Learn the secret to tender and flavorful authentic tacos al pastor. You need no special skills or elaborate equipment. We will show you how to cook these delicious street tacos at home!
What is al Pastor?
Al pastor in English means ‘of the shepherd’. The descriptive name of the dish al pastor referred to the method of preparing meat by spit-grilling it, nice and slow, for hours, just as shepherds would. Taco means ‘light snack’ from Spanish and in Mexico was applied to a tortilla wrapped around a filling (a practice that originated way before the Spanish came to the land of the Aztecs).
Tacos al pastor cooked on a vertically situated trompo (‘spinning top’) are a direct descendant of the vertical rotisserie cooked doner kebab. This method of cooking originated in the Ottoman empire and spread to every part of the Middle East and the parts of Europe that were under its influence. The pile of meat cooks slowly and evenly as the vertical rod spins and is shaved off onto some type of flatbread (different countries use their own versions).
When Lebanese immigrants made their way to Mexico pork took the place of lamb, dried chiles and pineapple flavored the meat, corn tortillas got the role of flatbread and the trompo started spinning.
The most favored cut of pork for tacos al pastor is pork shoulder. It has tons of flavor in result of being situated in a part of the pig that gets used a lot and contains a fair amount of fat. When a trompo is used, the meat is sliced quite thin before cooked slowly for hours.
The Easiest Way to Make Tacos al Pastor at home
You can actually buy your own nifty trompo/kebab/schwarma machine, set it up in your backyard, pile up about a hundred pounds of meat over it and … I am just kidding.
The easiest way to make tacos al pastor at home is to grill some sliced pork shoulder.
You could go the slow cooker route but you will miss out on the grilled flavor and depart from the original concept of spit grilling, so your results will not be as authentic. Regardless, we include instructions on using a slow cooker, oven or pressure cooker/instant pot.
But grilling alone will not yield the flavorful and tender al pastor meat. You need to marinate the pork to get it to take on flavors and become tenderized before you grill it.
Our marinade infuses the pork shoulder with delicious authentic flavors – earthy, sweet, smokey, peppery and savory) and it tenderizes it.
Start by adding chopped onions, pineapple, garlic cloves and spices (chili powder, achiote powder, Mexican oregano, salt and pepper) and pineapple juice and Negra Modelo (sub with orange juice) to a blender. Blend until a smooth, brick colored liquid forms. Use the marinade as soon as you make it.
How to cook the tacos al pastor
All you have to do is slice your pork just under an inch thick and marinate it (covered and refrigerated as shown below) for a few hours before grilling it.
You don’t want to slice it any thinner for grilling as it will be difficult to ‘peel it off’ the grill once the marinade is done working its magic.
Give the tender grilled meat a rough chop with a chef’s knife as shown in the last picture and it will be ready to join your tortilla.
The Secret to Super Tender Tacos al Pastor
…is using fresh pineapple in the marinade.
Bromelain is known the world over for its incredible protein defeating powers and is possibly the best known natural meat tenderizer or at least right up there with papain.
Take the toughest cut of meat, include fresh pineapple in the marinade and see what happens. The enzymes literally act on impact and penetrate deep into the meat.
The longer you keep the pork shoulder in the al pastor marinade, the more tender it will become. However, do it within reason. Four to six hours is plenty. Plenty.
Note that if you are only using pineapple juice (not fresh pineapple) the tenderizing effect will be gone – bromelain gets destroyed during the canning processes as it is very temperature sensitive.
No grill, no problem
If for whatever reason you cannot fire up the grill to cook your beautifully marinated pork you can simply use a cast iron grill pan. It even has an amazing advantage over the real deal grill.
Said advantage is contained in the fact that once you get it really hot and place the sliced pork al pastor over it, you can baste it while it is grilling with extra marinade and make it even juicier. Not that you cannot do that on the grill, but do you really want to face the clean up after? Whereas the cast iron grill skillet is smaller, contains juices gone astray and is much easier to clean in comparison. Just saying.
As a side note, if you look closely at the pictures you will notice that some show more charred, chunkier pieces of al pastor pork and others show seemingly moister, more of a fall apart style pieces of meat. Illustrating the two different grilling approaches. Both taste really delicious, same marinade.
