Carne asada is a dish of grilled and sliced beef popular in Mexican and Latin American cuisine. The term “carne asada” literally translates to “roasted meat” or “grilled meat” in Spanish. So the type of meat used for carne asada is simply thinly sliced cuts of beef that are seasoned and grilled over an open flame or hot grill.
What cuts of beef are used for carne asada?
Carne asada is usually made from flank steak, skirt steak, or flap meat cuts. These are fairly thin, affordable cuts of beef with good marbling that cook up quickly on the grill and slice well for serving. When shopping for carne asada meat, some common names to look for include:
- Flank steak
- Skirt steak
- Flap meat or flap steak
- Arrachera (a thin cut from the flank area)
- Bavette (similar to flank steak)
- Ranchera (a thin flank or skirt cut)
- Vacio (a thin cut from the flank)
Flank steak comes from the belly area of the cow. It has good beefy flavor and a somewhat fibrous texture that softens when marinated. Skirt steak is a long, thin cut from the diaphragm muscles. It has a loose grain and absorbs flavors well. Flap meat comes from near the belly and consists of several thin muscles. It has a mild beefy flavor.
Why are these cuts good for carne asada?
There are a few reasons why flank, skirt and flap steaks make excellent carne asada meat choices:
- They are relatively inexpensive – These are not the prime cuts like ribeye or tenderloin, so they cost less per pound.
- They are thin – At around 1/2 inch thick, these steaks cook quickly on the grill or pan.
- They have good flavor – While not as tender as pricier cuts, they have a nice beefy taste.
- They absorb marinades well – The loose grain helps the meat soak up any acidic marinades.
- They slice well – When cooked properly, these thin steaks slice neatly against the grain.
So these affordable cuts have an ideal thickness, texture and grain for absorbng flavors and slicing into perfect thin strips for carne asada. Their relatively low cost also makes them ideal for feeding a crowd.
How is traditional carne asada prepared and served?
Authentic carne asada is prepared in a simple, traditional manner:
- The meat is thinly sliced across the grain into strips.
- It is marinated for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight, in a blend of acidic ingredients like lime juice, vinegar, garlic and Mexican oregano.
- The meat strips are grilled quickly over high heat until charred and just cooked through.
- The carne asada is sliced across the grain into thin strips.
- It is served warm alongside tortillas, salsa, guacamole, beans and other taco fillings.
Part of the appeal of carne asada is its simplicity. The thin strips of flavorful grilled beef work perfectly in tacos, burritos, quesadillas and nachos. The meat also makes a simple and satisfying entree when served with warm tortillas and fresh garnishes.
What is the difference between carne asada and fajitas?
While carne asada and fajitas are prepared in a similar way, there are some differences between the two dishes:
- Cuts of meat: Carne asada utilizes flank, skirt or flap steak while fajitas are traditionally made with skirt steak or chicken breast.
- Marinade: Carne asada uses an acidic blend focused on lime juice and garlic. Fajita marinades also include oregano and cumin.
- Vegetables: Fajitas are served with sauteed peppers and onions. Carne asada does not include veggies.
- Portion size: Fajitas typically use larger strips of meat while carne asada focuses on thin slices.
- Accompaniments: Fajitas are served with the veggies, tortillas, guacamole, etc on a sizzling skillet. Carne asada does not utilize the skillet presentation.
So while the preparation method is similar, the cuts of meat, flavors and serving style differ between the two dishes.
What are some common marinade ingredients used for carne asada?
There are many flavorful marinade options for carne asada, but most recipes contain a similar base of ingredients:
- Oil: Vegetable or olive oil helps the marinade coat and penetrate the meat. Canola, avocado or grapeseed oil also work well.
- Acid: Lime juice or a vinegar like red wine, apple cider or white vinegar tenderize and impart flavor.
- Garlic: Minced or crushed garlic adds aromatic flavor.
- Herbs and spices: Oregano, cumin, chili powder, pepper and Mexican oregano seasoning create flavor.
- Accents: Ingredients like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, beer or orange juice complement the other flavors.
Combining an acid, oil, aromatics and seasonings makes for a well-balanced marinade. Allowing the meat to soak for 30-60 minutes lets the flavors permeate the steak before grilling to tender, juicy perfection.
What are some common carne asada marinade recipes?
Here are just a few recommended marinade ideas for flavorful carne asada:
Simple Lime Marinade
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp Mexican oregano
- Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic-Jalapeno Wet Rub
- 3 jalapenos, seeded and minced
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
Beer and Lime Marinade
- 1 cup pale lager beer
- 1/3 cup lime juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp ground cumin
Flank, skirt or flap steak only needs about 30-60 minutes in these flavorful marinades for the seasonings to penetrate. Then grill over high heat for 2-4 minutes per side until charred and medium rare inside.
What are some substitutions for carne asada meat?
While flank, skirt and flap steak are traditional choices, you can use other cuts of beef or meat in a pinch:
- Hanger steak – Similar texture and flavor to flank steak.
- Sirloin flap – Also called flap meat, similar to flank.
- Tri-tip – Leaner but absorbs marinade well.
- Chicken thighs – Remove skin first. Grill over medium heat.
- Pork tenderloin – Slice thin and be careful not to overcook.
- Shrimp – Peel, devein and grill just 1-2 minutes per side.
The preparations will be somewhat different with these meats. Chicken and shrimp cook faster than beef so require more care on the grill. Pork tenderloin and tri-tip are leaner so won’t have quite the same texture and moisture. But in a pinch, these substitutes can still make tasty carne asada.
Should carne asada be grilled or pan seared?
For best results, carne asada is traditionally grilled over an open flame or hot grill:
- The high heat from the grill chars and caramelizes the meat, adding nice smoky flavor.
- The quick cooking time keeps the interior moist and rare while the exterior gets nicely charred.
- Grilling adds appetizing grill marks and visual appeal.
- The fat drippings fall to the grill instead of collecting in the pan.
However, during winter or inclement weather, carne asada can also be effectively cooked on the stovetop using a cast iron or stainless steel pan. Heat the pan over high heat until smoking hot. Use tongs to flip the meat every minute or so until charred and cooked through. You won’t get the same smoky flavor, but the end result will still be tasty.
What are some common toppings and sides for carne asada?
While the meat is the star, carne asada is served with an array of toppings and sides that complement the savory grilled beef. Some classic pairings include:
- Corn or flour tortillas
- Onions and cilantro
- Lime wedges
- Shredded cabbage
- Queso fresco or cotija cheese
- Frijoles (refried beans)
- Mexican rice
Build tacos, burritos, quesadillas or nachos with the hot carne asada and favorite toppings for an authentic and satisfying Mexican meal.
Carne asada is a beloved Mexican specialty consisting of flavorful grilled strips of well-marinated beef. While flank, skirt or flap steak are traditional choices, the quick marinating time and hot grilling method work well with other thin cuts of meat too. Topping the juicy grilled meat with traditional sides like salsa, guacamole and beans makes for an incredible taco filling or entree. With its simple preparation and incredibly delicious results, carne asada is a fantastic choice for a casual backyard dinner or celebration meal.