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.
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.
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…):
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).