Why It Works
- A mixture of pork sirloin pounded thin and bacon mimics the fat content of traditional pork shoulder and is easier to prepare.
- Layering bacon and pork sirloin in an aluminum pan and baking creates a loaf of meat that can be sliced, similar to a trompo.
- Proper salting and a flavorful marinade help create a sliceable texture and traditional flavor.
I have been working on this recipe for longer than any other recipe I've ever worked on. The number of times I've told Erin, "Sure, go ahead and put it on the schedule for next week," only to swap it out at the last minute because I wasn't happy with the results is a number higher than I care to count. But at long last, I'm pretty darn pleased with the results.
It all started when the good folks at Columbus Food Adventures took me on a whirlwind taco tour of Columbus, Ohio, which, believe it or not, has some of the finest taco trucks in the country. Particularly impressive were the tacos al pastor from Taqueria Los Guachos.
There, in true al pastor form, the taqueras marinate thin, thin slices of pork shoulder in a mixture of chilies and aromatics colored bright red with achiote. The slices are then stacked onto a vertical skewer, forming a large, bell-shaped trompo (spinning top), which gets topped with an onion and pineapple, and slowly rotates in front of a vertical grill. If there's a reason it resembles shawarma or doner kebab, it's because the concept was first introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.
As the trompo spins, it slowly cooks, the fat from the pork shoulder dripping out and across the surface of the meat, basting it as it crisps. As each outer layer of meat crisps up, the taquera shaves it off with a sharp knife, catching it in a soft corn tortilla before topping it with a bit of the roasted pineapple, salsa, cilantro, and onions. It's really glorious stuff. Juicy and crisp with a deep chili flavor tempered by sweet roasted pineapple.
It doesn't really get much smokiness, per se—the fire is usually a simple gas fire—but it does get a little bit of singed char. Those in the know will ask for theirs to be cooked up extra-crisp on the plancha after it's been sliced. The results are almost bacon-like in their succulence.
The question is: Can we replicate this at home?
The problems with such an endeavor are immediately obvious. First off, there are the basics. What's the best meat to use? How do I slice it so thin? How about the marinade? Is there an ideal time to marinate for? Then there's the issue of actually cooking the stuff. Can we replicate a vertical rotisserie? Is there some other viable option that would work?
I started off by addressing the meat. Normally, al pastor is made with boneless pork shoulder sliced super, super thin. If you are lucky enough to live near a Mexican meat market, you can probably find it right at the meat counter. The rest of us need to do a bit more work. I decided to test pork shoulder along with a couple of easy-to-find alternatives.
This is a pork shoulder:
It's a large, unwieldy hunk of meat with a couple of strangely shaped bones in the middle and a whole lot of rind. Unless you have years of experience butchering, cleaning it up without mangling it is not an easy task. So what advantages does it offer?
For one thing, it's packed with flavor. With meat, the more an animal uses a particular set of muscles, the more flavor they'll acquire. Pork shoulders are used extensively throughout the pig's life, rendering them extremely porky and full of fat and connective tissue that breaks down into rich, unctuous gelatin as it slow-roasts. But for the pork to be tender, it must be sliced thin and must be slow cooked.
This kind of slicing is not easy to do with the equipment you've got at home, which brings us to...
Pork sirloin. Cut from the pig's back towards the hind legs (the hams), sirloin is far easier to work with (it's easy to find a boneless sirloin roast), is relatively easy to slice, and is more tender than shoulder. These are all good things. The problem is that it lacks fat and connective tissue, making it prone to drying as it cooks.
The final option I tried was pork belly:
The fattiest cut of all (it's what bacon is made out of), pork belly is packed with flavor and connective tissue. It can be a little difficult to butcher properly—you have to remove the rind and any small rib bones remaining—but it's relatively easy to slice thin, and—I thought—should produce extremely juicy tacos.
I tried slicing each cut of meat (against the grain, of course!) into thin sheets, but couldn't get them as thin as needed for proper al pastor.
Instead, I resorted to pounding them flat by laying them in an opened up heavy-duty plastic bag and smashing them repeatedly with the bottom of a skillet.
The resulting pieces of meat were as wide as I wanted, with the added advantage of having a small amount of tenderizing occur as well.
To cook the meat, I started with a basic working marinade recipe and grilled the slices directly rather than trying to stack them and slice them—all I was interested in at this point was the flavor and texture of each cut.
Turns out that belly is fatty alright. A bit too fatty for this. Shoulder was great, but sirloin was so much easier to butcher. For the sake of ease, I decided to go with a combination of sirloin and belly. They complement each other perfectly when it comes to flavor and fattiness. Belly can be a bit tough to slice properly, but for now it'd have to do.
The flavor base for al pastor is pretty well defined. The marinade is essentially an adobo—a sauce made with chiles, garlic, and vinegar, along with whatever other aromatics you'd like.
