Is it a potato or a snack? It’s both! My Rellenos de Papa, also known as Papa Rellena, are an optical illusion. They look like a potato, but when you bite through their crisp exterior, a savory meat filling is there to greet you. Lately, I’ve been on this cuchifrito kick. It might be that I’ve been having convos with my cardiologist, but I have been craving fried foods. Don’t worry. I’m doing it in moderation, as I recommend you do. But, I find that I’m going back to my teenage favorites. Now, let’s get acquainted with these gems of the Latin American diet.
What are Rellenos de Papa?
At their core, rellenos de papa (rreh-YEH-nose day PAH-pah)- stuffing of potato- are straight meat and potatoes. A cold mashed potato mixture is formed around savory ground beef before being lightly coated and deep-fried to a light crisp. They’re called rellenos de papa, papas rellenos (stuffed potatoes), or fried potato balls depending on where you are or who’s speaking of them. My family and I have always called them the former, so that’s what I’ll use here.
Héctor and I had an, almost, hour long debate about why they were even called rellenos de papa to begin with. Because Spanish is his first language, he gets the brunt of all my linguistic frustrations.
“Why is it called ‘stuffing of potato’ when it’s actually a stuffed potato?”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“That’s not a reason. What’s the reason?”
“I DON’T know!”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“Don’t talk to me at all!”
“You’re totally not getting one when I make them.”
So, they’re mashed potatoes stuffed with picadillo, and as we see with Héctor and I, the catalyst for a fight.
What do I need to make Rellenos de Papa?
First and foremost, you need russet potatoes. After all, the recipe is not complete without the potatoes.
You need a pound of ground meat as well. I prefer a beef picadillo filling, however, you may want to use pork, chicken, or ground turkey. All are acceptable.
To season the picadillo, prepare a batch of homemade Sofrito, Sazón, and Adobo (or pick some up from the store). Bijol (bee-HOLE) is a powder used to give a beautiful amber color to the rellenos, but it’s optional. You can use saffron, or turmeric in its place- if you want to use it at all. Onion, green bell pepper, garlic, olives, capers, tomato sauce, and additional spices finish the picadillo. In addition to beaten eggs, cornstarch is what binds the mashed potatoes together. Cornstarch is also used later to coat the papas before frying.
A good frying oil- peanut, lard, corn, or vegetable- is the final “ingredient” in this recipe.
What type of potatoes work best for Rellenos de Papa?
Potatoes are the most important ingredient here. Because I’m very picky about my rellenos de papa, I use a method to make them that most others don’t. Some say it adds more steps than necessary, I tell them, “That’s why yours are lumpy,” which usually shuts them up.
The type of potato used is very important. But, because there are something like 3,000 different kinds of potatoes, picking one can get hairy really quick. Russet potatoes are starchy enough to create their own binder, which is important because we want the pre-fried ball to hold together. They are also flavorful enough to taste good with little outside help, which is why they make amazing baked potatoes. If you want to experiment with adding different potatoes to your rellenos, do a mix of russet and Yukon gold in a 4:1 ratio (for every 4 russets, use one YG). But, I suggest we start with the basics.
Add your WHOLE, peeled potatoes to a large pot and cover them with at least 4 inches of cold water. Why whole? Because we don’t do chunks. Remember that. We’re an elite group of papas makers.
Bring the water up to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and boil the potatoes for 20 minutes, or until a knife can pass through the center of the largest potato without resistance. Once soft, drain the potatoes in a colander and leave them to cool completely.
How do I make Picadillo?
Meanwhile, as the potatoes are cooling, go ahead and prepare your beef picadillo.
Heat a large pan over medium heat. Because beef has fat ground into it, it will produce enough fat to keep it from sticking to the pan. Cook the meat just until it starts to brown, then add the garlic, diced green pepper and onion to the pan.
What we’re doing here is using the fat that we rendered from the meat to sauté the veg. Two birds, one stone. We’re rockstars.
Sauté the meat until it is brown and the veggies are translucent, stirring occasionally. This should take about 3 or 4 more minutes.
Can I use other types of ground meat for Picadillo?
Yes! You absolutely can use other types of ground meat!
