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How to Make Pupusas

By Steve Dunn Published

These savory stuffed corn cakes are steeped in 2,000 years of Latin American history. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to break with tradition.

Pupusas have been sustaining Latin 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.

Associate Editor Steve Dunn adds hot water to masa harina to determine if—and how—the water temperature impacts the pupusa dough's hydration.

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.
We prepared hundreds of pupusas while developing this recipe.

As for the filling, basic pupusas are stuffed with a fresh Salvadoran cheese called quesillo that’s delicious but hard to find. 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 cotija—a readily available Mexican cheese—for its salty tang. 

These perfectly flat, round pupusas, stuffed from edge to edge with salty, supple cheese, would fool anyone 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.

Recipe Pupusas

These savory stuffed corn cakes are steeped in 2,000 years of Latin American history. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to break with tradition.

Recipe Pupusas with Beans and Cheese

These savory stuffed corn cakes are steeped in 2,000 years of Latin American history. But for a version that even a rookie could pull off, we had to break with tradition.

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