While roaming the vast Argentine pampa, the gauchos of yore maintained a nomadic way of life that afforded limited access to foodstuffs. Many a gaucho subsisted on a diet restricted to grilled beef and mate. On occasion, the gauchos would fry up tortas fritas, a simple dough that consisted of ingredients that were readily on hand: flour, lard, water and salt. Although very traditional recipes stick to these most basic of ingredients, many modern versions of tortas fritas often substitute butter for lard and/or include eggs, milk or a leavening agent like baking powder.
As one of Argentina’s comidas criollas – traditional foods that evolved from the union of European cuisine with native ingredients and influences – tortas fritas boast a long tradition derived from the simple lifestyle led by the Argentine cowboys. Today, tortas fritas and mate are regarded as an unbeatable combination, particularly on a drizzly, chilly day that demands a simple, comforting treat that’s quick to prepare. It’s said that the custom of drinking mate with tortas fritas on a rainy day can be traced back to the gauchos who, when camped together out on the pampa, would gather rainwater to prepare the dough.
I recall that shortly after I first moved to Argentina, we experienced three consecutive days of driving wind and rain from a fierce storm. Housebound one afternoon as a result of the nasty weather, my fiancé’s grandmother announced that we were going to prepare tortas fritas and mate to combat our growing sense of cabin fever. In no time flat, the tortas fritas emerged golden and puffy from the oil, and I was charged with sprinkling some sugar over the tops. After a few rounds of mate and quite possibly one too many tortas fritas, the matriarch good-naturedly declared my conversion from yanqui (American) to Argentine complete.
Even if you don’t have an Argentine grandmother to help you out, try your hand at making tortas fritas one soggy afternoon. Rest assured that coffee or hot chocolate makes a great accompaniment if there’s no mate in the cupboard.
Yields 12 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
5 Tbsp. butter, melted
approx. 2/3 cup warm water
vegetable oil for frying
granulated sugar to sprinkle on top
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt with a wooden spoon. Form a well in the center and add the melted butter; mix to combine. Slowly add the warm water and mix until the dough comes together (you may not need to use the entire amount of water – the dough should be moist but not mushy).
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead for a few minutes until the dough feels smooth and uniform. Divide the dough into 12 pieces, and form the dough into balls about the size of a large walnut. Allow the balls of dough to rest on a lightly floured surface, covered, for 15 minutes.
To shape the tortas fritas, flatten the ball of dough with your palm, and create a disc about 1/8 inch thick using the heel of your hand. Cut a small x in the center of the dough with a sharp knife.
Heat the oil in a deep skillet or pot. The oil must be very hot to ensure quick frying and minimal absorption of grease. If the oil isn’t hot enough, the tortas fritas will turn out greasy and heavy.
Drop two to three pieces of dough into the hot oil (depending on the size of the skillet), and fry on one side until golden brown (approximately 45 to 60 seconds). With a pair of tongs, flip the tortas fritas over and continue frying on the other side until golden brown (roughly the same amount of time).
Remove the tortas fritas from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with sugar and serve hot.