Chemist in the Kitchen

July 8, 2015 at 11:30 am

A Family Recipe: Beef Empanadas

A Family Recipe: Beef Empanadas

My hot-blooded Latina mother has never granted me the privilege to write down any of the family recipes. Normally, she guards her secret formulas with sharp knives and booby traps, but recently she trusted me with the family beef empanada recipe. Little does she know that I have decided to share it with all of you wonderful people on my food blog! (Mamá, if you’re reading this: Lo siento mucho de verdad mamá… ¡No fue mi intención lastimarte!)


Let’s start with a little history before getting to the yummy stuff. Argentinean cuisine and culture has been hugely dependent on their beef production industry. Not only does Argentina have the second highest consumption of beef in the world (beaten out by Hong Kong for first place), but their beef production industry has even led to political uprisings in the past. The Spaniards first brought cows to Argentina in the mid 1800’s, and their population rapidly increased thanks to the geographical climate (the cows, not the Spaniards). With the improvements of transportable refrigeration in the late 1800’s also came a greater demand for beef exportation from Argentina due to the flipping of seasons between the northern and southern hemispheres: wintertime in the U.S. and Europe is during summertime in Latin America. Argentine landowners of cattle farms quickly earned massive amounts of financial wealth from the beef production and export industry and—as is common in many political systems—became very influential on Argentina’s government and economy. In an effort to increase their profits, these wealthy landowners convinced the Argentine government to increase taxes on beef exported from Argentina subsequently leading to numerous political uprisings, most notably the Meat Riots of 1905 in Chile, which were one of Santiago’s first political uprisings ever. Holy cow.


With all of this in mind, it is of no surprise that one of the most typical Argentinean dishes is beef empanadas. Just like barbecue in the U.S. or ramen in Japan, empanadas vary in filling ingredients, cooking methods, and appearance depending on the province. All Argentine beef empanadas, however, have one major attribute in common regardless of location: the science.


Floured Surface


When talking about the science of empanadas, we can break this up into two major aspects of the dish: the dough and the filling.


Let’s start with the dough. Empanadas can be either baked (as done in the Salta province) or fried (as done in the Tucumán province). Regardless of the cooking method, the empanada dough is characterized by a distinct flaky texture that doesn’t rise, indicating that it is low in gluten. They key to achieving this dough is the addition of an acid, which in this recipe is identified as the vinegar. Gluten formation prefers a specific acid concentration (specifically, pH 5-6); by adding vinegar to the dough, the acid concentration is increased out of this preferred range, thus decreasing the pH of the dough and the amount of gluten that is formed. Simultaneously, the added acid inhibits a molecule (the enzyme known as alpha-amylase) that breaks down starch, thus allowing the starch to stay intact and provide the dough with some structure. The result is a delicious, flaky crust with structured layers.


Cooked Filling


Next up, the beef filling. This tasty filling is moreso a psychological trick than anything else. At first glance, the filling doesn’t look particularly special in any regard, but upon tasting you’ll notice that it has a distinct mixture of flavors. This is accomplished by adding a sweet component (dark raisins) and a briny component (black olives) that can intertwine seamlessly into the ground beef. The colors of these components make it difficult to differentiate between the two, and their hidden sweet-and-sour flavors that they contribute keep you guessing and wanting more.


The traditional method of folding empanadas is with a twist. Here is a quick video on how to twist empanadas (sorry for the low quality, I didn’t want to tell my mom that this was going on my food blog…):


Cooked Empanadas


So there you have it, a delicious ode to my dear Argentina. Until next time! (If there is a next time. Te amo, mamá… please don’t kill me).


With love,



A Family Recipe: Beef Empanadas

Prep Time: 50 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 12 empanadas

A Family Recipe: Beef Empanadas


    For the dough:
  • 1 stick butter or margarine, cut into small chunks (equivalent to 1/2 cup)
  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp table salt
  • 1/3 cup very cold water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 ½ Tbsp vinegar
    For the filling:
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped very fine
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste, divided by tablespoon
  • 3 Tbsp water, divided by tablespoon
  • ½ cup finely chopped green pepper
  • ½ cup thinly sliced black olives
  • 1/3 cup dark red raisins
  • 1 pinch of table salt (1/8 tsp)
  • 2 quarts canola oil


    Directions for dough:
  1. Place the cut up margarine or butter on a plate in a single layer and place in freezer for 20 minutes.
  2. Sift together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the margarine/butter to the flour and gently blend into the flour using only your fingertips until you achieve pea-sized chunks in the mixture (you want to avoid using your palms so that the heat from your hands does not melt the margarine/butter).
  3. In a small bowl, combine the cold water, eggs, and vinegar and whisk to combine. Slowly add to the flour mixture while gently stirring.
  4. Turn out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead ONLY 2-3 times until the dough comes together. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
    Directions for the filling:
  1. Add the olive oil to a non-stick skillet and heat on low. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden.
  2. Add half of the ground beef and break up with a spoon. Add the other half of the ground beef and repeat. Mix well with the onions until they are well-incorporated.
  3. Increase the heat to medium-low. Add 1 Tbsp tomato paste and 1 Tbsp water and mix to incorporate. Repeat twice.
  4. Add the green pepper, mix to incorporate, and allow to cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
  5. Increase the heat to medium. Add the olives, raisins, and salt and mix to incorporate. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before using. In the meantime, prepare the dough.
    Filling the Empanadas:
  1. On a very well floured surface, turn out the dough and cut in half. Use one half at a time.
  2. Roll out the dough to ¼ inch thickness. Using a small bowl, cut out rounds approximately 4-5 inches in diameter. Set aside rounds on a well floured surface.
  3. Add ¼ cup beef filling into the middle of the dough circle. Fold in half to create a half-moon and pinch in the center, then continue pinching onto each end. Twist the dough to seal. (Refer to video)
  4. Heat 2 quarts of canola oil in a small saucepan on medium heat.
  5. Gently drop in the empanadas into the oil two at a time (no more than that to avoid crowding the oil) and allow to cook approximately 2 minutes, until golden brown. Make sure that the empanadas are completely submerged in oil. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain. Serve immediately.


*If you prefer not to fry these empanadas, they can also be baked. To do this, brush the empanadas with an egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp water, beaten lightly) and bake at 350 degrees F for 12-15 minutes. The texture will be a little drier than the fried method, but still very delicious.


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3 thoughts on “A Family Recipe: Beef Empanadas

  1. Frida Zipkin says:

    Too late to get upset…Goodbye “Family recipe for beef empanadas” and hello “Argentinian beef empanadas” for everybody to enjoy! Tamar’s mom

  2. Justine says:

    Ohh so yummy! I’m glad you shared such a top-secret recipe because I’d love to try making these :D Great video, too ;)

    1. Thanks! They’re so delicious. Also I have some potential plans for that lavender coming up soon… ;-)

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