Pastor vs Carnitas

The two most common cuts of beef in Mexican cuisine are carnitas and al pastor, which you’re undoubtedly already familiar with if you like Mexican food. Despite the fact that they both contain pork, the two recipes are distinguished from one another by a few significant variances. In this post, we’ll examine the key distinctions between al pastor and carnitas, including how they’re prepared, how they taste and feel, and how much nutrition they contain.

Mexican Corn tortilla with shredded Pork, avocado, red onion and jalapeno

Starting with their preparation techniques, al pastor and carnitas have some key distinctions.

Pork shoulder is braised in lard with herbs and spices to make carnitas, which is then divided into pieces and roasted until just crisp.

Contrarily, to make al pastor, pig ribs are thinly sliced, marinated in a mixture of spices, chiles, and pineapple juice, and then roasted on a vertical spit.

The taste and texture of the two dishes varies noticeably as a result of the various preparation techniques.

Thanks to the pineapple juice and spices used in the marinade, al pastor is renowned for its sweet and savory flavor when it comes to taste and texture.

The meat is usually moist and tender with a roasting-induced surface that is slightly crunchy.

On the other hand, carnitas, which is braised, has a rich, savory flavor and a crispy outside and a tender, juicy interior.

While each meal is great on its own, they each offer distinctive taste combinations and textures.

Understanding Pastor and Carnitas

Origin of Pastor

Pastor is a sort of meat that is primarily prepared from pork and is grilled on a spit after being marinated in a mixture of spices and chiles.

tacos al pastor, mexican taco, street food in mexico

Lebanese immigrants introduced the shawarma cooking technique, which involves roasting meat on a vertical spit, to Mexico in the early 20th century.

The recipe changed over time to integrate regional flavors and ingredients, giving pastor its delightful and distinctive flavor that we are all familiar with today.

Acheote, a vivid red spice derived from the seeds of the annatto tree, is one of the essential components of pastor.

Pastor’s distinctive color and flavor, which is frequently characterized as slightly sweet and acidic with a tinge of smokiness, are attributed to achiote.

Garlic, onion, oregano, and cumin are further typical components of pastor marinade.

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Origin of Carnitas

On the other side, carnitas is a sort of pork that is cooked slowly until it is tender and is then diced or shredded.

Carnitas-Pork Carnitas, Plate of traditional carnitas of Puebla

The state of Michoacán in central Mexico is where carnitas first appeared.

There, it was originally prepared by frying pork in lard until it was crispy on the exterior and tender on the inside.

The traditional method for preparing carnitas today is to stew pig in a mixture of water, fat, and seasonings like garlic, onion, and bay leaves.

When the pork is cooked to tenderness and then shred or diced, the meat is tasty and moist, making it ideal for tacos.

Comparing Preparation Methods

There are significant distinctions that separate al pastor and carnitas when it comes to preparation.

Traditional mexican pork tacos called Al pastor with pineapple on white background

Here is an explanation of each technique:

Al Pastor

Pork that has been marinated in a blend of spices, pineapple, and vinegar is commonly used to make al pastor.

The meat is then piled on a vertical spit and roasted until the outside is crispy and the inside is soft.

As the meat cooks, it is cut from the spit and placed on a tortilla with salsa, onion, cilantro, and other toppings.


Contrarily, to make carnitas, you first cook pork in lard until it is soft, and then you fry it until it is crisp.

A delicious, crispy meat that is ideal for tacos is the end result. Typically, garnishes like salsa, onion, and cilantro are added to carne asada.

Al pastor and carnitas are both excellent choices for tacos, but they are prepared differently, giving them distinctive flavors and textures.

Carnitas is boiled in fat to give it a rich flavor; al pastor is usually marinated before it is cooked.

In addition, although carnitas is traditionally fried in a skillet, al pastor is prepared on a vertical spit.

It truly comes down to personal preference when deciding between a pastor and carnitas.

While some people prefer the al pastor’s crispy texture, others choose the carnitas’ robust flavor.

You can’t go wrong with either choice, no matter which one you pick.

Taste and Texture Differences

Al pastor and carnitas differ significantly from one other in terms of flavor and texture. What you need to know is as follows:

Pork carnitas in a bowl with celery and lime wedges

Al Pastor

Achote, cumin, oregano, and garlic are among the spices and chiles commonly used to marinade the meat for al pastor.

The meat is then slowly grilled on a spit, much like shawarma.

As a result, the flesh is moist and soft with a light crispy surface.

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The flavor is frequently characterized as sweet, savory, and somewhat smoky.


On the other hand, to make carnitas, pork is simmered in its own fat until it is soft and crispy.

