The differences between Mexican meat names can be confusing, but this guide will help you to realize the differences between these 9 types of Mexican Meats come down to preparation, method, flavor and meat!
Thanks to Chipotle, many Mexican meats have come into mainstream usage in the United States. While it's great that more people have become familiar with each type of meat, there are still many who don’t know or understand the similarities and differences.
Having grown up with taco Tuesday filled with ground beef, shredded chicken or every once in a while a fish taco, I wasn’t aware of how many types of Mexican meats there really are. However, with years of experience learning my mother-in-law’s Mexican recipes, I’m happy to share my knowledge from cooking and eating each meat!
Using my partner and I’s many years of taco and Mexican meat eating experiences, I’ll first outline each type of meat: its name, the type of meat and cut used predominantly, the method for cooking, and its flavor profile. Then I’ll answer the many questions about specific differences between some of the more similar meat styles!
Sometimes the different types of Mexican meat can result from the method of cooking, while other times it may be due to the type of meat used. The main similarity to note is that almost all Mexican meat types can be used in the same fashion: tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos and rice bowls or plates!
Types of Mexican Meats
You will find almost all of these meats served at your favorite Mexican restaurant, but you will find recipes to make most of these at home as well!
Carne asada steak is a marinated flank or skirt steak that is grilled. It is a traditional Mexican recipe, with reference to the grilling or roasting of the carne (meat). This Mexican meat packs a lot of flavor!
Carne asada is different from the term “asado,” used to reference any form of grilled meat. Carne asada is marinated in spices, citrus and other ingredients before being grilled, while asado is often grilled meat with salt and maybe lime juice! Every state in Mexico from Northern Mexico to Southern Mexico (and even from household-to-household) has their own carne asada recipe. Marination ingredients vary a lot as some use beer, some use soy sauce, some use other ingredients.
You may know of this steak recipe as it is often served in taco form, but there are so many ways to serve this Mexican meat other than carne asada tacos! Try carne asada as a plate, in enchiladas, street tacos, or quesadillas.
Carnitas is a dish from Mexican cuisine made from pork meat that is seasoned, seared, and braised over a few hours, until tender. The cooked pork is then shredded or chopped into bite sized pieces and crisped up in a pan or in the oven. They are used for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, or even tamales.
Carnitas are typically braised (cooked in the oven in liquid) for several hours. You can also make this type of meat in a slow cooker or pressure cooker, like an instant pot, but I feel oven braising is the preferred method since it yields the best results and is so easy!
Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican preparation of beef, lamb or goat that is cooked until juicy and tender, and often served with cilantro and onion. In the United States, barbacoa meat, like the one we know and love from Chipotle, is usually beef.
An authentic barbacoa recipe changes based on the region. Depending on the area of Mexico, recipes include different vegetables, herbs and spices, fresh to dried chiles or even vinegars. Sometimes the meat is even wrapped in maguey leaves (a member of the agave family) or banana leaves.
Think of barbacoa like a Mexican style pot roast! It is very saucy, and almost soupy with its consomme. It is most similar to birria.
Birria is a traditional Mexican dish famous for its rich and flavorful meat. It is commonly made with pork or beef, slow-cooked to perfection with a variety of spices and chili peppers. Originating from the state of Jalisco in central Mexico, birria has become a popular choice, particularly served in tacos.
The meat used in birria is shredded, providing a tender and melt-in-your-mouth texture. This succulent meat is then wrapped in a warm corn tortilla, creating a delicious and satisfying Mexican taco. Birria is often spicy!
Birria has recently gained popularity in the United States thanks to social media, with new creative recipes popping up from quesabirria tacos (birria-style beef folded into a tortilla with melted cheese with its consomme to the side for dipping) to birria pizza.
Mexican Tinga is a popular dish in Mexican cuisine that showcases the versatility of Mexican meat. It is a savory and spicy shredded meat dish that is typically made with chicken or pork meat. Tinga is commonly used as a filling for tacos, tortas, or even served on its own as a main dish.
Originating in central Mexico, Tinga is a staple of Mexican food and can be found in many traditional Mexican restaurants. The cooking process involves simmering the meat in a flavorful sauce made with chili pepper, tomatoes, onions, and spices. The meat is then shredded and mixed with the sauce, resulting in a tender and juicy concoction.
The tinga filling is often served on a corn tortilla, topped with queso fresco, and accompanied by refried beans and rice.
Al pastor is also known as tacos al pastor. Al Pastor is a Mexican meat, typically pork, marinated in a homemade red sauce made of dried chile peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and fresh pineapples.
Al Pastor is a blend of Middle Eastern spices with indigenous Mexican ones. It’s a common Mexican street food of slow-roasted pork marinated in dried chiles, spices and pineapple. The pineapple is the main difference between Al pastor and adobada meats, giving Al pastor a slight sweetness.
Al pastor is a reference to the way to prepare and cook the meat. They're cooked on a vertical spit so that the meat can get crispy and caramelized on the outside. Al pastor meat sometimes even has pineapples on top of the spit so that extra pineapple juice runs down the sides of the meat while cooking. Think of tacos al pastor as the Mexican version of Lebanese shawarma tacos!
Derived from the Spanish word "adobo," which means marinade or seasoning, Adobada is typically made from marinating pork meat in a flavorful sauce consisting of various ingredients such as chili pepper, vinegar, garlic, and spices.
Similar to Al pastor, adobada meat is also predominantly cooked on a vertical spit for a crispy and caramelized outside. The only difference between adobada and al pastor is that al pastor has pineapple.
