garlic and onion.
How to Make Empanadas at Home
An instant crowd-pleaser, they’re also customizable. This means you can make some with meat to please the carnivores, a veggie-only option for the meatless crew, and a simple, sweet one for pickier palates.
While you can buy some versions frozen, few things beat a batch of freshly fried empanadas that you made yourself. And, when they’re this easy to make, you’ll find yourself reaching for the ingredients more often than you might think.
As mentioned, there is no right or wrong way to make an empanada. However, this simple step-by-step guide is a basic approach that you can use to get started.
Using beef and a flour-based dough, this Argentinian-style empanada is a popular favorite, though you can swap the meat for any other filling you’d like.
How to make empanadas
3 Cups of AP flour ( a little more to knead)
1 tbsp Baking Soda
2 tbsp Sugar
1/2 cup Shortening or Lard
Pinch of Salt
Argentinian Beef Filling:
2 tbs Oil
2 lbs Ground Beef
1 1/2 cups Chicken Brooth
2 Hard Boiled Egg Whites (Chopped)
3 tbsp Ground Cumin
2 tbsp Sweet Paprika
1 tbsp Oregano
2 tbsp Sugar
1/2 cup Raisins
2 med Onions (Diced)
2 small Bell Peppers (Diced)
12 med Green Olives (Cut in Half)
Create the Empanada Dough
- Beat the water, egg, egg white and vinegar together in a bowl and set aside.
- Using a separate bowl, mix the salt with the three cups of shortening.
- Use a pastry blender to incorporate the shortening into the dry flour mix.
- Create a well in the dry flour mix and pour the liquid contents into the well.
- Use a fork to mix the wet and dry ingredients together until the mixture stiffens.
- Prepare a lightly floured surface and turn the dough out onto it.
- Knead the dough until it is smooth, and most of the flour is incorporated.
Cut out the Dough
- Using a rolling pin, roll out the empanada dough into a layer that's around 1/8 of an inch thick. Try to avoid making the dough any thinner than this, or it could leak and break during the frying process!
- Next, cut the dough into circles. You can use standard round cookie cutters or a biscuit cutter to do so. Or, look for any food-safe circular cutter in your kitchen. From can bottoms to coffee container lids, there are myriad tools at your disposal. The key here is knowing how big you want your empanadas to be. Larger, traditional empanadas are around six inches in diameter. Smaller, mini empanadas (called empanaditas), are half that size, around three inches in diameter
- Continue cutting the dough until you don't have any left. Then, carefully pick up the scrap dough around the circles. If there's enough, roll it into a ball, re-flatten it, and cut it again to get at least one or two more empanadas out of the batch! The dough recipe above will yield around ten circles that are six inches in diameter. If you accidentally poke a hole in any circle at any point during the cutting process, re-roll that dough and begin the step again. Attempting to patch it could cause it to tear and ruin your batch.
- Once you've completed these steps, your dough is almost done! Next, wrap it in plastic and place it in the refrigerator for an hour or so. This is an ideal approach you plan to use the dough to make empanadas in the next day. Don't leave the raw dough chilled for more than 24 hours. If too much time passes between creating and using the dough, you can also freeze it. If you're in a pinch for time, you can easily make this meal with store-bought pizza dough!
Argentinian Beef Filling
- Now comes the fun part! Regardless of the kind of filling you choose, go ahead and put it in the refrigerator a few hours before you're ready to use it. For a traditionally Argentinian style empanada, you can create a simple ground beef filling by following these steps.
- First, heat two tablespoons of oil in a large pot on high heat. Then, add two pounds of ground beef to the pot.
- Cook until just brown, around six to eight minutes.Transfer the mixture to a bowl, leaving the fat in the pot.
- To the pot, add two medium onions and two small bell peppers, along with salt and pepper to taste and cook for six to eight minutes.
- Add in three tablespoons of ground cumin, two tablespoons of sweet paprika, and one tablespoon of oregano.
- Pour 1.5 cups of chicken broth to the pot.
- Pour back in the reserved beef, along with two tablespoons of sugar.
- Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, seasoning as needed.
- When almost all of the liquid has evaporated, stir in half a cup of raisins and your chopped egg whites
- Then, your filling is complete!
Assembling The Empanadas
- Chill your mixture for around three to four hours so your dough will retain its shape when you fill it, rather than softening or stretching. For that same reason, stick to mixtures and fillings that are more on the drier side. A watery filling could also compromise and weaken your dough.
- Rather than spreading it from side to side, place a small spoonful of your filling in the middle of each of your empanadas. Try to retain around 1/2-inch of space all the way around the circle. Top the filling with two green olive halves for a true Latin American spin!
- Worried you're not making the best use of your space? Are you feeling the need to add more filling to balance everything out? Don't be. You'll need that free space to crimp your empanadas to perfection in a few minutes.
Crimp the Edges
- With your filling in place, it's now time to seal your empanadas! This is perhaps the most important step of all, as an improper seal could cause you to lose your filling. As they move around during the frying process, the pastries are extremely vulnerable to leaking or bursting.
- When you're ready, fold one side of the dough over the filling and onto the opposite side, forming a semi-circle. First, use your fingers to pinch the edges together. Then, grab a fork and crimp down over the edges. Struggling with stubborn dough that won't stick to itself? Try putting a little water on your finger. Rub it along the inside of the dough and try to pinch again.
- Once all the dough has been folded and crimped, pop the almost-ready empanadas in the refrigerator. Let them cool for about 25 minutes to toughen up the dough, so it's easier to handle and less susceptible to breaking.
Fire Up the Fryer
- You can't eat raw empanadas! Your next step is to fry those morsels up! Heat up a shallow layer of vegetable oil in the frying pan until it reaches 360 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Then, carefully place a few empanadas at a time into the oil. Let them fry for around one to two minutes per side, flipping as each side becomes lightly golden. Especially once you smell the hearty aroma, it might be tempting to throw the entire batch into the fryer. However, doing so not only crowds the pastries and makes them fry more unevenly, but it can also cause the oil's temperature to drop and your empanadas to open up.
Celebrating Empanadas at Every Meal
In the United States, National Empanada Day falls on April 8. There's a reason that this dish has stood the test of time, evolved along the way, and become more than just an on-the-go snack option for wearied workers.
To this end, why not make them as much of a staple in your family's diet as possible? In addition to traditional lunch or dinner versions, you can also create breakfast empanadas and dessert versions, as well!
Most early-bird versions are made with a form of breakfast meat (ham, sausage, bacon), along with eggs and cheese. Popular dessert ingredients include apples and cinnamon, chocolate and caramel, deep-fried bananas, and more.
Because this food is so dense, it's best to stick to a light and comforting drink. Pair yours with a Yerba Mate, and you've got an instant, balanced meal.
Try Your Hand at a Batch of Empanadas
Their elaborate shape and intricate design make empanadas look fancy. However, it might surprise you to find that this is one of the easiest and quickest dishes around. It's also adaptable, so you can encourage everyone to come to the table and stay there.
Are you looking for the ideal complement to your recent batch? Our drink does just that.
We pride ourselves on providing the highest-quality ingredients to deliver a delicious cup every time. Contact us to learn more recipes and discover how our Yerba Mate can make even the most excellent meal that much better.