Argentine Empanadas Unpacked
Empanadas: flavorful pastry pockets
Empanadas (literally meaning wrapped in bread) are savory pastry pockets, filled with a variety of delicious stuffings. As common as asado, pizza, pasta, or alfajores, empanadas are a mainstay in the Argentine diet. Oven baked (al horno) or deep fried (frito), they are served warm at parties and dinners alike and porteños frequently order empanadas via delivery, just as they might pizza.
Common Argentine empanadas and what to expect inside
In almost every restaurant that serves local fare, you can find at least three kinds of empanada on the menu. Here are the most typical kinds, typically named based on their fillings…
- de carne = meat, baby! Consider this ground beef stuffing the number one seller in a country of carnivores. Sometimes these even contain raisins, and go by the name “empanada de carne dulce”. For a recipe, see below!
- carne picada or carne cortada al cuchillo = also a meat pastry, but this time the beef is cut by knife.
- carne suave vs carne picante = mild beef vs “spicy” beef (but not really all that hot – Argentine cuisine is not famed for its spicy food)
- jamon y queso = ham and cheese.
- caprese, or tomate y albaca = tomato, cheese (often Argentine mozzarella), and basil.
- roquefort = blue cheese.
- humita = the filling is based on a traditional dish from the north called humita. Made of ground or shredded corn with a bit of milk, whole corn kernels, and sometimes onions or even bell pepper. Not to be confused with an empanada de choclo, which usually has whole sweetcorn kernels in a white sauce.
- queso y cebolla = cheese and onion.
- de pollo = very similar to the carne filling, but with chicken instead.
- de verdura = literally “vegetables”, usually includes chard or spinach in a white sauce.
- de champiñon = mushroom.
- de atun = filled with tuna, sometimes onion, boiled egg, or celery (try them at Pizzeria El Cuartito on Talcahuano 937, and tell them Anthony Bourdain sent you!)
- dulces = occasionally you’ll find a desert empanada, usually made with dulce de leche, but other popular fillings include fruits, nuts, and dulce de batata or dulce de membrillo, which are sweet potato or quince pastes.
These are most of the common empanadas, but chefs are known to create interesting combinations all the time. Keep your eyes peeled for blue cheese, celery and walnut (roquefort, apio, y nuez); or pancetta and plum (panceta y ciruela).
Regional empanada differencesThere are some regional differences in empanadas from various provinces of the country, from size to preparation to ingredients.
Empanadas salteñas from the Northern regions of Salta and Jujuy are filled with meat, potato, boiled egg, and chives. Sometimes, they’re even made with llama meat! They can be found farther north in Peru and Bolivia, known simply as Salteñas. Many attribute their diffusion to Juana Manuela Gorriti, a woman writer from Salta who fled with her family to Bolivia during the Rosas regime in the mid-1800’s.
The story goes that she and her mother sold empanadas to survive in their early days of exile, though this is perhaps doubtful since she came from a family of high status, and went on to marry the President of Bolivia. She eventually moved to Peru where she met with other important Latin American writers of her day and became an intellectual figure of her time. The women of these nations still follow her culinary lead, but while the empanadas are universally called Salteñas, they are often quite different from the Argentine version.
Empanadas catamarqueñas or riojanas from the provinces of Catamarca and La Rioja are very garlicky, and usually made with goat meat. From Córdoba, empanadas cordobesas are known to be sweet, since they come sprinkled with sugar and stuffed with raisins. Empanadas sanjuaninas are probably so delectable because they’re prepared with lard; they also come with a whole olive in each empanada (watch out for the pit!) and are cooked in traditional wood ovens. To try these out, El Sanjuanino on Sanchez de Bustamante and Santa Fe (and other locations) comes highly recommended.
In the subtropical regions of Corrientes and Misiones, empanada dough is made from cassava root flour, and it’s common to find exotic fillings like surubí or manduvé, two species of catfish; pacú, a relative of the pirana; or golden dorado. In Entre Ríos, there is an empanada filled with arroz con leche, a rice pudding.
