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.