What Is Birria?
Plus exactly how it’s different than barbacoa.
By Carlos C. Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen
Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.
Birria is a popular dish from Mexico that’s spread to the U.S. and beyond. There is sometimes confusion surrounding birria, as it can resemble other types of Mexican braised meat dishes, especially barbacoa. However, this flavorful slow-cooked stew has a unique history and cooking method, as well as ingredients that separate it from other Mexican dishes. Learn all about birria in our detailed guide.
What Is Birria?
Birria is a Mexican dish that originated in the state of Jalisco. It is a flavorful stew served with its braising liquid. While there are as many different styles of birria as there are towns in the state of Jalisco, the variety made from goat meat has become the most popular throughout Mexico and has even made its way north of the border into the United States.
When Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area that would become modern-day Mexico, they brought with them European livestock, including goats. However, the goats they brought with them soon started reproducing at an alarmingly rapid rate and the Spanish invaders found themselves with more goats than they knew what to do with. The Spanish were said to not be too fond of goat meat because of its strong, gamey flavor (similar to but less intense than lamb) and tough texture that required a long, slow cooking time. The term birria comes from an old Spanish word that was used to describe something with no value or of poor quality.
As birria spread throughout Mexico and the United States, recipes started adapting to local tastes and ingredients. In the 1950s, for instance, a woman named Guadalupe Zarate set up a birria stand in Tijuana. Because goat meat was more expensive in Tijuana, she started replacing it with beef and adding more liquid to the stew. Before long, Tijuana-style beef birria was born. In Los Angeles, birria tacos became popular within the last decade in which tortillas are filled with shredded birria meat and then dunked in the red-tinged consommé that the meat is braised in. There are now even quesabirrias - the red tacos filled with birria and stained red from the braising liquid but also including melted cheese. Birria, as you can see, can feature a cook’s personal touch.
What Kind of Meat Is Birria Made Out of?
The most popular kind of birria is made from goat meat. If making birria from goat, the most sure-fire place to source your meat would be at a Caribbean or South Asian market. Halal groceries typically carry this type of meat. Most of the goat meat available in the United States is imported from Australia and New Zealand and comes from mature goats. This is the ideal type of goat meat for birria, as it is tougher and has a stronger flavor. You may also use cabrito - or baby goat - for making birria, which is fattier, more tender and has a milder flavor. Most goat meat in the United States is available frozen and cut into cubes. This goat meat can contain shards of bone, so pick through your meat carefully before adding it into the pot. If you can find goat legs, that is ideal, as this part of the animal has a greater meat-to-bone ratio. Ask your butcher to cut it across the bone into three- to four-inch pieces, or you can trim it yourself at home.
Birria can also be made from beef, which is common in Tijuana and many parts of the United States, where goat meat can be difficult to find. The important thing to consider when making birria is to use a tougher, flavorful cut of meat that can stand up to slow cooking and the bold madly of spices. Red meats are the most popular choices for this preparation. Chicken may easily become dry and chalky, while pork is better suited for other types of seasoning.
But there are other types of meats used in regional styles of birria, too. In Mascota, a town in birria’s home state of Jalisco, local cooks make birria from a cow’s head. The fatty meat (such as the cheeks), connective tissue, organs and bones in the cow’s head adds to the richness and deep flavor of this regional preparation.
Mutton - the meat of an adult sheep - is also another type of protein used to make birria and typically has a gamier flavor than goat meat. Mutton is difficult to come by in the United States, as lamb is more popular for its tender meat. You may sometimes encounter something called mutton at South Asian (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) markets. However, this typically refers to goat meat.
Birria seasonings vary greatly and depend not just on the regional style of birria you’re making but also on the cook. There are simple recipes that only call for some chiles and avocado leaves to more complex recipes that require many types of herbs and spices along with a variety of chiles.
A common theme, however, is that the consommé - or sauce that the birria gets braised in - should have a reddish color to it. As such, it’s important to make sure that your braising liquid has dried red chiles in it. These you typically need to toast on a dry comal or skillet, rehydrate in hot or boiling water and puré. Some recipes may also call for tomato for extra color and to give it some acidity. Vinegar is also a common ingredient in many birria recipes, and this helps cut the richness of the meat. Keep in mind that the consommé isn’t thickened, so avoid adding ingredients like pumpkin seeds, sesame or nuts to your mixture. This will make the finished dish more like a mole than a traditional birria.
