Why It Works
- Pulsing the jerky in a blender pulverizes it quickly and thoroughly.
- Cooking a relatively large amount of onions slowly brings out their sweetness, which complements the salty meat.
No matter where you find yourself in Argentina, there's probably an empanada nearby. One of my favorite ways to get to know a place when I'm traveling around the country is by sampling the local version of these ubiquitous snacks. While an Argentinian empanada might sound completely ordinary—a simple wheat dough stuffed with meat, most often beef, baked or fried—it's a bite-size expression of the land and its people.
For much of the country’s history, Argentines have depended on two staples: wheat flour and beef. Up until the 1980s, the average person’s annual beef consumption hovered between eighty and ninety kilograms, much of it likely eaten with a piece of bread to sop up the juices. So it makes sense that the country’s most popular handheld food, believed to have been introduced to this part of the continent by Spanish colonists five centuries ago, is a reflection of the nation’s two kitchen basics.
In February, I spent two weeks traveling across the northeastern state of Chaco, moving from the capital of Resistencia to El Impenetrable National Park, with long layovers in the bus stations of small towns along the way. In the village of Miraflores, I dipped into a comedor in search of hot coffee and a sweet pastry and ended up with empanadas and a cold soda. At 10 a.m., empanadas were the only thing that was ready to serve and there was just a single available filling: Carne al cuchillo, beef cut into small cubes and stewed, which I wasn’t allowed to order until its maker, Francisco Villagrán, showed up and turned on the deep fryer.
“The trick to a good empanada chaqueña,” he told me, “isn’t the beef but rather the onions.” For every kilogram of meat, he sautés twice as much onion in a slowly cooked sofrito, the sweetness balanced out with the addition of a generous amount of white pepper, paprika, and whatever else is on hand, usually dried herbs like parsley or oregano.
While patience for the perfect sofrito may be the trick to a proper empanada chaqueña, meat is another defining characteristic. In the northern reaches of the country, where temperatures climb high and isolated rural communities subsist largely off their lands, charqui, a dried beef jerky, is a popular and practical filling.
Miraflores is separated from Paraje La Armonia, a rural community that sits at the entrance of the park, by sixty kilometers and a bumpy dirt road that can only be traversed in a pickup truck when the weather's dry. A handful of families live there in almost complete isolation: there’s no internet, electricity is unreliable, and what they don't or can't grow on their own land is provided by food purchased from neighbors or brought in by friends and family members who live in small towns with supermarkets.
I had traveled to La Armonía to meet Estela Castellano, who spent two afternoons teaching me to make traditional dishes of this dry, densely forested area, and the first thing that I noticed was a thin piece of pulpa, or the upper thigh of the cow, doubled over like a sheet on a clothesline, drying into charqui under the hot sun. Her husband, Estebán, sat in the shade of his covered patio with a slingshot to ward off the birds.
Charqui is a meat preservation technique that dates back to pre-Colombian times, which spread from Peru down through the Andes Mountains. Meat is cut thin as a sheet and rubbed with salt, then hung in direct sunlight to dry in the heat of summer. In Northern Argentina, it is most often rehydrated in stews and used to stuff tamales and empanadas. In El Impenetrable, charqui isn’t just consumed out of respect for tradition; it's still as pragmatic as ever.
Estela was flattered that I wanted to learn her recipes. Quiet and perceptive, she shared bits of information only when she sensed that I needed it. Before we got started she warned me with a grin: “I don’t have anything written down so pay close attention.”
I did just that and realized quickly that every technical query ("How many grams of tallow per cup of flour?") would be met with a genuine, “I don’t know," particularly when it came to my questions about her empanada dough. Estela’s recipes don’t live on paper; rather, they live in her muscle memory, in the smell of tallow combining with flour, in the way that the dough softens around your fingers, in the slight yellow color of her finished masa, which felt more cloud-like than smooth in my hands—all of these sensory details were clues to building the right dough.
While Estela chopped onions and bell peppers with a serrated table knife, Estebán pounded the charqui in a mortar and pestle carved out of a thin tree log that was as tall as my hips. Estebán seasons his charqui with nothing more than salt and a few days worth of sunlight. It was sturdy and tore apart in long strings with visible motes of gristle and fat. And yet, after what felt like an eternity of watching him hammering away with the mortar, the jerky turned soft and stringy, with a consistency like cotton candy.
