Carne Asada Made with Juicy Skirt Steak + the BEST Mojo Marinade!
I promise, this Carne Asada recipe is going to taste even BETTER than your favorite Mexican restaurant. I’m sharing a mojo marinade and all my secrets to getting the most tender, juicy, flavorful Carne Asada tacos you’ve ever had!
We went to a Little League baseball game last weekend, and a foul ball came in our direction. It got launched into the massive fir tree we were sitting next to. I put my arms up over my head because I figured it would Plinko down somewhere random. And indeed it did, thunking on the ground hard, literally 6 inches from my baby’s head. Followed by a massive gasp from the entire crowd. Gah!
You know how they are always telling you on airplanes that if there is an emergency, you should put on your own oxygen mask before you do the kids? Well the same does not apply here. If there is a foul ball at a game, get yourself over to your baby as fast as your booty moves, because if your baby DOES get hit, then you will be labeled Worst Little League Mom. This is an even lower rank than Get-In-The-Umpire’s-Face-Mom, who normally holds the most-hated spot. (I mean, right?)
Although I’m really just conjecturing here, because we are not even a real Little League family. We just come for the food. There is nothing tastier than overpriced pretzels and snow cones as a post-foul-ball-scare snack.
Well it is almost summertime and that means GRILLING TIME. Who’s with me? The last thing I want on a one hundred and something something day (those something-somethings are expletives, btw) is to turn on my oven and make my entire house feel like a furnace. Grill erryday from June to August, please.
We made these Carne Asada Tacos recently and I just have to share them with you. We had my parents over for dinner, and as we ate, we all just kept moaning that they were the best. tacos. we’ve. ever. had. The steak is just SO incredibly juicy and tender after a long marinade and a short hot-as-heck stint on the grill. If you have never had carne asada before, you are missing out!
What is Carne Asada?
Carne asada is literally translated as “grilled meat.” Specifically, it means grilled beef. (I don’t know, has anyone seen any meat labeled as carne asada that wasn’t beef?? Where are all my Mexican readers at? Tell us what’s up) There is no particular cut of beef that is specified for carne asada, although steak of some kind is most common.
Once you’ve grilled your meat, slice it against the grain (or sometimes people chop it into bite size pieces) and serve it in corn tortillas with all the fixins: Pico de gallo, cilantro, queso fresco, salsa, guacamole, thinly sliced radishes, and sour cream. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Carne Asada is one of the most quintessential Mexican tacos for a good reason!
Why is carne asada chewy?
I will tell you my big secret. I hardly ever order carne asada from restaurants. I love a good steak, but that’s the problem. Most restaurants do not use good steak in their carne asada. They are using cheap cuts of beef that have been doctored up. By this I mean they have been pre-marinated: first they are soaked in tenderizing enzymes, and then sent through a mechanical tumbler, which literally stretches out the protein fibers of the meat, making it little bit more tender. All this before even being sold to the restaurant.
(If you want to read more about where many restaurants get the meat for their fajitas and carne asada, read this excellent article that takes a deep dive into beef cuts for Mexican food.)
The result is pretty tasty, if a little chewy for my preference. (Do you love to order carne asada at restaurants?) It’s definitely not as delicious as just using a decent cut of meat in the first place.
When I bite into a taco, I don’t want to have to pinch the end of the tortilla and pull on it with all my might to bite through the meat. I want to have my teeth slide through pretty easily, with just a little beefy resistance for me to manage. In other words, super tender and juicy steak.
What is the best cut of meat for carne asada?
In my opinion, the best cut of meat for carne asada is outside skirt steak (not inside skirt steak). It is a thin ribbon-like cut of beef with a rich, buttery flavor. It is so tender it will make you cry. Almost every carne asada recipe I found in my research called for flank steak or skirt steak, but most of them did not specify which type of skirt steak to use.
Well, no offense internet, but flank steak, outside skirt, and inside skirt steak are all TOTALLY different cuts of meat that need to be grilled differently. It’s true that basically everything is the same up until the grilling point, but please, if you choose flank steak or inside skirt steak (it is much easier to find than outside skirt steak), then follow the grilling instructions on my post for How to Cook Flank Steak. But first, let’s dive into the two types of skirt steak.
Skirt Steak: Outside Skirt vs. Inside Skirt
There are two different types of skirt steak: outside skirt and inside skirt. They are not the same (like, at all, they are from totally different parts of the cow), so I find it hugely irritating that they have the same name. Most recipes you see just call for “skirt steak” without specifying inside vs. outside.
