Arepas, a flat and round patty made out of cornmeal (also referred as flour, not sure what the difference is so I will use the terms interchangeably), are ubiquitous throughout different regions of Latin America. This is especially true in Venezuela and my native land of Colombia where the arepa is considered part of the nation's cultural identity. They are a staple at breakfast but you can have arepas as a snack, side dish or as an entree.
As different from place to place as the countries and regions where the come from, arepas come in different sizes varieties, and flavors. I read somewhere that you can find 75 or so different ways of preparing them -- personally, I have had five different types. Here I am only going to stick to just one method: the only one I know.
For many years, I thought arepas involved more work that I was willing to tackle. This notion came from childhood memories of seeing them made from scratch, a process that involves soaking dried corn and grinding it to prepare the cornmeal. Now, with pre-cooked cornmeal available from different makers, the process is easy and straightforward.
This simple process, which will give you the basics for you to venture out into preparing arepas anyway you wish, was unraveled to me recently when a cousin came to visit. During that brief visit, she shared her knowledge and now I am sharing it with you to get you started on a culinary journey. Hope you enjoy making arepas.
Step 1: What You Will Need
The beauty of making arepas is the simplicity of the ingredients. Here is what you will need:
- Pre-cooked cornmeal (coarse flour) - The most popular one is P.A.N Pre-Cooked White Corn Meal, found at most supermarkets. A two-pound bag will cost about $3.00. White is the more popular but also comes in yellow. The bag will typically be labeled masa arepa- don't get it confused with masa harina.
- Butter (optional)
- Nonstick skillet or griddle (I use a nonstick griddle)
The preparation is easy as a peacy. Here we go:
Step 2: Mixing
Bring out the cornmeal(flour), water, salt. Let's get started:
- Begin by placing two cups of the cornmeal in a large enough bowl to mix - the amount of flour will depend on how many arepas you want to make. The two cups will make about 4 to 5 mid-sized arepas. So you can begin there and then, if you want to make more, just repeat steps.
- Pour 1 to 2 teaspoons of salt directly into the flour and mix. Here, or between the following steps, you may add butter into the mix but it's optional; I like to think that the butter adds flavor and texture.
- Place 2 cups of water into a measuring cup and heat in the microwave for 20 seconds. As an option, you may add one tablespoon of milk into the water. For what, you ask? Not sure, but, again, it comes to my believe that it adds flavor. You may also use lukewarm water directly from your tap, no need to heat the water.
- Slowly pour the water into the cornmeal - do not dump all the water at once. You want to pour slowly as you mix the flour using a fork or your hands.
- Once you sense that you have poured enough water, begin to knead the mix into a solid form. You want the mix to be soft and doughy but not powdery, lumpy or soaky. If too wet, just pour more flour.
- Let the dough rest for 2-3 minutes.
Step 3: Molding, Rolling & Shaping
By now, you should have a solid dough form, ready to be molded and shaped.
- Begin by portioning the dough to roll and make into separate balls.
- Flatten each ball using your hands to make patties - think burger patties. If you see cracks on the edges, fix them by shaping with your hands. You may need to add a few drops of water to fix.
Now, how big and how thick to flatten each arepa depends on taste. I like them not too thick but not too thin and not too small either. I don't like to make them too thick because the cooking time will be longer. But I do like them thick enough to fill them up. - more on that later. For now, you are ready to move on to the cooking section.
NOTE: Here, to save time for the next time, you may want to make extra dough to store in the refrigerator. I like to roll the dough into balls to store or you can just store the prepared dough as is.
Step 4: Cooking Time - Let's Get the Heat On
You have shaped the dough into patties and are now ready to prepare:
- Heat up the griddle/skillet over medium heat and spread butter evenly over it -- I typically use two tablespoons of butter. You may use as much as needed or desired. Also, you can use olive oil instead of butter.
- When the butter has melted (or the olive has heated), place the arepas onto the griddle.
- Cook each side until golden brown. The bag instructions call for 5 minutes on each side. I like to cook for 8-10 minutes on each side.
- Flip periodically. Also, intermittently, add butter or brush each side with oil.
The arepas will be done when crunchy (but not too crunchy) and golden brown on each side. Also, you may tap the middle of each arepa. They should sound hollow.
Time to enjoy, but before we go there. Read the next step
Step 5: This Is the Yum Yum Step - Go Nuts. Use Your Imagination and Dream of Possibilities
You are more than welcome to eat the arepas as soon as they are ready.
You can eat them plain, or just put butter, and cheese on top and be done. Or you can go the extra step:
- Slice the arepa using a serrated knife; cut entirely or, preferably, just halfway - be careful not to burn yourself. You may want to hold the arepa with a napkin while cutting it.
- Fill with whatever your heart desires. You can stuff it with either scrambled eggs, shredded cooked chicken, meat or pork, sausage with avocados, or with whatever combo you can dream of.
- You may also dress up your final filling with your favorite hot or barbecue sauce.
If you venture out into making arepas, I hope you let me know how it goes. Also, let me know what stuffing concoction you come up with.