As I watched Estela make the empanada filling, I saw that she agreed with what Francisco had proclaimed back in Miraflores: onions were an essential ingredient. Except instead of double the weight of the jerky, Estela used a near three-to-one ratio of raw onion, cooked slow in abundant oil until they were soft and glistened with a honeyed hue. In a region defined by intense, unforgivable weather (the day we cooked together, the temperature hovered around 100ºF) onion is a dependable year round staple. But its abundant use didn’t feel merely practical. The sofrito technique was crucial to building out the flavor: The sweetness and caramel notes of the onions were perfect complements to the fatty jerky, the acidic tomato sauce, and the fresh green herbs and generous spoonfuls of white pepper, which was almost as important as the onions.
When Estela pulled the filling off the stovetop, the leathery jerky had been transformed and the filling had the texture of finely pulled meat, the perfect medium for the rest of her arsenal of standard but masterfully chosen pantry staples—paprika, chopped hard-boiled eggs, cooked-down bell peppers, oregano, fresh chives and thyme—packing each bite with sweetness, acidity, spice, and herby aromatics. Everything was folded into soft empanada discs and cooked in as high a heat as the oven could achieve until the dough turned sandy brown and flaky. I ate nearly a dozen between sips of a cold glass of lager. When I left, Estela handed me a tupper with another six that barely survived the rest of the afternoon.
Choosing the Right Jerky
Back at home, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to recreate that perfect afternoon. First came the daunting task of choosing a jerky. I settled on Buenos Aires-brand Charquiqui, which uses meat cut from the hind legs of young grass-fed cows. The beef is massaged with a secret flavoring blend, although owner Pablo Rojas revealed to me that among the principle flavors are organic honey, lime peels, and fresh pineapple and celery juice. The charqui has a subtle citrusy-sweet flavor profile with grassy, fatty notes that burst from the meat with each bite, similar to Estebán’s jerky. Charquiqui’s jerky is also slightly wet with a noticeable layer of fat, both of which reminded me of Estebán’s handmade jerky and made tearing it into shreds easier.
I initially tried to break the meat down with a wooden mortar and pestle, and quickly realized that the size and depth of the bowl were unsuitable for the task, and it was going to take a long time and a lot of elbow grease to create the cottony texture I was looking for. Estebán’s pestle and mortar allowed him to hammer the jerky rather than simply grind, breaking down the meat fiber with significantly more force. I tried instead to pulse batches of long shreds in a blender before kicking up the speed to high. It worked. After a minute, I had fluffy, cottony jerky.
Given the variations in salt levels of various brands of jerky, it's wise to be careful as you season the filling for these empanadas. Depending on the jerky you use, you may need little extra salt once the filling is done.
Taking Advantage of Pantry Staples
Estela’s choices for vegetables, herbs, and spices were perfectly on point but she assured me that tiny details change from year to year depending on what grows well in the yard. “The jerky, onions, and hard-boiled eggs are required to make an empanada de charqui but the rest can be made up depending on what you have on hand,” Estela assured me.
This year, a drought compounded by record heatwaves destroyed her small herb and vegetable garden: Only her chives survived. Rather than fresh herbs and whole spices, she used dried thyme and oregano and ground white pepper. I opted to use fresh thyme and freshly ground white pepper and a smoked paprika to add an extra layer of smokiness.
As for the fat in the dough recipe, the tallow that Estela used had a relatively neutral flavor. I tried to find something similar once I returned to Buenos Aires and began my own recipe testing, but despite the abundance of beef in Argentina, I failed to find any tallow that wasn't overly beefy. Instead, I shifted to using butter, which I found managed to make a dough that was comparable to Estela's. If you do want to use tallow (or pork lard), use two-thirds the amount of butter by weight as called for in the below recipe.
A Dozen Empanadas, Just for Me
Throughout the preparation, I took Estela’s lead and cooked patiently, paying attention to my senses more than my mock up of her recipe. I added water slowly, paying attention to how the dough softened in my hands and, when it came time to roll them out, I didn’t worry about perfect circles.
