Just don’t overfill it! (And a few other handy tips for mastering this Latin American favourite.)
Kylie Walker

28 Jun 2021 - 2:22 PM  UPDATED 25 Jun 2021 - 3:57 PM

 --- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm, or stream it free after broadcast on SBS On Demand. See Kylie Javier Ashton in the episode on Thursday 1 July --- 


Kylie Javier Ashton calls it “the messy but fun bit”. She’s talking about shaping empanadas - turning circles of pastry dough and filling them into neat hand pies with quickly crimped edges.

Watching her make them in The Cook Up with Adam Liaw, you’d think she’d been doing it all her life, but when we chat to the restaurant manager (most recently the long-time manager of Sydney’s hugely successful Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney) it turns out she’s mostly self-taught. That’s good news for those of anyone who wonders if they can master the movement needed to neatly crimp the edges of an empanada. (Surprisingly, that includes Liaw – “I want to see you fold an empanada. I don't know how. I struggle with these. Curry puffs, empanadas, anything that needs that crimped edge, I always struggle with it,” he confesses in the show.

Javier Ashton says it’s just a matter of practice – and don’t worry if your first efforts aren’t neat.

“I've watched my aunts make empanadas, but really I just taught myself through reading recipes and trial and error. The first few batches I made looked pretty dodgy! I just kept at it until I felt more confident but I'm by no means an expert,” she says.

Empanadas, a cousin of sorts to the curry puffs of Indonesia and Malaysia, the rissole (the pastry kind, not the meatball) of South Africa and France, and the Cornish pasty of England, are hugely popular across Latin America. As Sandra A. Gutierrez writes in Empanadas – The hand-held pies of Latin America, the name derives from the Latin phrase in panis, meaning “in bread”.  Most empanadas, in fact, are made with pastry dough, not yeasted bread dough. Gutierrez writes that initially, empanadas spread across the globe with the global expansion of the Spanish empire, arriving in the Americas in the 1500s. From there, each country developed its own variations, until today there are endless different types, varying in name, dough, shape and filling. And not just in Latin America – empanadas are a favourite in the Philippines (try this one from Peter Kuruvita), and in Indonesia there’s the panada, which is a similar dish but usually made with a yeasted dough.

Empanadas vary, too, in how they are cooked: while many are baked, some are fried and you may even spot recipes for empanadas that can be cooked on a barbecue, such as these Argentinian empanadas mendocinas.

Top tips

No matter what style of empanada you’re making, there’s one tip that applies universally. “Don't overfill your empanadas,” Javier Ashton says. “Otherwise, it makes it hard to fold them and often the fillings will spill out.

Black bean and sweet potato empanadas

I love savoury pastries. These work as a great appetiser for a dinner party or an awesome lunchbox snack. The beans and sweet potato are so hearty you won’t even miss the meat.

“When I first started making them, I would make them one at a time which was messy and much more time-consuming. I think it's because I was reading from the recipe and just following the steps then repeating. The best way to do it is to roll out all your dough and cut all the circles out of them; or divide them into balls and roll them flat. Then, have your filling ready and fold all of them at the same time.

“Also, make sure your butter is cold but not hard. If it's too hard (straight out of the fridge) it will take longer for the dough to come together and you risk overworking your dough and it becoming stiff. If your butter is too soft and warm, your dough will be gooey and it'll make it difficult to shape and fold the dough.”

And if you find some of the traditional shapes tricky, don't worry. While the shape of an empanada and the way the edges are sealed - from half-moons with neat, rope-like twists along the edge to rectangular parcels or rounded dumpling shapes - are traditionally related to the filling, it will be delicious no matter what you do. The easiest options are to simply press the edges together or to use a fork to press a design into the edge. 

All the fillings

You can use almost anything in an empanada. Spiced beef is a classic, often with olive, eggs or sometimes sultanas or raisins, which harks back to the Moorish influences in Spain. Try it in these baked Argentinian empanadas, a beef, onion, capsicum, cumin, paprika and cinnamon filling in an easy butter, flour, salt and water dough.

