These easy Colombian empanadas are made with just a few simple ingredients and are naturally gluten free. Fill them with shredded chicken like my 2-ingredient Instant Pot chicken, or really anything you like.
What is empanada dough made from?
Empanar is a Spanish word that means either to coat or to cover in some sort of starchy dough. Like anything you make at home, you really can make it from anything you like. Any handheld filled pastry can be called an empanada.
Most of the empanadas that are most familiar to us are made with a pastry dough (typically made with wheat flour). I've made many variations of gluten free empanadas over the years, using a gluten free flour blend in place of wheat flour. They've all been light and flaky and delicious.
But I absolutely love the idea of essentially taking a naturally gluten free fresh corn tortilla and using it to empanar, or wrap, a filling like shredded chicken. That's the Colombian style of making empanadas.
Colombian-style empanada dough is made from masa harina corn flour, which is precooked cornmeal that’s dried, treated with limewater (also known as slaked lime or calcium hydroxide), then dried again. For a more complete discussion of what it is in general, please see my recipe for pupusas.
Cooking the empanadas
Colombian empanadas are typically shallow fried until crisp-tender and delicious. But shallow frying is perhaps one of the messiest and least healthful ways of preparing pretty much anything.
Unlike deep frying, where the hot oil seals the outside almost immediately allowing the heat of the oil to cook the inside gently, shallow frying allows the food to absorb a ton of oil. I'll be honest, though: it's the mess more than anything that kept me from cooking these empanadas that way!
In this recipe, I explain how to bake the empanadas until they're crispy on the edges and warm and gooey inside. But I've also made them in the air fryer, and they've been even better. I know that not everyone has an air fryer, though!
If you do decide to make them in an air fryer, skip the egg wash and spray them generously with cooking oil spray. Cook them in the air fryer at 380°F for about 12 minutes, flipping halfway through and spraying again with cooking oil spray. They'll get plenty of golden brown color and be crispy and delicious.
What sort of filling works best in empanadas?
Perhaps the best part about this handheld street food-style meal is that you can fill it with whatever you like. When I was first playing with this recipe, I filled it really simple with just shredded salsa chicken.
I honestly didn't think that my family would like it that much since it had a grand total of 4 ingredients in the entire dish—wrapper, filling and all. But they loved it, so I knew I was on to something good! That convinced me that you really don't need any sort of cheese in empanadas.
In this recipe, I've included shredded cheese since it adds a bit of complexity to the texture and flavor. But it's truly unnecessary.
You could use cooked ground beef, beans and cheese (or even just beans!), a simpler shredded chicken like we used in taquitos, or the salsa chicken that I made here. I've included that amazingly simple recipe below—and that chicken is served every single week in my house in a million different forms.
Do you need special equipment to make empanadas?
The short answer is no! You don't need any special equipment at all. Just a rolling pin, a quart-sized plastic bag for rolling, a bowl, a spoon and a baking sheet. But I do use a tortilla press and a cake cutter, so we should talk about those a bit.
In most of the tortilla recipes here on the blog, I've avoided using a tortilla press. I don't want anyone to feel like they need a press. But without fail, a few readers ask if they can use one.
I have a tortilla press made by Vasconia that I got at a local kitchen supply store, and I use it from time to time—but certainly not every time I make tortillas. This tortilla press from Norpro gets really good reviews on Amazon (that's an affiliate link feel free to shop around).
I find using a tortilla press to be somewhat frustrating. It never presses the dough thin enough, even when I want it not to be paper thin, like with these empanadas. So I always have to use a rolling pin to further press the dough.
When I make tortillas, I do like to use a 6-inch or 8-inch (affiliate link:) cake cutter to get clean edges all around the dough. I find that the dough is easier to work with that way, and they also look soooo much better that way.
But you don't need a cake cutter, either, to make tortillas of any kind. You could even use the lid of a pot to do the job of cutting clean edges.
Since my family is always on the go, any sort of handheld complete meal is a win. That's probably why we have a deep and abiding love for any sort of street food!
Be advised, though, that the empanada dough should be shaped, filled and baked right away. When I tried to shape the dough but not fill it, and then use it even 30 minutes later, it crumbled during shaping. Ditto for when I tried to shape and fill it, then wrap it in plastic to bake later.