In the provinces of Patagonia (Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego), the empanadas are most commonly filled with lamb, guanaco or fish and shellfish, especially mussels or even Southern King Crab (known as centolla). Empanadas from these regions are prepared with white wine, making for a juicy filling and a thicker dough.
The people of Tucumán love empanadas so much, that every September they hold the National Empanada Festival. They are quite traditional, sticking to only three kinds of empanada: matambre (rolled flank steak), chicken, and tripe!
There’s an interesting Argentine saying, “todo bicho que camina va a parar al asador”, which means any creature that walks will end up on the grill. Empanadas are no exception to this rule, and any meat available is fair game. That means armadillo, vizcacha, yacare caiman, carpincho or capybara rodent, and rhea can all be found rolled up in a turnover, somewhere. But don’t worry, they (probably) won’t be served in a restaurant!
Making Empanadas the Argentine way!
Making empanadas is fun and you can stuff them with whatever tempts your taste buds! The easiest route is to pick up some of the pre-made dough at the supermarket, then make your own filling. But if you’re feeling really up to the challenge, try this recipe!
Easy Empanada Recipe
- 4 cups /500 grams of all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup /50 grams softened butter
- 1/2 cup / 100cc of warm water
- salt to taste
- NOTE: If you wish to replace with whole-wheat flour, I recommend replacing half and adding a dash of lemon juice, plus extra water if the dough seems dry.
1. Put all the flour into a big mixing bowl and form a crater in the center. In a separate container, mix warm water with the butter and salt. Pour the liquid mix into the center of the crater.
2. Mix well, then knead until uniform. Allow the dough to rest for at least 15-20 minutes in the refrigerator. If you have the time, let it rest overnight.
3. Flour your surface, then roll the dough a bit thicker than 1/4 inch. Cut circles about the size of your hand from the dough. Now you’re ready to fill the empanadas!
Beef Empanada Filling:
- 1/2 kilo / 1 pound of ground beef
- 2 big yellow onions
- 7 grams / 1 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1 pinch cumin
- salt and pepper to taste
- vegetable oil
- 2 eggs
- 50 grams / 1/2 cup of olives
1. Finely dice the onions while allowing enough oil to cover the onions heat in a medium to large saucepan. When the oil is hot, add the onions and allow to saute until they are clear in color.
2. Add the meat and spices, and cook, stirring frequently. Once the meat is cooked, remove the mixture from the heat.
3. Hard-boil two eggs. While these are boiling, slice the olives however you like: or just leave them whole, but remember to remind the guests to watch out for pits!
4. Once the eggs are ready, slice them and add to the meat mixture. If you have diced the olives, add those too.
TIP: If you’re very hungry, just allow the filling to cool before you stuff your empanadas. But most Argentines actually let this mixture sit in the refrigerator for a day (or two…) before baking. This helps the mix become uniform.
- Pre-heat the oven to a medium temperature. In the center of each disc, add a heaping spoonful of filling, being sure to leave a generous margin. Then fold the circle in half.
- The hardest part can be folding the empanadas; if the sides don’t stick together, wet your finger with a touch of water and fully seal the edges. Then, pinch a piece of the rim and fold it in towards the center. To see how this braided closure works, check out some youtube videos! And don’t get discouraged: most of these cooks have been practicing the “repulgue” fold for years. Even inexperienced Argentines can find the process frustrating; note the concentration, below:
That’s my boyfriend’s brother, Claudio. He gave up on folding empanadas after one try. Don’t be like Claudio! If you can’t manage any folds, try closing the seams with a fork. Just make sure everything is tightly sealed, that way no juices spill out while cooking! Fortunately, his mom and neighbor whizzed through the empanada preparation, and here’s a good example of the fold, below:
- If you like, you can brush the empanadas with a mix of equal parts egg yolk and water, and sprinkling the tops with sugar or parmesan cheese.
- Once the empanadas are all prepared, into the oven! Let them cook until slightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool for as long as you can keep your hands off them, and enjoy!
If you’d like to make a traditional, vegetarian, humita empanada, try this recipe on the Seashells and Sunflowers blog. For recommendations about where to find regional empanadas in the city, try Saltshaker, and don’t miss our review of Cumana Empanadas. Happy pastry sampling!