Tacos de Cabeza
June 15, 2020
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In much of Mexico, tacos de cabeza is made with a cow’s head; indeed, this is what you’ll get when you order cabeza at any taco truck in Sacramento, where I live.
But in Quintana Roo, a Mexican state on the Yucatan Peninsula, they use a pig’s head. This is my rendition of their method.
I learned about this recipe in the book La cocina familiar en el estado de Quintana Roo, one of the fantastic series of state-level Mexican cookbooks that, now that I can read in Spanish, have become a major source of inspiration for me.
The recipe is super simple, and bears some resemblance to the more familiar dish cochinita pibil. Incidentally, if you want to make this recipe but don’t happen to have a pig’s head available to you, go ahead and make that cochinita pibil recipe, using pork shoulder. Only major difference would be in texture, and the chop. In this recipe you chop the meat, and in cochinita pibil you shred it.
The other primary difference between the two is that you want to give the pig’s head a full blast of smoke for a few hours before you braise it. You can even do the whole process in the smoker if you want. You will need to wrap the pig’s head in foil or banana leaves after a couple hours anyway, so it makes no difference where you finish it.
Making tacos de cabeza is something of an all-day affair, because it can take many hours for the pig’s head to fall off the bone, especially if you are using a wild pig or a javelina.
I used a skinned head, incidentally, but a skin-on one works fine, too. As for what to do when it’s done, you will want to pull off all the meat you can find, as well as other naughty bits here and there tucked away in the skull. Brains? Sure, if you want. Eyes? I didn’t, but I sure used the meat behind them. Palate? That was a big nope, but people in Mexico like it.
Oh, and I peel the tongue, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It’s messy, but I don’t like the thick skin on it.
All of this gets chopped with all the fat and juices and marinade, then served very simply in corn tortillas. I just went with red onions soaked in lime juice and cilantro. If you happen to have the herb culantro around, use it; it’s more authentic.
Tacos de Cabeza
- 1 pig's head
- 4 ounces Achiote paste
- 1 head garlic
- 1 cup Sour orange juice (see notes)
- 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- Mix all the ingredients together. Have more achiote paste and sour orange juice on hand, because you want the mixture to have the consistency of runny pancake batter or house paint. If you have them, don some gloves and smear this all over the pig's head. Save any marinade that remains and put everything in a lidded container in the fridge overnight.
- The next morning, get your smoker to 200F. I prefer mesquite here, but use any wood you like. Remove the head from the marinade, reserving any extra. Set the head in the smoker as is, don't wipe it off. Smoke for 2 to 4 hours.
- Wrap the pig's head in banana leaves or foil, or both. Before you seal the head up, add any remaining marinade. Continue to cook at 225F until the head falls apart, typically another 2 to 4 hours.
- Pull all the meat off the head, peel the tongue and chop everything up for tacos. Discard any bits that freak you out; for me, that's the eyeballs and palate.
- Serve the meat on corn tortillas with red onions soaked in lime juice and cilantro.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Do you remove the brains?
Ed: Nope. They sorta ooze out and coagulate. I chopped them up into the mix. Because I’m that way. 😉
Fantastic! I’ve been looking for another way to cook a skinned pig’s head. I usually red cook, Chinese style, but this looks great. Like Bill, “off to the store I go.”
As odd luck would have it, I have a friend who raises a small herd (herd?) of specialty hogs in southern Sonoma and have half a 100lb small hog coming in this Saturday – complete with split head! I had been toying with pig head ravioli, a chef friend sent me her recipe, but this sounds even better. Will report back!
Question: on a small hog like that do you think I can get away with removing the cheeks first since those are great on their own slow-cooked, is there enough meat between the lengua and rest of the head bits for a good full set of tacos?
Jeff: I went with the whole head, plus tongue, plus heart. You want to eat all of this…
Thanks Hank – I’ll have all of those. I generally have done a whole small pig every year and rarely bothered to remove the scent glands in the head, though am wondering if on a larger one I should do that. Sounds like you ignore that and just go with the long smoke/cook to denature the “stink” of those…
Why not go Game and use a Bear or Moose Head?
CJ: For the obvious reasons that I don’t have bear or moose heads.
So no real reason I could try for a cow elk or doe, skin the head and use it in this recipe?
Jake: It would work, of course. It’s just that this is June and farmed pork is what I have available. And this recipe is meant for pork. There is a northern Mexico version that traditionally uses beef, which would go better with venison I think.
Em Portugal fazemos uma coisa parecida que se chama cabeça de chara
Poc Chuc is very good recipe. A bright and fresh alternative to regular tacos.
What is Poc Chuc?
Not sure why Pat is commenting on poc chuc here, but it is a grilled pork loin dish from the same region of Mexico that I posted the recipe for a few weeks ago. Here it is? https://honest-food.net/poc-chuc-recipe/
Off to the store I go.