A Gringo’s Guide to Empanadas

by Keith Savage · 44 comments


Empanadas in Argentina

It begins with a triangle. You fold in the dough at the corner toward the pocket of savory goodness. And repeat, and repeat again. All the way around the curvature of the pocket until a pastry braid comes into being.

This is the spine of the empanada, the keystone that holds in the flavor of the ubiquitous hand-sized snack as it’s baked or fried. By my third empanada I had the hang of it, and Ani (my mentor) congratulated me on my execution. I look at the the succulent pile of goodies manufactured by the other empanaderos at the party and realize making empanadas, like chess or foreign policy, is one of those seemingly easy-to-pick-up-but-hard-to-master skills.

Making empanadas began with a triangle fold for me, but for Alejandro, whose house we were at, and others involved in preparing the filling and making the dough, it began much earlier in the day while I was getting situated in my new apartment in Salta. Prior to landing in Buenos Aires, I was only familiar with the paltry mass-market American version of empanadas: the woeful hotpocket. I’d heard glorious tales of Salta province’s empanadic riches, of how their particular creations outshone the empanadas of other provinces. In the preceding ten days I’ve had plenty of opportunities to stuff my face with the original, Argentine article at local institutions like Doña Salta and El Patio de la Empanada (both highly recommended).

Empanadas are everywhere in Salta. They usually come in a variety of fillings, such as beef, chicken, cheese, ham and cheese, and (my personal favorite) charqui, a kind of gaucho jerky. In Buenos Aires, I had a humitas empanada, but I was assured by my guide to Cafayate that that is a porteño abomination and no true empanada. In addition to the main ingredient, empanadas are often also filled with potato, onion, olive, and egg. Generally, an empanada costs between 2-4 pesos at a café or restaurant – usually less than $1 each! It’s not uncommon for people to order a dozen empanadas at once and share them.

So I’d eaten plenty of this perfect snack. But I hadn’t yet had the chance to actually make empanadas until I heard about a CouchSurfing gathering for a woman who was returning to France after many months in Salta. Leo, one of the pillars of the Salta CouchSurfing community, picked me up and a short while later I was at Alejandro’s house being introduced to a host of other friendly CouchSurfers.

As Alejandro worked out the dough, the rest of helped by drinking large quantities of Salta beer and chatting in Spanish (generally called Castilian here), English, and French. Once the empanada circles had been pressed out with an empty can, the crew started filling them with the tasty concoction pictured in the pans below.

We must have made close to 200 empanadas that night. Even with the 20+ people at the house, Alejandro had leftover empanadas for days (in fact I heard he was begging friends to come over and eat them). Making empanadas is thirsty work, and Salta Negra was the preferred beer of choice. It was delicious paired with the savory empanadas.

Not only was it my first time making empanadas, it was my first CouchSurfing meet-up. The folks of Salta were warm and welcoming, and treated me like a long-lost friend. It was just what I needed. Cheers!

Alejandro’s Empanada Recipe

Want to try your hand at empanadas? Alejandro kindly shared his grandmother’s recipe! Good luck!

Empanada masa dough
1 kg flour
220 g beef or pork fat
300 ml warm water.
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp white pepper
1 Tbsp paprika

Empanada filling
1 kg of beef, “ball back,” finely chopped
800 g onion
500 g potato
50 g unflavored gelatin
1 scallion
2 hardboiled eggs, diced
Green olives (to taste), diced
White pepper (to taste)
Ground black pepper (to taste)
Salt (to taste)
1 cup chicken or beef broth

Preparation
These instructions are my interpretation based on what I saw that night. Prepare the filling and fry the onions until translucent. Add the finely chopped meat and give it a quick browning. Roll out the dough and press out circles about 3-4″ in diameter using an empty can. Dip your finger in a cup of warm water and moisten half of the empanada circumference. Add a spoonful of the filling to the center of the dough. Fold up the dry edge onto the moist edge and press them together (careful of shooting juice!) to seal the empanada shut. Fold in the sealed edge over and over (as described above). Bake a tray of empanadas until brown, about ten minutes at “medium” heat. Alternatively, you could deep fry them.


AndrewNo Gravatar December 24, 2010 at 4:20 PM

These sound similar to Cornish Pasties. Look good though. There is a mexican fast food place in the market near me. It totally won’t be like these,but I think I have seen Empanadas on their menu. Might have to try on Monday.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 25, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Andrew, I’d love to hear your assessment of the Mexican empanadas in Germany!

