In recent decades, the widespread love for Mexican cuisine has exploded, and there are now great restaurants in most major cities around the world.
With the wide array of flavors, colors, and attractive, wholesome recipes, there are dishes to suit any occasion.
Machaca and carne seca are fan favorites, and whilst fairly similar, there are some notable differences.
Mexican Cuisine: A History
As far as Mexican cuisine is concerned, its history can be traced back to the Mesoamerican period beginning from 7200 BCE. However, there are two notable periods in the history, and these can be defined as pre and post-Spanish invasion.
In the Mesoamerican period, indigenous Mexicans hunted game and collected wild vegetables, including chili peppers, which they began to use in cooking.
Before the cultivation of corn, their main source of carbohydrates were the hearts of agave plants.
However, after around 1200 BCE, the implementation of corn into their diets meant that advances could be made to the way they ate and lived, including the refining of flour, and the creation of flatbreads and tortillas.
Complementary proteins included beans and other plants, and other types of preferred meat included domesticated turkeys, iguanas, turtle eggs (only on the coastlines), and various types of insects, such as grasshoppers, beetles, and the lave of ants.
After the Spanish came to the new world, they brought several methods of cooking, and different sources of food that were previously unknown or unavailable to the indigenous Mexicans.
This included meat from domesticated animals (such as beef, pork, goat, chicken, and sheep), various dairy products (such as cheeses and milk), fruits and vegetables, rice, sugar, and olive oil.
Machaca & Carne Seca: What Are They?
Both beef dishes emanating from the northern regions of Mexico, machaca and carne seca are popular comfort foods that have become popular around the world.
The logical place to begin is with carne seca.
Meaning “dried meat” in Spanish, carne seca is in essence the Mexican equivalent of beef jerky, and is a great savory snack in Mexican cuisine, one that is popular throughout South America and the south-western United States, where certain variations exist.
In Arizona, carne seca is a popular dried meat filling used in and around Tucson, and is incorporated into enchiladas, tacos, and chimichangas, usually combined with eggs.
The same can be said in California, where the proximity to both Arizona and northern Mexico has influenced a similar taste for carne seca, becoming a similarly popular filling for Mexican dishes.
New Mexico is where the recipe differs somewhat, as the dried meat is eaten as a crispy snack, similar to potato chips or crispy bacon.
This perhaps resembles more closely the original intention for the meat, and has obvious ties to the prominent Mexican community and culture within the state.
Of course, the most famous dish that carne seca is used to make is machaca (or machacado as it is called in the north).
This is a tomato-based dish, which incorporates onions, eggs, chili verde, and occasionally potatoes. The carne seca is then shredded thin and mixed into the sauce to create a wholesome, beef dish.
Machaca, or machacado in the northern regions, is a popular Mexican dish which incorporates dried beef, tomatoes, onions, eggs, and chili verde, often combined with a tortilla wrap and served with any number of toppings, side dishes, and accompanying sauces (such as guacamole).
Whilst it is perhaps untrue to say that carne seca and machaca are two wildly different things (due to the fact that carne seca is used in the recipe), machaca could be described as the next “evolutionary step” in the culinary journey of the simple dried beef snack.
Once prepared, machaca can be served in several different ways. As mentioned above, a popular method is for it to be served in flour tortillas, or in tacos and burritos, but the dish can also be served on a plate with eggs, potatoes, onions, and peppers.
Machaca with eggs is a popular breakfast dish in some regions of Mexico, as well as abroad.
Carne Seca: The Drying Process
Of course, to make the most important ingredient, the carne seca, the beef needs to be dehydrated, and this can be done in the following ways.
The northern regions of Mexico, such as Monterrey, were once populated with nomadic tribes of Native Americans, including members of the Apache, Chichimecas, and Tarahumaras tribes.
The process of drying beef originated with those hunters, as the nomadic lifestyle they led, combined with the lack of refrigeration, meant that meat needed to last as long as possible on long hunts.
Initially they would do this by laying the meat out on rocks, allowing the extreme desert sun to dehydrate the beef until it was dried. They would also salt the meat to increase its lifespan and protect it from bacteria.
Whilst venison was originally used in this process, beef became the de facto ingredient.
The process begins with the salting. The best results are when lean, thin beef is chosen, and any remaining fat should be removed from the cut. Then lightly salt on both sides, before placing on a tray and refrigerating for one hour.
If using a specialized dehydrator, they should be placed inside on a drying rack, using a temperature of about 140 F for a minimum of 4 hours.
This will depend on the thickness of the meat used, so regular checks of the dryness should be conducted before turning off the heat or removing the beef.
Once you have done this, there are two further methods which can be used to dry the meat and ensure it hardens.
The first is to put it in the oven for a further 4 hours at a lower heat until hardened. The second method, and perhaps the more traditional way, is to place the dehydrated beef in full sun for 4 hours or so, leaving them to get crispy, hard, and tough in the heat of the sun.
Should you wish to rehydrate the beef, this can be done by resting the dried beef in water for a period of four to six hours.
During rehydration, the meat should be refrigerated for safety reasons, and should be consumed soon after the rehydration process.
Of course, whilst the jerky (or carne seca) can last for a long time due to the salt and drying process, everything does ultimately have a natural shelf life.
However, if the process is done correctly, with the proper times and heats for the cooking, drying, and cooling processes, then the jerky should have a shelf life of a little over a year, making them perfect for long camping or hiking trips.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about carne seca, machaca, and the differences therein.
The dishes have a long history, and remain incredibly popular to this day. So, why not try some for yourself? You won’t regret it!