In the city of Salta in Argentina’s Northwest Andes, a good street empanada requires you to spread your knees. You’re meant to eat them “de patas abiertas”: open-legged and hunched over to let the juice spill onto the sidewalk instead of your pants. The absence of grease tinged by red chile pepper is the mark of a subpar empanada. Ride around Salta throughout the day, and you’ll see people enjoying empanadas and other street foods with sloppy enthusiasm. People gather by the train tracks to stuff themselves with fried potatoes filled with cheese. Even at El Patio de la Empanada, an outdoor food court complete with dishware and cutlery, the spirit of messiness is the same. Several stalls serve near identical menus of tripe, chopped beef, and jerky empanadas alongside bowls of locro, a hearty corn stew, each vendor calling you to sit at their table as soon as you arrive.
This is my fourth visit to the city, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed the density and uniqueness of its street food culture. Argentine culture demands sit-down meals that meander into long conversations well after the plates have cleared, and across the country, you’re often hard-pressed to find a quick bite, much less in the street. Yet in Salta, a city of 600,000, people pour onto the streets outside plazas and food markets to eat steaming tamales, greasy plain pizza, or Bolivian-style cow heel stew. I suspect their characteristically bite-sized empanadas, which can be eaten quickly at any time of day, are partly responsible.
Lucía Blanco picks me up at the bus station to take me on an impromptu empanada tour. She is the owner of Las Gauchas, an empanada shop that specializes in takeaway and frozen empanadas. Blanco’s introduction to the food world began at her father’s small kiosk, where he sold empanadas that she helped make. Each day, she’d fold the repulgue, a word that describes the skilled act of sealing the empanada dough in a decorative braid.
Today, she regularly visits her favorite spots to understand what makes each empanada and its maker special. At each of the four stops we make, Blanco is able to recount the story behind every shop and points out minuscule details that make each place unique. Sharing a list of spots with me, she encourages me to try them on my own and tells me what to look for, like the number of folds in each braid, the char of a wood-burning oven or red dough prepared with local chile peppers.
She starts by taking me to the home of Marta Savaria, who serves patrons on her back patio. Ground chile pepper similar to paprika gives the empanada dough a characteristic yellow hue. And at El Buen Gusto, the repulgue is so tightly bound and perfectly uniform that there are rumors the shop invented a secret machine to make their empanadas. “Some shop owners probably think I’m some kind of spy,” Blanco jokes as she compares three identical-looking empanadas. “I just really love empanadas.”
In Argentinian empanada making, local recipes tend to be inflexible and limited to just a few doughs and fillings. Whether empanadas are made with lard- or margarine-based doughs, are fried or baked, or contain chunks of potato or sliced green olives, the rules of provincial empanadas are frequently dictated by rigid creeds.
But in Salta, where empanadas are sold from street corners, private homes, and restaurants, there’s more variety and less dogma. And despite a local preference for chopped beef empanadas charred by a wood oven, my favorites are consistently the cheese empanadas topped with llajwa, a spicy grated tomato sauce—specifically the ones prepared outside the vital records office in downtown Salta by women who roll dough and stuff shells all afternoon. They sell so quickly that they’re practically made to order.
Back home in Buenos Aires, I wanted to make my own Salta-style empanadas by pulling from all my favorite details from my trip, and then adding a few touches of my own. I started with the dough: I infused butter with crushed chile powders that lent a golden tint and, when rested in the fridge overnight, developed a hint of sweetness.
I settled on three cheeses for the filling: an elastic tybo, a block cheese similar to a Monterey Jack, for a long pull and fontina and young goat cheese to add nuttiness and tang. I included potatoes and onions—a local technique to add texture and starch to help soak up the extra fat from the cheese. “It helps you eat one after another,” Blanco explained. “Without the potato, the melted cheese feels like a block in your stomach.”
Blanco also adds vegetable broth to her cheese filling for extra flavor and juice. Her industrial production line justifies making pots of broth—my measly dozen didn’t. Instead, I finely diced pickled kitucho chiles (a wild pepper similar to chiltepins), added a few spoonfuls of its pickle juice, and additional crushed chile pepper to add undertones of spice and zest to the cheese.
I spent a Sunday afternoon carefully folding and twisting empanadas at my dining table until I’d formed seven dozen, most of which were bagged and sent off to friends across the city. Included were bags of hot sauce and instructions to be careful not to stain their pants.