Ground pork, turkey, or chicken- even a ground beef substitute- may be used here. However, when it comes to the oil you add to the pan prior to browning the meat, only add oil when you’re cooking chicken, turkey, or a meat substitute. Add a tablespoon full of oil to the pan if you are using one of these meats. Pork is cooked just like the beef because it, too, is ground with fat.
When the meat is browned, stir the spices and sofrito into the meat. Heat these until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
Add the tomato sauce, sliced green olives, and capers to the pan. Even those of you who think you’re going to hate olives or capers in this should try it. You don’t taste either and they add so much more flavor to the picadillo.
Heat the sauce over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes, or until the picadillo begins to dry out slightly.
The finished picadillo will be thick, but not dry, sort of like a taco filling.
Because the picadillo needs to be as cool as possible when you fill your rellenos de papa, I recommend making it the day before you plan to use it. If you didn’t have time to do so, however, just spread it into an even layer on a sheet pan and cover the pan with plastic wrap. Place the picadillo in the fridge- it can still be hot when you do this- and allow it to cool quickly in there.
What’s the best way to mash potatoes for Rellenos de Papa?
Here’s where we separate the rellenos de papa benchwarmers from the starting line-up. Remember I said I side-eye people who have chunky rellenos? You will too once you taste yours.
The reason we boiled our potatoes whole is so that we might be able to grate them easier. Yes. I did say GRATE. Because cutting the potatoes in chunks and mashing them is bound to leave lumps, I go this route.
“Well, can’t I use a food processor to grate them if they need to be smooth?”
No, you can’t. A food processor not only heats the potatoes up when we need them to be as cool as possible, but it also makes the mashed potatoes gummy.
As a result, the tried and true method to smooth, perfect mashed potatoes for our rellenos is a grater. Or a potato ricer, but I don’t own one.
After the potatoes are completely cooled, grate them into a large mixing bowl.
Stir in the beaten egg before using a potato masher (or fork) to mash them into a paste.
Add the cornstarch and bijol to the potato mixture (again, the bijol just adds a bit of color) and use your hands to combine the mixture completely.
Cool the mashed potatoes completely!
Press the potato mix against the sides of the bowl after the mashed potato mixture holds its shape. The mixture should be pliable without being runny or too stiff. Forming it against the sides of the bowl in this thin layer helps it cool down faster.
Press a piece of plastic film against the potatoes to keep them from drying out, then put the bowl in the fridge to chill them completely.
Chill the potatoes for at least one hour, or up to 3 hours, if possible. Again, chilling them overnight is even better.
If you have mashed potatoes leftover from last night’s dinner- and they’re not too soft from adding cream or milk- this is a great way to repurpose them.
How do I form Rellenos de Papa?
This is the hardest part of the recipe. I’ve been making rellenos de papa for at least 25 years and this still triggers my pucker factor. I’m a perfectionist, after all. There’s a lack of creative-looking rellenos de papa in the food world. Why not make them look like what they are? I LOVE serving these to unassuming diners, ask them to take a bite, and catch their look of surprise. It’s a parlor trick that never gets old.
Set up the bowls of potato and picadillo near one another. Then, onto a sheet pan, sift together more cornstarch a few dashes of bjiol.
Score the potato mixture in the bowl into 12 equal portions using a rubber spatula. Just eyeball it for now, but shoot for sections that are roughly a 1/2 cup each. You can borrow from one section as you form them, if need be.
The potatoes are going to leave residue on your hand as you form them. To avoid that, I form my rellenos in the plastic I used to cover them. Lay the plastic wrap over your hand and place a portion of the potato mixture into the center of your palm.
Use the opposite hand to press the potatoes into a 1/4″ thick disc. Place a mound (about 3 tablespoons worth) of chilled picadillo into the middle of the potato disc.
Close the fingers of the plastic-covered hand to bring the potato mix up, and around, the picadillo. It may take a few rellenos to perfect this, but the goal is to encase the picadillo in the potatoes, with the least amount of filling poking out.
Don’t get frustrated.
Do your best. Invoke my presence. I’m here with you.
Add a little potato to any cracks in the surface if need be.
What are Rellenos de Papa breaded with*?
Carefully lay your formed rellenos on a sheet pan while you mold the rest. Remember, these are soft, so don’t go manhandling them all willy-nilly.
