Traditional Pasteles de Masa
Updated: Jul 16
It's not a Puerto Rican Christmas without pasteles. This dish gets a bad reputation of being super difficult and labor intensive. In this recipe we show you how easy it is to really make this traditional Puerto Rican dish. The best part is that when you make them at home, you can have them year round and I bet you will!
4 tbs vegetable oil
2 lbs cubed beef chuck (or pork shoulder or butt, if you prefer)
2 onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup sofrito
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup olives and pimentos
2 packets of sazon
1 tsp adobo
1 cup water
1 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup achiote seeds (aka annatto seeds)
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
3 lbs yautia
2 lbs green bananas
1 lb green plantains
1 cup of simmering liquid, reserved from your meat filling
4 tbs achiote oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
In Puerto Rico, the term pasteles refers to a tamale-like dish, most often served around Christmas time. Although there are different kinds of pasteles, they all share three main components. First, there is a dough made of grated vegetable starches, like green bananas, yautia, and plantains. Second, there is a meat filling, that has typically been stewed with tomato sauce, olives, and seasonings. Finally, there is a banana leaf wrapping that is brushed with annato seed oil. Once the dough is stuffed with filling and wrapped in the banana leaf, it is boiled, creating a soft savory masa with a flavorful filling.
Since it will take a while to cook, begin by preparing your meat filling. Just like many things in Puerto Rican cuisine, there are many variations of meat filing. We will be doing a beef filing, which I admit is not the most traditional one, but it is a great option for people like me who do not eat pork. Begin by cutting your beef into small pieces, about one-half to three-quarters of an inch cubed. Try to cut them as uniformly as possible so they cook evenly. Here I am using beef chuck, which has a decent amount of fat and connective tissue which will become very tender once simmered for a long time.
Once your meat is all chopped, you are ready to start cooking it. Turn your stove on to medium-high and begin heating a large, heavy pan. Once your pan is hot, add your oil and begin searing your pieces of meat. Continue cooking the meat until it is browned, stirring occasionally to make sure that it cooks evenly.
Once the meat is browned, add your onions and continue stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent.
Next, add your sofrito, tomato sauce, olives, sazon and adobo and stir to make sure that all the ingredients are well-incorporated. Saute your ingredients for 4-5 minutes.
Then add the water, put your lid on, and lower the temperature to medium low. Cook for one hour or until the meat is tender. Check your meat from time to time to make sure there is still plenty of liquid in your pan. If not, add a little more water so you don’t burn your meat.
Next, prepare the achiote or annatto seed oil. Annatto seeds are harvested from a small spiky tropical fruit and are most commonly used to give food a deep yellow color, which is released when when annatto seeds are cooked in oil. Turn on your stove to medium high and add your oil to a heavy pot. Once your oil is hot, add your annatto seeds and stir gently.
Almost immediately, you will start to notice that the oil turns a deep orange color. This color is incredibly strong so be careful not to get any of the annatto oil on your clothes while you are cooking. Keep cooking your annatto seeds for 1-2 minutes. Then, turn off the stove and add your garlic and bay leaves, mixing the ingredients every once in a while, until it reaches room temperature. Once cooled, strain your oil into a small bowl.
The next step is to prepare your dough. Pasteles dough has many variations, and every abuela has their own preferred mixture. Typically, pasteles dough contains yautia and green bananas, and people will also mix in things like plantains, potatoes, and calabasa. Here, we will be using a combination of yautia, green bananas, and green plantains.
Yautia or tannia, also known as American taro, grows wild in Puerto Rico and is treated in Puerto Rican cuisine akin to a potato. You will be able to find this in your Latino supermarket--although make sure not to confuse it with other similar root vegetables like name or yucca. As the yautia grows underground, there is usually a lot of dirt in the skin so you want to start by washing the outside of each yautia thoroughly.
