If you've been to a Mexican restaurant or a taco truck recently, you've probably seen adobada and al pastor on the menu, either as their own dishes or as filling options for your meal of choice. But, you'd be forgiven for being confused what those meals really are.
After all, for people who aren't very familiar with Mexican cuisine, these two dishes share a lot of similarities. They're both made with marinated pork, both tend to be slow-cooked to help develop flavor, and both use a combination of vinegar, spices, and chilies in the marinade and cooking.
So, what are the differences between adobada vs. al pastor? We’re glad you asked!
|Pork, vinegar, chilies, spices
|Pork, pineapple, chipotle peppers
|Slow-cooked, on a grill
|Slow-cooked on a vertical spit or trompo
|Northern Mexico, and parts of what are now Southwestern U.S.
|Puebla, Mexico, originally created by Lebanese immigrants
|Tacos, burritos, and other tortilla-based dishes
|Tacos, alambre, huaraches,
What is Adobada
Adobada is a traditional Mexican dish that probably originates before the United States purchased a large portion of the American Southwest from Mexico. It’s continued to be a popular and common meal throughout the American Southwest, as well as Northern and Central Mexico.
Technically adobada can be made with almost any meat, but the most common preparation uses pork shoulder or a similar cut. That's important because the high-fat content of pork shoulder helps to make the most of the spices and chilies in the marinade, and helps to create the ultimate flavorful meat.
Different Types of Adobada
There are a few things to consider when you’re thinking about different kinds of adobada. The first is what meat is used. We’ve already mentioned that pork shoulder is most traditional, but the dish can also be made with beef, game meats, or other alternatives.
If you want to make a version of adobada with poultry, we’d recommend duck or goose over chicken or turkey. That’s because the dish really needs the extra fat in dark meat, and duck and goose, or game meats, tend to offer more of that fat and improve the flavor.
There are also subtle cooking differences. Typically adobada is made over a grill, but the braised version of this dish does result in a slightly different flavor and texture.
The size of the chunks of meat in your finished adobada can also be another difference between different recipes or regional preparations. Adobada ranges from fully shredded meat to large chunks. However, true adobada is almost always fork-tender and incredibly juicy.
How Do You Make Adobada?
The key to adobada is time. Not only do you need to let the meat marinate for long enough to achieve the rich flavors and tender texture the dish is known for. Grilling can also help with this process since you can get additional smokiness and caramelization of the fats in the pork with grilling compared to braising the meat in its marinade.
Alternatively, with a longer marinade, you can speed up the cooking process by slicing the meat thin before grilling.
At minimum, this dish requires several hours of marinade time, and longer marinades result in more flavor, and can help balance the flavors in the meal.
Delicious Adobada Ingredients
There are a lot of potential ingredients to play with in adobada. Green herbs are a delicious addition, cilantro is the most common one, but parsley and mint can also be used. Onions are a great addition to help make the meat more tender, even with a shorter marinade.
You can also experiment with different chilies, from fresh poblano, jalapeno, and serrano peppers, to dried versions of the chilies. Roasting fresh chilies can help improve the flavor of the finished dish, and also reduces the heat if you’re not a fan of too much spice.
Citrus juices are a critical part of the process. Orange juice is one of the most popular. But lime and lemon juice can also add to the flavor and acidity of your finished dish. Grapefruit or pineapple juice are also good options.
Great Adobada Recipes You Should Try
Serious Eats has a fantastic recipe for a slight variation on adobada, adovada, which makes the dish more accessible by simmering chunks of meat in the sauce instead of relying on a grill for whole or chunked meat.
Not a pork eater? The New York Times has you covered with a Carne Adobada recipe that substitutes the traditional pork shoulder for flank steak. They also offer some top-tier advice on marinading times, and the different results from different lengths of time.
What Is Al Pastor?
Al Pastor is a dish that originates from the kinds of meals that shepherds would have made while they were watching the herds. It’s a slow-cooked dish that you can easily walk away from while it's cooking but uses a range of ingredients and clever preparation tricks to make sure the finished meal is richly flavorful and satisfying.
The key to great al pastor comes from one of the often overlooked ingredients, pineapple. That’s because pineapple contains enzymes that help break down the meat, while also adding sweet and acidic flavors.
Of course, other ingredients can be substituted if you can’t use pineapple, or don’t have access to fresh pineapple the way shepherds did in Mexico.
