How to CookCuban

Cuban Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pie of Your Dreams

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It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: Sandra Gutierrez, author of Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America, shows us how to make traditional Cuban empanadas.

Empanadas are hand-held pies that have been popular in Latin America for centuries. Every country has its own renditions and fillings that span the range from savory to spicy to sweet. My own love affair with these pies started when I was a little girl growing up in Guatemala. Even back then, I was interested in discovering the different fillings hidden within the crusts.

This variation on classic Cuban empanadas is one of my favorites. It's filled with a minced meat and vegetable mixture called "picadillo." I first tasted them when I was in my teens on holiday in Key Biscayne, Florida. I'd buy them from the Cuban restaurant at the entrance to the island and from the take out section of the local grocery store. I loved to perch on the road and eat a couple fresh from the fryer before heading back home with the rest. Back then it was a rare holiday treat; today, I get to eat them whenever I want. There are as many picadillo recipes as there are home cooks, but this is my version, developed from my memories of the first Cuban empanadas I fell in love with. The result is flaky pastry filled to the brim with spicy (but not too spicy) beef. I don’t know anyone who can eat only one:

Cuban Beef Empanadas

Makes 10 empanadas 

1/2 cup roughly chopped white onion
1/2 cup roughly chopped green bell pepper
2 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 sweet Caribbean peppers (ajicitos dulces or cachucha peppers), seeded and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
10 store-bought empanada discs, thawed if frozen
1 egg white
Vegetable oil, for frying

A few pointers as you set out to make these:

  • Make the filling at least 2 hours ahead of time so that the juices from the meat have time to congeal (they will melt back as they fry, yielding a juicy filling).
  • If you don’t have a thermometer to measure the temperature of the oil, try inserting the back of a wooden spoon into the hot oil—if it sizzles on contact, it’s ready for frying.
  • Never use tongs to turn the empanadas over as they fry or you’ll risk breaking them. Instead, use two forks. Once done, set them over the prepared pans to drain—do not skip this step as it prevents soggy pastry. You can also refrigerate them for up to 3 hours before frying.
  • You’ll find prepackaged empanada discs in the freezer section of most grocery stores (popular brands are GOYA® and LaFe®). 


In a large food processor, add the onions, pepper, and garlic, then process until finely chopped, in about 15 one-second intervals, stopping to scrape the sides of the processor as needed. In a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables and cook until softened, about 2 minutes.

Add the beef and cook, breaking it down with the back of a spoon, until it's no longer pink, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook for 30 seconds. Lower the heat to low and, stirring continuously, cook for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, allow the mixture to cool completely, and transfer it to a small bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours (or overnight).

Working with one empanada disc at a time, place 2 tablespoons of the meat filling in the bottom half of each disc, leaving about 1/4-inch of the rim without filling.


Brush the rims with egg white, then fold the dough over the filling to make a half-moon and press the edges together with your fingers. Use the tines of a fork to crimp the edges of each empanada shut, and set them on a parchment-lined baking sheet or plate. Set aside. Place paper towels over a baking sheet, then cover with a wire baking rack to create a landing place for the empanadas once they've been fried.

In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1 to 1 1/2 inches of vegetable oil to 360º F (or use a deep-fryer according to the manufacturer’s directions). Working in batches, carefully slide the empanadas into the oil. Fry them until golden, about 1 to 2 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and the empanadas are browning too quickly, lower the heat and cool the oil slightly before frying any more.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried empanadas onto the prepared rack and allow them to drain for 1 to 2 minutes. Serve warm.

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Photos by Armando Rafael 

Tags: Appetizer, Snack, DIY Food, Small Batch