Using fresh dried chiles is essential. They should be pliable and flexible. If your chiles are crackly, crumbly, or dry, it's because they're old and most likely, all their flavor has dissipated along with their moisture. Do yourself a solid, throw out those old chiles, and get some new ones. I found that a combination of rich and raisin-y ancho chiles along with bright guajillo chiles was a great complement to the pork. I toast them in a dry saucepan before soaking them in chicken broth.
Achiote is a mildly earthy, ever-so-slightly bitter spice with a distinctive bright red color. It comes in paste, pellet, and powdered forms. I personally find the powder easiest to store and work with, though any form will do.
To get the most flavor out of it, toasting in oil is essential. For my marinade, I toast the achiote powder along with some powdered cumin and Mexican oregano.
If you are a regular reader of this column, you'd know that marinades are largely a surface treatment. That is, they don't penetrate particularly far into a piece of meat; it's on the order of a millimeter or two per day, and it gets considerably slower the deeper into the meat it gets. Point is, in most applications, there's not much reason to marinate beyond a few hours.
But there are exceptions to this rule, and they mostly involve salt.
Salt is special. See, rather than simply flavoring meat by working itself in between muscle fibers, it actually alters the structure of meat, primarily by causing certain parts of the protein myosin to become dissolvable in water.
What does this accomplish? Well, by dissolving myosin, muscle structure is greatly loosened, allowing it to retain more moisture (this is the principle behind brining), and more importantly in this case, it allows proteins between muscle groups to cross-link, causing them to stick to each other.
This is why, for instance, sausages get a nice bouncy, snappy texture, and why if you remove the salt from one, it becomes crumbly and dry (see here for some deeper scientific info on the process of salting meat.
This is all well and good, but why is it important to tacos al pastor?
The thing is, in a well made trompo of meat, as the carver slices meat off of it, it should come away in coherent slices, not crumbles, and it should have an almost cured, bacon-like texture—moist, juicy, and crisp as opposed to crumbly or chalky—two sure signs that there is some salting action going on. To get to this stage, you need about 1 to 2% salt per unit weight of meat, and at least a few hours of marination time.
With a good flavorful marinade, you could just grill the meat and call it a day—many respectable and delicious recipes do just that—but that's not what I'm after here. What I want is the real deal. Cured texture, crispy bits, shaved slices and all.
This requires a bit of tinkering.
Getting In Shape
My very first thought was why don't I just build a trompo in miniature?
I tried layering my marinated meat into an empty quart-sized deli container before allowing it to rest overnight (in order for proteins to cross-link and for the meat to cure slightly). I then stuck a skewer right down the middle, inverted the whole thing, topped it off with a pineapple, and built a base out of the pineapple bottom into which the skewer head could rest, allowing the whole thing to stand upright under its own support.
So far so good.
To cook it, I set up the ring from my Weber Gourmet System Wok Grate. By placing coals around the perimeter of the coal grate, as well as directly on top of the wok grate, I was able to create a vertical heating system that cooked the pork and pineapple from all sides simultaneously.
I gotta say, it looked pretty bad ass, and surprisingly, it worked relatively well, albeit with a ton of fiddling, searing my hands to maneuver sticky pork juice-covered pineapple, adding more coals after realizing it was going to take far longer than expected, entertaining guests while their pork cooked, etc.
In short, it worked, but it wasn't fun or easy.
Here's one thing to remember: cooking on a vertical spit may look like a fast cooking method—The outer layers of meat are searing and crisping after all, right?—but in reality, it's a two-stage slow-then-fast cooking process. While the taquero is busy slicing off the exterior layers of the trompo, the layers within are still slow-cooking, causing the meat to break down and tenderize. This, in conjunction with thin slicing and curing, is why even a tough cut like shoulder can come out tender and juicy when cooked. It's only after the inner layers of meat are exposed that they fast-cook.
So why not just separate the two phases of cooking? I returned to a method I employed when making Greek-American Lamb Gyros: pack the meat into a loaf pan before cooking. By then slow-roasting it in the oven (or on the cool side of a grill), I could get the meat as tender as I liked it before slicing it and finishing it off under the broiler or in a skillet.
The method worked like a charm, especially if you let the cooked meat rest in the fridge until chilled before slicing it.
For the record, here's what insufficiently salted meat looks like when you try and slice it:
And here's how it looks if it's been salted properly.
See the difference?
The only little thorn left in my side was the pork belly, which to be frank, is not easy to come by or to slice properly. The easy solution? Just use bacon. Bacon is already cured, already thin-sliced, and once combined with the marinated meat, blends nicely into the background, adding fatty richness and juiciness without overpowering with its smoky flavor.
As the pastor-loaf cooks, it exudes a ton of juices and fat. This is OK.
