Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Scratch-made Beef Empanadas

Mexican food is really frustrating for me. So much of it falls in the awful intersection of some of my favorite flavors and things covered or filled with melted cheese (yes, I made a chart - deal with it). Seriously - give me a tomatillo/chiles sauce for meat stuffed starch that's been fried or steamed, or just used as base for slow cooking meat to be served with tortillas, and I'm good for this life time. Also, carnitas-  because pig boiled in pig fat (check out serious eats for my go-to home version).  But outside of a little crumbled Cotija or judiciously applied queso fresco, my weird melted cheese issues get in the way of enjoying good food. So, I've learned to make own. I've used leftover shredded chicken or pork with premade crust (empanada, or pie crust in a pinch) - here's the first time I've done empanadas completely from scratch.
I recently came home from out of town to a kitchen empty of anything fresh besides onions, butter and ground beef perilously close to its expiration date. I really needed to de-stress had no interest in defrosting or microwaving something out the freezer (hey, I'm not above it). Fortunately I had enough in the pantry to make a solid go at empanadas. And incidentally, ate reheated leftovers out of the freezer for a few days.

For the dough (I got 12 empanadas out of it):
2 3/4 cups flour
4 tbps butter (small cubes)
3/4 cup warm water
1 tsp salt
1 - 2  tsp malt vinegar (pure vinegar is probably best, but this is as close as I could get).

1 lb ground beef
1 16 oz can tomatoes with juice poured off (don't drain completely)
2 - 3 canned chipotles in adobe (wiped off, roughly chopped)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
Cumin, Smoke Paprika, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Mexican Oregano, Salt, Pepper
1 packet Goya Sazon (if desired)
Pinch of Cumin seeds

1 tbsp olive oil
Vegetable or Canola oil for frying

How I made it:
I improvised the filling with what I had on hand, and spiced by eye using a common mexican flavor profile (Cumin, Chipotle, Oregano and Paprika notably). This works with well with most shredded or ground meat as a base- even/especially leftovers.

1. In a medium saucepan, sweat onions with olive oil over medium-low heat. Season lightly throughout.
2. When the onions are transulcent, add beef and brown thoroughly. Beef should be finely crumbled.
3. Add tomatos and chopped chipotles. A little tomato juice is fine (the end result should be reasonably moist), but more than traces of adobo from canned chipotles can overwhelm your food in a hurry. 
4. Spice to taste and add cumin seeds (for that great sweaty cuminy aroma). Start slow, you'll be cooking this down a good bit. I also added some Goya Sazon w/o Cilantro, which is billed as a flavor enhancer to be used in addition to your recipe. Probably not necessary - it's mostly the same stuff I used, with unhealthy amounts of MSG.
5. Simmer for several hours (especially if you're using canned tomatoes and chipotles) until the tomatoes have broken down you have a crumbly, moist filling. If it's at all soupy, keep going.
6. Cool to room temperature.

Butter, salt and carbs!
Disclaimer - This dough recipe is adapted fairly closely from Rick Bayless's 20th Anniversary Ed. Authentic Mexican. I recommend it highly as an all around reference.

1. In a mixing bowl, work the cubed butter into the floor. 
2. Once the butter's mixed in, dissolve salt in water, add vinegar (adds just a bit of rise and springiness) and mix into the flour (Mine seemed a bit dry, so added some water dropwise).
3. Split dough into 12 equal portions, and roll into balls (BALLS!) (about 1-1/2" in diameter). 
4. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 min.

More Balls!

I've fried and baked empanadas, both with good results. With fresh dough spiked with vinegar - frying was the way to go - you get crisp, but not crumbly exterior with a hint of chewy bite on the inside. If you're averse, you can also bake these with a light egg wash at 325 - 350 F for 13 - 15 min.

1. Heat about 1/4" of oil in a frying pan to 350 F. I don't have a great way of measuring this, as it turns out. 
2. Remove dough from the refrigerator. Flour a working surface.
3. Cover the dough with plastic wrap (a trick I picked up a ways back from making tortillas), and flatten with the back of a saucepan.
4. Roll out to 5 or 6 inches. It shouldn't be too sticky - a floured rolling pin should work fine.
5. Add ~2 tablespoons of filling to the middle. You want 3/4" of an inch around the edges. The pastry should be full-ish but not oozing out the sides.
6. Wet the edges, and fold the pastry over the filling. Pinch the edges together and roll up. Crimp rolled up edges with a fork, or you can do fancy knurled patterns with your thumb that I cannot successfully achieve.
7. Fry for a few minutes on each side, until golden brown with a light bubbly texture.
8. Cool on paper towels, and serve.

Flattened Ball!
Ok, I'm done. 

Temp: Between 350 and 600 F
I ate well that week

These were very forgiving - my pan was way too hot the first time around (thanks, good-for-nothing meat themometer) - but as long as you avoid burning the dough, they taste fine flash fried. The pastry was definitely the star - it had as satisfying a bite as I can remember from anything similar. The filling was nice, punchy and just acid enough to balance out its beefiness. Next up, I'm thinking shredded pork and some kind of salsa verde.

Mexican food porn!

These freeze down very well. Once cooled to room temperature, just freeze in a covered container. I had a lot of success reheating for 5 - 10 minutes in a countertop convection toaster at 400 degrees or so (I never really trust the dial, but that's another issue). A minute or two after the residual fat in the crust starts bubbling, the empanadas should be crisp and ready to go.

This happened two hours after re-heating and accidentally touching a hot element.


  1. Wow, those look really good. As for the too much cheese in Mexican food problem, you just need to eat at more taquerias in California. No cheese unless you order the gringo burritos!

  2. Hehe. I do indeed. I miss living around the corner from the old warehouse district Taqueria Corona in NOLA.