Once all of the rellenos are relleno’d, coat your hands with some of the cornstarch from the dusted sheet pan. Dust your hands liberally and grab a papa. Toss it gently back and forth to give them a light dusting of cornstarch. Too heavy a dusting will leave untasty clumps of cornstarch on the rellenos after frying.
Some people bread their rellenos in a cornstarch, egg, and breadcrumb mixture.Some people like the texture it gives, but I’m all, “Meh”. about it. That’s also not the traditional way to bread rellenos, but I’m not yucking their yum. I find it’s too much work with not enough reward.
Sidenote: take a look at why it’s best to use the largest sheet pan instead of the smallest. Notice the TWO white plates to the side AND the bowl holding the uncoated rellenos. Don’t be a bum like me. Get a large sheet pan out and place your dusted rellenos on it. They can’t touch or they’ll stick together.
*If you plan to air fry or bake the rellenos, skip the dusting of cornstarch.
How hot does my oil have to be to fry my Rellenos?
Normally, I recommend heating your oil while you form the rellenos. This time do it before you dust them in cornstarch. The reason is because you will feel rushed to form the rellenos and they’ll look like hot garbage. Heating the oil prior to dusting gives the oil enough time to heat to a frying temp without you feeling like you have to work super-fast.
You need a Thermoworks Chef Alarm if you plan to fry on a regular basis. The probe rests in the oil as it heats and the thermometer’s digital display alerts you when it reaches the proper temp. It also reads both fahrenheit and celsius.
The safe and efficient- read: it won’t burn your food or leave it dripping oil- frying temperature is between 350° (177°C) and 375°F (190°C). Any lower and you’re boiling your food. Which means you’ll end up with soft, soggy rellenos. Higher than 375°F and you risk burning the outside of the papa while leaving the inside unheated. Not only that, but it’s a good way to cause a grease fire.
When frying, you need to have a heavy lid nearby, or at the very least, a large amount of flour to smother a fire should one start. NEVER, EVER, EVER, attempt to extinguish a grease fire with water. But, we’re not going to have a grease fire because we’re frying at the right temp. Right? Right.
Heat your frying oil in a large dutch oven or deep fryer over medium-high heat. Use a slotted spoon, preferably wooden, to gently slide a relleno or 3 into the hot oil. It’s okay if the relleno sticks slightly to the sheet pan when you attempt to lift it. Just scrape up what was left behind and mold it back onto the relleno.
HELP!! My Rellenos are breaking apart in the oil!!
Fry your rellenos for 6 minutes. After 1 minute of frying, use a flat spider to nudge the papas from the bottom of the pot. This helps them brown evenly without burning. Swish them around in the oil, carefully, as they cook to keep them from frying too close to one another.
The most frustrating thing that can happen to someone when they’re making rellenos is to see them begin to break apart as soon as they hit the oil. It’s happened to the best of us, present company included. If you followed the recipe up to this point, it won’t happen to you. Temptation leads you to believe that you don’t have to cool the potatoes completely. But, like Eve discovered, temptation, and the devil, is a liar.
Two reasons the rellenos fall apart as soon as they hit the oil is because they (1) aren’t cold enough, or (2) because you added too many eggs. If it’s the former, pop the sheet tray of rellenos into the fridge for an hour and try again. Is it the latter? Well, try the fridge trick and if that doesn’t work, brush them with oil and bake them, instead.
But, if you follow the recipe and you’ll be golden.
Once they’re done frying, use the spider to lift them from the oil and transfer them to a rack placed over a sheet pan and allow them to drain thoroughly. Continue frying the rellenos, making sure to allow the oil to come back up to temp before adding the next batch.
Can I Bake or Air Fry my Rellenos?
Yes, you can. Just remember not to coat your rellenos in cornstarch if you’re doing either.
To air fry your papas, be sure to use an Air fryer with a tray basket that has been preheated to 400°F on the air fry setting. A tray is better than a bucket because you can better space the potatoes out. Lightly grease the tray and arrange the potatoes on the tray making sure to leave space around each to allow air to circulate around them. Brush a very light coating of oil on the outside of the potato. Air fry the potatoes for 15 minutes. If they become too brown, carefully flip them over to the other side before continuing to cook.
To bake the rellenos, arrange them- spaced out- on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake them in an oven, preheated to 450°F, for 20 minutes.
