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What Are Tacos al Pastor?
Tacos al pastor are a popular street snack, with taqueros dexterously slicing meat off of the spit into a warm corn tortilla and topping the taco off with a few slices of caramelized pineapple and a dusting of raw onions and cilantro. The meat is marinated in an adobo sauce featuring chiles and achiote—a bright red spice paste made of ground annatto seeds and vinegar, along with coriander seeds, oregano, cumin, garlic, and other spices—from Mexico’s tropical Yucatán region.
There is perhaps no dish more closely linked with Mexico City than tacos al pastor. All across the city, vendors set up spinning trompos—a vertical rotisserie not unlike those used to make gyros—covered in al pastor. Lebanese immigrants brought al pastor to Mexico in the early twentieth century by taking the idea of shawarma and combining it with the Mexican ingredients available to them.
What Is the Difference Between Carnitas and al Pastor?
While both al pastor and carnitas are made from pork and both are popular in Mexican cuisine, the preparation of each meat is different. Carnitas are pork butt—a cut of meat from the upper shoulder of a pig—that is braised in its own fat and herbs like Mexican oregano and crushed cloves of garlic. After simmering for several hours, the meat is chopped into little pieces and placed in a corn tortilla or burrito and topped with avocado and cilantro.
Al pastor is pork loin or pork shoulder—a cut of meat from the lower shoulder area of a pig—that is marinated for 24 hours in adobo sauce with fresh or dried chiles like guajillo chiles, pineapple, ground cumin, and herbs and spices. It is traditionally cooked on a vertical rotisserie, cut into thin slices and placed on corn tortillas for tacos al pastor.
3 Tips for Making Tacos al Pastor at Home
Once you know the fundamentals of cooking al pastor, here are a few ways to enhance the flavor and adjust the recipe to your taste:
- Include pineapple juice in the marinade. For an extra layer of pineapple flavor, try adding just under a cup of pineapple juice to the marinade. You can simply puree fresh pineapple in a food processor. The pork will absorb the flavors while marinating.
- You can cook the pork in several ways. Traditionally, street vendors known as taqueros cook al pastor on a tromo, or vertical rotisserie. But home cooks might not be equipped with this tool. Al pastor can also be cooked on the stovetop, either on a grill pan or a heavy-bottomed pan. Grilling al pastor is another option.
- Choose a different cut of pork. Some recipes call for pork loin, but al pastor can also be made with boneless pork shoulder.
Gabriela Cámara’s al Pastor Recipe
Prep Time25 hr
Total Time25 hr 30 min
Cook Time30 min
Follow these steps for the best tacos al pastor recipe from chef Gabriela Cámara:
For the adobo rojo de chiles sauce:
- 30g chile cascabel, destemmed and seeded
- 12g chile ancho, destemmed and seeded
- 9g chile guajillo, destemmed and seeded
- 9g chile pasilla, destemmed and seeded
- 1g chile de árbol, destemmed and seeded
- 450g roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 70g white onion, roughly chopped
- 12g garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 3g achiote paste
- 12g freshly squeezed orange juice
- 36g grapeseed oil
- Pinch of cumin
- Pinch of oregano
- 18g sea salt, plus more for seasoning
For the pork:
- 910g to 1.4kg pork tenderloin, cut into bite-size pieces
- 240ml adobo rojo de chiles
- 17g sea salt
- 10g grapeseed oil
For the pineapple:
- 1 large pineapple
- 35g unsalted butter
- 0.5g sea salt
- 8 corn tortillas
- 100g white onion, finely minced
- 10g cilantro leaves, minced lime wedges, for serving
- 250g salsa verde cruda
- Make the tortillas. Roll out golf ball–size masa balls, press, and cook according to Gabriela Cámara’s recipe for corn tortillas.
- Make the adobo rojo de chiles sauce. If possible, turn on the exhaust fan above your stove or open a window before toasting your chiles. Heat a large nonstick pan or clay comal over medium-high heat. Cook the chiles in the dry pan or on the dry comal, flipping once, until lightly toasted and aromatic, about 1 to 2 minutes. Put the toasted chiles in a blender. Add the tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Place the achiote paste in a small bowl. Slice the orange in half and squeeze one half into the achiote paste. Stir to combine. Add the mixture to the blender, along with the juice from the other half of the orange. Add the grapeseed oil, cumin, and oregano. Blend on high until the sauce is thick but smooth, about 1 minute. Add salt to taste.
- Marinate the pork. Place pork in a large mixing bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the adobo sauce to the large bowl and mix well to combine. Cover the pork and allow it to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Place the remaining adobo sauce in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to three weeks. (The extra adobo sauce can be used to marinate other meats, fish, or vegetables.)
- Cook the pineapple. With a very sharp knife, trim the top and bottom off the pineapple so it can stand up straight. Peel the pineapple by cutting the skin off in strips. Once all the skin has been removed, slice the fruit in half lengthwise. Set half aside. Slice the remaining half lengthwise once more, and set one quarter aside. Cut the fibrous heart out of the pineapple and discard. Lay the pineapple flat across the cutting board and slice into wedges lengthwise, then cut each wedge into bite-size chunks. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the pineapple, a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring often to avoid burning, until pineapple is slightly softened and translucent and all butter is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Cook the pork. Season the pork with additional salt before cooking. In a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the pork, decrease heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, until meat is cooked through and most of the marinade has cooked off, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Assemble the tacos. Heat a nonstick skillet or clay comal over medium heat. Reheat the tortillas for a few seconds on each side. Fill each tortilla with a few spoonfuls of warm pork and three pieces of warm pineapple. Top with minced white onion and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges and salsa verde cruda.
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