How to make Tacos al Pastor in the slow cooker, the oven or the pressure cooker (instant pot)
If you want to make use of equipment other than the grill to prepare the juicy pork I have summarized what you need to do in the recipe card below. Just keep in mind that you will be giving up the chargrilled flavors that are essential to authentic al pastor meat. But the deliciousness of the marinade will still be there full force.
Tacos al Pastor
Tacos al pastor made easy. Flavorful pork shoulder, marinated and grilled to perfection. Served over street sized corn tortillas with fresh pineapple, onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. The choice of salsa roja or salsa verde is up to you.
- 2-5 lbs pork shoulder depending on how much you plan to make
- 1 medium onion chopped + more to use as topping
- 2 cups of fresh pineapple diced + more to use as topping
- 3 cloves garlic roughly chopped
- 2-3 tbsp chili powder
- 2-3 tbsp achiote powder recommended; increase chili powder if not using
- 1 tbsp Mexican oregano
- 2 tsp salt
- 12 oz Negra Modelo optional, but highly recommended; sub with another Vienna lager; if not using sub with 6 oz OJ
- 6 oz pineapple juice
- street size white corn tortillas as needed
- bunch fresh cilantro for topping
- lime wedges to squeeze over tacos
- salsa roja or salsa verde to drizzle over tacos
In a blender combine the diced onion, pineapple, garlic, chili and achiote powders, oregano, salt, Negra Modelo and pineapple juice. Pulse until blended.
Slice the pork shoulder in about 1 inch thick pieces.
Place the sliced pork in a suitable container (with airtight lid) or large plastic bag (may need to use two) and smother with marinade.
Seal container or bag and refrigerate for up to 6 hours.
Grill over hot grill (meat will be very tender) and chop up in small pieces.
Warm up and char corn tortillas on grill.
Assemble tacos by using two stacked tortillas. Place pork, fresh pineapple, onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.
Serve with salsa roja or salsa verde.
Slow Cooker | If you choose to use a slow cooker, simply
Place the sliced pork in the pot and add the al pastor marinade. Cook on low heat for about 6 hours (possibly longer if you are using more meat).
After six hours check the meat and decide if it is tender enough or needs a bit more time.
Once you are satisfied (you can pull the pork with a fork) transfer the meat only (discard marinade juices) to an appropriately sized baking pan
Pace under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the meat gets crispy around the edges.
Oven (If you choose to use the oven be prepared to slow cook the meat on low heat.)
First marinade the sliced pork for about 2 hours in the fridge.
Transfer to a baking pan and cover with aluminum foil so it will not dry out.
Slow cook for 3-4 hours at 250 F, check for tenderness and continue cooking a little longer if needed.
Remove the aluminum foil when the pork is almost fork tender and cook for another half hour to an hour.
Pressure Cooker/Instant Pot
Marinade the sliced pork for 2 hours in the fridge to make sure it becomes infused with flavors and the protein begins to break.
Transfer both meat and marinade to your pressure cooker or instant pot, close lid and set the valve to sealing.
Manually set for high pressure cooking for one hour.
When done, let the pressure be released naturally, about 20 minutes and transfer the pork to a baking pan.
Cook in a 250 F oven for about an hour.
The marinade in this recipe is enough for up to 5 lbs of pork. Yield will vary depending on how much meat is used. Allow for time to marinate pork.
A delicious recipe for salsa roja is this Salsa Borracha.
More on the Tacos al Pastor Ingredients
When it comes to the ingredients for these tacos remember that you are after flavor and texture. We already covered the specific cut of pork, tenderizing it by making an ally out of the bromelain enzymes and taking the grilling route.
There are two more ingredients essential to the flavor that we highly recommend you include in your marinade. Achiote powder and malty, roasty Negra Modelo.
Here is why we recommend them.
Chili and Achiote powder mix
In this recipe we use a combination of chili powder and achiote powder in a 1:1 ratio to create a fuss free, flavorful spice mix for the al pastor marinade. It doesn’t get simpler than this, yet the flavors are huge.
Achiote powder, especially when used liberally, imparts deep earthy flavors and a peppery bite to the pork. It is also known as annatto powder. It is a red powder derived from the dried seeds of the achiote shrub, botanically known as Bixa orellana. You should not have a problem finding it in the spice section of your regular grocery store, typically it is sold in a regular spice container.
