Cecina and carne asada are two popular thinly sliced meat dishes in Mexican cuisine. While they share some similarities in preparation and appearance, they are made from different cuts of meat and have distinct flavors and textures.
In short, cecina and carne asada are not the same thing. Cecina is made from thinly sliced dried or salt-cured beef, while carne asada is grilled beef steak, usually skirt or flank steak. Keep reading to learn more about the key differences between these two iconic Mexican meat dishes.
What is Cecina?
Cecina is a thin, salty cut of air-dried or salt-cured beef that originates from the northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. It gets its name from the Spanish word “seca” meaning dried or cured.
To make cecina, beef cuts like round, chuck, or brisket are rubbed with a salt mixture and left to cure for several weeks. This long curing process dehydrates the meat while infusing it with a concentrated salty, savory flavor. Once cured, the meat is thinly sliced and can be eaten as is, or cooked by grilling or pan frying before serving.
Some key characteristics of cecina include:
- Made from cured beef, usually round, chuck, or brisket
- Cured for weeks in a salt mixture, then thinly sliced
- Intense salty, savory flavor from salt-curing process
- Dry, dense texture from dehydration during curing
- Rustic deep red color
- Often served as an appetizer or taco filling
What is Carne Asada?
Carne asada simply means grilled meat in Spanish. But when talked about in a Mexican cuisine context, carne asada typically refers to grilled beef steak, usually skirt, flank, or flap steak. It is a popular taco filling and dish at Mexican restaurants worldwide.
Unlike cecina, carne asada doesn’t go through a curing process. The meat is simply seasoned, grilled over high heat, then thinly sliced across the grain before serving. This quick cooking gives it a juicier, more tender texture than salt-cured cecina.
Some characteristics of traditional carne asada include:
- Made from grilled steak cuts like skirt, flank, or flap
- Marinated briefly in a blend of lime juice, garlic, and spices
- Cooked quickly over high heat on a grill or griddle
- Sliced thinly across the grain after cooking
- Tender, lightly charred texture
- Robust beefy flavor with citrus and spice notes
- Bright red color
- Served as an entree or taco filling
Key Differences Between Cecina and Carne Asada
While cecina and carne asada are both thin cuts of beef commonly used in Mexican cuisine, they have several distinct differences:
Cecina is made from larger whole muscle cuts like round, chuck, or brisket. Carne asada uses naturally tender cuts like skirt, flank, or flap steak.
Cecina undergoes a lengthy curing and drying process to develop its concentrated flavor and chewy texture. Carne asada is simply grilled after a brief marinade.
The salt-curing process gives cecina an intense salty, savory beef flavor. Carne asada has a fresher, juicier beef taste with spice and citrus notes from marinating.
Cecina has a dense, chewy texture from the moisture loss during curing. Carne asada is tender and lightly charred from the high heat grilling.
Cecina has a deep rustic red color, while carne asada is a brighter red since it doesn’t undergo curing oxidation.
Cecina is more often used as an appetizer or taco filling. Carne asada is popular served on its own, in tacos, burritos, and other dishes.
Where Cecina and Carne Asada Come From
Cecina and carne asada originated in different regions of Mexico based on local climate, resources, and culinary traditions:
Cecina comes from the drier northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. This arid climate made air-drying meat a practical preservation method. The salt-curing technique was also perfected here.
Carne asada has roots in central and western Mexico. In states like Jalisco, Michoacán, and Baja, carne asada became popular for celebrations and gatherings thanks to the large cattle industry and influence of ranch culture.
How Cecina and Carne Asada Are Made
While the original preparations may vary by region and recipe, today cecina and carne asada are generally made as follows:
- Choose a large cut of beef like round, chuck, or brisket
- Trim excess fat and silver skin
- Rub thoroughly with salt mixture of salt, chili powder, garlic, other spices
- Layer meat in containers alternating with salt mixture
- Cure for 4 weeks or more in a cool place
- Remove from salt cure and pat dry
- Hang in dry, breezy area to air-dry for 1-2 weeks until hard
- Thinly slice strips across the grain before serving
- Choose a steak cut like skirt, flank, or flap steak
- Trim any excess fat or silver skin
- Make a quick-acting marinade of lime juice, garlic, cilantro, chili powder
- Marinate steak for 1-2 hours
- Grill over high heat turning once, about 8 minutes total
- Let rest 5 minutes then slice thinly across the grain
- Serve while hot
As you can see, the preparation methods are quite different, resulting in distinct textures and flavors.
How to Serve Cecina and Carne Asada
Cecina and carne asada can both make amazing tacos, but here are some of the best ways to serve each:
– On its own as an appetizer
– In tacos with salsa, onion, cilantro
– Chopped in scrambled eggs
– Layered in tortas (Mexican sandwiches)
– Added to cheese and charcuterie boards
– As steak with chimichurri sauce
– Chopped in burritos and tacos
– Diced in salads or nachos
– Stuffed in quesadillas
– Served with beans and rice
– Topped with grilled onions and salsa
The salt-curing process does affect the nutrition profile of cecina compared to fresh grilled carne asada:
As shown, cecina is significantly higher in sodium and calories than fresh grilled carne asada. Cecina also has a higher fat content due to its more calorie-dense nature. Both are excellent sources of protein. Those looking to reduce sodium or calories may prefer carne asada, while cecina offers a more intense salty flavor.