The fat is the ideal medium for re-crisping the sliced meat in a skillet (and for painting onto a pineapple before roasting it), and the juices can be added to the crisped meat to add some flavor and extra moisture back into the mix.*
*Some folks speculate the pineapple added to the top of a trompo of al pastor will tenderize the meat as it cooks. While it's true pineapples contain an enzyme that will break down meat protein, in the case of al pastor, it does not have this effect. The enzyme deactivates due to heat long before it can get a chance to actually break down any protein, particularly in the inner layers of meat, which don't get exposed to any dripping pineapple juice until long after the pineapple has been fully cooked. The effect of the pineapple is for flavor only, thus it can be added after the fact with no real difference.
I know I've said this, but this recipe took a long time and a whole slew of failures before I finally got it right. I'd estimate in the multiple dozens of failures over two years or so. But when something finally works out, it makes the whole process worth it, failures and all.
I know the dogs would agree, and not just because they got to eat most of the failures.
The one issue you may have is that, well, the recipe does take a long time. A night to cure. Another night after roasting for it to re-set and become sliceable. That said, the actual active time is remarkably low, and most of it can be done in advance. Once the pastor-loaf is cooked, it can rest in the fridge for a few days before slicing and crisping to serve, which means that if you're planning a dinner party, it only requires a few minutes of work on the day-of to get the best tacos al pastor you'll find outside of a real taqueria.
For me, that ain't a bad trade-off.
For the Pork:
2 whole ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
2 whole pasilla or guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
1/2 cup homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dried ground cumin seed
1 tablespoon achiote powder or paste
1 chipotle chile packed in adobo sauce, plus 2 teaspoons sauce from can
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
3 cloves garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 pounds boneless blade-end loin or sirloin pork roast
8 ounces (1/2 pound) sliced bacon
To Finish and Serve:
1 small pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into quarters lengthwise
32 to 48 corn tortillas, heated and kept warm
1 medium white onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup finely minced fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 cup basic salsa verde or your favorite salsa
3 to 4 limes, cut into 8 wedges each
Place chiles in a large saucepan over medium high heat and cook, 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 pan into a small bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.
Wipe out saucepan, add oil, and return to medium-high heat until oil is shimmering. Add cumin, oregano, and achiote and cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add chipotle chiles and sauce and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds longer. Add vinegar, salt, and sugar and remove from heat.
Scrape contents of saucepan into a blender along with garlic and chiles with their soaking liquid. Blend on high speed until completely smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down sides as necessary. Set sauce aside to cool slightly.
Using a very sharp chef's knife or slicing knife, slice pork sirloin as thin as possible. If necessary, place meat in freezer for 15 minutes to firm it up. Split the sides of a heavy duty zipper-lock bag. Place one slice of meat inside bag and pound with the bottom of a heavy 8-inch skillet or a meat pounder until less than 1/4-inch thick. Transfer to a large bowl. Repeat with remaining meat.
Add marinade to bowl and toss with hands until every piece of meat is evenly coated in marinade.
Line the bottom of a disposable aluminum loaf pan with bacon. Add a layer of thin-sliced marinated meat. Continue layering in bacon and meat until all the meat is used up. (It may pile above the pan a little bit. This is ok.) Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 36.
To cook indoors: Preheat the oven to 275°F. Uncover aluminum loaf pan and place on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to oven and cook until meat is completely tender (It will drip lots of fat), about 4 hours. Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
To cook outdoors: Light half a chimney of charcoal and allow to preheat until coals are mostly covered in gray ash. Spread out under one half of coal grate, and place cooking grate on top. Alternatively, set one set of burners on a gas grill to low and leave the remaining burners off. Unwrap aluminum loaf pan and place directly over cooler side of grill, placing a drip pan underneath if desired. Cover grill and cook until loaf registers 180 to 190°F in the center, about 4 hours, adding more coals to grill or adjusting burners as necessary to maintain an air temperature of around 275°F for the duration of cooking. Remove from grill, allow to cool slightly, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
To Serve: Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove cooked meat from aluminum tray, scraping off any fat or jellied juices from its sides. Use a spoon to collect fat and juices from tray, reserving each separately. Using a sharp chef's knife or slicing knife, slice meat as thinly as possible to create fine shavings of meat and fat. Transfer to a bowl.
If fat from meat is solid, heat gently in the microwave or in the oven until melted. Transfer pineapple pieces to a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Brush with fat. Transfer to oven and roast until completely tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.
About 10 minutes before pineapple is done roasting, transfer meat and 1 tablespoon of fat to a large cast iron or non-stick skillet. Heat over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until meat crisps and deeply browns in spots. Add any reserved juices and toss to combine, allowing it to cook until reduced to a moist glaze. Transfer meat to a warmed serving bowl.
Chop roasted pineapple into large chunks. Serve meat and pineapple immediately with warmed tortillas, onions, cilantro, salsa, and lime wedges. Meat will be very moist and should be packed into double-stacked tortillas for serving.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 25g||32%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||36%|
|Total Carbohydrate 64g||23%|
|Dietary Fiber 10g||36%|
|Total Sugars 11g|
|Vitamin C 50mg||251%|
|*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.|