Outside skirt steak: Comes from the diaphragm of the cow. It is long and narrow. It’s about 2 feet long, only 3-4 inches across, and is usually only 1/2 to 1 inch thick. It cooks lightning fast, we are talking 1-2 minutes per side on a hot grill. The grain of the meat is very fine, layered with pockets of fat. It’s the same cut of meat that is (traditionally) used for fajitas. It can be tricky to find (because there are only TWO outside skirt steaks per cow and they are usually sold to restaurants), but if you head to an actual butcher shop rather than the grocery store they should be able to get it for you (call ahead!) It is expensive. This is a prime cut of beef.
Inside skirt steak: Is part of the abdominal muscle of the cow. It is also about 2 feet long but is wider, usually about 5-7 inches. There are only 2 inside skirt steaks per cow. The grain of the meat is much more coarse and less fatty than outside skirt steak, which is why it is not as tender when cooked (read: chewy). It is going to be less expensive than outside skirt steak. This is a great video that shows the difference between inside and outside skirt steak.
Oftentimes grocery stores won’t even label whether it is outside or inside, it’s just labeled skirt steak. Which is so dumb, because as we’ve learned, they are not even from the same part of the cow. Ask the butcher which one it is. If they don’t know, check the price. If it’s pretty cheap, it’s inside. If it’s pricey, it’s outside.
What other cuts of beef can I use for carne asada?
If you can’t find (or afford) outside skirt steak, here are the other cuts of meat you could use, in order of preference:
- inside skirt steak
- flap meat (sometimes called sirloin bavette or sirloin tip)
- flat iron steak
- flank steak, but you must only cook to medium rare. For all the cuts of meat on this list (besides outside skirt!), follow the grilling instructions on my post for How to Cook Flank Steak.
Mojo Marinade brings the flavor
Once you have your gorgeous cut of meat, it’s time to marinate it in a gorgeous mojo sauce. There are no spices or specific ingredients that are considered authentic for carne asada; the only rule is that it must be marinated. I’m sure there are as many unique recipes as there are adorable Mexican grandmothers, just like spaghetti sauce in Italy.
I wanted my marinade to have bold, robust flavors, and I took some heavy hints from this Cuban Mojo Marinated Pork. Today’s carne asada marinade includes:
- orange zest
- orange juice
- lime juice
- olive oil
- brown sugar
- salt and pepper
- Maggi seasoning (or soy sauce)
- dried ancho chiles
Maggi seasoning is kind of like Mexican soy sauce. It has a deep umami flavor that brings incredible meaty flavor to savory dishes. You can usually find it in the Latin foods section at your grocery store. But if not, regular (not low sodium) soy sauce is a great substitute.
Dried ancho chiles are dried poblano peppers. They are completely black and have the most AMAZING scent and flavor. They are not very spicy at all. Ancho chiles are one of the most common peppers in Mexican cooking. Using real dried peppers is what takes this carne asada recipe from okay to amazing in my opinion. They are pretty easy to find here in California, but I’m sure they are not readily available everywhere. You can buy them online here. But if you can’t find any, dried ancho chile powder is a good substitute.
The chiles are easy to prepare. Just zap them in the microwave for 20-30 seconds until they are a little more soft and pliable. Snip off the stem and dump out the seeds. Then add them to your marinade.
Make sure that you put all your marinade ingredients in a food processor to take a pretty picture, splatter your entire kitchen, and then transfer to a blender with a higher liquid capacity. This is definitely the way you should do it.
Blend until mostly smooth, it’s okay if it’s a little chunky. The tough bits of ancho pepper will soften as the marinade sits.
Reserve a half cup of the marinade to serve with the tacos. Give it a taste to see if you want to adjust the seasonings. I could eat this stuff with a spoon. (When the meat is done marinating, I actually like to scrape the used marinade into a pot and boil for a few minutes to serve with the tacos. I don’t want to waste a tiny bit of this stuff!)
Because skirt steak is so long and thin (like 2 feet!), I found it useful to chop it into smaller 6-inch long steaks (cut WITH the grain) before marinating. That way you are not trying to fit a 2-foot-long strip of met on your grill. (Then, after grilling, cut against the grain into short strips. More on that below.)
Add a good healthy sprinkle of salt to your steak before adding the marinade. Salt tenderizes the meat in addition to adding flavor. Don’t skip it!
Add the rest of the marinade to your gorgeous skirt steak. You can do this in a casserole dish and cover, or you can put it in a ziplock bag.
Can you marinate carne asada too long?
I read lots of recipes that specifically stated that you should not marinate carne asada for longer than a few hours or it will get mushy from the acidity of the marinade. I call BS. This is beef, not fish. (and we all know fish is practically a vegetable.) Most restaurant carne asada is purchased pre-marinated, so you know they are marinating longer than a few hours, more like a few days.