Or this version, from the Argentinian region of Jachal, which has a beef, mixed spices, olive and boiled egg filling.

In some coastal areas, seafood empanadas are popular – such as these crisp golden prawn empanadas (empanadas de camaron) from the coastal city of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico.

There are plenty of vegetarian options, such as these corn empanadas (empanadas de humita) or these crunchy shredded jackfruit empanadas.

What is Javier Ashton’s favourite filling?  

“The sweet potato and black bean one I made on The Cook Up is a favourite of mine because it's vego but still feels really meaty. It's also a great thing to make if you're having people over as it covers any vegetarians or pescetarians. 

“I've made some filled with cheese and served them with Bajan hot sauce. Hot out of the oven they are nice and gooey. If I'm feeling extra decadent I might add some chorizo and chives in the filling.

“I also love the Filipino empanadas filled with minced beef. I generally don't make them at home because it's a little more labour intensive having to cook off the meat. However, if you've got leftovers in the fridge like Bolognese sauce, it'd be a great way to repurpose your leftovers by putting them into empanadas!”

Very versatile

As this recipe from Angela Nahas for Brazilian hearts of palm empanadas (empadinha de palmito) notes, empanadas are perfect for picnics since they're just as good at room temperature as they are served warm from the oven. You can also freeze them after assembling, ready to bake later.

Hearts of palm empanadas.

You can switch and swap fillings and doughs (but stick to the cooking method given in the recipe – some doughs are specifically suited to baking and some to frying). As Gutierrez notes in her book, some doughs are stretchier than others, so if you do choose to change to a different dough, you might find you have extra filling. Not a problem, she says – cook and serve on toast!

The sweet side

Empanadas are mostly savoury – but there are delicious sweet variations too, such as these Salvadorian plantain empanadas (empanadas de platano), a recipe from the Feast magazine archives.

We’ve barely touched the surface on these highly varied, delicious hand pies. If you’re keen to dive deeper, Sandra Gutierrez’s book Empanadas is an excellent resource. Gutierrez grew up in Guatemala, and has written widely about Latin American food, her book packs a surprisingly large amount of information in its pages. She dives into the different dough types, including gluten-free and vegan styles, and the method for creating that rope-like folded edge, plus each recipe has freezing instructions too.

For more empanada recipes, and other hand-sized parcels, check out SBS Food’s hand pie recipe collection.

Many more empanadas
Chicken and chorizo empanadas

Traditional in Spain, Portugal and Latin and South America, empanadas are little pastry pockets with an intensely flavoured savoury filling. They are great eaten any time but make a particularly good tapas-style snack with a cold beer.

Chicken and olive empanadas

Empanadas are the quintessential hand-pies. These ones are full of flavour with a hint of spicy heat for good measure.

Open eggplant and capsicum empanadas

Great for a snack, these vegetarian open empanadas are light on pastry and big on herbs.

Argentinian meat pies (empanadas Argentinas)

Some people will say that empanadas are meat pies but they are not. There is no gravy inside the pastry, but nor is it dry. The pastry can be bought, but the secret is how to make the filling to be authentically Argentinian. Here, Norberto Spagnolo, from Adelaide's Buenos Aires Brasserie, teaches us how. Serve warm from the oven as appetisers or cold as part of a picnic spread.


The most common and popular empanada is stuffed with beef, but other common varieties are ham and cheese, capresse (cheese, tomato, and basil), chicken, and vegetable.

Food Safari's empanadas

Debate rages over which country invented the empanada and many varieties using different sorts of pastry abound. Empanadas are the ultimate snack food. They can be filled with any combination of cheese, chilli, meat, tuna, prawns, vegetables, egg and olives. Some recipes are baked whereas others are deep-fried.