Barbacoa has swept through the United States with its delicious slow-cooked flavor. Variations are everywhere, from fine dining to fast-casual restaurants, but are they true barbacoa? If barbacoa reminds you of braised beef piled into a hefty burrito, you aren’t entirely wrong, but barbacoa is so much more.
Historians trace this dish back to the Caribbean, but most recognizably, barbacoa is found in Mexico. Mexican cooks have been making this beloved meal for nearly 500 years. All forms of barbecue in the Americas find their roots in this traditional way of cooking. That commonality can be seen in cooking over an open fire, bringing the meat just close enough to the flame to cook, but far enough away that it cooks slowly. Barbacoa is the Spanish word for barbecue.
Traditionally, to cook barbacoa, you would begin by digging a large hole in the ground. Kindling and other wood sources would be added and allowed to burn down to embers. You would then line this hole with agave leaves before placing the tough cuts of meat inside. Covering the meat with another layer of leaves, you would leave the meat to cook for most of the day. Cooking for this length of time is what allows barbacoa to become juicy and tender. However, because it is an extensive process, this traditional method is reserved for special occasions, if at all.
What meats to use for barbacoa
You may be surprised to know that barbacoa isn’t made from one specific type of meat. Since barbacoa means barbecue, it is simply a cooking style, not an indication of what meat is involved. In Mexico, beef, goat, lamb, mutton, and even pork can be used. In the United States, beef is the go-to meat. Chuck roast, brisket, and beef cheeks are all common choices. When choosing a cut of meat, make sure it is tough with well-dispersed fat. This will allow it to cook for an extended amount of time without becoming stringy. Also, consider using more than one type of meat, this will add variety to your final dish.
There is no one right way to season barbacoa. Every restaurant and home cook has their secret recipe, resulting in a large variation in flavor. As you combine your unique spices, remember that this seasoning needs to be strong, bold, and memorable. The barbacoa spice blend is a marinade. It needs flavors intense enough to stand up to days of marinading and cooking.
While other spices vary, guajillo and ancho chiles are two key ingredients for every barbacoa blend. Guajillo chiles incorporate a mild sweetness with hints of dried fruit and black tea. Ancho chiles provide a deeper, smoky flavor with a slight fruity flavor of their own. It is important to note that neither chile is considered particularly spicy by Mexican standards; if you’re looking for a blend with more heat, consider adding cayenne pepper to achieve that flavor. Other common seasonings include Mexican oregano (unique from Italian or Greek oreganos, though they can be substituted if necessary), pureed garlic and onions, cinnamon, and allspice.
While tradition dictates you dig a hole in your backyard and build a pit stove, few cooks still make barbacoa this way. Mexican home cooks commonly use a large pot on the stovetop or a roasting dish in the oven. A slow cooker or pressure cooker can also be used. Whichever vessel you choose, ensure it is strong and has plenty of room; it will hold layers of leaves and meat for most of the day.
Once you’ve created your signature spice blend, it’s time to marinate your meat. Rub the spices all over the meat, making sure to create a solid layer covering every inch. Cover and place it in the fridge. Remember, the longer your marinade sits, the more flavor you’ll achieve up to a point. Let the meat sit in the fridge at least overnight; preferably, let it sit for 24 hours or even a little longer.
Line the Pot
A critical choice you’ll make for your barbacoa is what leaves you’ll use to line the dish. Agave leaves are traditional and ideal for the smoky sweetness they add, but they can be hard to find. Avocado leaves are another common option and can be found dried at many Mexican grocers. But perhaps the most common and easily found option in the United States is the banana leaf. Banana leaves can be found in both Latino and Asian grocery stores, fresh or frozen, and can also be found in mainstream grocery stores in the frozen section. If you do purchase the leaves frozen, be sure to blanch them in boiling water or warm them to make them pliable. Otherwise, they can easily break and be difficult to work with.
After choosing which leaves you’ll use, line the bottom of the pot with them. This should be a solid layer with no space between the leaves. Leave a large overhang atop each side of the pot as these leaves will wrap around the meat and cover it.
Place the marinaded meat on top of the first layer of leaves, then cover fully with the overhanging edges. Feel free to add more leaves as needed. If you’re using a slow cooker or pot, place the cover on and cook over low heat for several hours. If you’re using a roasting pan, tightly cover with foil and place in an oven on low heat for several hours. Whatever you use, no peeking. The goal is to allow the meat to steam. Any lifting of the lid or foil will allow steam to escape and the achieved texture to be lost.
Time to Eat
Barbacoa is often served with corn tortillas, onions, and cilantro. In northern Mexico, barbacoa is used in Tortas. This is a hearty sandwich topped with onions, cilantro, refried beans, and whatever else is available. Most importantly, whatever you use to hold your juicy barbacoa, it needs to be hearty. This meat is extremely juicy. A standard sandwich bread just isn’t going to cut it. It shines in dishes like burritos and enchiladas where sauces mix, or a quesadilla full of melted cheese. However you serve your hard-earned meal, enjoy it knowing the rich flavor is matched by its rich history. You may not be cooking it in a hand-dug pit, but 500 years of history is still flowing through your meal