Specialized salt-cured meats like cecina are generally pricier than common grilled steak. Some average prices for each are:
- Cecina – $15-20 per pound
- Carne Asada – $7-12 per pound
Cecina’s higher price reflects the longer curing time it requires compared to quick-cooking carne asada. The rarer preparation of cecina also makes it a specialty gourmet item vs more everyday carne asada. Those wanting to control costs may go for carne asada, while cecina is worth the splurge for a special occasion.
Which is Healthier?
When it comes to nutritional value, carne asada generally provides a healthier option compared to salt-cured cecina:
- Lower in sodium – Carne asada has far less sodium since it is not salt-cured.
- Less fat and calories – Cecina is higher in fat and calories due to the dehydrating process.
- More minerals – Carne asada retains more potassium and other beneficial minerals leached out during cecina’s curing.
- No preservatives – Carne asada just uses lime, garlic, spices rather than chemical preservatives.
However, cecina can still be enjoyed moderately as part of a balanced diet. Those with high blood pressure or on a sodium-restricted diet should limit intake of salty cured meats like cecina though.
In terms of lean protein and nutrition from meat itself, both provide high-quality value. But carne asada has a health advantage overall.
Which Has a Better Flavor?
The flavors of cecina and carne asada are subjective to personal tastes. Here are some key points when comparing the flavors:
- Cecina – intense salty, savory umami flavor; dry, chewy beefy texture
- Carne Asada – bright, bold grilled beef flavor; tender, juicy steak texture
Those who enjoy deep, concentrated umami flavors may prefer cecina’s salty intensity. For vibrant fresh grilled beef flavor, carne asada can’t be beat. Cecina’s chewy texture gives great mouthfeel for tacos, while carne asada offers more tenderness.
From a versatility perspective, carne asada may have the edge. Its bolder grilled flavors complement many dish themes. Cecina’s specific salty flavor profile limits its uses slightly. But both offer wonderful and authentic Mexican flavors.
Cecina and Carne Asada: Recipes and Substitutions
Want to enjoy both cecina and carne asada recipes? Here are some recipe ideas as well as tips for substituting one for the other:
– Cecina tacos with salsa and guacamole
– Quesadillas with Oaxaca cheese, black beans, and cecina
– Cecina appetizer platter with olives, nuts, and cheese
– Breakfast scramble with cecina, eggs, and avocado
Carne Asada Recipes
– Carne asada street tacos with onion, cilantro
– Fajitas with grilled peppers, onions, and carne asada
– Carne asada salad with greens, avocado, cotija cheese
– Burrito bowls with carne asada, rice, beans, and salsa
If you don’t have one meat but need it for a recipe, you can sub in the other:
– Use carne asada instead of cecina for a less salty, fresher flavor
– Substitute cecina for carne asada when you want more concentrated savory flavor
Just keep portion sizes the same and adjust any other seasonings to complement the new meat.
Where to Buy Cecina and Carne Asada
You can find both cecina and carne asada at:
- Mexican grocery stores or carnicerias
- Latin/international food markets
- Specialty meat shops or butchers
- High-end grocery stores like Whole Foods
Look for cecina sold pre-sliced or portioned for easy use. For carne asada, choose good quality skirt, flank or flap steak for best results. You can also order both meats online from specialty sellers if you can’t find them locally.
Should I Pick Cecina or Carne Asada?
Choosing between cecina or carne asada depends on your taste preferences and the dish you are making:
- For authentic Mexican flavor – cecina for bold salt-cured flavor, carne asada for iconic grilled taste
- For tacos/quesadillas – cecina for a salty contrast, carne asada for tender texture
- As a protein source – carne asada for nutrition, cecina for indulgent umami
- For cost – carne asada is usually more budget-friendly
- For ease – carne asada requires just quick grilling
Both are excellent additions to the Mexican cuisine lover’s kitchen. Cecina offers a specialty salty flavor, while carne asada is more widely usable. Try them both to discover your preference!
While cecina and carne asada share similarities of being thinly sliced Mexican beef dishes, they are far from the same thing. Cecina is labor-intensively salt-cured to develop its intense flavor and chewy texture. Carne asada gets its taste from a quick marinade and high-heat grilling.
Cecina has a deep umami beefiness perfect for tacos, while carne asada offers fresher, brighter grilled flavors ideal as steak or in many dishes. Carne asada also has a nutritional advantage thanks to its lower sodium and fat.
But both cecina and carne asada have rightful places in Mexican cuisine. Their differences simply provide more options to enjoy delicious authentic Mexican flavors and textures. There’s no need to pick between them – embrace both in your cooking repertoire!