Goats have always been a part of the rugged, arid terrain of the US-Mexico border, where the Chihuahuan Desert overlaps with the Tamaulipas mezquital (mesquite plain). Goats thrive in this harsh climate, and cabrito al pastor (roasted kid) is a popular local dish. There’s even an annual cabrito cook-off in the city of Marathon, near Big Bend National Park.
Cabrito traditionally refers to a milk-fed goat under 45 days old; kids that are a little older and have eaten grass are tripones, often easier to find in the United States. When purchasing your processed cabrito (or tripón), ask if the goat was bred for milk or meat (those bred for their meat are typically fattier). Finding a knowledgeable purveyor is important.
Like firing up a barbecue to cook steaks, cabrito is more of a technique than a recipe. It’s preferable to cook the meat over hot coals, but you can also do it in the oven. Here are both methods.
Pro tip: Invite enough people over to eat all the meat in one sitting. Leftover cabrito becomes stringy and tough.
CABRITO AL PASTOR
Servings: 8–10, depending on the size of the goat
1 whole processed kid (goat)
1 tablespoon sea salt for each side of the cabrito
2 teaspoons ground black pepper for each side of the cabrito
There are specific cuts when portioning a cabrito, and everyone has their favorite. If you are cooking your cabrito in the oven, portion it before it is cooked. If you are cooking it over an open fire, portion it after. Consider this a chance to brush up on your Spanish:
- Pechita: outside center breast of the cabrito, with rib tips
- Paleta: inside center breast of the cabrito, with ribs and tenderloin (my favorite)
- Riñonada: short loin with kidneys attached
- Cadera: saddle and rump
- Pierna: back leg portion (my second favorite)
In the oven:
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil. Cut the cabrito into sections and arrange them in the pan, then cover with another sheet of aluminum foil. Cook for 1 ½ hours, then remove the top layer of foil. Cook the cabrito for 20 to 30 minutes more uncovered, so the skin can become crispy. Serve warm with salsa.
Over live coals:
Build a large fire with about 12 to 15 medium-size logs of wood, preferably mesquite. Allow the fire to burn for about 1 hour. Shovel small amounts of the coal that forms around the flat metal grill where your cabrito will roast. By moving around small amounts of coal, you can control the heat level of your grilling area, which should hover between 325 and 375 F.
Season the whole carcass on both sides with sea salt and ground black pepper. Lay the whole carcass, ribs side down, onto the heated grill. The carcass should be flipped every 15 minutes over the course of 2 ½ to 3 hours. Through many trials, we have found that the best tool for flipping a cabrito is small squares of cardboard used as oven mitts. Not pretty, but they work.
When done, the cabrito should have a crispy golden skin with succulent meat underneath. Serve with a side relish of chopped cilantro and onions, warm tortillas, roasted onions, lime wedges, and your favorite salsa.
This recipe, which has been edited and condensed, was provided courtesy of Melissa Guerra. She is the author of Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cooking of South Texas, a 2007 James Beard Award finalist.