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AdamNo Gravatar December 13, 2010 at 10:25 AM

Sounds like a great time, Keith! We loved empanadas so much we made them part of our Christmas tradition last year. We definitely “Americanized” them by making all types of non-traditional fillings, but it was awesome nonetheless.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 25, 2010 at 9:04 AM

Sounds kinda cool Adam – what kind of American fillings did you guys use? My family’s giving this recipe a shot in a few days. Eager.

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AdamNo Gravatar January 5, 2011 at 2:46 PM

We used some traditional fillings and some non-traditional that we thought would be good. So many times in Argentina we talked about how we should open an empanada restaurant when we got home with all types of “American” fillings. If I can remember correctly, we had beef and mozzarella cheese, ham and cheddar cheese, a green chile shredded mexican chicken and colby jack cheese (YUM!), and mushroom and goat cheese. They were all really, really good.

Did your family end up making any? What did you guys use?

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 5, 2011 at 2:50 PM

We did actually make these over the holidays and followed the recipe to a T. They were delicious and took me right back to Alejandor’s kitchen in Salta.

Those fillings you used sound delicious!

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Katrina MauroNo Gravatar December 9, 2010 at 10:56 AM

This makes me super hungry…and there is nowhere close for me to get an empanada now!!! So alas, I will have to wait for tomorrow, and try using this recipe for some satisfaction. Thanks!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 13, 2010 at 10:23 AM

Same here – there’s no chance of finding good empanadas in my neck of the woods. Probably for the best though. I did enough damage to my health in one month to last me a long time. 🙂

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LiezelNo Gravatar December 6, 2010 at 4:17 AM

Thanks for the share! Love empanadas, so much!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar December 6, 2010 at 6:55 AM

I’ve grown a strong appreciation for these delicious little pockets. Give the recipe a shot!

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AniNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 11:02 PM

Hey!

So my multiple-foulding method for the empanadas is famous! jajaja. I`m glad that u enjoy the meeting Keith 😉 and the article is so close to reality, i liked to read it!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 30, 2010 at 8:49 AM

Thanks Ani, you were a great teacher!

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Ryan FullerNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 1:43 PM

It’s a tough call vs. great steak and wine, but Empanadas may well be the thing that we miss the most about Argentina – they are the perfect take-out/delivery/snack. I have no idea why they haven’t become more established internationally.

And I definitely agree with a previous comment – Argentine empanadas are hand-down the best. We spent a long time in Chile and were very disappointed with their version.

In Salta make sure to find yourself some fresh goat cheese empanadas <-Fantastic and not easily found in BA.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 3:05 PM

We can find great wine and steak in the U.S. – in fact, I think it’s easier to find great wine back home. But a good empanada, at least where I live, is impossible to find. So I’m enjoying as many as I can while I’m here 🙂

I’ve yet to see goat cheese empanadas on the menu, but they sound delicious.

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LauraNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 9:00 AM

I am so hungry after reading this post! The empanadas look delicious, and it sounds like you had a fantastic experience making them. And LOL at “empanadic riches.” I am bookmarking the recipe as well; I tried making them once and, while ok, they were nothing like the real thing in Argentina!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Actually, I’m getting hungry re-reading this! Yes, I had a great time and the people at the house were very kind to me. I’m going to try my hand at this recipe when I return to the States. Let me know how it goes for you!

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AndreaNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 6:36 AM

Awesome post – thanks for the recipe! The only good empanadas I’ve ever had were from the mysterious esky-toting vendor that always seemed to magically appear on the streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn just when you needed him at 3am. I’m happy to hear that I’ll be reacquainted with this delicious treat when we hit Argentina in April.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:46 AM

Yes, empanadas are on pretty much every menu here in Salta. They’re pretty common in Buenos Aires, too. Give the recipe a shot – maybe your friends will be banging down your door at 3am instead of searching for the mysterious vendor. ‘Course, you might not want that either.

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LeslieTravelNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 1:12 AM

Argentine empanadas are the best!!! In my opinion, nothing compares to an espinaca or queso y cebolla empanada. (But of course, as a vegetarian I’m not eating the meat varieties). Great post.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:43 AM

Those varieties both sound delicious, but I adore the pollo and charqui fillings. I also enjoy a hearty steak periodically. 🙂

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MichaelNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 10:46 PM

Hands down the best stuff on earth. Argentina makes them best 😉

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:41 AM

Wow, that’s quite an endorsement. So what you’re saying is that I’ve spoiled myself. First the apartment here now the empanadas. Damn.

