Why It Works
- Adding a little oil to the dough yields tender, moist arepas.
- Shaping a portion of the dough to check its consistency before working in additional water ensures the arepas do not become dense and gummy.
- Cooking the arepas slowly over low heat allows them to cook through without burning.
The first time I went to Colombia, my not-yet-wife warned me that I'd be eating arepas. A whole lot of them. What she didn't prepare me for was the baffling array of styles they come in. If you're like I was back then, you hear the word arepa, and you think "Oh, it's that Venezuelan/Colombian corn cake, right?" And you probably have an image in your mind of a thick tortilla.
But to think in that narrow scope is the equivalent of a Colombian native hearing about bread and saying, "Oh, it's that European wheat cake, right?" Within the first three days alone, I sampled over a dozen different varieties of arepas. The most basic in the Bogotá region are made with starchy white corn flour pressed into cakes about a quarter-inch thick, then griddled or grilled until cooked through, and served with butter, cheese, or hogao, a cooked mixture of onions and tomato.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. You'll find arepas stuffed with cheese and baked on hot stones in coal-fired ovens. Arepas with sour milk cheese worked right into the dough. Arepas de choclo, made like a pancake with sweet corn on a hot griddle. Arepas de huevo, golden yellow deep-fried puffy arepas split open and stuffed with an egg. Tiny arepitas eaten as a snack. Even packages of arepa-flavored corn chips. Move out of Colombia into Venezuela, and you'll find thicker arepas split open and stuffed with fillings ranging from cheese and beans to pork or shrimp.
It's a wide, wide world out there, but we've got to start somewhere. Here, I give instructions for making basic Colombian-style arepas. You can add crumbled cheese to the dough for more flavor, but for a richer, gooier result, you might want to try stuffing your arepas with cheese. Thicker Venezuelan-style arepas require a slightly different cooking method. Here is my basic recipe, as well as one for pulled-pork-filled arepas rumberas.
Mixing the Dough
Traditionally, arepas are made by soaking and pounding dried corn in a pilón—a large mortar and pestle. The moist pounded dough would then be shaped into cakes and cooked. These days, most folks buy pre-cooked, dehydrated masarepa—arepa flour—that only needs to be mixed with water and salt to form a dough. Masarepa is pretty widely available in the United States (check the Latin aisle of your supermarket: Goya, PAN, and Areparina are popular brands). It comes in both yellow and white varieties. I usually use the white masarepa.
Making arepa dough takes a bit of practice, but if you've ever made tortillas, you're off to a good start. The key is to use only as much moisture as is necessary to get a dough that doesn't crack when you shape it. Too much water and you'll end up with dense, gummy arepas. The simplest arepas use only water and salt, but I find a bit of oil helps to keep them softer and moist as they cook.
The actual amount of water you'll need depends on the brand of masarepa you use, but a good basic rule of thumb is to start with a 1:1 ratio (by volume), then add more water as necessary. I add about a half teaspoon of kosher salt and a half teaspoon of oil per cup of masarepa and water.
This is about the right amount. After adding your water and salt, let the dough sit covered with a damp kitchen towel or plastic wrap for five minutes or so to make sure that it's fully hydrated, then add more water if it still feels dry.
Shaping and Cooking
Shaping an arepa is a two-handed process. If you're a real expert, you can do it without a work surface, simply pressing it back and forth between your hands until it forms a disk about a quarter inch thick and four to six inches wide. I find it easier to shape on a cutting board, using one hand to flatten and the other to shape.
Once the arepas are formed, there are a few cooking options. A grill pan or actual grill is great, as is a flat, lightly buttered skillet (use cast iron or non-stick). Even easier is a panini press.
Whatever method you use, the key is low, slow heat. You want to cook slowly in order to drive off excess moisture from the interior as the exterior gets slowly browned. A well-made arepa should take at least 10 to 15 minutes to cook.
Want to take your arepas to the next level? Try adding some cheese directly to the dough.
Young Colombian cheese tends to be slightly sour and has a relatively high melting point, which is necessary when you incorporate it into the arepa dough. You don't want it to melt all over the place while you cook. (For using melty cheeses, see my recipe for cheese-stuffed arepas.)
You can use traditional Colombian farmer's cheese, feta, cotija, ricotta salata, or even a relatively young Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano will work (if using the latter two, cut the amount called for in half).
After that, forming the arepas and cooking them is exactly the same.
April 19, 2012
1 1/2 cups masarepa (see notes)
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) finely crumbled queso fresco (optional, see notes)
1 cup water, plus more as necessary
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons butter
Combine masarepa, cheese (if using), water, and vegetable oil in a medium bowl and knead with hands until a dough is formed. Take a small amount and flatten it between your palms. If the edges crack, knead in more water, a tablespoon at a time, until dough is supple and smooth but not sticky. Season dough to taste with salt, then cover and set aside for 5 minutes.
Divide dough into 4 even pieces and roll into balls. Working on a wooden cutting board or a regular cutting board with a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper on top of it, flatten each ball down to a disk about 5 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick.
Melt butter in a 12-inch cast iron or non-stick skillet over medium-low heat (see notes). Add arepas and cook, moving them around the pan and rotating them occasionally, until first side is charred in spots and a dry crust has formed, about 5 minutes. Flip arepas and cook on second side until a dry crust has formed, about 5 minutes longer. Continue cooking, flipping every minute or so, until arepas are mostly dry and relatively stiff, about 5 minutes longer. Serve hot with cheese, melted butter, or toppings of your choice.
Masarepa is dehydrated cooked cornmeal. It is available in the Latin section of most supermarkets in either white or yellow varieties. This recipe calls for white, but they can be freely substituted. Popular brands include Goya and P.A.N.
Crumbled cheese can be added if desired. Depending on the moisture level of the cheese, you may not need all the water. Colombian-style queso fresco is ideal. If you can't find it, substitute cotija, ricotta salata, or feta.
Arepas can also be cooked on a greased panini press or a grill over low heat.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 5g||6%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||8%|
|Total Carbohydrate 33g||12%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*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.|