Made with tender chicken thighs marinated in a delicious combination of spices, chiles, and pineapple, this incredible Chicken al Pastor recipe features the same key flavors as traditional Mexican al pastor – minus the pork. Grilled or baked in the oven, making chicken al pastor at home is surprisingly easy to do and delicious served in tacos, burritos, and salads.
Table of contents
What is Al Pastor?
The term “al pastor” translates to “shepherd style” in Spanish. One of Mexico’s most popular cooking styles and famous for its bold and rich flavor, al pastor has become especially famous for its use in tacos.
The method of preparing and cooking al pastor is an adaptation to Middle Eastern lamb shawarma influenced by Lebanese immigrants to Central Mexico.
Traditionally, al pastor is made with pork that’s been marinated in a combination of chilies, spices, achiote, and pineapple. The marinated pork is then stacked onto a long skewer called a trompo (or “spinning top” in Spanish) with a pineapple placed at the top. The meat stack is then cooked on a vertical rotisserie, a method similar to cooking shawarma or Greek gyros. As the meat cooks, the pineapple juices drip down, infusing the pork with its flavor. At the same time, the outside of the meat cooks and becomes crispy, at which point it is thinly sliced off the rotating spit.
The result is meat that is juicy, rich, and bright red-orange. Each bite is packed with a perfectly complex blend of sweet, spicy, smoky, and tangy flavors.
Why You’ll Love Chicken Al Pastor
Now that you know a bit about authentic al pastor, let me explain why you’ll love this less-authentic weeknight chicken version.
- Easy to Make: So yes, cooking meat on a rotating spit with pineapple juice dripping all over it will absolutely win in the taste department, but as a mom who also works (who can relate?), I don’t have time for that. Here, we’re grilling, baking, or pan-frying. The results are just as flavorful and ready in a fraction of the time.
- Flavorful and Delicious: Chicken is delicious, but chicken al pastor is delicious on a whole different level. It’s just as juicy, rich, and bright orange with the perfect smoky, tangy, sweet, and spicy flavors.
- Versatile: Although tacos are the go-to when serving al pastor, they’re really great in so many other dishes. Some favorites include burritos and burrito bowls, quesadillas, plated with a side of rice and beans, taco salads, or with a side of eggs.
Find the printable recipe with measurements in the recipe card below.
As with many other great Mexican dishes, al pastor requires several ingredients. Fortunately, most of them are easy to find, and some you may have on hand already, like fresh garlic, onion, chicken broth, pineapple juice, fresh oranges and limes, salt, dried thyme, ground cumin, black pepper, ground cloves, and chicken thighs.
Some others may be less familiar, like dried chiles de arbol, ancho (or guajillo) chiles, and achiote paste, but they shouldn’t be too hard to track down.
Below, I’ll tell you a little bit about the lesser-known ingredients and why they’re important to this recipe. I’ll also include any ingredient substitutions that may be relevant to the recipe.
- Ancho (or Guajillo) Chiles: Ancho chile peppers are dried ripened poblano peppers. It is mild in heat and somewhat sweeter in taste compared to poblano peppers. Buy on Amazon.
- Chiles de Arbol: Bright red, small and slender, about 2-3 inches long. These small but fiery chile peppers can be quite hot – hotter than jalapeños, but not as hot as habaneros. Buy on Amazon.
- Mexican Oregano: Mexican oregano has a more intense flavor than Mediterranean oregano. It is earthy, pungent, citrusy, and has notes of licorice. Speaking from experience, more is not always better when using this herb, and although you can use Mediterranean oregano as a substitute, it will have a completely different flavor profile. Buy on Amazon.
- Pineapple Juice: In this case, you want to use canned pineapple juice for the marinade. Fresh pineapple juice contains enzymes that may quickly break down the chicken, resulting in mushy chicken. Buy on Amazon.
- Achiote Paste: Made primarily from annatto seeds that are ground into a paste and mixed with various other spices. It is known for its bright red color and tastes slightly sweet, nutty, and smoky. For this recipe, be sure to purchase achiote paste, which is sold in blocks. You can buy it on Amazon here.
- Chicken: Chicken al pastor tastes best with boneless skinless chicken thighs. If you prefer to cook with chicken breasts, slice each breast in half (before marinating) to make two thinly sliced chicken breasts.
How to Make Chicken Al Pastor
Tip: Remember to prepare the marinade and marinate the chicken at least 4 hours before cooking.
1. Place a large pan or skillet over medium heat. Dry-toast the chilies (no oil is needed) for approximately 1 minute total, turning every 15-20 seconds. Watch closely to ensure they don’t burn, reducing the heat if necessary. The chilies are done when their skins have changed color slightly (usually a darker red or brown) and are slightly more pliable. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
2. Transfer the toasted chilies to a small pot of boiling water, ensuring they are completely submerged. Reduce the heat to low and allow the chilies to rehydrate for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add the remaining ingredients (except for the chicken) to the bowl of a large blender or food processor. Once the chilies have rehydrated, add them to the blender (discarding the water left over in the pot) and blend until smooth.
3. Transfer the chicken and the al pastor marinade to a large container, ensuring the chicken is completely coated. Cover with an airtight lid, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
4. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator approximately 30 minutes before cooking. Allowing the chicken to come to room temperature before cooking promotes more even cooking and improved texture. Note: Raw chicken should never be left out longer than 2 hours to avoid the risk of bacterial growth.
5. To cook on the stovetop – Heat a large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, spray lightly with non-stick cooking spray or brush with oil. Add the chicken, 2-3 pieces at a time (do not overcrowd the skillet), and cook for a total of 8-10 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking. Note: Chicken is cooked when the internal temperature registers 165 degrees F as measured by a digital meat thermometer.
