What’s The Difference Between Carnitas And Al Pastor?

Are you confused about the difference between carnitas and al pastor? Well, look no further! In this article, we’ll break down the origins, cooking methods, flavor profiles, traditional accompaniments, and popular variations of these two delicious Mexican dishes.

Whether you’re a foodie or just someone who loves trying new flavors, we’ve got you covered. So grab a seat and get ready to learn all about the mouthwatering distinctions between carnitas and al pastor.

What’s The Difference Between Carnitas And Al Pastor?

Carnitas and al pastor are both popular Mexican meat dishes, but they differ in their preparation and flavor. Carnitas are made from slow-cooked, tender chunks of pork, usually seasoned with various spices and then fried or roasted. Al pastor, on the other hand, involves marinating thinly sliced pork in a mixture of spices and often includes pineapple, then cooking it on a vertical rotisserie.

AspectCarnitasAl Pastor
Meat TypeChunks of PorkThinly Sliced Pork
Cooking MethodSlow-cooked, then fried or roastedCooked on a Vertical Rotisserie
MarinadeTypically seasoned with spicesMarinated with spices, often includes pineapple
FlavorTender and flavorfulSpicy, tangy, with sweet pineapple flavor
Serving StyleOften served in chunks or shredsOften served in tacos or on a spit for slicing
Traditional AccompanimentsSalsa, onions, cilantroOnions, cilantro, pineapple, sometimes with salsa
Typical ServingTacos, burritos, quesadillasTacos, tortas, pita-style sandwiches
PresentationLess visually distinctRecognizable by its vertical spit cooking style

Key Takeaways

  • Carnitas originated in Michoacán, Mexico, while al pastor originated in Central Mexico, particularly in Mexico City and Puebla.
  • Carnitas are slow roasted in an oven or large pot, while al pastor is marinated and skewered onto a vertical rotisserie and grilled slowly over an open flame.
  • Carnitas have a savory and tender flavor, while al pastor has a sweet and smoky flavor.
  • Classic side dishes for both include rice and beans, and they are often served with guacamole, diced onions, chopped cilantro, and tangy salsa.

Origins of Carnitas and Al Pastor

The origins of carnitas and al pastor can be traced back to different regions in Mexico.

Carnitas, which means ‘little meats’ in Spanish, has a long history and cultural significance in the state of Michoacán. It is believed that carnitas were first prepared by indigenous people who cooked pork in large copper pots filled with lard. This slow-cooking method allowed the meat to become tender and flavorful.

On the other hand, al pastor originated in Central Mexico, particularly in Mexico City and Puebla. It was influenced by Lebanese immigrants who brought their tradition of spit-grilling shawarma with them. Al pastor is typically made from marinated pork that is stacked on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo and then sliced off for serving.

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Now let’s explore how these two delicious dishes are cooked: slow roasting vs. spit-grilling…

Cooking Methods: Slow Roasting vs. Spit-grilling

When it comes to cooking methods, you’ll find that slow roasting and spit-grilling are used for carnitas and al pastor, respectively.

Slow roasting is the traditional method for making carnitas, where pork shoulder or butt is cooked low and slow in an oven or a large pot until it becomes tender and juicy. The meat is typically seasoned with spices like cumin, oregano, and garlic to enhance its flavor.

On the other hand, al pastor is made by marinating thinly sliced pork in a mixture of dried chilies, pineapple juice, vinegar, and various spices. The marinated meat is then skewered onto a vertical rotisserie called a trompo and slowly grilled over an open flame. This cooking method gives al pastor its signature charred edges and smoky flavor.

Transitioning into the next section about flavor profiles: rich and crispy vs. spicy and tangy…

Flavor Profiles: Rich and Crispy vs. Spicy and Tangy

If you’re looking for a burst of flavor, you’ll love the rich and crispy notes in slow-roasted carnitas and the spicy tanginess of spit-grilled al pastor. These two traditional Mexican dishes offer distinct flavor profiles that cater to different taste preferences.

Here’s a breakdown of their unique characteristics:

  1. Slow-Roasted Carnitas:
  • Flavor Profile: Savory and tender.
  • Cooking Method: The pork is cooked slowly until it becomes tender and develops a crispy exterior.
  • Texture: Melts in your mouth with a satisfying crunch.
  • Taste: Rich, succulent, and full-bodied.
  1. Spit-Grilled Al Pastor:
  • Flavor Profile: Sweet and smoky.
  • Cooking Method: Marinated pork is skewered on a vertical rotisserie grill, resulting in charred edges and caramelized flavors.
  • Texture: Juicy with crisp edges.
  • Taste: A harmonious blend of sweetness from pineapple and smokiness from spices like paprika.

Now that you know about the different flavor profiles, let’s explore the traditional accompaniments and serving styles that accompany these mouthwatering dishes.

Traditional Accompaniments and Serving Styles

For a complete Mexican dining experience, don’t forget to try the traditional accompaniments and serving styles that perfectly complement these flavorful dishes.

When it comes to traditional side dishes, you can’t go wrong with classic favorites like rice and beans. The fluffy rice absorbs the savory flavors of the main dish, while the creamy beans provide a comforting and filling element.

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Another must-try is guacamole, made from fresh avocados mashed with lime juice, cilantro, and diced tomatoes for a refreshing and creamy addition to your meal.

In terms of presentation styles, tacos are often served with an array of toppings such as diced onions, chopped cilantro, tangy salsa verde or red salsa, and a squeeze of lime juice for added freshness.

These traditional accompaniments and serving styles enhance the overall dining experience by adding layers of flavor and texture to your meal.

As we delve into popular variations and regional differences in Carnitas and Al Pastor—a discussion that goes beyond just flavor profiles—it’s important to note that their preparation techniques also contribute to their distinctive tastes.

Popular Variations and Regional Differences

To fully appreciate the popular variations and regional nuances of these dishes, you should explore the diverse flavor profiles that make each one unique. The regional variations in carnitas and al pastor highlight the cultural influences that have shaped these beloved foods.

Here are four reasons why exploring these differences will ignite your taste buds:

  1. Discover the smoky richness of Yucatecan-style cochinita pibil, a variation of carnitas infused with achiote paste and sour orange juice.
  2. Indulge in the tangy sweetness of pineapple-marinated al pastor, influenced by Lebanese immigrants who brought their shawarma cooking techniques to Mexico.
  3. Experience the heat and complexity of Michoacán-style carnitas, slow-cooked in lard until crispy on the outside and tender inside.
  4. Delight in Baja California’s take on al pastor, where marinated pork is grilled over mesquite wood for a smoky flavor.

Exploring these regional variations will give you a deeper understanding of Mexican cuisine’s rich tapestry and leave you craving more culinary adventures.


So now you know the difference between carnitas and al pastor. You’ve learned about their origins, cooking methods, flavor profiles, traditional accompaniments, and popular variations.

Next time you’re at a Mexican restaurant or planning to cook these delicious dishes at home, you’ll have a better understanding of what to expect. Whether you prefer the rich and crispy flavors of carnitas or the spicy and tangy taste of al pastor, both options offer unique culinary experiences that are sure to satisfy your cravings.

Enjoy exploring the wonderful world of Mexican cuisine!

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