There’s a lot riding on your salteña-eating game.
Salteñas are the Bolivian version of an empanada, but unlike empanadas, these chubby football-shaped pastries are overflowing with brothy stew. They feature the geyser-like qualities of a soup dumpling, all wrapped up in a sweet and tender crust. One wrong bite will leave hot broth bursting through the pastry, both scalding your fingers and threatening to stain your reputation. In Bolivia the first to dribble is stuck with the bill, while excessive spilling means you’ll be haunted by five years of bad sex. I usually smash the whole thing in a bowl and dig in with a spoon—I wonder what that says about me?
The key to packing the pastry with maximum soup-age is a sticky and concentrated gelatin-rich broth which sets like a wiggly Jell-O Jiggler when chilled. Once baked in a hot oven, the filling melts and gurgles inside its buttery shell, waiting to spurt out. The stew can be made with chicken, beef, or no meat at all; I’ve opted for the chicken version here, with all the traditional seasonings. The pastries get their signature flavor from a savory combination of oregano and aji panca (a mild, fruity Peruvian pepper) that complements the sweet crust. The stew is studded with peas and golden raisins, which plump with broth as they cook. Each salteña also has a surprise sliver of hard boiled egg and a black olive tucked into it before it's swaddled with pastry.
Making salteñas is a long, multistep process that might require you to clear out a weekend to tackle in stages. Luckily, once they're filled and formed, you can park them in your freezer, after which they require as much effort as a Hot Pocket to bake. Make enough (this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled) and you'll be reaping the rewards of your hard work for a long time to come.
Step One: The Broth
Broth is the foundation to a good salteña, so it’s important to start building flavor right from the start. Traditionally, beef marrow bones or chicken feet are slowly simmered to extract their collagen, which sets the filling into a gel. That said, you'll often find recipes that take a bit of a shortcut by combining boxed broth and powdered gelatin to recreate that long-cooked extraction. Because salteñas are already such a labor of love, I think it's worth it to put in the extra inactive time of making my own broth.
I reach for tried and true chicken wings for my broth. Daniel’s chicken stock testing has already revealed that wings have the best flavor-to-cost ratio. Chicken wings also offer up enough gelatin to set the broth, while being easier to track down than chicken feet. For a prominent chicken-forward flavor, I roast the wings in a hot oven before simmering them in water—the same method I used when creating my ultimate chicken noodle soup. Unroasted white chicken stocks are excellent chameleons that can sneak into a pan sauce for seared duck or stand-in for the beef broth in French onion soup, but chicken should take center stage in this recipe, and the browned flavors from roasting will help it get there.
To roast the wings, I spread them directly on an unlined roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet and pop them into a hot oven. Once golden brown, I pour off the rendered chicken fat and reserve it for cooking the stew. The area where each wing was in direct contact with the pan will develop a dark and crackly fond, which I deglaze with a splash of water and scrape up with a wooden spoon.
I simmer the wings, with just enough water to cover them, for about three and a half hours before adding the vegetables. (Alternatively, you can cook it in a pressure cooker for one and a half hours.) I add my vegetables toward the end because their flavor quickly grows muddy after about 30 minutes of simmering. Instead of the more common combo of carrots, onion, and celery, I finish the broth with red bell peppers, onion, and garlic to echo the latin flavors of sofrito.
The strained broth should be reduced to just about five cups to ensure that the gelatin is concentrated enough to set. I find it’s easier to slightly over-reduce the stock and dilute it with water to achieve the correct volume—otherwise, you're stuck returning it to the pot to keep simmering it down after straining.
Step Two: The Stew
The filling will essentially be cooked twice—first as the stew simmers on the stovetop, and again as the pastry browns in a ripping hot oven. That’s why I like to use bone-in and skin-on thighs, which remain tender and juicy despite the double dose of heat. As a bonus, those bones also add even more collagen to the already rich broth.
I start by lightly seasoning chicken thighs with salt and searing them in the reserved chicken fat. I prefer to do this in a Dutch oven, which provides even heat and browning, but any heavy bottomed pot will work. Once the thighs are browned, I set them aside, pour off any excess fat, and add diced onion and minced garlic, cooking until they're translucent and tender. Next, I toss in the spices for a quick bloom in oil, followed by the chicken wing broth, diced potatoes, and raisins. After this mixture comes to a simmer, I return the thighs to the pot, cover, and gently simmer until the meat is cooked through.
I let the stew cool off for just a bit before getting handsy with the thighs. You may be tempted to remove the thighs from the stew to speed things up, but it’s always best to allow braised meat to cool in their cooking liquid to prevent them from drying out. I pick the meat from the bones and tear them into small bite-sized chunks, discarding the bones and skin, before stirring the meat back into the stew along with a handful of peas.
Finally, I transfer the mixture to a shallow dish to cool in the refrigerator. The stew needs to fully chill and set before it’s ready to wrap with pastry. When all's said and done, the stew will be stiff enough to slice.
Step Three: The Dough
The pastry for the salteñas needs to be heartier than your usual pie dough—capable of containing a whopping cupful of juicy filling without cracking or breaking—so it’s traditionally made with a hot water pastry for stability and strength. Using hot water in your crust causes the starch granules to quickly swell and drink in liquid while you’re mixing the dough, so it doesn’t sop up your broth later. It’s essentially like putting down a layer of shellac between the crust and the filling. Hot water also quickly develops gluten without kneading, giving us enough the structure and elasticity to form the salteñas without turning the pastry tough or bready.
I start by melting butter with some annatto for color. The gentle warmth blooms the spice, giving the melted fat a deep sunset hue, which in turn saturates the dough for that trademark golden salteña glow. The addition of annatto is just for color—you can always leave it out or use a combination of paprika and turmeric in its place. After whisking the flour, salt, and sugar, I add the melted butter and mix it in thoroughly with my hands. Once fully incorporated, it will feel similar to streusel, holding together in large clumps when squeezed but easily crumbling back into wet sand. A small amount of boiling water helps it comes together into a smooth dough.
The final step here is to divide the dough into even portions, folding it onto itself until it forms a smooth ball. I pat the dough balls into disks to make them easier to roll out, and cover them with plastic until I’m ready to assemble.
Step Four: Putting it Together
How to Form Salteñas
I roll each disk of dough on a lightly floured surface into an eight-inch round (it should be just an eighth of an inch thick). Running an offset spatula underneath the dough will ensure it's not stuck to your countertop. Each disk gets a big scoop of chilled filling in the center of the dough, which I crown with a piece of hard boiled egg and two olive halves.
To seal the pastries, I start by brushing the edges of the dough with egg white. Then I lift the edges of the dough up and over the filling, pinching them closed to form a plump crescent with a seam running across the top. I finally crimp the seam shut to ensure that no filling escapes while baking.
I place the salteñas on a sheet tray and transfer them to the freezer to chill for at least an hour before baking, or until fully frozen for long term storage (you can bake them straight from the freezer when you're ready). For a shiny finish, I brush the pastries with egg white just before transferring them to a hot oven. You'll know they're ready when the crust is golden brown and the seam is crisp and blackened. You’ll be able to hear the filling rumbling on the inside; if your seam is tight, not a drop will have escaped.
If you want to eat a salteña like a pro, hold it vertically and take a nibble off the top to open it up. This is the perfect opportunity to pour in some hot sauce if you want to perk up that rich stew. Then slurp and nibble until you’re though, pausing in between bites to cool down with the classic pairing of ice cold Coca Cola. You’re on your way to becoming a true Bolivian now!