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How to Make Pupusas

These savory stuffed corn cakes have a long history in El Salvador and Honduras. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to bring in some new techniques.
By Published May 29, 2019

My Goals and Discoveries

A pupusa that cooks up tender, not dry

Hydrating the masa harina with boiling rather than room-temperature water allows it to more completely absorb the water, resulting in a better-hydrated dough that resists cracking and stays tender when cooked. 

Easy to fill and form

Our foolproof shaping technique calls for pressing a ball of dough into a disk, wrapping the disk around a ball of cheese, and then flattening the ball again to form an evenly filled pupusa.

Ideal dough-to-filling ratio

The right ratio of dough to filling ensures that each bite includes plenty of melted cheese filling.

Contrasting flavors and textures

The spicy salsa and sharp, crunchy curtido complement the tender, savory pupusas beautifully.

Pupusas have been sustaining Central Americans since pre-Columbian times. And when a food has that kind of longevity, you know it has to be good. Though Salvadorans and Hondurans both lay claim to the recipe, in El Salvador it is considered the national dish. There, these enticing packages are made by stuffing cheese, beans, braised meat, or a combination thereof into a ball of corn flour dough called masa. The ball is flattened into a 4- or 5-inch disk and cooked on a comal (a dry cast-iron griddle) until the tender corn cake forms a spotty‑brown, crisp shell. Garnished with curtido (a bright slaw) and a spicy salsa, the result is downright irresistible.

The Salvadoran cooks I’ve seen shape pupusas look like they could do it in their sleep: They work masa into a fist-size cup, spoon in the filling, and pinch the dough closed to form a ball before slapping it back and forth between their hands to create a disk. Sound easy? It isn’t. The first time I tried, it was obvious I was a novice. Using a dough made with the usual ratio of 2 parts masa harina (corn flour) to 1 part water, I formed the cakes as best I could. But the masa was too dry, which caused the pupusas to crack and the filling to spill out.

Using hot tap water instead of cool, as some recipes suggest, worked better since heat causes the starch in corn to absorb more water (just as it does in wheat flour). But boiling water was even more effective, allowing me to superhydrate the 2 cups of masa harina with a full 2 cups of water. Now the dough was a dream to handle, and the cakes cooked up as moist as could be.

The Crack Test

Before forming the pupusas, test the dough’s hydration by flattening a golf ball–size piece of dough. If cracks larger than 1/4 inch form around the edges, add more water, 2 teaspoons at a time.

But although the dough was no longer sticky, my pupusas were still thick at the centers and thin at the edges—even after all my practice. The filling never spread to the edges, leaving all but the centermost bites tasting of plain dough.

I decided to try a riff on our technique for making tortillas. I rolled my superhydrated masa into a ball, placed it inside a zipper-lock bag that I’d cut open at the seams, and used a glass pie plate to press it into a disk. I turned the disk out into my palm, placed some filling (more on that next) in the center, and gathered the dough to form a ball, which I again pressed with the pie plate to form a perfectly round pupusa of even thickness. Even a newbie could pull this off.

Our foolproof method for shaping pupusas starts with placing a ball of dough into a zipper-lock bag that's been cut open on the sides. A 4-inch circle traced onto the bag is used as a shaping guide.
Next, we use a glass pie plate to press the dough into a 4-inch disk.
Then we wrap a filling of Monterey Jack and cotija cheeses inside the disk of dough.
After the cheese-filled dough is pressed flat, we touch up any cracks around the edges.
As the pupusas are shaped, we transfer them to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. To keep the dough moist, we cover the pupusas with a damp dish towel.
Pupusas are traditionally cooked on a comal (a dry cast-iron griddle) but we got good results in a lightly oiled nonstick skillet.

As for the filling, basic pupusas are stuffed with a fresh Salvadoran cheese called quesillo. Some recipes suggest swapping in mozzarella, but we found it too bland. Instead, I landed on a mix of Monterey Jack for its meltability and Mexican cotija for its salty tang. 

These perfectly flat, round pupusas, stuffed from edge to edge with salty, supple cheese, might fool someone into thinking I’d been making them all my life.

El Salvador’s National Dish

Pupusas are a staple in El Salvador, where they are eaten at home and in outposts called pupuserías. The savory stuffed cakes are enjoyed throughout the day; at breakfast, they are often served with a cup of chocolate caliente, a mixture of hot milk and water thickened with melted chocolate.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.