6. Transfer the cooked chicken to a clean plate or cutting board. Allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes before slicing or shredding. Repeat with any remaining chicken.
- Note: This chicken al pastor recipe can be cooked using numerous cooking methods. For the sake of simplicity and availability to everyone, I’ve chosen to highlight the stovetop method. Find baking and grilling instructions in the recipe card below.
How to Serve Chicken al Pastor
The most popular way to serve chicken a pastor is in tacos. Fill warm corn or flour tortillas with chicken and top with sliced pineapple, diced onions, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice. You can also fill your tacos with things like pico de gallo, homemade salsa, guacamole, pineapple salsa, and cotija cheese.
Another fabulous way to enjoy this flavorful chicken is with sides of cilantro lime rice, black beans, or pinto beans. Try adding it to your next salad or serving it with all of your favorite grilled veggies like bell peppers, onions, corn, and zucchini.
Does This Taste the Same as Chipotle’s Chicken Al Pastor?
I haven’t actually tried Chipotle’s chicken al pastor, so I can’t say for sure. But I’m guessing probably not since this recipe has no actual chipotle peppers.
Does al pastor traditionally include chipotle peppers? Nope, not traditionally. Classic al pastor marinades use achiote (annatto) for color and flavor (in combination with various other ingredients). Chipotle peppers, both dried or canned in adobo sauce, are a fantastic addition if you like a little extra heat and smoky flavor.
Leftover chicken al pastor will keep for 3-4 days when stored properly in the refrigerator. Allow leftovers to cool first before transferring them to an airtight container and placing them in the refrigerator. Reheat leftovers in a small frying pan with a bit of oil or butter until thoroughly heated or in a microwave.
Can you freeze leftover chicken al pastor?
Yes. Allow leftovers to cool completely before transferring the chicken to freezer-safe containers or freezer bags. Freeze for up to 3-4 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.
Can you freeze al pastor marinade?
Yes! I love to double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for later. Transfer the marinade to a freezer-safe container or jar or a resealable freezer bag, leaving some space at the top as the liquid will expand when it freezes. Freeze for up to 3-4 months and thaw in the refrigerator before using. Once thawed, you may notice that the ingredients may have separated a little. Be sure to shake or stir the marinade before using. Note: Do not freeze marinade that has been previously used to marinate raw meat.
More Delicious Mexican Recipes,
- Carne Asada
- Albondigas Soup (Mexican Meatball Soup)
- Mexican Mole Sauce Recipe (Chicken Mole)
- Carnitas Recipe (Mexican Slow Cooker Pulled Pork)
- Birria Recipe (How to Make Birria)
- Pozole Verde
- Pozole Rojo Recipe (Red Posole)
If you try making this Chicken al Pastor Recipe, please leave me a comment and let me know! I always love to hear your thoughts.
Chicken al Pastor
- 3 dried chile de arbol - stems and seeds removed
- 2 dried guajillo or ancho chiles - stems and seeds removed
- 3 cloves garlic - peeled
- 1 white onion - peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 1 orange - juiced
- 1 lime - juiced
- 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon achiote paste
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon Ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- Toast the dried chiles in a pan or skillet set over medium heat for about 1 minute, turning halfway. Keep a close eye on the arbol chiles as they burn more easily. You’ll know they’re ready if they start to turn brown.
- Next, bring a small pot of water to a boil then reduce the heat to low. Add the toasted chiles, completely submerging them in the water. Allow them to reconstitute (rehydrate) for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, add the remaining ingredients (except for the chicken) to the bowl of a large blender or food processor. Once the chilies have rehydrated, add them to the blender (discarding the water left over in the pot). Blend until smooth.
- Add ⅓ of the marinade to a large container. Nestle half of the chicken in the marinade, then pour another ⅓ of the marinade over the top. Add the rest of the chicken and top with the remaining marinade.
- Cover with an airtight lid, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Remove the chicken from the refrigerator approximately 30 minutes before cooking. This allows it to approach room temperature slightly, making for more even cooking.
Stovetop Skillet or Grill Pan
- Heat a large skillet or grill pan to medium-high heat. Spray lightly with non-stick cooking spray or oil.
- Once the pan is hot, add 2-3 pieces of chicken and cook for a total of 8-10 minutes (or until the internal temperature registers 165℉), flipping them once halfway through cooking.
- Remove the chicken to a clean plate or cutting board and rest for 5 minutes before slicing. Repeat with any remaining chicken.
- Preheat the grill to medium-high heat and lightly oil the grill grates.
- Place the chicken on the grill and cook for approximately 4-6 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of your chicken. Cook until the internal temperature registers 165℉. Optional: grill slices of pineapple alongside the chicken.
- Remove the chicken to a clean plate or cutting board and allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.
- Preheat the oven to 400℉ and line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
- Place the chicken on the baking sheet in a single layer and bake for 25-30 minutes depending on the thickness of the chicken. The chicken is done when the internal temperature registers 165℉.
- Once cooked, allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes or so before slicing and serving.
- Enjoy your chicken al pastor with traditional sides like warm corn tortillas, fresh cilantro, diced onions, lime wedges, and fresh pineapple.
- Please note: This recipe is a modified version of traditional Mexican al pastor, which is made with pork and cooked on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. It is a fantastic at-home version of a Mexican favorite but in no way replaces the original.
- Technically, chicken breasts can be used in place of the chicken thighs however, the meat will be less juicy. If you do plan to use chicken breasts, slice them in half (before marinating) to make two thinly sliced chicken breasts.
(Nutrition information provided is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and specific brands of ingredients used.)