We all know the taco. Nearly every Latin American culture enjoys a version of the traditional Mexican tortilla. Rather than limited to just a soft or crunchy shell, the same masa harina transforms into authentic tamales, arepas and corn cakes in kitchens from Belize to Panama. These meals appear on everyday dinner tables and contribute to festivals and holiday celebrations across much of the western hemisphere.
But if you’ve been using the same tortilla recipe year after year, then there’s one guest you forgot to invite to the party.
Meet the pupusa: El Salvador’s national dish. The thick corn flour tortilla can be filled with cheese, chicharrón (shredded seasoned pork), refried beans, or a combination of all three for pupusas revueltas. The pupusa dough itself is made from a simple masa harina, water, and salt mixture similar to tortillas. Curtido, a sauerkraut-like cabbage slaw, and salsa roja, a tomato sauce thinner than your average dip, work as flavor-boosting sidekicks when added on top. The keys to authentic Salvadoran pupusas are basic ingredients (like Maseca corn flour) and the hands-on process.
Pupusas are finger food through and through. Mix the masa harina by hand, break off one piece at a time to sculpt cheese-filled dough dishes, roll them into balls, pancake them out, then cook them on a cast iron skillet. Just as suited for tomorrow night’s dinner as for the crowded table of go-to party foods, they’re best when eaten warm and topped with a pinch of curtido and a pool of thin salsa.
We’ll focus on the dough and keep the fillings simple with fresh shredded mozzarella cheese. The dough requires a little extra care, from finding the soft consistency to letting it rest for a moment before using the palmear method to flatten out a stuffed pupusa. Basically, pupusa dough takes practice to make perfect, so we’ll walk you through each step.
Step 1: Start with Maseca, a common grocery store-accessible masa harina.
Step 2: Combine Maseca corn flour with 1 ¾ cups warm water and salt. Mix the dough with your fingers until it comes together.
Step 3: The dough should feel soft and lightweight, like a non-sticky and pliable playdough. Temperature and humidity affect its moisture, so you may or may not need the extra water. If cracks form when you try to work the dough into a ball, add a tablespoon or two of warm water to the mix. If the dough sticks to the bowl when you try to break off a piece, add in an extra tablespoon or two of Maseca.
Step 4: Knead the dough for about a minute and cover it in a bowl with a damp towel at room temperature for 10-15 minutes. This allows the dough to both thicken and soften up.
Step 5: Then it’s time to get sculpting: Wet your hands and break off one ⅓-cup piece at a time. While you work one by one, keep the rest of the dough under the towel to prevent it from drying out. Gently roll the piece between your palms until you have a round ball.
Step 6: To form the initial pupusa, lightly flatten the ball using the palmear method (“to palm”). Use your fingers to press it from one hand to another until you have a ¼ inch-tall pancake-like disc. Dipping your finger tips in a water dish while patting it flat helps to seal dough and avoid clay-like cracks.
Step 7: Cup the disc in your hand, pushing the center of the pupusa down to create a shallow dish for cheese.
Step 8: Add about 2 tablespoons of shredded mozzarella to the indentation.
Step 9: Work the edges around the cheese into a round shape, swallowing up the fillings and sealing them inside. Bring the edges around the top of the cheese and pinch them closed like a dumpling.
Step 10: Gently roll the stuffed pupusa into a ball.
Step 11: Lightly oil your hands, then press the ball into a ½ inch- tall, 5-inch in diameter circle. Work gently so the hidden cheese filling doesn’t break through.
Step 12: Preheat a cast iron pan over medium heat for 10 minutes and lightly grease by rubbing it with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Using your fingers, rub a touch of vegetable oil on each side of the pupusa to keep it from drying out. Cook for 6-7 minutes on each side until they are light brown with darker, charred “sun spots.”
Step 13: Top pupusas with homemade salsa and curtido.
You’ll want to dig in while they’re warm.