Why It Works
- Giving al pastor the skewer treatment allows us to achieve the juicy, charred results of a traditional taqueria rotisserie trompo, but on a home grill.
- A special skewer set-up for a charcoal grill makes it easier and faster to cook the skewers, producing lightly charred pork that is still juicy and tender.
- The skewers can be enjoyed as-is, or paired with tortillas and accompaniments for traditional tacos.
I've been thinking a lot about grilled skewers lately. It started with a conversation in the Serious Eats office with Sho about Japanese yakitori, and devolved into me going down a YouTube wormhole, watching hours of Abruzzese lamb arrosticini grilling videos. Once I finally managed to stop watching meat being packed and portioned in kebab cubes, I decided I wanted to develop a series of grilled meat-on-a-stick recipes.
Before tackling the food, I needed a better solution for at-home skewer-grilling. I ultimately came up with this low-cost, low-effort rig, which mimics the set-up of real-deal kebab cooking by bringing the food much closer to the coals, and does away with the traditional grill grate used in most recipes. Positioning the skewers closer to the heat shortens the time lag between outer browning and inner heat penetration, yielding more evenly cooked food. But it also forces the cook to pay more attention to the grilling process; flare-ups need to be managed by moving the skewers away from flames as needed, and the skewers need to be turned more frequently to prevent ingredients from charring to a crisp.
During initial rounds of testing this set-up, the constant turning of skewers got me thinking of how the process is just a miniaturized version of large-format rotisserie cooking, like porchetta and roast chicken. Maybe I could Honey, I Shrunk The Kids one of those dishes that don't easily translate to home cooking. And that's how I decided to skewer-ify one of the best things to ever get cooked on a rotating spit: Mexican al pastor.
Al Pastor Inspiration
Lucky for me, Kenji had already taken care of the hard work when he developed his awesome at-home version of tacos al pastor a few years ago. His al pastor does away with the rotisserie-cooking component, cleverly packing slices of marinated pork into a loaf pan, slow-roasting them, and then crisping them in a hot skillet. In adapting his recipe to make skewers, I was able to do away with the two-step cooking process.
Adapting it to Skewers
Both versions use the same marinade, but for the skewers, I switch up the pork slightly, doing away with the bacon that can cause excessive grill flare-ups, and slicing pork butt into strips that are better-suited for threading onto a stick. After marinating them overnight, I thread the pork pieces onto skewers, bunching each piece up tight. This helps mimic the contrasting textural effect that you get with al pastor cooked on a traditional trompo rotisserie—crispy in some spots and tender in others. Spearing pieces of fresh pineapple between the slices of pork provides that trademark juicy, sweet-and-sour contrast to the spicy, crispy, fatty meat. Make sure that the pork and pineapple pieces are packed tightly together to prevent the skewer from burning and breaking during cooking; the only parts of the skewers that should be exposed are a two-inch handle at the bottom, and just the very tip at the top.
Setting Up the Grill
Once you finish assembling the skewers, all you have to do is set up the grill with foil-wrapped bricks for cooking. For these skewers, I prefer cooking them right over the coals without a wire rack underneath them, which more closely approximates the rotisserie cooking of real-deal al pastor.
Perch the skewers over the coals, balancing them on the bricks and turn them frequently as they cook, managing any flare-ups caused by dripping fat. In about 10 minutes, the pork and pineapple will be lightly charred, and the meat cooked through. From there, it's your call whether to serve them straight-up with some lime wedges as cookout kebabs, or de-stick the juicy pork and pineapple and stuff them into tortillas for a grilled taco party. You win at summer grilling either way.
For the Pork:
2 ancho chiles (40g), stemmed and seeded
2 pasilla or guajillo chiles (15g), stemmed and seeded
1/2 cup (120ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium store-bought broth
2 teaspoons (10ml) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (2g) dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon (3g) ground cumin
1 tablespoon (12g) achiote powder or paste
1 chipotle chile in adobo (15g), plus 2 teaspoons (10ml) adobo sauce
1/4 cup (60ml) distilled white vinegar
2 1/2 teaspoons (10g) kosher salt
2 teaspoons (10g) sugar
3 medium garlic cloves (15g)
2 pounds (900g) pork butt, in one piece
For the Skewers and Serving:
1 small pineapple (around 2 pounds; 900g), peeled, cored, and cut into 1- by 1/4-inch pieces
Lime wedges, for serving
Finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems (optional)
Salsa verde, for serving (optional)
For the Pork: In a large, dry saucepan, toast ancho and pasilla chiles over medium-high heat, turning chiles occasionally, until puffed, pliable, lightly browned in spots, and very aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock (it should boil immediately), then pour contents of saucepan into a small heatproof bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside.
Wipe out saucepan, add oil, and return to medium-high heat until oil is shimmering. Add oregano, cumin, and achiote and cook, stirring frequently, until spices are bloomed and aromatic but not browned, about 30 seconds. Stir in chipotle and adobo sauce and cook for 30 seconds longer. Stir in vinegar, salt, and sugar, and remove saucepan from heat.
Transfer contents of saucepan to a blender along with garlic and chiles with their steeping liquid. Blend on high speed until completely smooth, scraping down sides of blender jar with a rubber spatula as needed, about 1 minute. Set aside.
Freeze pork for 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes (partially freezing the pork makes it easier to slice). Using a sharp chef's knife or slicing knife, slice pork against the grain into 2-inch-long, 1-inch-wide, and 1/8-inch-thick strips. The easiest and most efficient way to do this is to start by portioning the pork butt into 2-inch-wide by 1-inch-thick pieces, and then slicing those pieces crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick strips.
Combine pork and marinade in a large bowl, and using hands, toss until every piece of meat is evenly coated in marinade. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 36 hours.
For the Skewers and Serving: Thread one piece of pork onto a skewer, piercing it through twice to secure it, then bunching meat tightly together like an accordion. Then thread one piece of pineapple onto skewer. Continue alternating pieces of pork with pineapple, ending the skewer with a piece of pork. Make sure meat and pineapple are bunched tightly together, leaving no parts of the skewer exposed except for a 2-inch handle at the bottom, and the pointy tip at the top. Repeat skewering process with remaining pork and pineapple.
Set up grill for skewers, making sure to adjust distance between bricks to the length of your skewers. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly in the channel between the bricks.
Place skewers directly over the hot coals, balancing them on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you, and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks. Cook, turning frequently, until pork and pineapple are lightly charred, and a piece of pork looks cooked through when removed and cut in half, 8 to 10 minutes; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers around as needed to get them away from the flames. Transfer to serving platter and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately, passing lime wedges, as well as cilantro and salsa (if using), at the table.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The grilled skewers are best enjoyed immediately. The marinade can be made in advance, and refrigerated for up to three days. The pork can be marinated for up to 36 hours.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 31g||40%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||53%|
|Total Carbohydrate 28g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||15%|
|Total Sugars 17g|
|Vitamin C 79mg||394%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|