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Tacos al Carbón

By Lan Lam Published

Each component of our quick and easy steak tacos—tender, juicy meat; corn tortillas; and scallion-jalapeño salsa—is cooked on the grill to infuse it with smoky char.

In Sonora, Mexico, a state dominated by cattle ranches, tacos al carbón are a specialty. They’re not complicated—al carbón just means that the protein, usually steak, is cooked over charcoal. The meat is seasoned with a marinade or spices, grilled, tucked into soft corn tortillas, and topped with straightforward garnishes such as charred scallions and lime juice. I would adore these tacos even if they weren’t so simple to make, but the fact that they come together easily is an undeniable perk.

Many cuts of steak are used for tacos al carbón, but skirt and flank are high on the list. I chose flank here. Like skirt steak, flank is thin and beefy, cooks quickly, and has lots of surface area for picking up flavor. And flank is less expensive and more widely available. After a quick trim to remove any patches of fat, my first steak was just about ready to throw on the grill.

Senior Editor Lan Lam prepares tacos using both flank steak and skirt steak to determine which cut works best for the recipe. Both cuts are thin and beefy, but flank steak is less expensive and more widely available.

To flavor the meat, I opted for a spice paste. Minimalists use a combination of salt, cumin, and garlic. At the other end of the spectrum are recipes that call for a laundry list of ground spices and chili powders. To produce the complexity of the latter via the short ingredient list of the former, I popped open a can of chipotles (smoked jalapeños) in adobo sauce. This powerhouse ingredient would contribute spicy, smoky, and savory notes. I added cumin, oil, and a little salt to the minced chipotles to make a paste. After evenly coating the steak with the ruddy mixture, I headed outside and lit a chimney full of charcoal.

We cut the flank steak into 3 long strips before rubbing on a chipotle-cumin spice paste. The narrow strips, once sliced crosswise, fit nicely into 6-inch tortillas.

Grilled directly over the coals (a gas grill works well, too), the thickest part of the steak was medium‑rare (125 degrees) in 10 minutes. After letting the meat rest, I thinly sliced it against the grain. The chipotle paste was a keeper, but the thinner areas of the steak were overdone. What’s more, the meat was unevenly browned and didn’t have much grill flavor.

For my second try, I sliced the steak into thirds lengthwise. This separated the tapered edges from the thicker center so I could grill each piece to the proper doneness. These narrow strips, once sliced, would also fit nicely into 6-inch tortillas.

The mediocre browning in my first test had been a result of the steak buckling as it cooked; the bottom of the steak (closest to the heat source) cooked more quickly than the top, which caused its fibers to shrink and gave the meat a concave shape. Frequent flipping helped the top and bottom shrink at about the same rate, so the steak stayed flat and browned evenly.

Leaving some fat on the steak ensures lots of grill flavor. As the steak cooks, the fat melts and drips into the fire. These drips of fat, along with the juices from the meat, hit the coals and create small flare-ups. The flare-ups then send up vapors that condense on the steak and give it a meaty, smoky grilled flavor.

Flare for Flavor

As for the flavor deficit, I knew that cooking on a grill doesn’t necessarily guarantee grill flavor. Many of the compounds responsible for this flavor are created when fat and juices drip onto the coals, vaporize, and waft up and condense onto the food. If I wanted deep grill flavor, I needed drippings. And I had been trimming away a main source: the fat on the steak.

I grabbed another steak, trimmed the thicker fat deposits to 1/8 inch, and left the thinner ones in place. I applied the chipotle paste and grilled the steak, flipping it every 2 minutes. Rendered fat dripped onto the coals, causing small flare-ups that brought with them a smoky, meaty flavor that tasted like success. This was an A-plus steak.

We grill the steak to medium-rare. We grill the jalapeños alongside the steak until they are blistered and charred in spots.
The scallions are placed onto the hotter side of the grill.
We then flip the scallions and arrange them so that the dark green parts are on the cooler side of grill while the white and light green parts remain on the hotter side.

Toppings al Carbón

Since I had a hot grill, I decided to do the rest of the cooking outside as well. Inspired by the charred scallions that often adorn tacos al carbón, I decided to whip up a grilled scallion salsa. Along with the scallions, I threw some jalapeños onto the fire, making a note that next time, I could grill the chiles alongside the steak since they cook in about the same amount of time. This would not only be more efficient but also infuse the chiles with the flavors of the vaporized drippings. Finally, I blistered tortillas on the hotter side of the grill until they picked up a toasty, popcorn‑like aroma and then wrapped them tightly in foil so that they would stay warm and soft.

While the meat rests, we chop the scallions and jalapeños for a quick salsa.
A squeeze of lime juice, a sprinkle of salt, and a bit of the savory adobo sauce from the chipotles finish the salsa.

Back inside, while the steak rested, I seeded and finely chopped the jalapeños and coarsely chopped the scallions. I combined them in a bowl with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of salt, assembled some tacos, and rounded up my colleagues. This time no one doubted that the rosy steak had come from the grill. They also praised the lively salsa but felt that the two elements were too disparate. I reached for the canned chipotles and stirred just enough of the savory adobo sauce into the salsa to tie its flavor to the steak. That, along with dollops of rich crema and a few more squirts of lime, brought everything together.

Recipe Easy Grilled Steak Tacos (Tacos al Carbón)

Each component of our quick and easy steak tacos—tender, juicy meat; corn tortillas; and scallion-jalapeño salsa—is cooked on the grill to infuse it with smoky char.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.