Likewise, I paid close attention to building flavor and listening to how the jerky sounded on the stovetop. I let the onions cook slow, nearly 20 minutes on very low heat, and rather than Estela’s estimated half cup of tomato sauce, I added an extra cup when I could hear the meat sizzling before the bell peppers had cooked through.
The final result took me back to that afternoon, hanging out for the day with Estela and Estebán on their patio. I couldn’t stop myself from eating a dozen—the sign of a great empanada. I wish I could’ve sent Estela what was left in a tupperware.
For the Dough:
2 1/2 cups (400g) all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons (70g) room temperature unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus more for greasing the baking sheet
2/3 cup (170m) lukewarm water
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon (11g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt use half as much by volume or same weight
For the Filling:
1/2 pound (250g) beef jerky (see note), torn into strips
3 medium onions (650g), chopped
3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups (225ml) uncooked tomato pureé, or passata
1 red bell pepper (180g), stemmed, seeded, and diced
1 green bell pepper (180g), stemmed, seeded, and diced
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves picked and chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 large eggs, hardboiled, peeled, and diced
Handful of fresh chives (20g), finely minced
For the Dough: In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Add the butter to the flour and salt mixture and toss to coat. Using clean hands, pinch the butter pieces flat. Gradually add water and mix with your hands until a slightly sticky dough forms. Transfer dough to a clean work surface and knead dough until it becomes soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Place dough in a plastic bag or wrap in plastic and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.
Meanwhile, for the Filling: Working in 3 separate batches, place jerky in a blender and pulse several times to break it up. Turn blender to high speed and blend until jerky is soft, light, and fluffy, like coarse cotton candy, about 1 minute. Set aside.
In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and stir until evenly coated with oil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching, until onion is soft and dark brown in color, about 20-30 minutes.
Increase heat to medium, stir in beef jerky and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in tomato purée, green bell pepper, red bell pepper, white pepper, smoked paprika, thyme, and oregano, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato sauce has reduced completely and bell peppers have softened, about 15 minutes. If tomato sauce reduces too much before bell peppers have cooked through completely, add water a tablespoon or two at a time to avoid scorching until pepper fully soften. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and let cool. Once cool, stir in hard-boiled eggs and chives. Season with salt, if needed. Set aside.
To Make the Empanada: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 500°F (260°C). Grease a rimmed baking sheet with butter. Using the palms of your hands, roll rested dough into a roughly 9-inch (24cm) cylinder. Cut into 24 pieces, approximately 30g each; each piece should be about the size of your thumb. Cover the pieces with plastic wrap or a damp cloth to prevent drying out. Working with one piece at a time, shape each piece of dough into a flattened disc. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough disc into a roughly 4-inch (10cm) circle.
Holding the dough disc in the palm of one hand, place a tablespoon (approximately 35g) of meat filling in the center of the disc. Fold the dough over the filling to enclose it, forming a half-moon shape; use your fingers to gently seal the edges together while making sure to push out any air bubbles.
Fold the right corner of empanada in towards the center and pinch to crimp. Working from that corner, continue crimping with a slight twisting motion to form points along the edge, so that the empanada looks like a half-sun with rays, then finish by folding the left corner in and pinching to crimp; be sure to work the dough gently to avoid air bubbles or tearing. Place formed empanada on prepared baking sheet and repeat process with remaining empanada discs and filling.
Bake empanadas until dough is lightly browned on the exterior, about 25 minutes. Remove empanadas from oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Kitchen scale, rolling pin, baking sheet, blender.
You will need to adjust the amount of salt you add depending on the saltiness of the beef jerky you use. The best type of beef jerky to use is sun-dried jerky, like carne seca or machaca, and I encourage you to try to seek out sun-dried jerkies made in small batches.
This dough does not need to be chilled. Doña Estela does not rest her dough before rolling out empanada discs. The other cooks I prepared empanadas with, Doña Graciela and Doña Zulma, rested their dough covered in the shade outdoors, for 30 minutes to 1 hour in 80-95ºF heat.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 8g||10%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||15%|
|Total Carbohydrate 18g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||5%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 21mg||106%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|