Empanadas, in one form or another, are truly a global phenomenon and with good reason. They’re little pockets of joy. Sweet, savory, fried or baked, you can eat them as an appetizer, main course, or a dessert. They are a universal hand pie and this fried Mexican picadillo empanadas recipe with masa will have you hooked.
This is the third post in my “Hand Pies Around the World” series.
History of the Empanada
Empanadas, meaning “wrapped in dough,” are believed to be derived from the Arabian samosa. When the Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711, they most likely brought their samosas with them. However, the first known written recipe appeared in a Catalan cookbook in the 16th century. After all those hundreds of years, I think the Spaniards could claim empanadas as their own. They spread their version of the hand pie recipe on to the rest of the, soon to be, Latin world. Every cultural center, from the Philippines to Cuba to Mexico that adopted the empanada into their diet put their own unique twist on it. In Mexico, where wheat was not available for some time, they were wrapped in masa (corn flour dough). Different cultures filled them with meat, seafood, vegetables, beans, cheese, or fruit depending on what was available to them at the time.
Mexican style fried empanadas made with masa are my favorite type of savory empanadas. The juxtaposition of the crispy edge of the shell, the tender middle, and the juicy filling is like a party in my mouth. Made the size of a taco and filled with picadillo, two or three… or four empanadas, make a complete meal. They can, however, be made smaller and served as appetizers.
How to Make Fried Picadillo Empanadas
Make the Picadillo Filling for the Fried Empanadas First
As with any recipe, you’ll want to start with assembling and preparing your ingredients – mise en place. Prepare the picadillo filling first. Chop the onion, dice the potato, and mince the garlic. It’s important to cut the potato into fairly small pieces, else they will poke through the dough when assembling the empanadas. In fact, “picadillo” actually means “mince.” So, while you don’t want to actually mince the potatoes, (they would disappear while cooking), you do want them small enough to not damage the empanada shell.
Sauté the onion in the oil just until soft. Then add the garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds. Add the ground beef to the onion and garlic mixture and chop it up into small pieces while cooking. As the ground beef is cooking, add the salt, pepper, ground cloves, olives, raisins, and potatoes. Cook the meat just until no pink remains. Add the tomatoes, along with the juice from the can. Mix everything well. Cover and bring to a simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Remove from the heat and strain off the fat. Allow to cool while you make the dough for the shells.
Next Make the Masa (Dough)
Making masa is super simple and a little bit tricky. There are three ingredients – masa harina (corn flour), salt, and water. The is about 1 part masa harina to 1.4 parts water by weight. Place 1 cup of masa harina in a medium bowl. Add the salt and mix well. Measure out 3/4 of a cup of water and slowly add it, little by little, to the masa harina.
Mix the masa harina and water with your hands until there are no dry powdery bits left. Continue mixing and adding water until the dough is evenly mixed and slightly tacky, but does not stick to your hands. This is the tricky part, because the humidity in the air, or if the moon is in the seventh house, your dough can be different from day to day. If your dough is too dry, add some water. Too wet, add some masa harina. You’ll be an expert in no time.
Divide the dough into six pieces. A scale comes in handy here. Weigh the entire dough ball in grams and divide the result by six. This will give you the weight each dough ball should be. Mine were about 42 grams, each. Which is the perfect size for my tortilla press. If you don’t have a scale, just make the balls about the size of a golf ball.
Press the Dough and Assemble the Empanadas
Next, you will assemble the empanadas. To keep the dough from sticking to your tortilla press*, cut a plastic freezer bag into two squares. Place one square of plastic on the bottom plate of the press. Set a masa ball on top of the plastic about an inch off center of the bottom plate. Place the other square of plastic on top of the ball and put the top plate on top of that. Press down gently on the top plate with your hands to flatten to flatten the ball a bit. Then bring the handle of the press over the top plate and press down firmly. Lift the handle and the top plate.
Carefully remove the top plastic from the flattened dough. Leave the dough on the bottom piece of plastic and spoon approximately two tablespoons of the picadillo filling onto the bottom half of the tortilla nearest you. Be sure to leave about 3/4 of an inch of space between the filling and the bottom edge of the dough. Holding on to the bottom piece of plastic at the point furthest from you and bring it towards you to fold the tortilla over the filling.
With the tortilla folded over the filling and with the plastic still covering the empanada, the press down gently on the open edges of the empanada with your thumbs or fingers to seal. Remove the plastic from over the top and use a fork to decorate and further seal the edges. Remove the bottom plastic and set the assembled empanada aside. Repeat the process with the other five dough balls.
*If you don’t have a tortilla press, you can flatten the dough with any flat-bottomed pan. A glass pie pan works really well. Especially, if you use it with a silicone pastry mat with measurement markings. You can see how much the dough ball has flattened. No plastic bags necessary.
A Side Note
Just a note here: This picadillo recipe will make a lot more filling than masa dough. The masa recipe only makes six empanadas. Double, triple, or quadruple the masa recipe to make more empanadas. Or, you can eat the picadillo plain with a side of tortillas and beans. You can also freeze it in an airtight container for up to three months. Uncooked empanadas can be kept in the freezer for three months, as well. Just make sure to put wax or parchment paper between them so they don’t freeze together. To fry frozen empanadas you must thaw them first.
Fry the Empanadas
Heat about a cup of oil in a small frying pan. Drop a small crumb of masa into the oil to test if it’s hot enough to start frying. If it bubbles and floats to the top, it’s hot enough. I like to use a small cast iron pan for this process as the oil tends to discolor my stainless steel pans. The discoloration can, eventually, be scrubbed off, but using a cast iron pan just for frying empanadas and taco shells saves me the trouble.
Using a slotted spatula lower an empanada into the hot oil. You can cook two at a time in an eight inch pan. Allow them to cook to a light golden brown before carefully turning them over to cook the other side. If the oil starts to smoke, reduce the heat. When they’re done, remove them from the pan and place on a plate covered with paper towel to soak up any left over grease.
Allow to cool for five to ten minutes before serving these fried picadillo empanadas with salsa, beans and/or rice. You can also pack them in a lunch to go. They are hand pies, are they not? You can eat them anywhere. To reheat, put them in the oven or an air fryer (best choice) at about 275° F for ten minutes or so.
Want to try some more hand pies? Why not give scotch pies a whirl?