All About Empanadas and Recipes

Empanadas — Their Origin, Variations and Some Recipes

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The Spruce Eats / Ulyana Verbytska

Empanadas are fried or baked pastries stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. They're known and loved throughout Portugal, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Philippines. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which means to wrap in bread. 

illustration that explains what are empanadas
Illustration: Maritsa Patrinos. © The Spruce, 2019

The History of Empanadas

The empanadas we enjoy today are thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain. The idea of wrapping a hardy filling in pastry dough may well have stemmed from the Moors who occupied Spain for hundreds of years. A cookbook published in Catalan, Spain in 1520 includes empanadas made with seafood.

The first empanadas in Western Hemisphere are credited to Argentina. The U.S. has even given the empanada a dedicated holiday — National Empanada Day, celebrated on April 8. Empanadas are a traditional Christmas treat in New Mexico. They're commonly referred to as creoles in the southwest and the south, and as fried pies in the southeast. 

Empanadas Across the Caribbean

Cubans fill their empanadas with seasoned ground beef or chicken before frying them. They're prepared and eaten the same way in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Making an Empanada 

Empanadas are similar to cut-up pies and they're typically filled with cod fish or chicken. An empanada is made by folding a disc of thinly rolled dough over the filling into a semicircle, then crimping the edges to seal it. The dough is often made with wheat flour, but this isn't universal. Corn flour or cornmeal can be used as well, and some countries' traditions call for a plantain or potato base. The exact content of the dough can depend on whether the empanadas will be baked or fried. 

It's said that the art of making a perfect empanada is to hold the dough, spread open, in one hand, while using the other hand to fill it and to crimp the edges. Tradition aside, you can now purchase empanada machines at many appliance stores to make the process much easier. 

It's considered acceptable to eat empanadas at any meal, including breakfast, but they're usually enjoyed at lunch or as a snack. They can make a full meal on their own and no one will leave the table hungry. 

Some Variations 

Catibías are similar to empanadas. They're made with cassava flour dough. Some common fillings include ground beef, chicken, guava, and cheese. 

Pastelitos are similar to empanadas, too, but they're made with a lighter pastry dough and they can be either baked or fried.  

If you want to get busy in the kitchen and try one or more of these delicious little pies for yourself, here are some recipes to get you started. Just remember that there are as many empanada variations as there are cooks — you can experiment and tailor your dough and filling to your own tastes.

Pronunciation: [em-pah-NAH-dah]

Also Known As: pastelito, empanadilla, and pastelillo.