Now you are ready to peel and cut all of the dough ingredients. For the yautias, cut the end off of each root and peel them. Once peeled, cut the yautia into pieces that will fit in your food processor. As you cut them, put the pieces in a bowl with clean water to prevent the yautia from browning and also to allow some of the stickiness from the sap to dissolve in the water. Finish peeling and cutting the rest of your yautia.
Next, peel your green bananas. Start by cutting off the ends of each banana, then use the tip of a small knife to score the banana skin lengthwise. You want to make sure that the cut is just deep enough to pierce the skin, without cutting deeply into the banana itself. You can use the tip of the knife to push the skin out side to side and then use your fingers to peel off the skin. After you’ve peeled off the skin, use your knife to cut off any remaining peel or discoloration.
Like with the yautia, place your bananas in clean water as you are peeling them. Green bananas have a large amount of sap which will turn your skin and fingernails black. In order to prevent that you can rub a small amount of oil in your hands or peel the bananas under running water. Generally the bananas will fit whole through the food processor so no need to cut them into pieces.
Repeat the same process as the bananas for the green plantains. As the skin of the plantains is thicker, you will need to make sure that the cut is deep enough to cover the whole skin. Depending on the size of your plantains, you may need to cut them into pieces in order for them to fit in your food processor. As you cut them, place them in the water with your bananas.
With all of your vegetables peeled and cut, you are ready to grind them into a dough. This next step is why pasteles have a reputation for being so much work--because back in the day people would have to shred and puree their vegetables by hand. But we aren’t going to do that. Instead, we’ll get a food processor to do all of the work for us.
First, go ahead and shred all of your vegetables. If you are using a food processor like mine, just start by installing the shredding disc, and then proceed to shred all of your yautia, green bananas, and green plantains.
Turn on the food processor and add the yautia pieces one by one, pushing the pieces down to ensure they shred fully. As you are adding the yautia, make sure to shake off any excess water in order to prevent your dough from getting too moist.
Repeat the same process with the green bananas and plantains. Add the pieces one by one through the top of the food processor, pushing the pieces down to ensure they shred fully. Remember to shake off the excess water before adding each piece.
We have used a 14-cup food processor and our full dough recipe fits in it. If you have a smaller food processor or blender, you can do this process in batches.
When you finish shredding all of the ingredients, put them in a bowl.
Next, we want to chop all of the vegetables into a puree. Replace the shredding disk in your food processor with the chopping blade and add a large handful of the shredded ingredients. Pulse the ingredients until they are very finely chopped. You may need to open the food processor and move the ingredients from time to time to ensure that all is chopped evenly. Continue pulsing until your puree is the consistency of wet grits or oatmeal. As you finish a batch of vegetable puree, move it to a clean bowl and repeat the process until all of your ingredients have been pureed.
If you don’t have a food processor, you could also use a blender, although the process might take longer, as you’ll need to work in smaller batches to fully puree the ingredients.
Once you have all of your pureed ingredients in the bowl, thoroughly mix them, to make sure you have a homogenous mixture of yautia, green bananas, and green plantains.
In order to finish our dough, we are going to want to add some of the broth from the meat filling, so let’s jump back there quickly.
At this point, your meat has probably been simmering for about an hour and should be fork tender. Once the meat is tender, turn off your stove and add the oregano, mixing thoroughly to incorporate. Taste your meat and add salt to your liking. Now remove approximately one cup of the simmering liquid from your meat, which you’ll add to your vegetable puree, to flavor your dough.
Now back to the dough. Add the simmering liquid from your meat, along with your annatto seed oil and mix thoroughly to incorporate. You will notice that the annatto seed oil has turned the dough into a yellowish, light orange color. Once mixed, add your salt. If you don’t mind the taste of raw green bananas, it might be worth tasting your dough now to make sure it has enough salt.