Of course it depends on the cut of beef you are using, but generally I would recommend a 12-24 hour marinade. Or 4 hours at the bare minimum. The thinness of the steak we are using (whether you use inside or outside skirt, flank, etc.) means that the marinade is going to do all the penetrating it needs to do in 24 hours, and after that, it’s true, things get weird (read: mushy). But I say the longer the marinade, the better than flavor. The steak you see in the photos was marinated for 24 hours.
How to grill carne asada
Once your steak has been marinating for a good long while, remove the steaks from the marinade (save it!) and let them sit out at room temperature for about a half hour. It’s best to grill room temperature meat for even cooking. Turn on your grill to high heat and let it preheat for at least 15-20 minutes
Use paper towels to wipe the remaining marinade off the meat. You want your steak to hit the grill as dry as possible to get the best sear. If they are covered in a watery drippy marinade, the Maillard reaction (browning) won’t be able to occur as effectively.
Brush each steak with a neutral oil just before grilling, to prevent sticking.
Outside skirt steak has a VERY fast cook time because it is so thin. As a general rule, once you see a deep browning on each side of the steak, you can assume that the center is about medium rare. This means you only need about 1-2 minutes of grilling per side. Use a meat thermometer to know for sure!
Do you cut carne asada before or after cooking?
It’s important to cut carne asada AFTER cooking. You should be cooking the meat as a whole steak, then cut the cooked steak (after resting) into strips.
You will know you are slicing it correctly if you can see little squares on the meat instead of long strands. Do you see how there are little gaps? That’s good.
How to cut skirt steak against the grain
Here is a visual:
I’m showing you this picture of raw steak NOT because you should cut it before it is cooked. It’s just really easy to see the grain of the meat before it hits the grill.
How you slice the meat makes a huge difference in texture. If you slice it the wrong way and serve guests long pieces of one layer of the grain, it will be tough and chewy, no matter how well cooked it is. And that would be a tragedy!
Don’t forget the fixins
Then, it’s that glorious moment where it’s time to EAT your tacos. Layer 2 toasted corn tortillas on a plate, top with a few strips of juicy tender steak, and complete with all the fixins: Pico de gallo, diced onions, guacamole, cilantro, salsa, radishes, lime wedges, cotija or queso fresco, and extra mojo sauce from the marinade.
More summer grilling recipes you will love!
- How to Cook Flank Steak << this lean cut of beef is so tender when done right.
- How to Cook Tri Tip << hands down my favorite for special occasions! We make it every Christmas!
- How to Cook Ribeye Steak with Garlic Butter << a cast iron pan makes all the difference.
- Simply Amazing Grilled Chicken << pantry ingredients for the win.
- Grilled Chili Lime Pork Tenderloin from A Farmgirl’s Dabbles
More Mexican recipes!
- Seriously The Best Taco Salad Recipe << a few changes make a huge difference.
- Traditional Tejano Pinto Beans << make a pot of these beans with today’s carne asada!!
- Mexican Street Corn Dip << could there be a better appetizer? I think not.
- Chicken Flautas (Taquitos) << these are so worth the effort
- Beer Battered Fish Tacos << I LOVE THESE.
- Chicken Enchiladas with White Sauce from Simply Home Cooked
- Taco Pasta from Julie’s Eats and Treats
Carne Asada Made with Juicy Skirt Steak + the BEST Mojo Marinade!
For the marinade
- 1 tablespoon orange zest, from at least 2 oranges
- 3/4 cup orange juice, fresh squeezed
- 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh squeezed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 tablespoons Maggi seasoning, or soy sauce
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 small bunch cilantro, about 1 cup
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 & 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, for the marinade
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, for the marinade
- 2 ounces dried ancho chilies, or 2 tablespoons dried ancho chili powder
- 2 pounds outside skirt steak*, see notes
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, for salting the steak
- neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable
- 24 corn tortillas
- grill, gas or charcoal
- Start by choosing your cut of beef. See notes for more details. If you can find outside skirt steak (call a real butcher!) then definitely use that! Make sure whatever cut of meat you choose is well marbled with fat. Fat=flavor.
- Make the marinade. In a blender, add 1 tablespoon orange zest, 3/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice, 3 tablespoons lime juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 tablespoons Maggi seasoning (or soy sauce), 5 cloves garlic, 1 small bunch cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons oregano, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper.
