How to Make Galician Empanadas (The Original Empanadas)

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The original empanada. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I've had Galician food on my mind this past week, ever since Kenji wrote about how to cook pimientos de Padrón. I spent some time several years ago working on a farm in Galicia, Spain, where those peppers come from, and I have such great memories of the food there. It's a Spanish region that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

It's hard to pick a favorite Galician dish—how do you choose between a plate of those fried Padrón peppers and pulpo gallego (octopus with olive oil, salt, and pimentón)? But if I had to single one out, I think I'd go with the Galician empanada, both for its overall deliciousness and its global impact: The Galician empanada is, after all, the original empanada. That's right, every empanada in Latin America, from fried ones to baked ones, wheat doughs to corn, traces its ancestry back to the Galician version.

Unlike the Latin American empanadas most of us are familiar with, Galician empanadas are not formed as individual hand pies. Instead they're baked as a single large pie, either circular or rectangular, that is then cut into individual servings. Even so, it's still a portable food, one that farmers would often bring out to the fields to snack on while working. The dough is a yeasted wheat dough, and the filling almost always starts with a base of sautéed onions, green bell peppers, and garlic, then has some sort of protein added, frequently tuna or bonito, chicken, or octopus.

I learned how to make Galician empanadas from a woman named Elia, a farmer in Galicia, who taught me by making one while I stood by and watched. We didn't talk quantities or ratios or anything, not for the filling and not for the dough. A few days later I made my own, doing my best to copy the general blueprint she'd demonstrated. She enthusiastically approved of my results, and that was that. Ever since, I've always made them by following my intuition. People always talk about the need for exactness when baking, and I generally agree, but this was one recipe where I learned to feel my way though it. Working on this post, part of me wondered whether trying to make an official version would somehow backfire and I'd end up being unable to reproduce all my past successes.

Thankfully, I managed to figure out exact measurements and methods without ruining the finished product, and I'm really happy with the results. Here's how it goes.

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I start with a simple mixture of all-purpose flour, instant yeast, and salt.

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Then I add warm water, somewhere around 120°F, which encourages yeast activity and speeds up leavening of the dough. A faster leavening process doesn't produce the tastiest of breads—slower fermentation is better for that—but in this type of dish, the filling brings so much flavor that you're unlikely to notice subtleties in the bread, so I'm willing to sacrifice a tiny bit of flavor for speed.

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I also add olive oil to this dough. As Kenji recently explained in his piece on cemita rolls, adding fat to a dough inhibits gluten formation, making a slightly cakier, more tender dough. That's what we want here.

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I honestly have no idea why I did this by hand when we have a stand mixer in the SE test kitchen, except that that's how I've always done it. Frankly, the dough comes together so quickly, it's just as easy to use your hands.

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I mix and knead the dough until it's cohesive, moist, and elastic.

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And done!

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I drizzle the dough with some more olive oil, rubbing it all over the surface—I feel like this dough gets better and better the more fat you throw at it.

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Then I stretch the dough into a nice round ball with a taut surface and put it in a fresh bowl that's greased with even more oil—in this case, the oil just prevents the dough from sticking to the metal.

Then I cover the bowl with plastic and leave it to rise until at least doubled in size, which usually takes a couple of hours.

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While that's happening, I start on the filling. I take green bell peppers, which I dislike more often than not with only a few exceptions (a lot of Spanish cooking being one of them), and put them in a pan with plenty of oil. I like starting with the peppers because I want them to become incredibly soft.

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Once the peppers are hot and just barely starting to show signs of softening, I add the onions and garlic.

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I cook them all together until they're all very soft, but not browned.

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In this recipe, I'm adding tuna as the protein. I like to reach for a good olive oil-packed tuna here; it doesn't have to be Spanish in origin, though the Spanish definitely sell some good stuff.

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With the filling done and the dough risen, it's time to assemble the empanada. I divide the dough into two unequal portions, about two-thirds and one-third, respectively. The larger one will be for the bottom crust, the smaller one for the top crust.

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I roll out the larger one.

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I also grease my baking vessel. Here I'm using a stoneware baking dish because it was the best option in the SE test kitchen, though at home I often use a rimmed metal dish, which helps conduct more heat into the bottom of the empanada, browning and crisping the lower crust more. In retrospect, a large cast iron skillet would also work great...too bad I didn't think of it before we took these photos. If you don't have a metal dish, you can set the vessel on a preheated baking stone or steel in the oven to help get some heat up into the bottom of it.

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I stretch the dough into the baking dish.

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Then I add the filling...

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...and smooth it out.

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Next I roll out the top crust.

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And lay it down over the filling.

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With a knife or shears, I trim off any excess dough.

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Then I roll the overhanging bottom crust onto the top crust, sealing them together.

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I make a little steam vent in the center of the top crust, which prevents it from puffing up into an airy dome during baking.

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And for beauty's sake, I take a little of my dough trimmings and make a ring to grace the steam vent. Feel free to take more of your trimmings to fashion other designs on the top crust.

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Now it's ready to be baked.

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When your empanada comes out of the oven, it should be browned and piping hot. Let it cool a bit before cutting into it.

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Then cut slices.

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You can eat it right away, or let it cool to room temperature. It's a great snack to pack up for a walk or hike or lunch out and about, sort of like the farmers did back in the day.

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And please, eat it with your hands. Forks are nice in photos, but this is finger food for sure.