How do I serve them?
Rellenos de papa are street food. They’re not fussy. So, the image image above is as fancy as I’d get with them, and I only did that to please you. Wrap each relleno in deli paper, or serve them on a platter with a bowl of mayo-ketchup.
What’s the best way to reheat them?
Seriously, they don’t taste the same reheated as they do fresh. They even taste better lukewarm than they do reheated.
If you must reheat them, do so on a lightly greased sheet pan in a 400°F for 5-10 minutes. It won’t have that lightly-crisp exterior, but the flavor will still be amazing.
Do Potato Balls freeze well?
Rellenos de papa freeze well pre-fry, yes. If you are going to freeze them, don’t dust them in the cornstarch prior to doing so. The cornstarch will be gunky upon thawing if you do. Lay the formed potatoes on a lightly greased sheet pan and freeze until solid. Store the frozen papas in a freezer storage bag for 6 months or less.
To fry them, just let them thaw slightly in the fridge (for about an hour), then fry for 7 minutes, instead of six. The extra minute accounts for them being partially frozen.
While you can freeze fried rellenos, I don’t recommend it because the exterior becomes really soft and soggy after thawing and reheating. If you insist on doing so, however, freeze and store the fried ones the same way (on a lined sheet pan). Thaw them for 30 minutes to an hour and reheat until warmed through in a 350°F oven or in the air fryer.
What sauce goes best with Rellenos de Papa?
Serve them with a smattering of mayo-ketchup (or, as we say, mayo-kechu), which is 1 cup of mayonnaise, 3 tablespoons of ketchup, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder and a 1/2 teaspoon of adobo stirred together until combined. When I’m feeling frisky, I add a tablespoon of hot sauce to my mayo-ketchup to spice it up.
What do you think? You are about to be the next master of the Rellenos de Papa. Share this recipe, then pin it to your snacks board for easy finding.
Rellenos de Papa (Picadillo Stuffed Potato Fritters)
- dutch oven
Mashed Potato Mixture
- 2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes peeled
- 1 large egg lightly beaten
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt optional
- 1/4 teaspoon bijol or sazón or saffron, optional
Ground Meat Picadillo
- 1 pound ground beef or other ground meat (see note)
- 1 cup green bell pepper diced
- 1 cup white onion diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 cup sofrito
- 1 1/2 teaspoons adobo seasoning
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sazón
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 8 ounce can no-salt added tomato sauce
- 10 olives sliced (or 1 tablespoon sliced olives)
- 1 teaspoon capers
To fry the rellenos
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon bijol or saffron, optional
- oil for frying
Boil and Cool the Potatoes
- Add the potatoes to a large pot and cover them with at least 4 inches of cold water. Bring the water up to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and boil the potatoes for 20 minutes, or until a knife can pass through the center of the largest potato without resistance.
- Once soft, drain the potatoes in a colander and leave them to cool completely.The rest of the ingredients will be added once the potatoes are cool.
Cook, then Cool the Picadillo
- Heat a large pan over medium heat. Add the meat to the pan and cook the meat just until it starts to brown, about 2-3 minutes.
- Add the green pepper, onion, and garlic to the pan. Sauté the meat until it is brown and the veggies are translucent, stirring occasionally, about 3 or 4 more minutes. Once browned, drain any excess fat from the meat and return it to the stove.
- Stir the sofrito, adobo, sazón, garlic and onion powders, oregano, and pepper into the meat. Heat these until fragrant or 1-2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, sliced green olives, and capers to the pan.
- Heat the sauce over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes, or until the picadillo begins to dry out slightly. The picadillo is done when it is thick, but not dry- like wet taco filling.
- Transfer the picadillo to a sheetpan and smooth it into an even layer. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and allow it to cool completely in the refrigerator.
Finish the Mashed Potato Mixture, Then Cool
- Once the potatoes are completely cooled, grate them into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the beaten egg, then use a potato masher (or fork) to mash them into a paste.
- Add the cornstarch and bijol to mixture and use your hands or a spoon to combine the mixture completely. The mixture should be pliable without being runny or too stiff. Press the potato mix against the sides of the bowl to help it cool down faster. Place a piece of plastic film against the potatoes to keep them from drying out, then put the bowl in the fridge to chill them completely- at least 1 hour.
