What Is Barbacoa?
Learn about this favorite Mexican taco filling and how you can make it at home.
By Carlos C. Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen
Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.
Barbacoa is a popular dish found at many Mexican restaurants in the United States and even features in many national chain restaurants, like Chipotle. Many times in the US, barbacoa simply gets labeled as braised beef. However, there is so much more to barbacoa than that. It has a long history in Mexico and its origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery, with many historians believing that the dish actually originated in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, Mexican cooks have created a unique cooking style over nearly 500 years that has made barbacoa one of Mexico’s most beloved dishes. Our comprehensive barbacoa guide fills you in on all the details, including how it’s made and how you can make it at home. You’ll also learn about barbacoa seasonings and what to serve with barbacoa, as well as get some of our best recipes for this mouthwatering Mexican favorite.
What Is Barbacoa?
Barbacoa is actually the Spanish word for barbecue. Just as in English, there is a distinction in the Spanish-speaking world between barbecue (barbacoa) and grill (parrilla). Even though many of us associate barbacoa with Mexican cuisine, the term and the cooking style originated in the Caribbean with the native Taino people, and many food historians agree that all forms of barbecue in the Americas are descendants of this style of cooking. It generally refers to meats over an open fire, being careful to keep the meat far enough from the flame so that it cooks slowly and is infused with the smokey flavor of whatever wood is being burnt.
In Mexico, barbacoa evolved into a specific cooking style in which meat is slowly cooked in a pit dug into the ground, which is covered with agave leaves. This makes it similar to other cooking styles, like pachamanca in Peru and kalua pork in Hawaii. As opposed to the original Caribbean barbacoa, which is cooked in the open air, cooking the meat sealed in a pit steams the meat by sealing in the moisture while also imparting it with smoky flavor.
Barbacoa made in this traditional manner can take most of the day to prepare, and it is often something reserved for special occasions or eaten at specialized restaurants that start the cooking process the night before. Many home cooks in Mexico and throughout the Diaspora have thus adapted barbacoa to the home kitchen and have converted it into a sort of pot roast. However, that’s where the comparison ends. Not only is it seasoned differently, but it is also presented and eaten differently, too.
What Kind of Meat Is Barbacoa Made Out Of?
Barbacoa is typically made out of tougher cuts of meat that require long, slow cooking times. When done traditionally, barbacoa is made with large cuts of meat or whole animals. In the United States, barbacoa is usually associated with beef. However, in Mexico, barbacoa is made from beef, goat, lamb or mutton. In the southern region of Yucatan, there is even a variation of barbacoa called cochinita pibil, which is made from pork.
In the US, people typically make barbacoa with chuck roast, brisket and beef cheeks. However, any cut of beef that has a lot of connective tissue and takes a long time to cook until tender works well. Keep in mind that there should be enough fat dispersed through the muscle fibers in order to keep the meat moist during cooking. Leaner cuts of beef will dry out and become stringy after a long time cooking, even if you are trapping steam within the cooking vessel.
Also, don’t limit yourself just to one cut at a time, especially if you’re making a large quantity. A variety of cuts can add depth and variety to your barbacoa. While not super traditional, you can try incorporating short ribs and oxtail to the mix. The bones and cartilage in those cuts will add gelatin to the meat juices, which gives it body and richness. This is very important because part of the pleasure of enjoying barbacoa is sipping on what is called consomé, a clear broth made from the drippings. The more rich and flavorful the drippings, the better the consomé.
You can also use gamier meats like lamb, goat, and mutton. Mutton, or full-grown sheep, may be harder to come by in the United States, especially in urban areas. Keep in mind that what South Asians refer to as mutton is typically mature goat meat. Goat or kid (baby goat) are great options, too. However, try to find a market or butcher that sells it in larger pieces. Many retailers haphazardly slice frozen goat meat into two-inch cubes, and it can include a lot of tiny bone fragments, which can be a choking hazard. If opting for lamb, a leg or shoulder is ideal.
Barbacoa seasoning is perhaps the main component that distinguishes this dish from other slow-cooked Mexican meat dishes. Exact recipes vary tremendously, and each barbacoa chef has their own secret ingredients to make it extra special. The barbacoa seasoning is meant to be a marinade, and the flavors are meant to stand up to and even cut through the strong flavors of the meat you’re using. That being said, barbacoa seasoning is supposed to be bold.
Typical barbacoa seasonings include a combination of dried guajillo and ancho chile peppers. Guajillo chiles are mildly sweet and taste almost like dried fruit mixed with black tea. If you’ve ever had a cup of black currant tea, that’s kind of what they taste like, but with a smoky, smoldering kick of heat to them. Ancho chiles have a more pronounced smoky flavor, as well as a bit of fruitiness. Both chiles are not considered very spicy (at least by Mexican standards).
Other common barbacoa seasonings include Mexican oregano, which is actually quite different in flavor from Italian or Greek oregano, though those will work in a pinch. Pureed garlic and onions are also a must in many barbacoa seasoning recipes, and many recipes also include sweet spices, like cinnamon, allspice or a combination of both.
