The term arrachera refers to the beef skirt steak. When grilled, it’s referred to as carne asada. More often than not, here in the U.S., it’s referred to as fajitas.
Carne asada can be made from other beef cuts, like flank steak (carne asada roughly translates to “roasted beef”).
I hate using the term fajitas because it brings to mind the flavorless, limp piles of meat stuffed into flour tortillas with sliced bell peppers and onions at American chain restaurants.
We’ll stick to the terms arrachera for the skirt steak and carne asada for the cooked beef for these tacos.
Preparing Your Arrachera Marinade
The marinade I make for arrachera is very similar to an enchilada sauce. The difference is that it’s much thinner and includes quite a bit of lime juice.
I like to use ancho chile peppers in my marinade (no random chile powder from the store) for their mildly sweet flavor with slightly fruity and earthy undertones. The ancho is a perfect match for adding complexity to the big beefy flavors of the skirt steak.
Since we’re using whole chile peppers, it’ll be necessary to rehydrate them, blend them together with the other ingredients, and make a liquid marinade.
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I understand that the soy sauce in the marinade isn’t a traditional Mexican flavor (everything doesn’t have to be traditional), but I believe that soy sauce is a perfect component for a beef marinade. The glutamates in the soy sauce enhance the skirt steak’s flavor, making it taste more “beefy.”
The lime juice functions as a tenderizer, so be careful not to marinate for too long. The acid in the juice can actually over-tenderize the meat and make it feel mushy in your mouth.
Finally, a tool I love to use on skirt steak when I marinade is a Jaccard. It’s is a tenderizing tool that punctures the meat all over with 48 small knives. It helps break up some of the fibers and allows the marinade to more deeply penetrate the meat.
Cooking Your Arrachera – Adding Some Smoke
To add some smoke flavor on a charcoal or a gas grill, all you need is some tin-foil, wood chips, and a fork.
To make a wood-chip foil pack for smoking:
- Take about half a fist-full of wood chips (you can get wood chips at most grocery stores in the charcoal section – I like mesquite for arrachera) and place them on a large rectangle of heavy-duty tin foil.
- Fold it up loosely and seal it around the edges.
- Stab a bunch of holes in each side with a fork, and you’re ready to go.
TIP: Some websites suggest that you soak the wood chips in water. This is entirely unnecessary and will only make it more challenging to get your wood chips to burn. Just put them in the foil dry.
Next, you’ll need to know how to set your grill up for two-zone cooking. You can learn how to do that here.
Once your grill is set up for two-zone cooking, throw your wood-chip pack over the hottest part and let it sit with the lid open until smoke starts coming out.
Now that your wood is smoking, throw your arrachera on the cool side of your grill, close the lid, open all the vents, and let it smoke for 10 to 15 minutes.
Once you finish smoking the meat, open the lid back up and move the foil pack off to the side. Your coals will have died down a little bit due to being somewhat smothered with the lid closed. Don’t worry; with the lid off, they’ll get screaming hot again in just a couple of minutes.
Now, move your skirt steak back over the hottest part of the coals and sear it very well. You want little bits of it to be charred, but you don’t want it overcooked.
It’s helpful to have an instant-read thermometer on-hand to check the internal temperature of the meat. When the center of the thickest part of the skirt steak reads 125 degrees, it’s done.
Take it off and let it rest for about five minutes before cutting.
How to Cut Arrachera for Carne Asada
The way you cut your arrachera is far more critical than the Jaccard and marinade for making it tender.
To cut it, you need to identify the direction of the grain, then cut along the grain approximately every three inches. After that, you’ll cut those portions against the grain into thin strips.
If you don’t cut it this way, the meat will end up overly chewy. Cutting like this allows the knife to do all of the work of breaking through the chewy grains in the meat, rather than your jaw muscles.
Assembling Your Carne Asada Tacos
Making arrachera tacos is really a personal thing. Some people like to pile them high with tons of other flavors and textures, and some like to keep it simple to not drown out the beef’s flavor. I fall into the latter category.
What I like to do to make up for the different approaches of taco assembly is to give everybody plenty of options. I just lay out as many ingredients as I have on hand and let them build their own.
Some good options for toppings include:
- grilled onions
- pickled red onions
- pickled or fresh jalapenos
- sour cream
- roasted tomato and jalapeno salsa or other salsa(s)
- hot sauce (like Valentina, Tapatio, or our homemade chiltepin sauce)
- avocado slices
- queso fresco
- diced white onions
- chopped cilantro
The number of toppings are endless, but remember, the arrachera itself is the star of the show. Don’t drown out that rich beef flavor.
Arrachera for Carne Asada Tacos
- Wood chips
- Heavy duty foil
- Grill (charcoal is best)
- 3 ancho chile peppers
- 4 cloves garlic - peeled
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tsp. cumin
- 2 tsp. Mexican oregano
- 2 large limes - juiced
- 2 lbs. skirt steak - preferably outside skirt (it's more tender)
- 8 white corn tortillas
- grilled onions
- Mexican crema
- pickled jalapenos
For the Marinade
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Seed and de-vein the chiles. Place on a cookie sheet and slide onto the middle rack in your oven for 4 minutes.
- Bring a small pot of water to a boil, remove from heat. Toss the garlic and toasted chiles into the hot water. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
- Drain the garlic and chiles very well, then squeeze the garlic out of its skins, and toss it, the drained chiles, and the balance of the ingredients (excluding the skirt steak) into a blender and puree until very smooth.
- Trim any excess fat or silverskin off of the meat, then thoroughly puncture the entirety of both sides with the Jaccard.
- Place the meat into a gallon zip-top bag and pour in the marinade from the blender. Squeeze the bag and move the meat around until the entirety of the meat is coated with the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours (no more than that).
Cooking Your Arrachera
- Remove meat from the marinade and shake off any excess over the sink.
- Prepare your grill for two-zone cooking (directions above). Place your wood foil-pack (directions above) over the hottest part of the coals. Once it is smoking, place the meat over the cool part of the grill and put the lid on, with all of the vents open.
- Smoke for 10-15 minutes with the lid closed.
- Remove the lid and the foil pack. Allow the coals to heat back up, then sear the steaks over the hart part of the coals, flipping and turning to prevent it from scorching too much. It should have little charred bits, but not be blackened.
- Remove the meat when the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thickest steak reads 125 degrees. Let rest for five minutes.
- Cut as directed above and serve with toasted corn tortillas and your choice of toppings.
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