Slow Cooker Barbacoa Recipe

We all know the elite protein choice at Chipotle is barbacoa (closely followed by carnitas). Even at this counter-order American chain, the barbacoa is tender, juicy, and flavorful. In chains like Chipotle it has become synonymous with beef, but "barbacoa" is actually Spanish for barbecue and is a technique used in Mexico for cooking all sorts of meats. Introduced to Mexico by the Taíno people native to the Caribbean, barbacoa often involves sheep, lamb, beef, or mutton barbecued over coals in a pit, wrapped in leaves and steamed for tenderness and flavor (via Food Network). The leaves used in traditional preparations are the leaves of agave, also used to make tequila, leaving behind a faint, sweet flavor reminiscent of the spirit.

While we'd love to wrap fresh lamb in agave leaves and braise it in a rustic pit, we aren't about to dig a hole in the backyard just to make dinner. In this recipe written by Michelle McGlinn, traditional barbacoa is made a little more accessible to the home cook with the help of a slow cooker and a beef chuck roast. Banana leaves line the Crockpot and infuse the beef with a sweet, mild flavor. The beef itself gets the traditional adobo treatment, coated in a sauce made with guajillo and ancho chiles for a smoky, spicy flavor. We know, the prep is a little lengthy, but making this from scratch is worth it — trust us.

Gather the ingredients for slow cooker barbacoa

For the assembly, you'll just need beef broth, banana leaves, some onion, salt, and a beef chuck roast. Don't be intimidated by the banana leaves; they're easy to find in Asian and Latin grocery stores, where they're used often in traditional cuisines. Check the freezer aisles somewhere around the frozen fruits and veggies or egg rolls.

For the adobo sauce, which offers all the flavor, you'll need cinnamon sticks, cloves, cumin, coriander, ancho chiles, guajillo chiles, and morita chiles. Can you swap in ground spices? The short answer is yes, but you'll have to do some adjusting to find the right amounts, and you'll skip the toasting. You can swap in different chiles, but try to use smokey or spicy chiles like árbol. The most important chiles to include here are the guajillo and the ancho, which will offer a smoky flavor.

To finish the adobo sauce, you'll need olive oil, garlic, water, tomatoes, Mexican oregano, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. If you don't have Mexican oregano, specifically, Italian oregano will work just fine.

Starting with the adobo: toasting the spices and chiles

Toasting spices and chiles opens up the fragrance, making them more flavorful for the sauce. No oil is required to toast, just heat them all on the dry skillet until golden and fragrant. Don't walk away from the stove, either, as the spices can burn pretty easily. If the chiles are making you cough, you've probably over-toasted them and can remove them from the skillet immediately.

Once everything has been toasted, drizzle a little bit of oil into the skillet and sauté the garlic. Leaving the skins on prevents any burning, plus it makes things a little faster. The cloves will pop right out of the skins when they're ready.

Rehydrate the peppers

To use the chiles in a sauce, you have to reconstitute them in hot water to soften the skins first. An easy way to do this is to combine all the sauce ingredients in a pot and bring them to a simmer, then let them cook until the peppers are soft and colorful. This doesn't take long, but make sure you give the peppers enough time to fully soften so that they blend easily. Once the chiles have rehydrated, remove the cinnamon sticks to avoid overly-sweet adobo.

Blend and strain the ingredients into a sauce

If you have a blender with an opening on the top, you can add the hydrated peppers and water directly into the blender without cooling and simply blend by covering the small opening with a towel to let steam escape. If you're using a blender that doesn't have an opening for steam, let the mixture cool down before blending to avoid a big, hot mess. Blend well, until completely smooth. The mixture will be fairly thick.

Strain the sauce through a strainer to filter any chunks or unblended skins out of the sauce. The sauce should pass through easily and become thinner and smoother after straining. If you don't have a stainer, no sweat. Most of the sauce is used as a marinade, anyways, and the texture won't affect it too much.

While the chiles are spicy, the sauce needs some salt to wake up the flavors. Sprinkle in some salt and give the sauce a quick taste — it shouldn't be bland, so sprinkle in more salt as needed.

Assemble the beef in the slow cooker

You can do this step while the chiles are hydrating to allow the beef some time to absorb the salt. Pour the beef broth into the slow cooker, then layer the banana leaves diagonally across each other until they fill the bottom of the pot. You can't have too many, but try to use between 8 and 10 pieces for the best fit. If the pieces are wide, cut them into 6-inch strips so they fit easily into the slow cooker.

Arrange the onions on top of the banana leaves, then add the beef directly on top. Salt the beef generously, then let it rest until the adobo is finished.

Add the adobo

Pour a cup of the strained adobo over the beef, reserving the rest for serving. Firmly wrap the banana leaves around the beef, pressing the leaves into the adobo to keep them in place. The better the leaves are wrapped, the more moist and flavorful the beef will be.

Add the cover to the slow cooker and set it to low for 8-10 hours. Big cuts of beef like this are best suited to low, slow cooking, so try not to rush it by turning the slow cooker to high.

Serve the barbacoa

When the beef is done, it will be firm but easy to shred with a fork. Pull the beef apart with two forks, discarding any thick, fatty parts. Return the beef to the slow cooker and serve, or place on a deep platter and drizzle broth over top. Serve with the cooked onions and extra adobo sauce.

Of course, one easy way to eat barbacoa beef is on soft tortillas, loaded up with onions and cilantro. It's also delicious with pickled red onions or wrapped up in a burrito (California-style, anyone?). You can have it Chipotle-style on a bed of rice and beans (because Chipotle invented that) or simply served on its own with grilled vegetables. The best part is that leftovers are delicious and get more flavorful overnight. Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Slow Cooker Barbacoa Recipe
5 from 26 ratings
This slow cooker barbacoa comes with a spicy adobo sauce - serve the meat on tacos, in burritos, or as-is.
Prep Time
Cook Time
barbacoa beef on tortilla
Total time: 8 hours, 40 minutes
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ tablespoon whole coriander
  • ½ tablespoon whole cumin
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 2 large ancho chiles, stemmed and de-seeded
  • 3 morita chiles
  • 2 large guajillo chiles, stemmed and de-seeded
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, peels on
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 8 thawed banana leaves
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 (3-pound) beef chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
  1. Heat whole spices (cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and cloves) over medium heat in a dry skillet until toasted and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from the skillet and add the chiles. Dry toast the chiles until fragrant, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from the skillet.
  2. Add olive oil to the skillet and sauté the garlic with the skins on until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Remove the garlic from the skillet and remove skins using tongs.
  3. Add the toasted spices, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, water, apple cider vinegar, and oregano to a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until chiles are completely softened, about 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon sticks.
  4. Add the mixture to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain mixture through a fine strainer and discard solid paste left behind. Season with salt to taste.
  5. Add beef broth to a slow cooker, then layer banana leaves across each other diagonally, making room for the beef to sit in the middle. Arrange the onions over the banana leaves, then add the beef. Season the beef with 1 tablespoon of salt.
  6. Pour 1 cup of the adobo sauce over the beef, reserving the rest for serving. Wrap the banana leaves around the beef, then cover the slow cooker with its lid. Cook on low for 8 hours.
  7. When beef is completely tender, remove from the slow cooker and shred using two forks. Return the shredded beef to the slow cooker and season to taste with salt, if needed, to serve. For spicier barbacoa, add extra adobo sauce to the beef before serving.
Calories per Serving 503
Total Fat 15.2 g
Saturated Fat 5.2 g
Trans Fat 0.5 g
Cholesterol 136.4 mg
Total Carbohydrates 47.0 g
Dietary Fiber 7.8 g
Total Sugars 22.0 g
Sodium 1,451.8 mg
Protein 50.4 g
The information shown is Edamam’s estimate based on available ingredients and preparation. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
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