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graceNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 8:46 PM

AYE DIOS MIO! Reading this post makes me so hungry, em-pa-na-das <3 !!! I'm filipino so we always have them at family gatherings (thankyou spanish colonisation!) and I can only imagine having them home-made in Salta would be amazing.. in fact, there's a little cafe run by an Argentinian family near my house I think I may just go there riggggggggght now… and possibly if I'm game will try that recipe out a bit later, great post – keep it up!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:44 AM

That’s the second comment about Filipino empanadas. Thanks for getting that on my radar. Alejandro is an excellent cook, and by the end of the night I just wished my stomach was bigger so I could have eaten more.

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Craig ZabranskyNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 6:40 PM

Loved the Empanada when I called Argentina home, in fact, wait I still love the Empanada. I plan to attempt the recipe… I’ll let you know how it goes.

stay adventurous, Craig

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:40 AM

Hope it goes well, Craig. How long did you live in Argentina, and where?

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Craig ZabranskyNo Gravatar November 30, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Keith, I lived two months in Buenos Aires. I never left. Sure, I wanted to explore greater Argentina (still do) but I also wanted to take the time to live in another city. Just be a local and just enjoy it all. Wow, no doubt in my mind I chose wisely. What a fabulous city.

I lived in San Telmo for a bit, then rented a place in Palermo Viejo.

stay adventurous, Craig

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 30, 2010 at 11:22 AM

That’s been my plan with Salta. I’ve stayed inside the city limits for most of my time in an attempt to get to know the city. My first couple of days in Argentina were spent in San Telmo, just off Plaza Dorrego, in Buenos Aires. Very lively area. Palermo Viejo definitely has the nightlife.

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Kelly Harmon @hiptravelerNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 1:21 PM

yum, for travelers and foodies like me, this article really hit the spot! thanks for sharing the recipe and the Salta / Buenos Aires culture. I grew up cooking a variation of the Argentinean empanada. flaky, tasty, goodness 🙂

Bon Appétit. ~cheers, @hiptraveler

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:39 AM

Hi Kelly, my pleasure. I’m going to try my hand at these when I get back to the states as well. Let me know how it goes if you give the recipe a shot!

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ClaireNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 12:35 PM

Empanadas are amazing and may just be a large part of the reason I frequent empanada producing countries so often 😉

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:38 AM

Haha, yes, I can see them having that power over people. 🙂

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AndiNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 8:36 AM

What a fun night!!!!!!!!! I love empanadas, but it’s challenging to find veggie ones.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:38 AM

It was a blast! I loved meeting all the CouchSurfing folks and cooking local cuisines is just the type of activity that meshes with the idea for Traveling Savage. As far as veggie empanadas go, yeah, I’ve only seen queso ones.

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EricaNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 4:52 AM

I’m so used to dessert empanadas from Mexico (i.e. pineapple) that the first time I had heard of meat empanadas I was a bit weirded out. The recipe sounds awesome and it looks like you’re having a blast in Argentina.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:36 AM

Hey Erica, that’s funny because I have yet to eat a dessert empanada! I haven’t seen them here, and that’s surprising considering how much sugar/dessert Argentines consume. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

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LisetteNo Gravatar November 28, 2010 at 12:06 AM

I love empanadas! I grew up eating my mom’s version, adapted to the Filipino palate. It’s quite simple in comparison – the filling is basically minced chicken, diced carrot, diced potato and occasionally, sultanas. Will have to try this recipe – sounds great although it definitely doesn’t beat going to Salta and trying it first-hand! Love the photos as well.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:32 AM

Ooh, those Filipino empanadas sound good too! I’m starting to think most any filling in a pastry pocket will be delicious. It was a lot of fun making empanadas under the warm night sky.

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AndiNo Gravatar November 27, 2010 at 6:29 PM

San Francisco has some really good empanadas, but I would certainly like to try out some of the ones that you described above – yum!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 29, 2010 at 8:30 AM

Somehow I missed SF’s empanadas when I was there earlier this year. I’m by no means a worldly empanada connoisseur, but I can say the empanadas in Salta are delicious and difficult to resist at any time of the day.

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