Cumin, oregano, and chili powder are frequently used in spice mixtures to season meat.

As a result, the meat is both soft and crispy on the outside. Rich, savory, and somewhat sweet are common adjectives used to describe the flavor.

Texture Differences

Carnitas and al pastor have quite different textures. Carnitas is shredded and has a more diverse texture, with some portions being crispy and others being tender.

Al pastor meat is often thinly sliced and has a more uniform texture.

Al pastor and carnitas are both excellent choices for tacos or other Mexican cuisine.

Personal preference frequently determines which option is preferred.

Al pastor might be the way to go if you prefer a sweeter, smokier flavor with a more consistent texture.

Carnitas might be more your taste if you want food with a deeper, savourier flavor and a variety of textures.

Nutritional Values

There are some variances between al pastor and carnitas in terms of nutritional content. What you need to know is as follows:

Traditional mexican pork tacos called Al pastor with pineapple

Al Pastor

The healthier choice between the two is frequently thought to be al pastor.

This is so that it can be prepared more frequently on a vertical spit, where the fat can drop off and make it a lower-fat alternative.

Al pastor frequently includes a variety of tasty, nutritious spices and herbs that can raise the nutritional value of the dish. Al pastor contains a variety of nutrients, including:

  • Protein: Al pastor is a good source of protein, which is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue.
  • Vitamin B12: This vitamin is important for maintaining healthy nerve cells and red blood cells.
  • Zinc: Al pastor is a good source of zinc, which is important for a healthy immune system and wound healing.
  • Iron: This mineral is important for healthy blood cells and carrying oxygen throughout the body.


Since carnitas often include more fat than al pastor, they also have more calories.

It still has several vital nutrients and is a decent source of protein, though. Here are a some of the vitamins and minerals in carnitas:

  • Protein: Carnitas is a good source of protein, which is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue.
  • Vitamin B12: This vitamin is important for maintaining healthy nerve cells and red blood cells.
  • Iron: Carnitas is a good source of iron, which is important for healthy blood cells and carrying oxygen throughout the body.
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It’s important to keep in mind that depending on how they are prepared, both al pastor and carnitas might have different nutritional benefits.

For instance, the nutritional content of carnitas and al pastor will alter depending on whether they are fried in oil or marinated in a high-fat sauce.

Overall, when eaten in moderation and cooked using proper cooking techniques, both al pastor and carnitas can be a part of a balanced diet.

Frequently Asked Questions


What is al pastor?

Al pastor is a type of taco filling that is made with marinated pork that is cooked on a vertical spit, similar to shawarma. The pork is typically marinated in a combination of dried chilies, spices, and pineapple, which gives it a sweet and spicy flavor. Al pastor is typically served with diced onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice.

What is carnitas?

Carnitas is another type of taco filling that is made with pork, but it is cooked differently than al pastor. Carnitas is made by simmering pork in lard or oil until it is tender, and then it is shredded and fried until it is crispy. Carnitas has a rich, savory flavor and a crispy texture.

Which is healthier, al pastor or carnitas?

Neither al pastor nor carnitas are particularly healthy options, as both are high in fat and calories. However, if you are trying to make a healthier choice, al pastor may be a slightly better option, as it is typically made with leaner cuts of pork and is not fried like carnitas.

Can I make al pastor or carnitas at home?

Yes, you can make both al pastor and carnitas at home. However, both dishes require some special equipment and ingredients. To make al pastor, you will need a vertical spit and a special marinade. To make carnitas, you will need a large pot, lard or oil, and a few hours of cooking time. There are many recipes available online that can guide you through the process of making these dishes at home.

Which is more popular, al pastor or carnitas?

Both al pastor and carnitas are very popular in Mexican cuisine, and which one is more popular can vary depending on the region. In some parts of Mexico, al pastor is more popular, while in other parts, carnitas is more popular. In the United States, both dishes are widely available at Mexican restaurants and are equally popular among diners.

Mexican woman hands preparing tacos al pastor and eating mexican food in Mexico Latin America

Key Takeaways

  • Al pastor and carnitas are two popular types of meat in Mexican cuisine.
  • Al pastor is made by marinating thinly sliced pork ribs in a blend of spices and pineapple juice, while carnitas is made by braising pork shoulder in lard with herbs and spices.
  • Al pastor is known for its sweet and savory flavor and tender, juicy texture, while carnitas has a rich, savory flavor and crispy exterior with a tender, juicy interior.

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian attended West Virginia University, then started his career in the IT industry before following his passion for marketing and hospitality. He has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and bar industry.

As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.

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