What Is Carne Asada?

Learn all about the diverse world of Latin American grilled meat.

August 27, 2021
Marinated Carne Asada on the grill.

carne asada grilling

Marinated Carne Asada on the grill.

Photo by: SusanGaryPhotography / Getty Images

SusanGaryPhotography / Getty Images

By Carlos Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen

Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.

Mexican food: three gourmet steak tacos garnished with onions and cilantro. You might also be interested in these:

Carne asada tacos 2

Mexican food: three gourmet steak tacos garnished with onions and cilantro. You might also be interested in these:

Photo by: Alina555 / Getty Images

Alina555 / Getty Images

Carne asada is a dish that is often associated with Mexican cuisine and a popular taco filling, as well as a topping for french fries. However, carne asada is also a common dish throughout Latin America with regional variations and traditional accompaniments. Despite the variety of carne asada preparations throughout Latin America, however, the focus is almost always on quality meats, simply prepared. Learn all about carne asada here, including the differences between Mexican, Central American and South American carne asada. Here we teach you how to choose the best cuts of meat and how to cook carne asada on the grill or in a home kitchen. You’ll also learn how to serve carne asada depending on the style you want to enjoy, and we even include some recipes to help you on your way.

What Is Carne Asada?

Carne asada is a Spanish term that translates to roasted or grilled meat. In many countries’ cuisines, it is far more than just a dish but rather a whole experience that can be likened to a barbecue or cookout. There are many varieties of carne asada throughout Latin America, and in some places, the whole process of grilling meat over open flames is referred to simply as an asado.

Because beef is the primary type of protein used in making carne asada, this type of preparation is common in countries with significant cattle ranching cultures. As such, you’ll find carne asada in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Nicaragua, and each country has its own ways of preparing it.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most commonly known version of carne asada outside of Latin America is the Mexican variety. This type of carne asada is said to have originated in Northern Mexico, where cattle ranching forms a great part of the local economy. The state of Nuevo Leon where the city of Monterrey is the capital is said to be the epicenter of carne asada in Mexico. In fact, Monterrey is said to be the number-one consumer of carne asada in all of Mexico, and each person eats on average over 80 pounds of beef per year in this part of the country.

Traditional Barbecue In Uruguay.Uruguayan And Argentinian Style Grilled Meat.

carne asada uruguay

Traditional Barbecue In Uruguay.Uruguayan And Argentinian Style Grilled Meat.

Photo by: Jose Luis Raota / Getty Images

Jose Luis Raota / Getty Images

What Kind of Meat Is Carne Asada Made Out of?

The kind of meat used in making carne asada is almost always beef. In fact, even though the name literally translates to meat in general, the term "carne" is often used to refer specifically to beef throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world. The cuts of beef that are used to make carne asada are varied depending on the style of grilling. Typically, when doing an asado - the equivalent of an outdoor barbecue - several cuts of beef are selected for variety.

Leaner and thinner cuts of beef may start the party as they require less time to cook. These may be followed by fattier, larger and/or tougher cuts of meat that require a longer time to cook over a lower heat. Typically, there might be other types of meat - especially sausages and chorizos - enjoyed with the beef.

The important thing to remember when selecting cuts of beef for carne asada is the quality. Because beef is the star attraction here, regardless of what style of carne asada you’re making, you want to make sure that you purchase the best quality that you can afford. Grass-fed beef is best, as that is the norm in many Latin American countries. If you have access to a South American grocery, try to inquire about imported Argentine or Uruguayan beef, which has a rich flavor.

As far as cuts of beef, skirt steak is a favorite cut throughout Latin America for a variety of types of carne asada, from the simple Argentine style to the citrusy Nicaraguan style and everything in between.

In Mexico, sirloin is very popular along with t-bones, chuck and New York strip. Skirt steak, which is often referred to as arrachera in Mexico and churrasco in other parts of Latin America, is better suited for fajitas. Because traditional carne asada preparation in Mexico is kind of like barbecuing in the United States, restaurants that serve carne asada tend to focus just on that in Mexico. In the U.S., however, many Mexican-style restaurants often serve many different types of dishes, including carne asada, and they find ways to produce the flavor of carne asada without having to have the whole flame-grilled setup. As such, many U.S. Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants make carne asada from shaved or chopped beef (like that used in cheese steak sandwiches) that they sear on a flat-top griddle. If you’re planning on making Mexican-style carne asada at home in your kitchen, this approach can enable you to serve carne asada at a moment’s notice.

Meat tacos made with fajita meat and pico de gallo in corn tortilla


Meat tacos made with fajita meat and pico de gallo in corn tortilla

Photo by: MiguelMalo / Getty Images

MiguelMalo / Getty Images

Carne Asada Seasoning

The focus of a successful carne asada should be the meat, which is why most recipes tend to minimize the seasonings. Despite the fact that Argentinean and Mexican cuisines differ tremendously, this is one thing that both cuisines have in common, and the same can be said about carne asada throughout Latin America. A good-quality salt is pretty much all you need to season carne asada. In South America, a coarse grain of sea salt is usually used to season the beef and is sold at Latino groceries as sal parrillera, or grilling salt. Any natural salt can work beautifully on carne asada, though, from local sea salt to Himalayan pink salt.

Any other herbs, spices or seasonings usually are found in the accompanying sauces and garnishes. These can range from the garlicky and herbaceous chimichurri popular in South America and Nicaragua to the fiery chile-based salsas that are mainstays in Northern Mexico. Sometimes you’ll find a little touch of black pepper or cumin in a recipe, and certain cooks may marinate cuts of beef with a splash of vinegar or wine. In Nicaragua, skirt steak gets marinated in Seville orange juice and onions, which add flavor but also tenderize the meat.

