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What is barbacoa vs al pastor vs carnitas?

Mexican cuisine is renowned worldwide for its complex and varied flavors. Three of the most popular Mexican meat dishes are barbacoa, al pastor, and carnitas. While all three dishes involve slow-cooked meats, they each have their own unique ingredients, flavors, and preparations that set them apart.

What is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican dish made from meat that has been slow-cooked or smoked. The word “barbacoa” originally comes from the Caribbean Taino people, meaning “sacred fire pit” where meat was cooked over an open fire. In Mexico, barbacoa preparation techniques evolved to include steaming or baking meat wrapped in maguey leaves in an underground oven.

Today, authentic Mexican barbacoa is most often made from beef cheeks or sheep meat. Whole lamb heads or goat meat may also be used. The meat is rubbed with a blend of seasonings such as garlic, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, onions, oregano, and chiles. It is then wrapped in maguey leaves and slow-cooked until extremely tender. This slow braising technique allows the meat to become succulent and infused with smoky, earthy flavors.

Common accompaniments for barbacoa include hot tortillas, rice, beans, salsa, chopped onions, cilantro, and lime wedges. When served in tacos, barbacoa is often paired with onion and cilantro. It can be shredded or chopped into smaller pieces before serving.

Key Characteristics of Barbacoa

  • Made from beef cheeks, lamb, or goat
  • Rubbed with earthy spice blend
  • Wrapped and steamed in maguey leaves
  • Cooked slowly in an underground oven or pit
  • Infused with smoky, earthy flavors
  • Shredded or chopped meat

What is Al Pastor?

Al pastor is a popular taco filling that originated in Central Mexico. It features a flavorful mix of chile-marinated pork that is roasted vertically on a rotating spit, similar to shawarma or Greek gyros. “Al pastor” literally translates to “in the style of the shepherd” in Spanish.

To make authentic al pastor, pork is marinated in a dried chile paste made from guajillo and pasilla chiles. Chipotle, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, pineapple juice, and other seasonings are also added to the marinade. Thin slices of pork are stacked onto a vertical spit along with pieces of pineapple. As the meat rotates, it is slowly cooked and infused with flavors.

The roasting process allows the pork to become nicely charred and caramelized. As it cooks, melted and charred bits of pork fat and juices fall onto the roasted pineapple below, creating an incredible blend of savory and sweet flavors.

The succulent pork is sliced off the trompo spit to serve as tacos. It is typically paired with onions, cilantro, and sliced pineapple. Corn tortillas are used so that the hearty fillings can shine. Salsa verde, guacamole, and lime wedges are common sides.

Key Characteristics of Al Pastor:

  • Made from pork marinated in guajillo chile paste
  • Seasoned with garlic, cumin, cinnamon, vinegar
  • Stacked and roasted on a vertical trompo spit
  • Paired with grilled pineapple
  • Infused with sweet and savory flavors
  • Served in corn tortillas with onions, cilantro, pineapple

What are Carnitas?

Carnitas are made from slow-cooked, crispy pork that has been fried or roasted until browned and tender. The dish originated in the state of Michoacán. “Carnitas” means “little meats” in Spanish.

To create carnitas, pork shoulder or butt is cut into chunks or strips and seasoned simply with salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, and other spices. The meat is then slowly braised in lard or oil until extremely soft and tender. Next, the cooked pork is fried or roasted again to crisp and caramelize the exterior.

Well-made carnitas have juicy, succulent meat on the inside with crispy, crackling bits of browned pork on the outside. The cooking and frying process allows the pork to develop a rich, complex flavor with subtle hints of spice.

Carnitas are very versatile – they can be enjoyed in tacos, burritos, tortas, on nachos, and more. They are typically served with salsa, guacamole, beans, cotija cheese, cilantro, diced onion, lime wedges, and warm corn tortillas.

