What is a Beef Empanada? An In-Depth Look at These Savory Hand Pies

Empanadas are savory hand pies popular in Latin American cuisine. With a flaky and tender dough wrapped around hearty spiced beef fillings, beef empanadas make for a satisfying appetizer or meal. In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at what exactly beef empanadas are, their key components, different ways to make them, and how to enjoy these flavorful snacks.

What are Empanadas?

Empanadas are pastries made from dough stuffed with savory fillings, then baked or fried. The word “empanada” comes from the Spanish verb “empanar” meaning “to wrap in bread”.

Empanadas trace their origins to the Spanish and Portuguese empanada gallega. However, empanadas are found across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines – each region with its own take on the pastry. They can be made large as a meal or smaller for appetizers. Fillings also vary, though beef, chicken, cheese, and seafood are common.

The Anatomy of a Beef Empanada

Beef empanadas have two main components – the dough wrapper and the filling. Here’s what goes into each:

The Dough

The dough for empanadas is similar to pie dough, made with flour, butter, egg, and a touch of milk. This makes the dough tender yet flaky when baked. Shortening can also be used instead of butter. The ideal dough is pliable enough to shape easily without breaking.

Many recipes call for chilling the dough before rolling it out. This prevents the butter from melting into the dough, resulting in a flakier texture.

Empanada dough can be made by hand or in a food processor for a quicker prep time. Handmade dough will need to be kneaded on a floured surface after mixing.

The Filling

Beef empanada fillings start with ground beef as the star ingredient. Onions, garlic, bell peppers, and tomatoes provide aromatic flavors. Potatoes add heartiness. Spices like cumin, oregano, paprika, and chili powder season the beef. Some recipes also include raisins and olives for depth of flavor.

The filling is cooked down until the beef is fully browned and the vegetables softened. The texture should be thick enough to hold its shape when wrapped inside the empanada.

How to Make Beef Empanadas

Making beef empanadas from scratch involves a few steps. Here is an overview of the process:

  • Make the dough: Combine the dry ingredients, cut in the cold butter, then mix in the wet ingredients until a smooth dough forms. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.

  • Prepare the filling: Sauté the aromatics like onion and garlic first. Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Stir in the additional vegetables and seasonings and simmer until tender. Allow to cool completely before using.

  • Roll out the dough: On a floured surface, roll out the chilled dough until 1/8 inch thick. Use a round cutter to cut out circles. Reroll scraps to make more circles.

  • Wrap the empanadas: Place a few tablespoons of filling on one half of each dough circle. Brush the edges with egg wash then fold over and crimp to seal. For a decorative edge, make small pleats along the seam.

  • Bake: Arrange the wrapped empanadas on a baking sheet. Brush with more egg wash. Bake at 400°F until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.

  • Enjoy! Serve the hot empanadas right away, with salsa or chimichurri sauce for dipping.

Tips for Making Perfect Beef Empanadas

Here are some handy tips and tricks for achieving the best, most authentic beef empanadas at home:

  • Use cold butter in the dough. Melted butter leads to a dense, chewy texture. Chilling the dough prevents this.

  • Don’t skimp on spices in the filling. A complex blend of seasonings gives the best flavor.

  • Cool the filling completely before wrapping. Hot filling can make the dough soggy.

  • Brush with egg wash twice – once before baking and once after wrapping. This gives the empanadas a gorgeous sheen.

  • Bake at a high temperature (400°F) for a crispy exterior. The filling will still be moist inside.

  • Make the empanadas on the large side, around 6 inches across. Small ones may dry out faster.

  • Eat the empanadas immediately after baking for the perfect balance of crispy crust and tender filling.

Fillings Beyond Beef

While ground beef may be the most common empanada filling, the possibilities are endless! Consider making empanadas with:

  • Chicken: Shredded rotisserie or poached chicken mixed with veggies and Mexican spices

  • Pork: Pulled pork and sautéed peppers and onions for a Cuban twist

  • Seafood: Flaky white fish or shrimp with tomatoes, garlic, and fresh herbs

  • Cheese: Melty cheeses like mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or queso fresco

  • Veggie: Roasted or grilled veggies, greens, beans, and cheese for a meatless meal

  • Sweet: Fruits, nuts, coconut, and custards or puddings for dessert empanadas

Experiment with global flavors too! Indian, Thai, and Mediterranean spices all pair deliciously with empanada dough.

