What is Barbacoa and How Is It Made?
Loosely translated as ‘Mexican barbecue’, the twist in the barbacoa tail is that it’s not grilled in the modern BBQ way but steamed and slow cooked to bring out the tenderness of the meat. The result is a deliciously moist and flavorsome dish that can be used in a host of ways and cooks up an authentic taste of Mexico to your family table. Shredded and spiced with delicious chipotle or chili sauces, or cooled with guac, sour cream and a saucy salsa, barbacoa will bring a whole new twist and taste to your nachos, burritos and tacos.
Traditionally cooked in a pit and covered with leaves, we take a look at the background to the barbacoa and cook up a recipe so you can make this beautifully rich and moist dish in the comfort of your own kitchen.
What is Barbacoa?
Tender, flavorsome and utterly delicious, barbacoa is a traditional Mexican dish made with beef, goat or lamb. And if you think the name is similar to barbecue, then you are not too far off the mark as it is also the Mexican word. But whereas the US barbecue is synonymous with outdoor grills, fast flame cooking and cold beers, the Mexican tradition is much slower and more ‘underground’. Barbacoa from Mexico is certainly a slow burner, with the meat seasoned and then cooked for up to 10 hours over an open fire, or more traditionally in a fire pit dug into the ground, where the meat is laid and then covered with maguey or agave leaves.
The seasoning of barbacoa can vary depending on the meat used, but typically includes dried chilies, chipotle peppers, cumin, cloves and garlic. The slow cooking leads to super-tender meat, which should have a slightly smoky flavor and just enough heat. Once cooled, barbacoa is then shredded and used as a filling for tacos and burritos or served with rice.
In Mexico, barbacoa is considered a specialty and is usually served on weekends, festivals and special holidays. Another claim to fame for the barbacoa is that it is the origin of the Western barbecue, when it was adopted in Texas and eventually evolved into the barbecue grill method of cooking we know today.
The Right Meat to Use When Making Barbacoa
When asking what is barbacoa made of, the simple answer is meat. But it is the choice of meat, the fat levels and the seasonings used, that make it barbacoa. To be totally authentic, barbacoa is traditionally made from the head of a cow, sheep or goat but modern barbacoa can also be made from other meat cuts, as long as they can slow roast to tender. However, it’s important not to mistake barbacoa for another Mexican dish, cochinita pibil, which is made from pit-roasted pork. The main meats to choose for your barbacoa are:
- Beef cheeks
The traditional form of barbacoa would use a cut of beef head meat, such as cheek. This meat works incredibly well cooked in the barbacoa style as it becomes extra tender when slow cooked. Goat and lamb can work just as well.
- Chuck roast
If you are not up for head meat then other cuts of beef and lamb will work just fine cooked the barbacoa way. Cuts labelled chuck roast are the best options, including shoulder and neck as they are rich in taste and have the higher level of saturated fats needed to get to the barbacoa-level of tenderness.
How Is Barbacoa Made?
The secret to the tenderness of barbacoa is in its cooking and like most of the good things in life, it is worth the wait. During the slow cooking, the meat is both steamed and smoked at the same time, giving tender, moist meat with the most delicious spicy, smoky flavor. To go traditional, you will need to dig a large pit and bury a large pot of water on top of hot coals. Wrap the meat in banana or agave leaves and place it in the cauldron, add more coals on top and then cover the pit with damp earth. Now leave to cook for between eight and 12 hours. Or go modern and crack open your crock pot or slow cooker.
Cook the Perfect Barbacoa
We’re guessing you’re not wanting to dig a pit in your backyard so have put together an awesome recipe for authentic tasting barbacoa using your slower cooker. This recipe is super easy and tastes out of this world.
You’ll need the following to make our perfect barbacoa. If you want to switch up the heat or add different seasonings, that’s no problem.
- 1kg beef cheeks or chuck roast, cut into large pieces
- 3 tbsp chipotle paste
- 1 red onion, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- pinch ground cloves
- Juice of 2 limes
- 100ml cider vinegar
- 3 bay leaves
- 500ml low-salt chicken stock
- 1 bunch coriander, roughly chopped
- Mix the chipotle paste, red onion, garlic, cloves, lime juice and cider vinegar into a paste then add the meat and mix well to marinade. (Leave in the refrigerator for a few hours if you can.)
- Tip the meat and marinade into your slow cooker.
- Add the bay leaves, stock and coriander then using tongs turn the meat over in the sauce so it is well covered and settled.
- Put the lid on your slow cooker and cook on high for one hour then on low for eight hours or until the meat easily shreds when you pull it apart with a fork.
Prep time: 30 minutes; cook time: 9 hours
Ways to Serve
Simple is best when it comes to serving barbacoa as you don’t want to smother the deliciously savory shredded meat. Eat as a burrito, tucked into a taco or with rice and refried beans and you have a scrumptious and easy to put together meal that is perfect for al fresco dining. And if you are wondering what is barbacoa chipotle, then this style of burrito is one of the best ways to eat this gorgeously tender shredded meat!
As a traditional way to eat barbacoa, shredded meat is topped with thinly sliced tomatoes, red onion, chopped cilantro and a touch of sauce. A Mexican adobo sauce is an authentic dressing and will add some nice chipotle pepper heat. Other topping options include guacamole, sour cream, a simple chipotle sauce as well as grated cheese and a tangy salsa. And the beauty of barbacoa is that with a few tweaks you can go really low carb by serving it wrapped in baby cos leaves without losing any of that smoky, spicy flavor. Delish.