Empanadas are flaky pastries that are stuffed with a savory or sweet filling. They are a popular snack and appetizer in many Latin American countries as well as in Spain. The type of dough used to make empanadas can vary depending on the region or recipe.
The most common dough used for empanadas is a flaky pastry dough. This dough gets its distinct layered texture from the incorporation of solid fat like butter or shortening. When the dough bakes, the fat creates steam which then separates the dough into flaky layers.
A basic empanada dough contains flour, salt, butter or shortening, an acidic ingredient like vinegar or lemon juice, and cold water. The butter or shortening is worked into the dry ingredients before the liquid is added. Keeping the fat and water cold helps inhibit gluten development and allows the flakes to form.
Some key tips for making tender, flaky empanada dough:
- Use cold or chilled butter/shortening and water
- Handle the dough as little as possible to limit gluten development
- Chill the dough before rolling it out
- Roll gently to avoid compressing the layers
In many Latin American countries like Colombia and Venezuela, empanadas are often made with a cornmeal dough instead of a flour-based dough. This gives the empanadas a slightly different, heartier texture.
The dough is made by mixing cornmeal (typically white or yellow cornmeal) with salt, baking powder, butter or oil, milk or water, and sometimes eggs. As with a flour dough, keeping the ingredients cold helps maintain a flaky texture.
Cornmeal dough has some advantages over flour dough:
- It holds its shape well when stuffed and folded.
- The corn flavor pairs well with many empanada fillings.
- It achieves a nice golden brown exterior when baked.
Masa Harina Dough
Masa harina, or masa flour, is a special flour made from dried corn that has been treated with limewater or limestone. This process, called nixtamalization, helps remove the hull and germ of the corn kernels and softens the corn so it can be ground into a dough.
Masa harina is used to make tortillas, tamales, and other Latin American dishes. It can also be used to make empanada dough. Masa harina dough has a unique flavor and texture from the masa flour. It is smooth, soft, and a bit crumbly – different from the flaky textures of flour or cornmeal doughs.
A simple masa harina dough contains masa harina, salt, baking powder or shortening, and warm water. The water hydrates the dried masa to form a pliable dough that can be pressed or rolled to desired thickness.
Flour Tortilla Dough
In Texas and New Mexico, empanadas are often made using flour tortilla dough. This dough contains flour, salt, baking powder, shortening or lard, and water.
Making the dough is similar to a regular flour dough, though tortilla dough often contains more fat. The higher fat content gives the dough more plasticity so it can be stretched out thin. And it results in a chewy, tender texture when baked.
Tortilla dough is rolled to a thinner consistency than other empanada doughs. The thinness allows more steam to escape so the empanadas aren’t overly flaky or bready.
Puff Pastry Dough
Some empanada recipes call for puff pastry dough, either homemade or store-bought. This dough contains many layers of butter that expand and separate when baked, resulting in a distinctive light, flaky texture.
Making puff pastry from scratch is very labor intensive, requiring repeated folding and rolling to create the layers. Store-bought puff pastry makes the process much easier.
Puff pastry may be used either as the main dough or as a top layer. Empanadas made completely from puff pastry have an extremely delicate, flaky crust. Using it just on top provides a beautiful presentation while maintaining the stability of another dough like flour or cornmeal on the bottom.
While the fillings are what give empanadas their distinct flavors, the type of dough significantly impacts the eating experience. Flaky flour doughs and hearty cornmeal doughs are most traditional. Masa harina and tortilla doughs give empanadas unique textures and new dimensions of flavor. And puff pastry provides an indulgently flaky crust. Whatever dough is used, the result is a delicious handheld meal or snack.