Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Recipe and Technique: Marinating and Chopping Your Own Carne Asada

A few years ago, I was lost in the vast depths of the internet.  There, I came across a video recipe for carne asada. To my surprise, the chef added oranges to his marinade. I had to pause the video and rewatch it a few times as well as make sure my translation of narajanas was indeed oranges.

I started asking some of my coworkers about the legitimacy of this recipe. Sure enough, they all replied unanimously with agreement. They said that it helps bring out the flavor as well as make the meat more tender. I could understand the flavor component, but I had to disagree with the latter.

It is true that some fruits have a tenderizing agent in the form of enzymes, such as pineapples or kiwis, but acidity alone does not "break down" anything in meat. Instead, the tender consistency of carne asada comes from two entirely different concepts: the specific cut of beef and the chopping of the meat.

(This photo is not mine. I found it on google. I forgot to take pictures of the post-chop meat product, and I'm saving my pictures of another post. Forgive my noob moment.)

On my last visit to my local carniceria, I asked the butcher for his opinion on the best cut of beef to use for carne asada because I saw both marinated ranchera and chuck roll on sale. His personal preference is chuck roll (thinly sliced beef chuck shoulder) because it contained more fat and is juicier. However, ranchera (flap meat) is the traditional cut to use. So why not have the best of both worlds?

After marinating and cooking, I decided to chop the beef into small bits, much like how it is served at Mexican restaurants. My family originally cut the meat into larger strips and pieces simply because it was easier to do. Besides, larger pieces of meat should give a better mouth feel, like eating a piece of grilled steak. Turns out, the high collagen content in these cuts give the meat quite a chew to put down. By chopping up the steak, the tough mouthful works in our favor by not letting the chopped meat taste like ground meat (the "ready to fall apart and crumble" texture). 

After tasting the carne asada, I've come to the conclusion that the orange and lime marinade worked in perfect unison with the texture of the chopped meat. This was accomplished by the slight "pucker" reaction I had when chewing. Imagine yourself eating your favorite sour candy: war heads, sour pop, and all the other childhood favorites. The sour candy is some how able to elicit a "succulent" taste on your tongue. I believe that this same thing is happening with carne asada. The tough chew, chopped consistency, and fragrant lime and orange marinade all come together to help create this feeling that the meat you are eating is incredibly juicy. Or maybe I'm just crazy for thinking so.

1 lb Beef Ranchera 
1 lb Beef Chuck Roll
1 Orange
2 Limes
1/2 Onion
1 tsp Cumin
2 tsp Oregano
Salt and Pepper

-If you have a tin of chipotle peppers, add in one or two into the marinade!
-Use any proportion of beef cuts! I used a 1:1 ratio of beef chuck and ranchera. Beef chuck was half the price/pound, so it is definitely a budget cut!
-If you're unable to get thinly sliced beef chuck roll, cut your own! You're looking for 1/2 inch slices, which is fairly easy to do without exact knife skills.
-Use a grill if you can! It makes the meat so much better! But if you don't have the time, just sear it on a skillet. I used a cast iron skillet for this recipe.
-Reduce the amount of orange and lime to your own taste.

-Use too much lime and orange. I used one whole orange and two limes for a little less than 1.5 pounds of beef. It actually became overwhelming!

The Marinade

You can layer your ingredients or just toss everything into a zip loc bag. It really doesn't matter!

I decided to layer my ingredients to make it fancy. I wouldn't do it again though, it didn't make a difference.

Make sure to marinade this for at least 1 hour! No more than 5 hours!

I was too lazy to set up my charcoal grill, so this cast iron pan will do the trick for me. Make sure you get that delicious sear on your meat. I have here two steaks of ranchera sizzling away.

Honestly, the marinated meat cost the exact same as the unmarinated variety. I would only do this if I had a specific flavor I had in mind, different from the ones available in store. It was definitely worth the experience though. So the next time you show up to a BBQ, bring a giant zip loc bag of carne asada with you. You can never go wrong if you do!

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