Barbacoa vs. Birria
Barbacoa and birria can sometimes be confused, especially among those who aren’t fluent in Mexican cuisine. Birria and barbacoa look similar and are prepared in very similar ways, but there are some key differences between the two dishes. For starters, barbacoa is consumed almost everywhere in Mexico, and each region has its own specific style. Birria, on the other hand, originated in the state of Jalisco, where it is considered the star dish. Nevertheless, birria has also become popular in other parts of Mexico where they prepare it differently.
Birria and barbacoa start with the same cooking method: a pit dug into the ground where hot coals or firewood is placed. For barbacoa, the pit is lined with agave leaves and the meat goes in by itself. With birria, the meat is placed in a pot with a sauce, the pot is sealed with tortilla dough, and the whole thing gets lowered into the pit. When preparing barbacoa, once the meat is cooked, that’s it! It gets served. But birria requires an extra step: a roasted tomato puré is mixed into the pot of sauce and meat and the whole thing is simmered again.
Barbacoa usually arrives to the table juicy but not swimming in a soup or sauce. Rather, the juices form part of the consomé that you enjoy on the side. Birria, on the other hand, is a soupier concoction that is almost always served in a bowl. Both birria and barbacoa can be made with similar cuts of beef, although goat meat tends to be more popular in birria’s home state of Jalisco.
How to Make Barbacoa
Making barbacoa at home doesn’t require you to dig up a hole in your backyard or source fresh agave leaves (although that would be quite impressive). Many Mexican home cooks have devised clever ways of preparing barbacoa using the stovetop or oven. You can even make barbacoa in a slow-cooker, and there are some shortcut recipes that make use of a pressure cooker.
1. Marinate your meat.
Once you find your favorite marinade recipe, vigorously rub it into the meat, making sure to cover every inch of surface. The longer you leave the meat to marinate, the more flavor your barbacoa will have. Marinating overnight is a good idea, but 24 hours is ideal, and you can even leave your meat to marinate a little longer than that
If you can find agave leaves, definitely use them. These will impart a subtle smokey sweetness to your barbacoa. Avocado leaves, which you can get dried from many Mexican grocers, are also another option. However, the most common leaf to use in the US for making barbacoa is banana leaf, which is available at most Latino and Asian groceries either fresh or in the frozen aisle. Many mainstream grocery stores also sell them in frozen packages in the Latino section of the frozen foods aisle. If using banana leaves, you should first either blanche them in boiling water or warm them briefly in a frying pan over medium heat. This will make the banana leaves more pliable.
3. Line your cooking vessel with the leaves.
Once you prepare the banana leaves, line your pot, slow cooker or roasting pan with the banana leaves, making sure to overlap them and to leave a generous overhang, which you will use to cover the meat.
4. Add the marinated meat and slow cook.
Load up your marinated meat on top of the banana leaves and then bring up the overhang over the meat to fully cover it. You may also add extra leaves on top of the meat if you don’t have enough overhang to cover it. If you’re using a slow cooker or pot, simply place the cover on top and cook over low heat for several hours. If you’re using a roasting pan and cooking it in the oven, cover the entire pan tightly with foil and place in a 325 degree oven for several hours. Don’t peek! You want all the steam to stay trapped inside.
What to Serve with Barbacoa Beef
Barbacoa is traditionally served with freshly made corn tortillas, fresh chopped onions and cilantro. The onions and cilantro add a sharp and herbaceous contrast to the rich, strong flavors of the meat. You can also squirt some lime juice over the top and drizzle on some tangy bottled or homemade hot sauce for extra heat.
In Northern Mexico, especially in the state of Chihuahua, barbacoa is put inside tortas, or Mexican-style sandwiches. Tortas are typically made with bolillo rolls. However, any crusty water roll will work for making a torta. Even kaiser rolls or ciabatta buns will work in a pinch, but make sure that the bread you use is hearty enough to stand up to the juicy meat filling. Typical torta toppings include onions, cilantro, refried beans, avocado, lettuce, cabbage and refried beans. But you can customize your torta however you like.
Barbacoa can also be a filling for any number of Mexican dishes, like burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas. If you’re a fan of American-style crunchy tacos, barbacoa is a perfect addition and a nice variation from your typical ground beef filling. You can also get creative and use barbacoa to make casseroles, as fillings for empanadas, over pasta or simply served with some boiled rice. The sky’s the limit with how you can use barbacoa in your cooking.
This is a simple barbacoa recipe that does away with the banana leaves. Instead, the meat is braised in a skillet with a flavorful sauce.
This recipe imparts smoky flavor to barbacoa by using a grill. No leaves are required, although you can certainly line the foil with banana or agave leaves for more flavor.
This is a great recipe if you want to try your hand at lamb barbacoa. This is baked in an oven uncovered, making for a crisp crust.