Chris and I use it a lot and like to buy a bigger bag of achiote molido (ground achiote) from the Mexican section of our local grocery store. It saves very well and can last for months if stored in an air tight container at room temperature and is just so rich in flavor. We use it to color rice yellow (way cheaper than saffron) and to season fish, chicken and pork, typically in addition to other spices.
Alternatives to using chili and achiote powder mix
You don’t have to use the achiote powder, you can use all chili powder, but we recommend that you opt for adding it.
Sometimes instead of chili powder we re-hydrate dried chiles and if you have time on your hands we urge you to do the same. It is the traditional Mexican approach. (Note: this method takes significantly longer and involves more steps than simply adding chili and achiote powder to the marinade).
How to Re-hydrate Dried Chiles
In brief you will reconstitute dried peppers such as guajillo and anchos or other mild chile de ristra (for example dried New Mexico chiles or California red chiles) and then add them to the marinade (along with a healthy doze of achiote powder:).
Here is what you need to do.
First clean the peppers (you need about five, medium-sized) – remove the top stems and seeds from the pods and soak them in 1 1/2 cup of hot water for about an hour to reconstitute them. Discard any water that was not absorbed and add the peppers to the other ingredients of the marinade.
Alternatively, you can bring a bottle of Negra Modelo to simmer, remove it from the heat and add the chiles to it. After about an hour add the reconstituted peppers and any beer not absorbed to a blender along with the other marinade ingredients.
The Negra Modelo
I am sure you are not at all surprised that we add a bottle of Negra Modelo in the marinade. Given our cooking with beer orientation… Negra Modelo is a fine representative of the flavorful Vienna lager style, one of our favorite. Remember how Mexico saved the style from extinction? I explained in this informative post.
Whereas al pastor marinated with beer for the trompo will not work out so great cost wise, when you are cooking for your own pleasure you can indulge and leverage the robust flavor enhancing potential of Negra Modelo by including it in your marinade. Chris and I have a long standing addiction to flavoring meat with Vienna lager.
Note: Even though I keep using the terms marinade/marinate, what is really going on here is brining. There is salt in the marinade, which technically makes it a brine.
Tacos al Pastor Toppings
Chris and I are huge fans of and highly recommend the traditional Mexican approach of using double white corn tortillas (the small, street tacos sized ones) and the traditional street taco toppings – fresh cilantro, diced onions, fresh (or grilled) pineapple pieces and a good squeeze of lime juice. Maybe a touch of salt.
The double tortillas (again, do char them if you have the time) provide extra support for the filling and the vibrant, fresh flavors of the toppings stand both in contrast and complement to the juicy, flavorful al pastor pork. You just cannot go wrong with these toppings.
Speaking of salsa (literally means ‘sauce’) tacos al pastor are traditionally served with either salsa roja or salsa verde of which there are myriads of versions. You can also go with spicier choices to add picante and extra smokey flavor to your tacos. We used to be all over the slightly spicy salsa verde at this tiny taco place in Edwards, Colorado. It was perfect with al pastor, but the proprietor never shared his recipe…
About Street Tacos
Tacos al Pastor are a very popular street taco in Mexico. Mexican street tacos fall into two main categories in terms of the time of the day when they are sold.
The ones offered by taco vendors (taqueros) at street stands (taquerias) and stalls (puestos) in the morning are known as ‘morning tacos’ and include tacos de canasta, barbacoa and cabeza. Getting una orden of freshly prepared street tacos for breakfast beats any other type of breakfast you can get while in Mexico in my humble opinion.
Nighttime tacos are typically sold after six o’clock in the afternoon and include tacos al pastor, tacos de carnitas, tacos al carbon, tacos de pescado, tacos dorados and several others.
Many stands specialize in a particular type of taco and are equipped to prepare and sell that specific taco. In addition to the onions and cilantro, popular toppings include thinly sliced radishes and cucumbers and thin guacamole. And of course choices of salsas (roja and verde).
Tacos al Pastor as a Beer Garden Menu Item?
Heck, yeah! Here is why.
Whenever we go brewering in summer there is inevitably a taco truck in the mix of other beer friendly fare available.
We often end up sitting under the shade of a tree with a spread of street tacos (carnitas or al pastor being our favorite) and thirst quenching lagers in front of us. Especially when we go to our local Zwei Brewing. We always order their Vienna lager to enjoy with tacos. It is a pairing we enthusiastically recommend.
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