Learn How to Make Carne Asada
A Latina cook shares her family's easy and authentic carne asada recipe for steak that’s juicy, sizzling, and seasoned just right
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Above: Mexican Carne Asada. Article, recipe, and photos by Ericka Sanchez.
As a Mexican immigrant growing up in El Paso, Texas, I knew “carne asada” not only as steak grilled northern Mexican-style and marinated with beer and citrus juices, but as a gathering or event. Also called a parrillada, carne asada refers to a cookout.
Parrilla means grill, or pretty much any makeshift iron grill grate over hot coals or burning wood. If you hear the words "carne a la parrilla," you might be speaking with someone from northern Mexico referring to the dish. It was a common term used by my cousins from Monterrey in Nuevo León, the state where some of the best parrilleros, or grillmasters, come from.
In northern Mexico, the climate is arid. People traditionally worked with available ingredients, and one ingredient available year-round was beef. Over the years, the sizzling, simply seasoned dish known as carne asada or carne a la parrilla — and the festive gatherings to cook it — were born.
In my family we’d often have 20 or more hungry family members gathered around a grill in a backyard or a carport, listening to lively music. It could be a birthday, a baptism, a wedding anniversary, or just a weekend. My uncle, manning the grill with a beer in hand, was the man of the hour. Everyone waited patiently for trays of juicy meats to make their way to the long table set with all the fixings so everyone could help themselves buffet-style.
Just as when I was growing up, side dishes such as refried beans, Mexican rice, grilled onions, the spiciest salsas, creamy guacamole, and stacks of corn and flour tortillas are a must to go with carne asada. Every family member contributes potluck-style, showcasing their special dish to accompany a carne asada.
While each family has their own steak recipe and way of marinating beef for carne asada, the following one is my family’s, and I consider it the best carne asada. The combination of citrus with various spices, soy sauce, and Mexican beer tenderizes the meat and gives it that juicy, savory flavor of a good carne asada plate.
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Ingredients for carne asada
The meat and simple marinade ingredients for this carne asada recipe are readily available at your favorite supermarket. Flap steak or skirt steak, freshly squeezed citrus juices, red onion, herbs, and Mexican beer come together in a few easy steps for a family feast.
Skirt steak or flap steak (aka flap meat or sirloin tip). These cuts of beef are the most popular cuts to prepare an authentic Mexican grilled steak. Both are very flavorful, and will stay tender when grilled as long as they’re not overcooked. Skirt steak (also known as arrachera) has more fat, which helps keep it moist — traditionally, carne asada is enjoyed cooked medium or medium-well. Flank steak is another good option, but it’s lean, so be careful not to cook it past medium-rare. If these steaks aren’t available, chuck steak is a good substitute, but flatten it with a meat mallet to 1/8- to 1/4-inch before marinating.
Simple spices and herbs. Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and dried Mexican oregano make this recipe tasty and easy to prepare.
Extra-virgin olive oil. Keep your carne asada moist and flavorful by adding olive oil to the carne asada marinade, but don’t break the bank with the most expensive oil. A less pricey extra-virgin olive oil will work just as well.
Citrus and zest. Freshly squeezed lime juice and orange juice break down the meat’s connective tissue, tenderizing and flavoring the meat. Orange and lime slices give an extra bit of flavor to the marinade from the zest on the skin.
Soy sauce. A savory sauce such as soy sauce gives your carne asada an umami flavor and a caramelized color. If soy sauce is not available, Maggi sauce or Worcestershire sauce makes a great substitution.
Red onion. I like to use red onion in this recipe because its sharp flavor intensifies when combined with the acidic citrus juices.
Mexican beer. Beer helps tenderize and flavor the meat. I like to use light Mexican beer such as Corona, Pacifico, or Modelo Light. Dark Mexican beer is a great substitute.
How to marinate carne asada
To keep the bright flavors of the carne asada marinade at their best, use a large non-reactive bowl tightly sealed with plastic wrap, or a baking dish with a lid. You can also use a gallon-size zip-top bag.
Add spices, herbs, olive oil, lime juice and slices, orange juice and slices, soy sauce, onion, and beer to the bowl. Cut meat into sizes you can manage on the grill and add them to the marinade. Lightly massage the meat with your fingers to incorporate the flavors. Stir and scoop the liquid over the meat, making sure to coat it evenly. If you’re marinating in a zip-top bag, seal it, then shake and press it with your fingers.
You want to marinate carne asada in the refrigerator at least 2 hours, but 8-12 hours will give you the best-tasting carne asada. Too much marinating time, though, will make your steak chewy.
Note that the prep time for this recipe is quick, and the total time of 2 1/2 hours includes at least 2 hours marinating. All this means if you plan ahead, you can pull off carne asada even for a weeknight dinner.
How to grill carne asada
Preheat a grill for medium-high heat (350° to 450°F). You can also use a cast-iron skillet or grill pan on the stovetop. Lightly oil the grate, using tongs and a wad of oiled paper towels. Or pierce half an onion with a fork, oil the flat side of the onion, and use it to oil the grate.
Grill the meat with the lid closed, turning it once with tongs, and grill the carne asada 7-15 minutes total cook time, depending on the doneness you prefer and the thickness of the meat. (Medium-rare is 130° to 135°F on an instant-read thermometer and medium-well is 145° to 155°F.)
Transfer the grilled meat to a cutting board and drape it with foil to keep warm. Let the cooked steak rest and juices flow for 3 minutes before serving. Then slice the meat thinly across the grain so it will be tender.
Get the carne asada recipe
A carne asada would not be complete with refried beans, Mexican rice, grilled onions, and a fresh squeeze of lime juice to bring all the flavors together. Top it with radishes and spicy salsa or pico de gallo, plus some cilantro if you like. Of course, let’s not forget the guacamole, chips, and a tall stack of corn or flour tortillas.
Many like to serve a bowl of borracho beans — drunken beans — with their carne asada. Borracho beans are pinto beans simmered in a delicious broth of a little beer, bacon, tomatoes, jalapeño, and onion.
Others like to chop the meat into bite-size pieces and make carne asada tacos or steak nachos. If you have leftovers, create the ultimate loaded carne asada burrito with sour cream or chipotle crema. Or make tortas (Mexican sandwiches) in Mexican bolillo bread.
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