Latin American Corn Breads

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the awesome-tasting breads made with chickpea flour (and reader, I confess, I gobbled those breads so fast, I barely managed a picture!). Those breads were largely European in nature; this week, I’m turning my tastebuds to South American and Mexico.

I have three favorite corn flour, or masa harina or masa arepa, based breads to share with you. While the ingredients list is essentially the same, the three are very different. These easy-to-make breads won’t replace my beloved corn tortillas; they simply add delicious options to my dinner routine. Plus, they are naturally gluten-free, which makes them even better!

  • Arepas: Arepas are generally flatbreads topped or stuffed with fillings. Some are thick, some are thin — they can be griddled, sauteed, or baked. Some have stuffings like cheese incorporated into the dough; others have those stuffings sealed between two thin arepa disks. And, of course, thicker arepas can be split and filled with anything you find tasty. Stuffings can be eggs, meats, or veggies. You start with masa arepa flour (or pre-made dough), which you can find in just about every Latin American grocery store. Serious Eats did a great overview of various styles of arepas here.
  • Cachapas: Cachapas are Venezuelan in origin, and feature kernels of corn. I save extra grilled corn to add flavor to these flat, round breads. Traditionally filled with bit of butter and a soft, mozzarella-like cheese, cachapas are also great with savory fillings like carnitas or roasted veggies — try mild Anaheim chiles for a fresh pepper flavor without a lot of heat.
  • Sopes: Sopes were my gateway drug into the world of corn-based breads, this time masa harina. They’re common at Mexican restaurants in my area, and almost always a great gluten-free choice (always, always check ingredients). I can also buy sopes pre-made at my local Latin American grocery store (and they are really inexpensive!). Generally, you’ll see sopes made with a small lip around the edge of the disk — this helps contain ingredients in the open-faced bread. Meats, cheeses, veggies, and salsas can be combined into a variety of flavors. Click here for a sope-making tutorial via Flaming Tortillas.

Tip of the Week

When I grill corn, I always make two or three extra ears to put into cachapas or salads. To slice the kernels from the cob, I use the inverted bowl method: place a smaller bowl upside-down in a large bowl; as you slice the kernels, the larger bowl will catch them. To extract liquid from the cob, run the back of a knife along the cob after you’ve removed the kernels.

Menu of the Week

While you can make your cachapa with any type of filling that suits your mood, this basic menu will get you started. Because traditional Venezuelan cheeses are hard to find in my area, I substitute mozzarella because it melts nicely. To mix it up, you can use a crumbly cheese like feta or cotija, a Mexican cheese. The beans should be sauteed with diced onion, diced bell peppers, and garlic. Serve the beans over white or yellow rice.

  • Cachapas with Cheese and Anaheim Pepper and Avocado Salsa
  • Black Beans and Rice
  • Fried Plantains
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