Tacos de Cabeza

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three tacos de cabeza on a plate
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

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.

Hank Shaw holding chopped cabeza meat
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

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 recipe
5 from 4 votes

Tacos de Cabeza

This version uses a pig's head, although there's no real reason you could not use a sheep, goat or cow's head if you wanted. If you do use a cow's head, double the marinade.
Course: lunch, Main Course
Cuisine: Mexican
Servings: 10 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 6 hours
Marinating time: 1 day

Ingredients 

  • 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
  • Salt

Instructions 

  • 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.

Notes

NOTE: You can buy shelf-stable sour orange juice, naranja agria, in Latin markets, or make a substitute by mixing the juice of 1 grapefruit, 1 lime and 2 oranges. 

Nutrition

Calories: 25kcal | Carbohydrates: 4g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 1g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 2mg | Sodium: 3mg | Potassium: 93mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 403IU | Vitamin C: 13mg | Calcium: 19mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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18 Comments

  1. A wise man once observed that not all hog heads were created equal.
    I recently watched someone demonstrate pig butchery with a small British pig.
    Lovely demonstration.
    I don’t butcher all the time so I need to brush up on the cuts periodically.
    My most recent pig head (which is chilling now) was maybe four times the size of his.
    I had to split it to get it to fit in a container.
    Is there a ratio of ingredients to head mass or is it a matter of artistic liberty?

    1. J Stewart: Definitely artistic liberty. Generally speaking, this is for a hog’s head or a portion of one that will fit in a 3 gallon stockpot.

  2. Done this a few times now. Totally wonderful. I’ve got a fifth (fifth? yeah, fifth) head prepping even now. If you happen to be out of sour orange juice, subbing in pomegranate molasses cut with water works well.

    1. Ed: Nope. They sorta ooze out and coagulate. I chopped them up into the mix. Because I’m that way. 😉

  3. 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.”

  4. 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?

      1. 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…

      1. So no real reason I could try for a cow elk or doe, skin the head and use it in this recipe?

      2. 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.