For the Dough: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add Spanish paprika and crushed red pepper flakes and whisk until the paprika infuses the butter, about 20 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a measuring cup, whisk salt into the warm water until it dissolves. In a large mixing bowl, add flour. Make a well in the center about 4 inches wide. Add the melted butter to the well and, using a fork, mix butter into the flour until you have a sandy texture. Gradually add water and, using your hands, mix until a smooth dough forms, 2 to 3 minutes. (Be careful not to over-knead, as developing too much gluten will create hard empanada shells.). Cover dough with a damp towel and rest until the dough is soft and pliable, 30 minutes at room temperature.
For the Filling: While the dough rests, in a medium saucepan, combine onions, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and cook over medium-low heat until soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes; set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine potatoes, 3 cups water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender and offer little resistance when pierced with a paring knife, about 3 minutes. Drain potatoes, transfer to a heatproof bowl along with the onions and set aside to cool. Once onions and potatoes have cooled, stir in tybo, fontina, and goat cheeses, pickled peppers and their juices, and crushed red pepper flakes.
For the Llajwa (Hot Sauce): Split tomatoes in half horizontally. Place a box grated into a large bowl. Rub cut faces of tomatoes over the large holes of a box grater, using the flattened palm of your hand to move the tomatoes back and forth. The flesh should be grated off, while the skin remains intact in your hand. Discard skin. Stir hot peppers, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil into grated tomatoes. Add additional salt, olive oil, and hot pepper to taste, as necessary. Set aside.
Form and Fill the Empanadas: After 30 minutes, divide the dough in half; return one half of the dough to the bowl and cover with a damp towel. Using your fists or the palm of your hand, press dough down until it’s about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly dust with flour and, using a pasta sheeter or rolling pin, roll dough to 2mm thick. (Do your best to create an even, rectangular shape, which will help you get the most out of the dough with your cutter.)
Using a 4-inch-wide (13cm) circular cookie cutter, cut discs out of the dough. You should have a total of 20 to 24 discs, with each weighing 25 to 28 grams. Cover discs with a damp towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Repeat the process with the remaining half of the dough. If necessary, repurpose and roll out any leftover dough once to punch out additional discs as needed. Cover discs with a damp towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out.
Holding a disc of dough in the palm of your hand, pinch one end to create a tulip shape. Place a generous tablespoon of filling (about 25g) in the center of the disc. Fold the dough over the filling to enclose, forming a half-moon shape. Use your fingers, dampening with water if necessary, to gently seal the edges together while making sure to push out any air bubbles (see notes).
Fold the right corner of the empanada in towards the center and pinch to crimp. Working from that corner, continue crimping to form points along the edge so that the empanada looks like half of a sun with rays. (Be sure to work the dough gently to avoid air bubbles or tearing, and use your index finger to squeeze the filling in if necessary.) Repeat with remaining dough and filling, placing formed empanadas on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
To Fry the Empanadas: Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet and line rack with a double layer of paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat 2.5 inches oil over medium-high heat to 350°F (177°C). Working in batches of 6, carefully add empanadas to hot oil, dropping them from as close to the oil’s surface as possible to minimize splashing. Fry, using a spider or slotted spoon to flip the empanadas halfway through, until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes. Transfer empanadas to prepared wire rack.
Return oil to 350° and repeat frying process with remaining empanadas, continuing to work in batches of 6. Serve hot with the llajwa.
Pasta roller or rolling pin, 4-inch (10cm) circular cookie cutter, slotted spoon or spider
This recipe can be easily doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, if desired.
If unable to find tybo cheese, substitute with Monterey Jack.
If unable to find Scotch bonnet pepper, substitute with a habanero pepper.
You may have to dip your finger in water and run it around the edge of the dough before pressing to seal the empanadas shut.
The empanadas can also be baked. To bake the empanadas, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400ºF (205ºC). Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment and bake empanadas for 15 minutes until golden brown.
If making a larger batch, be sure to keep extra empanada dough rounds tightly wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator to avoid drying out.
For a more pronounced flavor in the dough, prepare empanadas a day ahead, reserve tightly covered in plastic wrap in the fridge, and fry the following day.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Empanadas are great for freezing for up to three months preserved in tightly sealed tupperware or plastic bags. Place empanadas on a lightly floured plate, baking sheet or baking pan that fits in your freezer, being careful not to let them touch. Once frozen, they can be stored in a plastic bag and shouldn’t stick to one another.
Prepping the empanadas the day before will allow the chile pepper flavor in the dough to become more pronounced and less muted by the frying.