Cuban Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pie of Your Dreams

June  2, 2015

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.

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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 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Patty Khuly
    Patty Khuly
  • The Pontificator
    The Pontificator
  • Lilismom
  • Melissa
  • Sharon
Cookbook Author, Latin Cuisine Expert


Patty K. June 15, 2015
I'm Cuban, I live in Miami, and I grew up making these. Over the years I've tried different recipes and none have ever had any hot peppers. Hot peppers are NOT a Cuban thing, much though the media likes to attribute chile-ish spiciness to Cuban cuisine. This is likely because habaneros are named after La Habana (where they are not eaten but where they used to be extensively traded in the international markets) and because cubanelle peppers are named after Cuba (of course. Cubanelle peppers are very low in heat, though, especially the Cuban variety. I hope I don;t sound persnickety it's just that I like my cuisine of origin to be accurately represented.
Sharon June 15, 2015
My dear friend is Cuban and she always adds hot peppers to hers. If you like hot peppers you add them, regardless of where on earth you're from.
The P. June 15, 2015
You could use a couple of those sweet "snacking peppers" available just about anywhere. The peppers in the photo look suspiciously like Habaneros which is what I'd use because I'm a glutton for punishment.
Lilismom June 15, 2015
Thanks. Those, I CAN get as well as Habaneros.
Lilismom June 15, 2015
What could you substitute for the Caribbean peppers? They are not available where I lived.
Melissa June 15, 2015
We make these in Puerto Rico too, and we fill them with guava and white locally made cheese, shredded chicken, shrimp, crab or beef. We call them Pastelillos :)
Sharon June 3, 2015
My post was meant as a reply to GRET. Don't know why it ended up here.
Sharon June 3, 2015
Hi. I brush them with an egg wash for a nice golden sheen. I bake mine at 375° for about 20-25 minutes and check them at about 12 minutes. If they're browning too fast I turn the oven down to 350°. Keep an eye on them because cooking time may vary depending upon the size of your empanadas, and because ovens are calibrated differently. Good luck, they are delicious!
Pegeen June 3, 2015
Great recipe Sandra - thank you!

A former neighbor from Puerto Rico had a similar recipe, except that my neighbor always included one slice of hard boiled egg, placed whole on top of the meat, an a couple of pitted green olives. Do you know if the egg slice and olives are unique to certain cuisines? Thanks.
Sandra G. June 3, 2015
An addition of olives, eggs, and sometimes raisins is very common throughout Latin America. In my book, I explain why this is so.
Patricia J. June 9, 2015
How can I make the dough, if I cannot find in supermarket?
Sandra G. June 9, 2015
My book Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America has 10 different kinds of dough, with fully tested recipes, so check it out! Otherwise, make your favorite pastry dough and bake them instead. Hope this helps.
Emily B. June 3, 2015
Pardon my ignorance, but what is the sauce that these are served with? Or is it just sour cream? Is there a sauce you use that is especially good?
Sandra G. June 3, 2015
I think the photographer used sour cream and hot sauce but traditionally these are eaten without anything on them.
Sharon June 2, 2015
Great recipe, Sandra. Thanks!
Sandra G. June 2, 2015
Thank you, Sharon!
Sandra G. June 2, 2015
Yes, if you purchase empanada discs called "hojaldradas", which you can bake. Enjoy!
VinXpert June 2, 2015
I'm not sure what "hojaldradas" empanada discs are; I have never seen them in the Latin markets around here. I’ll try asking for them next time, but I have been making empanadas for many years with a number of different fillings (both savory and sweet) that my clients bake off — and I sometimes use the regular Goya discos instead of my own dough to save time. I always make a repulgue edge, because it is so attractive, and then brush the raw empanadas with olive oil so they brown well. I freeze them (IQF) for an hour on a sheet pan and then vacuum seal them for my clients to bake (from frozen). They love them and request empanadas often, so the regular discos do bake off well.
Sandra G. June 2, 2015
Yes, GOYA makes hojaldradas. But you can use most pre-packaged discs and bake them instead. My book is about authentic, traditional empanadas, so the ones featured are made using different cooking techniques, doughs, and fillings, depending on the country of origin. Also, the repulgue method is not traditional to this kind of empanada, but I do feature it in my book and offer instructions for beginners to perfect it. Check my book out! If you love empanadas, you might enjoy it.
sexyLAMBCHOPx June 2, 2015
Can you bake these?
Sharon June 2, 2015
I've been making these for years with all kinds of fillings and I never fry them. They taste great baked and everybody loves them. You can use any kind of crust you want, including your favorite pie crust recipe.
Gret June 3, 2015
I would love to try these & must bake them, instead of frying. Sharon do you brush them with oil, & what temp is your oven, & for how long? THANKS!