Key Characteristics of Carnitas:

  • Made from pork shoulder or butt
  • Seasoned simply with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano
  • Braised then crisped up by frying or roasting
  • Juicy, tender meat with crispy browned bits
  • Delicate spice flavors
  • Served with various taco accompaniments

Detailed Comparison

While barbacoa, al pastor, and carnitas are all popular Mexican pork dishes, they have distinct differences in their ingredients, cooking methods, and flavors:

Barbacoa Al Pastor Carnitas
Main Meat Used Beef or lamb Pork Pork
Cut of Meat Cheeks, heads, legs Loins or leg cuts Shoulder or butt
Preparation Rubbed with spices, wrapped in leaves Marinated in chiles, stacked on spit Seasoned, braised, fried
Cooking Method Steamed in underground pit Roasted vertically on revolving trompo Slow braising, then frying or roasting
Cooking Time 5+ hours 2-3 hours 3+ hours
Flavors Earthy, smoky, rich Savory, sweet, charred Tender, juicy, crispy
Texture Very tender, shreddable Tender, sliceable Tender, crisp bits
Serving Style Shredded for tacos Sliced for tacos Chunks in tortillas or nachos

Barbacoa vs. Al Pastor vs. Carnitas: Which is Best?

It’s difficult to declare one single winner when comparing barbacoa, al pastor, and carnitas. They each have their own unique flavors, textures, and traditions. Here is a summary of their advantages and best uses:


Barbacoa stands out for its exceptionally tender and shredded meat that is infused with earthy, smoky flavors. The spices, steaming, and long cooking time really allow the flavors to penetrate into the meat. Barbacoa makes for amazing tacos with a mouthwatering pulled beef or lamb texture.

Al Pastor

Al pastor is unmatched in terms of its blend of sweet and savory flavors. The trompo roasting technique gives it a hint of char while keeping the pork juicy. It has a more robust and well-rounded flavor profile compared to carnitas or barbacoa. Al pastor excels when served in soft tacos.


Carnitas has the advantage of offering tender, juicy pork with crispy, fried edges that provide great textural contrast. The crispy bits almost melt-in-your-mouth. Carnitas is extremely crave-worthy in tacos, but also makes for amazing burritos, nachos, tortas, and more.

How to Make Authentic Barbacoa, Al Pastor, and Carnitas at Home

Thankfully, it’s possible to make pretty authentic versions of all three dishes at home with the right techniques. Here are some tips:


– Use beef cheeks or lamb for the most authentic flavor and texture

– Season with earthy spices like cumin, oregano, cloves, garlic

– Wrap meat tightly in parchment then foil and braise in oven for 4-5 hours

– Can also use a slow cooker on low for 6-8 hours to gently braise

– Shred meat before serving in tacos

Al Pastor

– Marinate pork shoulder in guajillo chiles, garlic, vinegar, spices overnight

– Grill pork on a vertical rotisserie spit if possible

– Otherwise, cook on a grill or broil in oven for charred flavor

– Slice off pieces as pork cooks

– Top tacos with pineapple, onions, cilantro


– Season pork shoulder with oregano, cumin, chili powder, salt

– Slow braise chunks in a bit of lard or oil for 2-3 hours

– Drain then fry or broil pork pieces to crisp exterior

– Keep interior moist and outer bits crispy

– Enjoy right away for best texture

Where to Find Authentic Barbacoa, Al Pastor, and Carnitas

For truly authentic versions, your best bet is to visit restaurants in Mexico that specialize in each dish. However, you can also find excellent renditions of all three at Mexican restaurants in areas with large Mexican populations, such as:

  • Los Angeles, California
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Houston, Texas
  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • San Diego, California
  • Dallas, Texas

Look for restaurants that prepare the dishes in the traditional way, such as carnitas roasted in lard or al pastor cooked on a trompo. Barbacoa, in particular, is best when made with specialty meats like lamb or beef cheeks. It’s worth calling ahead to ask questions about their preparation methods.

The Final Verdict

Barbacoa, al pastor, and carnitas each have their own unique place in Mexican cuisine. Barbacoa offers ultra-tender, smoky shredded meats. Al pastor has unbeatable sweet-savory flavor. Carnitas provides succulent pork with crispy edges. While it’s impossible to declare one single winner, here is a quick final recap:

Best Flavor Complexity: Al Pastor

The trompo roasting method allows the marinade and pork juices to really penetrate the meat and caramelize, creating incredible depth of flavor.

Most Tender and Shreddable: Barbacoa

The low and slow steaming technique makes barbacoa melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Best Textural Contrast: Carnitas

Carnitas has both tender, juicy pork and crispy, fried bits that provide excellent variation in texture.

No matter which of the three you choose, you really can’t go wrong when enjoying these specialties of Mexican cuisine. Their complex layers of flavor and texture have earned them global popularity for good reason. With the right preparation, you can bring that authentic Mexican barbacoa, al pastor, or carnitas experience to your very own kitchen.