Fill the Potatoes, Then Coat
- Set up the bowls of potato and picadillo near one another. Sift together the 1/4 cup of cornstarch and bjiol onto a small sheetpan.
- Divide the potato mixture in the bowl into 12 equal portions using a rubber spatula, about 1/2 cup each. Lay the plastic wrap you covered the potatoes in the bowl with over your hand and place a portion of the potato mixture into the center of your palm.
- Use the opposite hand to press the potatoes into a 1/4" thick disc. Place a mound (about 3 tablespoons worth) of chilled picadillo into the middle of the potato disc. Close the fingers of the plastic-covered hand to bring the potato mix up, and around, the picadillo, then gently pinch the potato mixture together to close the seam. Try make sure you're encasing the picadillo in the potatoes, with the least amount of filling poking out. Don't get frustrated.Add a little potato to any cracks in the surface if need be. Use the plastic wrap to smooth any cracks or crevices.
- Carefully lay your formed rellenos on a sheet pan while you mold the rest. Begin heating your frying oil over moderate heat to 360°F.
- *If you plan to air fry or bake the rellenos, skip the dusting of cornstarch. Once all of the rellenos are formed, dust your hands liberally with some of the cornstarch from the dusted sheet pan. Grab a papa and toss it gently back and forth to give them a light dusting of cornstarch. Too heavy a dusting will leave untasty clumps of cornstarch on the rellenos after frying.
Fry the Rellenos de Papa
- See notes in post on how to deep-fry safely. Once the oil reaches temperature, use a slotted spoon, preferably wooden, to gently slide a 2-3 rellenos into the hot oil. It's okay if the relleno sticks slightly to the sheet pan when you attempt to lift it. Just scrape up what was left behind and mold it back onto the relleno.
- Fry your rellenos for 6 minutes. After 1 minute of frying, use a flat spider to nudge the papas from the bottom of the pot. This helps them brown evenly without one side burning. Swish them around in the oil, carefully, as they cook to keep them from frying too close to one another.
- If the rellenos fall apart as soon as they hit the oil it is because they either aren't cold enough, or because you added too many eggs to the potato mixture (which shouldn't be the case). If it's the former, pop the sheet tray of rellenos into the fridge for an hour and try again. If it's the latter,try the fridge trick and if that doesn't work, brush them with oil and bake them, instead.
- Once the rellenos are done frying, use the spider to lift them from the oil and transfer them to a rack placed over a sheet pan and allow them to drain thoroughly. Continue frying the rellenos, making sure to allow the oil to come back up to temp before adding the next batch.
- Arrange the rellenos on a platter or wrap each relleno in deli paper. Serve with a bowl of mayo-ketchup (recipe below). Enjoy while hot.
Air Fryer Instructions:Be sure to use an Air fryer with a tray basket because you can better space the potatoes out.
- Preheat the air fryer to 400°F on the air fry setting.
- Lightly grease the tray before arranging the potatoes on it, making sure to leave space around each to allow the air to circulate around them.
- Brush a very light coating of oil on the outside of the potato.
- Air fry the potatoes for 15 minutes. If they become too brown, carefully flip them over to the other side before continuing to cook.
- Cook in batches to avoid soggy rellenos.
- Preheat your oven to 450°F.
- Arrange the rellenos, with space around each, on a parchment-lined sheet pan.
- Bake them for 20 minutes or until slightly browned.
Mayo-Ketchup Dipping Sauce:1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon adobo seasoning
- In a small bowl combine the mayo, ketchup, garlic powder, and adobo.
- Stir the mixture together until combine.
- Serve immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Reheating Instructions:Arrange the rellenos on a lightly greased sheet pan. Reheat in a 400°F for 5-10 minutes, or until warmed through.
- Don't dust the rellenos in the cornstarch prior to freezing.
- Lay the formed potatoes on a lightly greased sheet pan and freeze until solid. Transfer the frozen papas to a freezer storage bag and store for 6 months or less.
- When you're ready to cook, thaw the rellenos slightly in the fridge (for about an hour). Dust with cornstarch, then fry for 7 minutes, instead of six. The extra minute accounts for them being partially frozen.
Try my other Puerto Rican favorites: