Before we get down to business let me just say that barbacoa is a very special thing. Barbacoa is more than just slow cooked meat. Much more. Preparing barbacoa is a time-honored tradition in Mexico. The tradition spread to Texas years ago, along with the Mexican immigrants who introduced the cuisine. Anywhere you find a sizeable Mexican population you are bound to find barbacoa.
The origins of barbacoa are steeped in history and culture. Ancient cultures, and not-so-ancient cultures, adhere to the notion that the animals we eat should be respected and treated with reverence. When an animal is slaughtered it should be treated with dignity and it should be thanked for the sustenance that it provides to us. Using all parts of the animal pays respect to the animal. This ritual is a sacred rite and one that is increasingly disappearing in our modern culture.
Barbacoa is typically served on weekends. It is presented to family and friends as a celebration of life.
Cooking methods vary from place to place. Traditionally, barbacoa is made from young goat (cabrito), lamb (borrega), beef (res) or pork (cochina). The entire animal is often used, including entrails and stomach. If you want to make barbacoa the traditional way you will need to dig a pit, line it with fire resistant bricks, slaughter and butcher an animal, obtain some agave leaves (hojas de maguey), prepare an intensely hot fire and layer all of the ingredients in the pit, cover the pit with sheet metal and wait for several hours.
I don’t have an underground brick oven…but don’t think for a minute that I haven’t considered making one! I have had authentic barbacoa on a few occasions and words can’t sufficiently describe how rich and wonderful the experience was.
Since I don’t have an underground pit, I buy beef shoulder roasts (chuck roast) and braise the meat in a Dutch oven, or a covered casserole dish. Sounds simple, when you compare this to the effort involved with the traditional method, right?
The chuck roast is a tough, muscular cut of beef, which means it contains a good amount of collagen. When you cook it at a low temperature for a long period of time, the collagen dissolves and becomes gelatinous, and that is what makes the meat moist and succulent.
If you have the luxury of living in a place where you can get fresh beef from a butcher, ask the butcher for a “blade roast”. A blade roast is a shoulder roast that contains part of the shoulder blade. As the roast cooks, the bone imparts rich flavor and the meat that is next to the bone becomes very tender.
In Mexico, barbacoa is served with soft, warm corn tortillas. Here in the states, we tend to use warm flour tortillas. Both kinds of tortillas are equally good in my mind, when it comes to barbacoa tacos. If you want to make this meal even more special, find freshly made corn tortillas or homemade flour tortillas. See my recipe here for homemade tortillas.
Okay, let’s make some barbacoa!
Beef shoulder roast (chuck roast) 3 to 5 lbs.
2 Tbs cooking oil
2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
3 or 4 dried guajillo chilis, stemmed and seeded
3 or 4 bay leaves
2 Tbs dried onion flakes
2 Tbs paprika
2 Tbs cumin powder
2 Tbs garlic powder
2 Tbs oregano (Mexican oregano is preferred)
Heat an oven to 225°.
Apply salt and pepper to the raw meat.
Sear the meat in a hot skillet, with a little oil.
Add the stock, bay leaves and most of the spice mix to a Dutch oven or casserole dish.
Spread the rest of the spices on top of the meat and cover.
Braise in the oven for 5 hours.
Pull the meat from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes.
Shred the meat with two forks and transfer to a serving bowl. (Make sure to remove any stray bay leaves and chilis before shredding.)
Serve with warm tortillas, guacamole, fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime wedges.
To complete the meal, include side dishes like refried beans, borracho beans, fried potatoes or Spanish rice.
Above all, as you sit down to eat, consider the ranchers and farmers that made the meal possible. Consider the sacrifices that we all make for each other as we try to make each other happy, safe and healthy.