When Mirabel said her mother could heal anything with an arepa in Encanto, Disney’s latest animated film that takes place in Colombia, I truly believed it. After all, arepas are the backbone of Colombian gastronomy. They are the first thing I turn to when I am homesick. Most Colombians have grown up eating arepas almost daily.
Arepas can be grilled or fried, stuffed or served plain, savory or sweet, big or small, and every region of the country seems to have a specialty. Arepas con queso—with cheese—are perhaps one of the most basic yet delicious versions. They are a blank canvas for adding toppings and fillings, though they are scrumptious with just some butter slathered on top.
The Many Kinds of Colombian Arepas
Colombian chef and book author Carlos Gaviria estimates that there are more than 55 different types of arepas in Colombia. Here are some examples:
- Arepas de chócolo, known as cachapas in Venezuela, are sweet corn pancakes covered in cheese and folded in half.
- The dough for arepas santandereanas has small pieces of pork crackling.
- Arepas paisa are very thin, with no cheese in the dough. It is served with a salty fresh cheese called quesillo, similar to ricotta, on top.
- Arepas de huevo, a traditional dish from the Caribbean adopted by Colombians, are filled with an egg and deep-fried.
Colombian vs. Venezuelan Arepas
There has always been a friendly debate between Colombians and Venezuelans about the origins of arepas. While the answer isn’t certain, I like to think that arepas belong to both nations and it’s something that unites us rather than divides us.
However, there are certain differences in our arepas. In Colombia, arepas are often eaten as is, and they usually have cheese in the dough, as a filling, or both. Milk is often added to the dough—it’s considered the secret to fluffy, pillowy arepas.
Venezuelan arepas are often sliced and stuffed, sometimes with cheese. For example, the Venezuelan reina pepiada is filled with a delicious chicken and avocado salad. Another popular version is filled with the ingredients of pabellón, a hearty dish of beans, shredded beef, rice, and sweet fried plantains.
Arepas are extremely versatile, and this is your permission to be as creative as you want.
Make Arepas with Masarepa
Arepas are round savory corn cakes made with a precooked corn flour known as masarepa. Most households used to mill their own corn to make the masarepa; nowadays they buy the arepa flour.
Masarepa has a mild corn flavor and is naturally gluten-free. It can be found in most grocery stores—the most popular brands are PAN and Goya. There are yellow and white varieties, and both can be used interchangeably for this recipe; the yellow variety has a slightly stronger corn flavor.
There is no substitute for masarepa short of milling the corn yourself. Other corn flours do not have the same flavor or texture. Masa harina is not the same product and cannot be used as a substitute.
How to Serve Arepas con Queso
Arepas con queso are typically eaten for breakfast with frothy hot chocolate or coffee, or as a light dinner. They can also be sliced in half and stuffed with a multitude of fillings such as shredded carnitas, chicken, or simply ham and cheese to create a sandwich.
Plan Ahead: Freeze Arepas!
While most Colombian households make arepas fresh every day as they are a quick and easy, it is also possible to make a large batch and freeze them for up to a month. To freeze, place them in an airtight container with parchment paper in between to prevent them from sticking.
Do not store the raw dough as it may ferment.
Arepas con Queso
Use a fresh, mild cheese that melts nicely. In Colombia, we use part-skim mozzarella or a cheese referred to as double cream, but Monterrey Jack will also work. Freshly shred the cheese as it will melt better. Pre-shredded cheeses are often coated with starch to prevent clumping, which hinders them from melting evenly.
2 cups (348g) masarepa
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons (28g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (200g) freshly shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
1/4 cup (50g) whole milk
2 1/2 cups (590g) lukewarm water
Nonstick cooking spray, for the skillet
Make the dough:
In a large bowl, whisk the masarepa, salt, and sugar until combined.
Add the butter and 1 1/2 cups (150g) mozzarella, and then slowly drizzle in the milk and 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water as you knead the dough with your hands. It is important to use lukewarm water to ensure no clumps form in the dough. Milk gives the dough a smoother texture and a richer flavor. Colombians claim milk is the secret to fluffy, pillowy arepas.
You can also use a rubber spatula to combine the ingredients. The dough will be very sticky.
Rest the dough:
Let the dough rest uncovered for about 5 minutes to allow the starches to absorb the moisture. The dough will feel a bit wet; it will dry out as it rests.
Divide the dough:
Divide the dough into 10 even portions and roll them into balls. Lightly wet your hands with cold water to prevent the dough from sticking.
Fill with cheese (optional):
For a nice cheese pull, you may choose to fill the arepas with the remaining 1/2 cup (50g) mozzarella, though they will be plenty cheesy without. Take a ball of dough and press your thumb into the center to create a small indentation. Fill it with about a tablespoon of cheese, then form the dough over to cover it and reroll it again into a ball.
Shape the arepas:
Flatten the balls of dough with your hands into round patties that are slightly less than 1/2 inch thick. As an alternative, you can place a ball inside a zip top bag or between two pieces of plastic wrap. Then, gently press it down with a skillet to flatten it evenly.
Cook the arepas:
Set a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and generously spray it with cooking oil. A griddle would also work perfectly.
Cook the arepas in batches for about 3 minutes on each side until golden brown. The arepas should be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Serve immediately.
I do not recommend using butter to cook the arepas, as it will burn too quickly. If you like the flavor of butter, cook the arepas with oil and smear some salted butter on top once they are fully cooked.
Leftover arepas can be refrigerated for 3 to 5 days. Reheat them on a skillet set over medium heat with a little oil, until warmed through. I also find that the air fryer works great when in a hurry.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 5g||6%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||11%|
|Total Carbohydrate 36g||13%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 2g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|