Different Styles Of Al Pastor
Like a lot of traditional Mexican meals, al pastor is a dish that would have originally have a lot of variations in preparation and ingredients, that has become more and more standardized over time.
One of the interesting parts of al pastor is that this dish is authentically Mexican, but was actually created by immigrants that were new to the country. Al pastor combines the flavors and ingredients that were readily available in Mexico, with the Lebanese cooking techniques originally used to create shawarma.
Today, the defining feature of al pastor tends to be one of three things, the cooking method (stacked meat and ingredients on a spit), the meat (usually pork), or the use of pineapple as a flavor enhancer and to create the desired texture.
But there aren’t regional variations of al pastor or specific styles that are unique but common. Instead, most of the differences are down to slight changes in the recipe, cooking time, or cooking temperature. There are a lot of different ways to make al pastor, but there aren’t multiple styles of al pastor.
How Do You Make Al Pastor?
The key to traditional al pastor is cooking on a vertical spit layered with meat and other ingredients, similar to how shawarma and gyro meat is prepared. However, if you don’t have an upright rotary spit available, grilling, or less often, braising the meat can achieve similar results.
Like adobada, time marinating the ingredients, and then cooking time, are both critical to getting the rich flavors associated with al pastor.
That longer prep and cooking times also helps to get all of the flavor out of ingredients like fresh or dried chilies, without overpowering the flavors with spice.
Al Pastor Ingredients and Toppings To Experiment With
Dried chilies are key to getting a good marinade for al pastor, but you don’t want them to be too dry. Choose a mix of two or three of your favorite dried chilies, and if they are too dry, let them rehydrate for an hour or so before you combine them in the sauce.
Garlic, vinegar, and pineapple are the other must-have ingredients. But there are some substitutions you can make. Garlic can be replaced with a milder allium, like shallots if you don’t like the intensity of garlic. Vinegar is important, but high-acid juice like lemon or lime can be added instead. Lastly, pineapple is important because of the bromine enzyme in the pineapple.
However, onions and honey can both help replace that enzyme (and some of the flavor of the al pastor) if you can’t have pineapple or don’t have easy access to the fruit.
Also, speaking of pineapple, it’s fun to experiment with fresh or canned pineapple. They offer different levels of bromine, and fresh vs canned can change both the flavor and texture of the finished meat.
Top Al Pastor Recipes You’re Sure To Love
Serious Eats has a fantastic tacos al pastor recipe that walks you through some of the techniques and tricks you can use to enhance the flavor in your finished meal. Or, for a slightly more streamlined recipe that gives you similar flavor with a shorter ingredient list, take a look at this tacos al pastor recipe from Tasty!
Wrapping Up: What are the key differences between Adobada and Al Pastor?
Both adobada and al pastor benefit from some unique blends of Mexican herbs, chilies, and vinegar with rich, fatty meats. But there are a few key differences between these meals, including how they are cooked, the exact ingredient list, and the finished taste and texture.
- Adobada doesn’t usually contain pineapple.
- Al pastor takes advantage of a rotary spit or dry oven cooking, while adobada uses the marinade in the cooking process.
- Both taste better when made with a fatty cut of meat
- The chilies and spices used in each dish can differ widely depending on recipe and your personal taste.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1: How Spicy Is Adobada?
Adobada can be made anywhere between very spicy to pretty mild depending on what peppers you use, and how long you cook the meal. Typically adobada isn’t all that spicy. If you can enjoy a bowl of medium heat salsa and chips, you’ll probably be able to tolerate the spice in adobada.
Q2: Is Al Pastor Always Served With Pineapple?
Not always, though it's one of the most common ingredients in the dish. It’s also common for pineapple, either cooked with the meat or sliced fresh, to be added as a garnish to other dishes made with al pastor. Al pastor tacos in particular are usually served with a slice or cubes of fresh pineapple.
Q3: Which Is Healthier, Adobada or Al Pastor?
Both of these meals are made with a range of spices and vinegar-marinated meat, and both tend to use fatty cuts of meat instead of leaner ones.
Ultimately, both adobada and al pastor can be healthy, but how healthy they actually are mostly depends on what else they are served with. However, traditionally made al pastor that is slow cooked on the spit, allows the fat from the meat to roll off, which can cut the calories slightly.