One of the most iconic ways to enjoy Adobada is in a taco. Served on a corn tortilla or a flour tortilla, Adobada is often combined with other traditional fillings such as beans, queso fresco, and salsa. The versatility of Adobada allows for it to be used in various Mexican dishes, such as tortas (sandwiches), enchiladas, and even in Mexican soups. Its flavorful and juicy nature makes it a perfect meat for creating authentic Mexican flavors.
Mexican chorizo, not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, is a fresh, ground pork, ground finely with spices of paprika, garlic, and sometimes oregano and other Mexican dried chiles (like pasilla). Some grocery stores may serve their own version of chorizo utilizing ground beef and similar spices.
Chorizo is a fattier ground meat, which means it’s particularly delicious to eat! Mexican chorizo is ground meat, whereas Spanish chorizo uses similar spices but is a smoked, cured meat often used on charcuterie boards or in sandwiches. Spanish chorizo can be eaten as is, without cooking, however Mexican chorizo must be cooked before consumption.
Mexican chorizo is most commonly found in Mexican breakfast recipes like huevos con chorizo (eggs and chorizo), papas con chorizo (crispy diced potatoes and chorizo), or even refried beans and chorizo. All of these dishes are often served with a tortilla, which brings me to the next use: tacos! You’ll often find crumbled chorizo served at taco stands or in taco trucks.
Lengua, also known as beef tongue, is a popular meat choice in Mexican cuisine, commonly seen in tacos and other traditional Mexican dishes. Lengua has a tender and succulent texture, making it ideal for slow cooking methods that result in deliciously flavorful meat.
In Mexican food, lengua is often prepared by boiling the tongue until it becomes tender and easy to peel. Once cooked, it is then thinly sliced and seasoned with a variety of spices, including chili pepper, garlic, and onion. These seasoned slices of meat are often served in a warm corn tortilla.
Lengua is also a key ingredient in traditional Mexican soups, such as the popular Menudo or Caldo de Res. In these hearty soups, the tongue is slowly simmered with other meats, such as beef and pork, along with vegetables and spices to create a rich and flavorful broth.
From carne asada tacos in northern Mexico to cochinita pibil in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexican meats play a central role in creating the distinct flavors of Mexican food. Whether it's the smoky flavor of grilled beef in carne asada or the tangy and juicy shredded pork in carnitas, each type of Mexican meat adds its own unique taste to a variety of dishes.
Overall, these Mexican meats are a prime example of the rich and diverse world of Mexican cuisine. They represent the bold and flavorful nature of Mexican street food and showcase the country's love for a variety of meats, from pork to chicken to beef. Whether enjoyed in a taco, torta, or as part of a Mexican soup, these meats truly capture the diverse flavor of Mexican food.
What's the difference between birria and barbacoa?
The main difference between birria and barbacoa lies in the type of meat used in each dish. Birria typically refers to a type of Mexican meat stew made with beef meat, primarily goat or lamb. On the other hand, barbacoa traditionally refers to shredded meat, especially beef. Both are slow-cooked until they become tender and easily shredded.
Although both birria and barbacoa result in delicious shredded meat, birria usually incorporates various spices, giving it a distinct tangy and spicy taste. In contrast, barbacoa tends to have a milder, smoky flavor. Overall, both birria and barbacoa have distinct cooking techniques and flavors set them apart.
What is asada vs carnitas vs barbacoa?
Asada, carnitas, and barbacoa are all popular types of Mexican meats that carry distinct flavors and preparation methods.
Carne asada refers to grilled beef, typically marinated in a combination of citrus, garlic, and spices. The meat used for asada is usually thinly sliced and can come from different cuts, such as skirt steak or flank steak.
On the other hand, carnitas is a preparation of pork that involves slow-cooking the meat until it becomes succulent and tender. After slow-cooking, the meat is often shredded or chopped. Barbacoa, similar to carnitas, is a slow-cooked and shredded meat dish. However, barbacoa is typically made from beef, goat, or lamb.
All three meats can be used in various dishes, such as tacos, burritos, or on their own with tortillas and salsas.
What is barbacoa vs al pastor vs carnitas?
Barbacoa, al pastor and carnitas are all popular recipes with different meats, preparations and distinct flavors.
Barbacoa and carnitas are similar in that they are both meat slow cooked until tender, and then served shredded. Barbacoa is often made with beef, but in Mexico is also commonly made with goat or lamb, while carnitas are almost always pork shoulder or butt. Carnitas are also more crispy than barbacoa, which is sometimes served with its consomé.
Al pastor, on the other hand, is typically pork, marinated in chiles, spices and pineapple, and then slow roasted on a vertical spit. This adds a sweet, caramelized flavor to the pork.
All three meats are often served in street tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and more.
What is Adobada vs Al Pastor?
Al pastor and adobada are the most similar of Mexican meats. They are both commonly made with pork, marinated in dried chiles and spices, slow-roasted on a vertical spit and then sliced to serve in taco form. The main difference is that the al pastor marinade includes pineapples, giving it a sweeter, more caramelized flavor.
Is pulled pork the same as carnitas or barbacoa?
The concept of pulled pork is the same as carnitas and barbacoa - all three are meats cooked until the meat is tender enough to shred. They may even be served in similar types of meals, but otherwise they are very different.
Pulled pork is an American barbecue dish where pork shoulder is slow cooked and then combined with some type of barbecue sauce. Carnitas are a Mexican dish of pork shoulder or butt braised in fat or broth until tender, shredded and crisped up. It is rarely mixed with any type of sauce like you would pulled pork. Barbacoa is another Mexican dish of beef slow cooked until tender, then served with its consomme.
You may find any of these three shredded meats in tex mex dishes, wrapped in corn tortillas or in tortas (Mexican sandwiches).