Traditional Pupusas

Pupusas made from masa harina - November 10, 2017 by Luna

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Pupusas are the filled corn-dough deliciousness that originated in El Salvador. It is also an introduction to the magic of the nixtamalized ground corn known as masa harina (literally "dough flour").

image of a plate piled with pupusas

I have a lot of background and tips about making pupusas here; if you want a concise recipe here you go: just the recipe.

If you aren't familiar with masa harina it is the dough that corn tortillas are made from. In this case I am using masa harina made from white corn which has slightly less of a corn flavor than the yellow version. I'm making pupusas, which are sort of a filled savory pancake. Just as you can cook a wheat-based dough into something thin and crispy like a cracker or into bread, the corn dough that makes tortillas can make a bread-like shell around things. Traditionally, around cheese. Breaded and fried cheese. Also, refried beans or sausage or whatever.

Pupusas are cheap, easy to make, and portable. They are a great solution if you need to take a lunch. You can reheat them in a toaster oven or eat them cold.

A four pound bag of masa harina is about $5.00 here, so the 2 cups you need for this recipe is around $0.50. A can of refried beans varies, but I'll call it $1.00 and it only takes half a can to provide the filling for one batch of these. So, for about a dollar ($0.50 of masa harina and $0.50 of beans) you can make a batch of eight pupusas. I consider two pupusas a pretty good lunch. Gluten free or not, lunch for $0.25 is pretty good.

Traditionally, pupusas are served with curtido, a vegetable slaw. My focus is more on fast/easy/portable and making a vegetable slaw from scratch, while delicious, isn't quite what I have in mind for that. I generally top my pupusas with a dollop of sour cream or salsa or just eat them plain. Sorry, I know I titled this post "Traditional Pupusas" and all I have to say for myself is: wait till you see the other weird things I'm doing with masa harina.

I am not at all a skilled dumpling-maker. Filled ravioli or any other delicate filled foods were always something I was perfectly content to buy rather than make and have them explode into a mess in my kitchen. These are not delicate though, they are very forgiving and I encourage you to give them a try.

image of fried pupusas
fried pupusas

Pupusa Dough

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 to 2 1/4 cups masa harina
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Add 2 cups masa harina to the water and salt. Stir until it comes together, about a minute. If it is not thick enough to work by hand, add a bit more masa harina and mix until it is a workable dough.

With wet hands, take about 1/4 cup of the dough and flatten it into a disk. Put about a tablespoon of filling in the center. Fold the edges over to cover the filling. Flatten it into a thick pancake shape. You can use plastic to set them on before cooking or to help you to shape them. A sandwich bag cut open works well for this.

If you are familiar with working with wheat dough, this feels much the same but there are some differences. There is no gluten to develop so once they are thoroughly mixed additional kneading doesn't help. However, the dough sticks to itself well so it can be readily patched. Unlike wheat dough, a patch will integrate easily. Pupusas and their traditional fillings are very forgiving. If a bit of refried beans or cheese leak out they will simply brown alongside the dough and it really does no harm to the finished pupusa.

image of pupusas cooking on cast iron skillet leaking some beans
leaky pupusas: still great

image of a pupusa cooking on cast iron skillet after leaking some beans
pupusas which leaked slightly cooking on cast iron

Traditionally, pupusas are fried. I like to use a cast iron skillet over medium heat or just slightly below medium. That works great when I'm making a couple of them for a quick lunch. You can also bake them, which is faster if you want to make a lot of them at once but doesn't get the nice speckled brown finish of frying.

image of pupusas cooking on cast iron skillet
pupusas cooking on cast iron

To fry: roughly 3 minutes per side on medium heat. There is no harm in flipping these multiple times to get a golden speckled finish.

image of baked pupusas
fried pupusas

To bake: 15 to 20 minutes at 425 degrees F.

image of baked pupusas
baked pupusas

Pupusas are a gateway to working with the amazing masa harina. I will have other masa recipes posting soon.