Marjoram, Mexican oregano and bay leaves also feature in several birria recipes, as do onions and garlic. Cumin is also common in many birria recipes. And some recipes will also include sweet spices like cloves and cinnamon.
Birria vs. Barbacoa
There is often some confusion as to the differences between birria and barbacoa, even among some Mexicans. In short, birria is a type of barbacoa, but barbacoa is not birria. Barbacoa is more closely related to barbecue, while birria is braised or steamed. Barbacoa is traditionally slowly steamed in its own juices with a marinade, and most barbacoa is made from beef (although lamb or mutton are also common). In Mexico, barbacoa is cooked in a special type of oven dug into the ground. This oven is lined with agave or banana leaves, the meat is placed inside and covered with more leaves and the whole package is covered with glowing embers.
Birria, on the other hand, is made in a pot or casserole with a sealed lid. Traditionally, this pot is placed in a similar type of oven as that which is used to make barbacoa. However, many cooks will also cook their pot of birria on the stovetop. Many times, birria is braised in a liquid. The outcome is soupier (or saucier) than barbacoa.
How to Make Birria
Just as there are many types of seasonings that can go into a pot of birria, there are many ways to prepare birria. There are cooks who like to marinade the meat before braising it, while there are others who like to braise unseasoned meat in water first and then add the seasonings after a few hours of slow cooking. Still others like to steam the meat in its own juices, typically by cooking it dry in a covered pot in a low oven, rather than cooking the meat in juices. Any of these approaches is fine, and you’ll find one that you like best. When making birria for the first time, however, you should stick to the recipe’s instructions until you get a feel for how the finished dish should look, feel and taste.
Here are a few general guidelines for cooking goat birria:
- Select a large piece of goat. Pre-cut goat meat typically has tiny pieces of bone that can be annoying to pick out before serving and can cause injury if you mistakenly bite into or swallow one. A goat leg is the best cut to use, and you can cook the leg whole. If you don’t have a large enough pot, you can cut the leg into smaller pieces, although try to keep the pieces no smaller than about three inches.
- Marinate the goat meat ahead of time. This will not only infuse the meat with more flavor but also help tenderize it, which can reduce the amount of time you need to cook it before it becomes fork tender. Dried red chiles, such as ancho or guajillo peppers, are a must in almost all birria recipes. Make sure to toast them on a skillet first before boiling in water or soaking in hot water. When the chiles are soft and pliable, you can add them to a blender along with the other ingredients. If using onions, garlic and/or tomatoes in your seasoning, make sure to char those first on a grill or over a hot comal or skillet. Your marinade should be liquidy, as this will be the braising liquid. Now, rub that marinade all over the meat and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
- Slow-cook the meat in its marinade. You can cook your birria on the stovetop, in the oven or in a pressure cooker (like an Instant pot). You don’t need to sear or fry anything ahead of time. All you need to do is dump the meat and the marinade into a cooking vessel and cook for several hours. On the stovetop, you can simmer your birria over medium heat for 3 to 4 hours, covered, until the meat falls off the bone. You can also place the whole pot, covered, in a 350-degree oven for about 2 hours. Or place the meat and marinade in a baking dish covered with foil and cook for the same amount of time. If using the pressure cooker method, simply pour everything into your pressure cooker and cook on high pressure for 45 minutes.
What to Serve with Birria
There are two traditional ways of serving birria: as a soup or in tacos.
The soupy presentation is often referred to as consomé de birria. For this preparation, you add the shredded meat to a bowl and ladle over a generous amount of the braising liquid. Consomé de birria is often garnished with a squirt of lime juice, chopped fresh cilantro, diced white onions and spicy salsa. These garnishes help cut some of the richness of the birria.
Birria tacos are presented in a unique way compared to some other types of tacos in Mexico. Birria tacos are almost always served on corn tortillas. You must first toast the tortilla on a comal or pan fry it in a little oil or rendered pork fat. After warming up your tortilla, dip it briefly in the red birria braising liquid before placing it on a plate and loading it up with meat and toppings.
This recipe from Marcela Valladolid is made with beef shortribs, which are easier to find in the US than goat legs. The seasonings in this birria recipe are complex and include several types of chiles. While the recipe doesn't call for it, you can dip the tortillas in the red birria consomé to make red tacos.
Birria De Res
This recipe is a bit more involved than Marcela's recipe and takes about two to three days to prepare, so plan accordingly. The results are well worth the wait, though, as this birria recipe gets marinaded in a beer-infused adobo and then enhanced with a separate tomato-based salsa.