How to Cook Beef Empanadas

Traditionally, empanadas are either baked or fried. Baking allows the dough to become golden and crisp without adding extra fat or oil.

To bake:

  • Brush empanadas with egg wash before baking.

  • Bake at 400°F for 15-20 minutes until browned.

  • Make sure the bottom of the empanada is crisp too.

To fry:

  • In a skillet or pot, heat 1-2 inches of oil to 350°F.

  • Fry a few empanadas at a time until golden brown, 2-3 minutes per side.

  • Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt after frying.

Air frying is a healthy alternative to deep frying. Cook at 380°F for 4-8 minutes until crispy.

For the juiciest results, serve empanadas right away after baking or frying. If needed, leftovers can be reheated in the oven or microwave.

Serving Suggestions for Beef Empanadas

There are many delicious ways to eat beef empanadas:

  • On their own as an appetizer or snack

  • With chimichurri, salsa, or avocado sauce for dipping

  • Nested in lettuce cups or cabbage leaves for low carb diets

  • Topped with crema, queso fresco, and cilantro

  • Alongside rice and beans or a green salad for a complete meal

  • For breakfast, topped with fried eggs and hot sauce

  • As the filling for tacos or sandwiches

  • In empanada platters with assorted meat, cheese, and veggie fillings

Where to Find Beef Empanadas

If you don’t have time to make them from scratch, look for freshly baked beef empanadas at these places:

  • Latin markets with bakeries like panaderias

  • Food trucks and street vendors at festivals or events

  • Restaurants featuring Latin cuisine – South American, Cuban, or Mexican

  • The frozen food section of major grocery stores

When buying pre-made, inspect the empanadas carefully. The dough should be flaky and golden brown. Avoid any with dough that seems overly moist or filled with liquid.

For the freshest taste, finding a local empanada shop that makes them daily is ideal. This ensures you get them straight from the oven at peak crispiness.

How to Store and Freeze Beef Empanadas

Storing Baked Empanadas

After baking, empanadas will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days. Reheat in a 300°F oven until warmed through before serving.

To maintain the crispy texture, do not store empanadas in a sealed container. Keep them uncovered on a tray or plate so condensation doesn’t form.

Freezing Unbaked or Baked Empanadas

To freeze unbaked empanadas:

  • Place formed, unbaked empanadas on a baking sheet and freeze solid, about 2 hours.

  • Transfer to freezer bags or airtight containers. Freeze for up to 3 months.

  • Bake frozen empanadas at 400°F for an extra 2-5 minutes until golden brown.

To freeze baked empanadas:

  • Allow baked empanadas to cool fully at room temperature.

  • Place in freezer bags or containers, separating layers with parchment paper.

  • Freeze for up to 3 months. Reheat directly from frozen.

The dough may lose a bit of its crispiness after freezing. Reheating in a skillet with oil can help recrisp the crust.

Common Questions about Beef Empanadas

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about making beef empanadas:

Can the dough be made ahead of time?

Yes, empanada dough holds well in the fridge for 2-3 days or in the freezer for months. Thaw overnight before using.

Can I use puff pastry instead?

Store bought puff pastry can substitute for homemade empanada dough in a pinch. The texture will be more flaky than tender.

Can I make empanadas smaller?

Feel free to make bite-sized or cocktail-sized empanadas. Adjust baking times down to 8-12 minutes for smaller empanadas.

How do I make the pleats on the edge?

It takes practice! Pinching each pleat before folding the next helps hold them in place. Check YouTube for video tutorials.

Can I skip the egg wash?

Egg wash gives empanadas their signature golden glow. For vegan empanadas, brush with oil or non-dairy milk instead.

Why do my empanadas leak filling?

Be sure to seal the edges tightly. Refrigerating formed empanadas before baking can also prevent leaks.

Do empanadas freeze well?

Yes! Both unbaked and baked empanadas freeze well for up to 3 months. Thaw before reheating.

The Beloved Beef Empanada

With its crescent shape, crisp and flaky dough, and savory spiced beef filling, the empanada represents the very best of Latin cuisine. Making beef empanadas requires time and some skill, but the satisfaction of baking these handheld pies is well worth the effort.

Beef Empanadas | Gordon Ramsay

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