Meat is being cooked for asado at Mercado 4 in Asuncion, Paraguay

carne asada paraguay

Meat is being cooked for asado at Mercado 4 in Asuncion, Paraguay

Photo by: Donyanedomam / Getty Images

Donyanedomam / Getty Images

How to Make Carne Asada

The best carne asada is cooked over a charcoal- or wood-fired grill. Many Mexican and South American markets in the US carry natural charcoal or firewood specifically for making carne asada, and some markets may even stock imported fuel for an authentic touch. Gas grills can also work, but your finished carne asada will lack that smoky flavor. As well, you can use a grill pan over a stove to get the same results. Keep in mind that while traditional carne asada has a smokey, charbroiled flavor, it is not smoked but rather grilled, so there’s no need to set up a smoker.

How to Make Carne Asada On the Grill

At its most essential, all you need to do to make traditional carne asada is to preheat your grill until the coals are glowing.

  1. Clean and grease the grates. Make sure to scrub the grates of your grill and grease them with a high-temperature oil, such as grapeseed or avocado oil.
  2. Let the beef come to room temperature. While your grill is heating, take your beef out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit. You don’t want ice-cold beef to hit the grill, as the contrast of temperature can create steam and prevent you from getting a nice char-grilled crust.
  3. Season the beef with salt. Sprinkle salt all over your beef and rub it in. If you are using coarse grilling salt, you’ll want to do this right when you take your meat out of the fridge.
  4. Dry off the beef. Before you place the meat on the grill, pat it dry with some paper towels so that the surface is dry. This will also help create a nice sear.
  5. Grill and rest the beef. The cooking time depends on the cut that you’re using. Once the meat is cooked, set it aside on a platter and wait about 10 minutes before serving.
  6. Depending on the style, serve whole steaks or sliced beef. For South American and Nicaraguan styles of carne asada, you can serve larger portions or whole steaks that you eat with a knife and fork. For Mexican-style carne asada, slice the meat into thin slices or chop it to serve with tortillas.

How to Make Carne Asada on the Stove

To make the American taco shop-style of carne asada in a home kitchen, all you need is a skillet or griddle and some thinly sliced beef.

  1. Buy pre-sliced, pre-seasoned beef if possible. You can buy already sliced and seasoned carne asada beef from Mexican grocers. As well, many supermarkets also sell thinly shaved beef for cheesesteak sandwiches or sliced beef for pepper steak. Either of these will work.
  2. Season the beef if it isn't already. Sprinkle it with some salt and rub it into the beef.
  3. Cook the beef at at once over medium-high to high heat. Preheat your skillet or griddle over medium-high heat, add just a little bit of oil (you’re not frying the beef) and add your beef all at once. You may need to increase the heat to high. Leave the beef alone for about a minute to create a nice sear and then start breaking it up with a spatula, flipping the beef so that it all gets browned. Once all the beef is browned, remove from the heat and serve.
"Grilled steak with fried plantain,rice,beans and chimichurri sauce"

carne asada nicaragua

"Grilled steak with fried plantain,rice,beans and chimichurri sauce"

Photo by: Juanmonino / Getty Images

Juanmonino / Getty Images

What to Serve with Carne Asada

Carne asada can be served with almost anything you want.

In Argentina, carne asada is typically accompanied by chimichurri, a type of dressing made from herbs, garlic, oil and vinegar. Carne asada is often served with salads, including Russian-style potato salad.

In Nicaragua, Chimichurri is also a popular condiment, where carne asada is usually served with red beans and rice called gallo pinto, sweet plantains and cabbage salad.

In Paraguay, carne asada is often served with fried yucca or a rich type of cornbread called sopa paraguaya.

Mexican-style carne asada is most commonly served with tortillas and made into tacos. In Northern Mexico, which is considered the Mexican capital of carne asada, flour tortillas are much more common than corn tortillas and are the perfect vehicle for carne asada. Carne asada is also a very popular filling for burritos, which are also said to have originated in Northern Mexico. As well, you can add carne asada to quesadillas, tostadas and just about any other tortilla-based dish. Carne asada is often served with salsas, grilled onions, guacamole lime wedges and chopped cilantro.

Carne Asada Recipes

Carne Asada

This flavorful recipe for carne asada calls for skirt steak, which is known as arrachera in Mexico. It gets marinated in a bold medley of garlic, citrus and chiles, making for carne asada that you can eat on its own without the need for any condiments.

Carne Asada Tacos

This recipe includes everything you need to make authentic Mexican-style carne asada tacos, including a recipe for salsa. The carne asada in this recipe gets a simple marinade of jalapeños to give it a nice kick.

Carne Asada Tortas

Carne asada is also a favorite filling for Mexican-style sandwiches called tortas. Here, the beef gets a simple marinade of garlic salt and vinegar, which provides deep umami flavor and a bit of tang to contrast the rest of the rich fillings in the torta.

Carne Asada Cheese Tacos

This is a creative recipe that combines a boldly-seasoned carne asada that includes a shot of tequila with a popular taqueria snack called chicharrón de queso. Instead of corn or flour tortillas, the carne asada gets wrapped around a crispy "tortilla" made from shredded cheese.

Argentinean Steak with Parsley Sauce: Carne y Chimichurri

This is a recipe for simple Argentinean-style carne asada with an herbaceous chimichurri sauce. You can choose to use flank steak, as in the recipe, or another cut of beef that you prefer.

Nicaraguan-Style Churrasco

Carne asada is perhaps one of the most beloved dishes in Nicaragua and a mainstay at fast-casual restaurants called fritangas. This simple recipe includes instructions for making a tangy Nicaraguan-style chimichurri.

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