With your dough and filling ready, you just need to gather together your supplies for actually rolling your pasteles. First, you’ll need to prepare your banana leaves. You can buy the banana leaves at your favorite hispanic supermarket, look for them in the frozen section. Once they are thawed, wipe the banana leaves down with a damp cloth and cut them into rectangles, approximately 9x12in. Make sure to remove the leaf’s stem, so it will be easier to fold.
Next, you’ll need to cut some pieces of twine to tie your pasteles with. Here we are using butchers twine, cut into 24-inch long strips.
Finally, you’ll need some parchment paper, cut into pieces approximately 12x15in. We are using pasteles paper, which comes already pre-cut and you can also get at your hispanic supermarket. But if you can’t find them, using regular parchment paper is fine.
With all of your supplies ready, get your station ready for rolling pasteles. This process becomes something of an assembly line, so you want to make sure you have everything within reaching distance, so you can just start cranking out the pasteles once you get started. Here, you can see that I’ve set up my banana leaves and parchment paper on my left, with my masa, annatto seed oil, and filing on my right. I then have left a clear space right in front of me, where I’ll actually do the filling and rolling.
Start by placing a piece of parchment paper in front of you, then place a banana leaf on top of the parchment towards the edge closest to you. You’ll notice that the banana leaf has lines in it; you should orient the banana leaf so those lines are running left to right across your body. This will make it easier to fold the banana leaf.
Brush the banana leaf with annatto seed oil in a rectangle about 5 inches wide by 3 inches long.
Scoop about two thirds of a cup of dough into the middle of the annatto seed oil rectangle and flatten it out to form the same 5-inch wide by 3-inch long rectangle.
Add your meat filing to the edge of the rectangle furthest from you. Now grab the banana leaf and fold the dough in half lengthwise, from the bottom up, over the dough and filling so the 2 edges of dough meet. Shape as needed to make sure that all of the dough is covered by the banana leaf.
Next, fold over the sides of your banana leaf, to seal in the dough on the sides, and roll the pastel forward, further wrapping it in the banana leaf. With the banana leaf basically wrapped, pull your pastel back towards the edge of the parchment paper closest to you and repeat the wrapping process with the parchment paper. Roll the pastel forward once, then fold in the edges, then fully wrap the pastel in the parchment paper. Press down to make sure that the pastel is well wrapped and place the pastel to the side with the loose flap facing downwards.
Repeat this process with one more pastel.
Place your banana leaf on your parchment paper. Brush on some annatto seed oil. Add the dough and shape it into a rectangle. Add your filling along the top edge of the pastel. Fold the pastel over once to fully cover the filling. Seal the edges of the banana leaf. Roll your pastel in the banana leaf. Then roll your pastel in the parchment paper.
Now that you have two pasteles, we are going to tie them together into what is called a yunta, which could be translated as yoke or couple. This is the traditional unit of pasteles and how you order them --I’ll take 12 yuntas please.
To make your yunta, take the two pasteles and put one on top of the other, with the flaps facing inward. Then grab a piece of your twine and tie the pasteles together in the same way that you would a package, looping the string once across the long side and once across the short side. Make sure that the string is taught and the pasteles are tightly tied together.
In my family, as well as many other families, it is a tradition to take this first yunta and cook it right away. It is a great incentive to continue working on the rest of the pasteles but it also allows you to taste the pasteles cooked and you can adjust the flavor if necessary--maybe adding a little salt, more filling, more annatto oil….you name it. To cook your pasteles, just boil them for about 45 minutes in slightly-salted water. If you want to do that, this is the perfect time to take a break and watch some other Jeff and Jo’s Puerto Rican Kitchen’s videos, otherwise go ahead and keep making the rest of the pasteles.
You can cook the pasteles right away, but you can also go ahead and freeze them. They will keep in the freezer for a long time. You can cook your pasteles straight out of the freezer, allow for 75 to 90 minutes for the pasteles to cook if frozen.
Check out our instructional video, showing how to make this recipe step-by-step HERE.