How to Make Arepas

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Lis Hernandez is from Caracas, Venezuela, and is now the chef at Arepa Mia. She's teaching us how to make arepas from scratch, stuffed with avocado chicken salad for an iconic reina pepiada arepa.

The word arepa is said to come from the word aripo, which is the clay cookware chefs use to make arepas. The cornmeal-based dish was first created in the Caribbean town of Cumanagotos, which is now Cumana, located in the eastern part of Venezuela. You can now find areperas, or arepa vendors, around the world.

In Venezuela today, arepas are stuffed with all kinds of meats and vegetables, depending on the region. One classic is the reina pepiada arepa, filled with avocado chicken salad. The iconic combo is named after Venezuelan actress and Miss World 1955, Susana Duijm. In Spanish, reina means “queen” and pepiada means, loosely, “hot or good looking”!

What Is an Arepa?

An arepa is a small, round sandwich, about 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick, made out of cornmeal, salt and water. It can be baked or grilled, and is eaten with meals in Venezuela and Colombia. Depending on the region, arepas can vary in size and thickness, but no meal is served without a round corn arepa.

To learn more about arepas, I recommend an adorable children’s book by Ximena Montilla called Soy la arepa. It explains the history of the arepa and how this dish is connected to Venezuelan cultural identity.

Why You Need Precooked Cornmeal

To make arepas, it’s important to use precooked cornmeal. Because arepas have become so popular, it should be easy to find a 5-pound bag in your neighborhood grocery store. (In Venezuela, the most popular cornmeal flour is Harina P.A.N.)

What’s the difference between cornmeal and precooked cornmeal? The precooked cornmeal has been cooked and dehydrated. Then, when you add water to make the dough, or masarepa, the texture will be similar to play dough. If you use regular cornmeal to make arepas, the mixture won’t hold together.

Each arepa is like a blank canvas, so use your imagination when it comes to fillings. There is even a saying that roughly translates to, “Life is like an arepa; the flavor depends on what you spread in it.”

How to Make Arepas

This is a basic recipe for arepas, but you can experiment with other ingredients like chia seeds, flaxseeds or shredded carrots. You can even change the color! We call this arepitas de colores, or colorful mini arepas.

Ingredients

To make the filling:

  • 1 pound cooked chicken
  • 5 ripe avocados, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 2 ounces yellow mustard
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
  • 2 ounces fresh minced cilantro, plus fresh sprigs for garnish
  • 3 ounces thinly sliced red onion, for garnish

To make the masa:

  • 2 cups precooked cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3-1/2 cups warm water, divided
  • Vegetable oil

Directions

Step 1: Prepare the filling

Make The Filling how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

To make the arepa filling, squeeze the avocado with your hands to mash it but leave some bits and pieces. Then, blend all the filling ingredients together to combine. It’s best to make the filling ahead of time and kept it covered, with plastic wrap touching the surface so it doesn’t turn brown. Place it in the refrigerator until your arepas are ready to stuff.

Step 2: Mix the salt and dry precooked cornmeal

Adding The Salt how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Mix the salt into the dry precooked cornmeal. Use your hands here!

There is no a set rule for how to make the masa—some people add the water first, but I add the salt. Some recipes even call for adding oil to the dough, but in my home back in Caracas, we don’t add oil (we don’t think it’s necessary).

Step 3: Add warm water

Adding The Water how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Slowly, add 2-1/2 cups of warm water to the cornmeal while mixing with your hand. In order to prevent lumps, keep mixing for 3 to 4 minutes.

Step 4: Knead the dough

Kneading how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Once you have a dough, knead for about 3 to 4 more minutes.

Step 5: Form a smooth ball

Form A Dough Ball how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Shape the dough into a ball. Cover it with plastic wrap, cheesecloth or a clean, damp towel and let it rest for about 5 minutes.

The key to a soft and fluffy arepa is kneading the dough and allowing it to rest for a few minutes. The dough needs time to hydrate! Sometimes, depending on the humidity, the dough may require more or less water.

Step 6: Form smaller dough balls

Form Arepa how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Pull off pieces of the larger ball to form smaller balls. For each arepa, you want a ball that weighs 5 to 5-1/2 ounces.

Step 7: Flatten the arepa

Form Arepa 2 how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

In order to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands, use the reserved water to wet your hands lightly.

Flatten how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Flatten the ball of masa between the palms of your hands until it reaches the desired thickness of 1/2 to 3/4 inches all around. This will allow for even cooking of the arepa. You want to make sure that when you place the arepa on the grill, the whole surface touches the skillet.
The thickness is a matter of preference, so you can make it thicker or thinner it you like.

Step 8: Grill the arepas

Grill Pan Arepas how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Place the arepas on a preheated and lightly greased grill pan on medium heat. Cook for about 7 to 8 minutes on each side, turning the arepa a few times carefully with a spatula to cook evenly until they are golden brown and puffy. You need to keep turning to prevent burning the arepa! Each one will take 12 to 18 minutes to cook depending on your pan and the heat.

You will know it’s done when the arepa is slightly puffy and when you tap it, you hear a hollow sound.

Editor’s tip: You may not have an aripo or budare at home, but a round cast-iron skillet is perfect for cooking arepas. If you want a budare made in Venezuela, we recommend this griddle.

Step 9: Assemble the arepa

Cut The Arepa how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

As soon as the arepas are cooked, stuff them and eat them! It’s when they are at their best—crispy, warm and delicious.

To start, place the arepa on a clean kitchen towel. With a serrated knife, carefully and gently slice the arepa and make a pocket so you can place the filling inside.

Stuff The Arepa how to make arepasLis Hernandez for Taste of Home

Open the arepa carefully and stuff it with the chicken and avocado mixture you made earlier.

Garnish with the sliced red onion and fresh cilantro, and enjoy this delicious iconic arepa of Venezuela!

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Lis Hernandez
My name is Lis Hernandez, I am an experienced self-taught chef with a passion for cooking, baking, traveling and photography among other things. I've always had an appetite for sharing my love of food to everyone around me, nationally and internationally. I am the founder and owner of Arepa Mia since 2011 and my work has apppeared in cookbooks, magazines and many other publications. I've also been interviewed by NPR's Rose Scott and CNN en Español. I am passionate about cooking and particularly about Venezuelan cuisine.