- Place 2 ounces dried ancho chiles (usually about 4-5 chiles) on a plate and microwave for about 30 seconds. Use scissors to snip off the stem at the top, and dump out all the seeds. Tear the chiles into a few strips. Microwave again for another 20 seconds or so to make them nice and pliable. Add the chiles to the blender and blend well until everything is combined. It's okay if it's a little chunky, the pieces of chili that don't get blended will become soft and pliable as they sit in the marinade.
- Reserve 1/2 cup of the marinade and store in the fridge.
- Unroll your outside skirt steak. Use a sharp knife to chop the meat into 6 inch long steaks, slicing WITH the grain. (You can skip this step if you like. I find it's easier to grill smaller steaks but if you want to try to fit a 2 foot long behemoth on your grill, be my guest. I also like chopping into smaller steaks because some sections are thinner or thicker than others, and we want everything to cook evenly. You can take a super thin section of steak off the grill way earlier than a thick section. Individual steaks also make it way easier to slice against the grain later.)
- Place the steaks in a large casserole dish or in a ziplock. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon kosher salt on top of the steaks, flip each one over, then sprinkle the other teaspoon of kosher salt on the other side. Make sure you are using kosher salt. (if using table salt, use less.) Salt makes the meat even more tender in addition to enhancing the flavor.
- Add the marinade on top of the steaks and stir and flip around to coat. Seal the bag or cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
- Before grilling, prep all your garnishes: Make the Pico de Gallo. Prepare the salsa. Make the guacamole. Slice the radishes. Chop the cilantro. Slice the limes into wedges. Use a fork to break up the queso fresco and add to a bowl. Set out the sour cream and extra mojo marinade. This steak cooks quickly, we want to be ready!
- Preheat your grill to high heat, abut 450 to 500 degrees. Let it preheat for at least 20 minutes.
- Remove the steaks from the marinade. You can either toss the marinade, or you can transfer it to a small pot and bring to a boil for about 3-5 minutes then serve with the tacos. It's so good, I don't like to waste it.
- Use paper towels to pat each steak dry. It won't be perfect, but the drier they are when they hit the grill, the more browning effect we will get. Let the steaks sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes while your grill preheats.
- Just before you are ready to put the steak on the grill, oil the grates. I like to add a little olive oil to a bowl, use tongs to dip a paper towel in it lightly (don't soak it) and rub the grill grates where the steak is going to go.
- Brush each steak lightly with a neutral oil so they don't stick.
- Place your steak on the grill and shut the lid (if using a charcoal grill, you can leave the lid off). Set a timer for 1 minute, then check each steak. If there is significant browning, it is ready to flip. If not, let cook 1 more minute. Flip each steak (thin steaks first) and shut the lid and set another timer for 1-2 minutes depending on the thickness of the steak. As a general rule for outside skirt steak, once the meat is browned on both sides, you can safely assume that the steak is cooked to about medium rare in the center. If you are nervous, use a meat thermometer and take it off the heat when it registers about 115 degrees F. (It will continue cooking while it rests.)
- Remove the meat from the grill and place on a cutting board. Tent with foil and let rest about 10 minutes.
- Char the tortillas. Brush each tortilla with a little bit of oil. (I actually stirred together about 1 teaspoon of the mojo marinade with 1/4 cup of oil and brushed the tortillas with that. It's optional.) Char the tortillas on the grill for about 30 seconds per side. If you see the tortillas start to bubble, that's when it's ready to flip it/take it off heat. Line a plate with a tea towel and wrap each tortilla with the towel as it comes off the grill.
- Slice the carne asada into very thin strips. See photos. Make sure you are slicing AGAINST the grain. You should see a pattern of little squares and rectangles on a cross section of the meat if you are slicing it correctly. Use a sharp knife to slice the steak into very thin strips, on the bias against the grain. "On a bias" means you should be cutting at a 45 degree angle, not straight up and down like you would slice bread. (This increases the surface area of each bite, and shortens the muscle fibers, enhancing tenderness.) "Against the grain" means that your knife should be cutting the meat perpendicular to the lines of muscle ("grain") that you can see on the steak. See photo.
- Assemble the tacos. Layer two charred tortillas on a plate. Top with strips of carne asada, Pico de gallo, salsa, guacamole, radishes, cilantro, lime wedges, queso fresco, sour cream, and extra (cooked) mojo marinade, if desired.
- inside skirt steak
- flap meat (sometimes called sirloin bavette or sirloin tip)
- flat iron steak
- flank steak, but you must only cook to medium rare. For all the cuts of meat on this list (besides outside skirt!), follow the grilling instructions on my post for How to Cook Flank Steak. (basically you need to sear on both sides over hot hot heat, then lower the heat to finish cooking the inside. See more details on the post.)
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