If you'd like to make the empanadas ahead of time, you must make the entire recipe through cooking or baking. Just allow the empanadas to cool completely, and they can be wrapped and refrigerated to serve later. Just unwrap and warm them in the toaster oven or microwave.
Ingredients and substitutions
Dairy-free: To make this recipe dairy-free, just use dairy-free shredded cheese in place of the dairy cheese. I used Daiya brand vegan cheese in the dairy-free empanadas I made and my daughter loved them. You can also just make the recipe without any cheese at all.
Corn-free: I'm afraid there's just no way to make this exact recipe without corn. Masa harina is necessarily made from corn and the empanada dough is essentially rehydrated masa.
You might be able to make a variation of these empanadas with my recipe for low carb almond flour tortillas, which have the extra bonus of being Paleo. The dough has a few more ingredients, but it's soft and pliable.
Colombian Empanadas | with shredded chicken
1 pound skinless boneless chicken breast
1 16-ounce jar mild (or spicy) thick and chunky salsa (we love Chi-Chis brand)
2 cups (264 g) masa harina corn flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 1 1/4 cups (8 to 10 fluid ounces) warm water
4 to 6 ounces shredded melting cheese (mozzarella works, but so does Monterey jack or cheddar)
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon lukewarm water)
1 quart-sized zip-top bag
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
Cook the chicken. If you have an electric pressure cooker like the Instant Pot, cook it in there.
Instant pot directions: Place the whole chicken breasts and the entire jar of salsa in the instant pot. Set the vent to seal, lock in the lid and press “manual.” Set the timer for 10 minutes and allow the instant pot to cook the chicken at high pressure. When the pot is done cooking, turn the instant pot off (so it doesn’t continue to cook it), wait about 3 minutes, release the pressure manually, remove the top of the pot and allow the chicken to sit uncovered for about 10 minutes. Shred the chicken with two forks and allow it to absorb as much liquid as possible while you make the empanada shells.
Oven directions: Preheat your oven to 350°F. Place the chicken and the entire jar of salsa in a deep 4-quart casserole dish. Cover with aluminum foil or the heat-safe cover of the dish. Place in the center of the preheated oven and cook for about 25 minutes or until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165°F. Remove the dish from the oven, uncover it and allow the chicken to sit for about 10 minutes. Shred the chicken with two forks and allow it to absorb as much liquid as possible while you make the empanada shells.
In a medium-size bowl, place the masa harina and the salt, and mix to combine. Add about 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) of the water and mix to combine. Add more water slowly, and work enough water into the dough that it isn’t crumbly. The dough should be slightly more wet than the consistency of playdoh. Press the dough into a disk, cover the bowl and set it aside to rest for about 5 minutes. This allows the dough to absorb more water.
Prepare the zip-top bag for use in pressing the masa dough. Cut off the top zipper, and slice down the sides and through the bottom of the bag. You should have two equally-sized rectangles of plastic. Divide the empanada dough into 10 equal pieces, each about 50 grams. Roll one piece of empanada dough into a round, press into a disk and place between the two plastic rectangles. If using a tortilla press, place it on the bottom of the press, close the press and press down with the handle. Whether you use the press or not, you’ll need to use a rolling pin to roll the dough (still in the plastic) into a round that’s about 6 1/2 inches in diameter. If using a cake cutter or a 6-inch pot lid, cut the rough edges off the dough.
Remove the top piece of plastic from the round of dough. Take about 1 1/2 tablespoons of shredded chicken mixture and press it against the side of the container it’s in to release any excess liquid. Place the chicken on one side of the first tortilla, place about 1 1/2 tablespoons of shredded cheese on top and spread the filling out into an even layer. Using the bottom piece of plastic wrap, fold the dough in half, enclosing the filling and gently pressing out any air as you go. Cinch the edges together, still using the plastic wrap. Place the empanada on the prepared baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining pieces of dough and filling.
Brush the tops of the shaped empanadas generously with the egg wash, and place the baking sheet in the center of the preheated oven. Bake until golden brown on the edges and light brown on top, about 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately or allow to cool completely before wrapping each empanada tightly with plastic wrap and placing the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Warm in the toaster oven or microwave before serving.