The Best Type Of Beef For Tender And Flavorful Barbacoa

Mexico has a wealth of iconic dishes bursting with zesty, piquant flavors, combining indigenous and European cooking methods to fuse native and foreign ingredients. Modern-day barbacoa is the perfect example of this delicious meeting of Old World ingredients and New World methodology. The first form of barbacoa in Mexico, or barbecue in English, was the indigenous method of slow-roasting local game or fish meat wrapped in maguey leaves over a fire pit. The Spanish colonizers began using this slow-roasting method with the lamb and beef from the Old World. Today, Mexicans swap a fire pit for the stovetop or oven to slowly braise beef or lamb in their own juices.

It's this slow and low cooking method that makes barbacoa one of the best ways to use up every part of the cow or lamb. For beef barbacoa, the head of the cow or cabeza, along with other tough cuts are traditionally used. After hours of cooking, the once tough, collagenous cuts will become melt-in-your-mouth tender and easily broken down into juicy shredded or chopped meat. Since cow head isn't typically sold at supermarkets, the best type of beef for barbacoa would be any tougher cut with a lot of connective tissue like chuck roast (shoulder), shank (thigh), brisket, flank (abdomen), round (rump and back legs), or plate (belly). That said, some butchers sell cheek, tongue, oxtail, and neck, which are all tough cuts that benefit from a slow braise.

Modern Barbacoa recipes and applications

While the oven and stovetop are still widely used to slow-cook a huge pot of barbacoa, modern appliances like instant pots and crockpots offer even more convenience. Since maguey leaves come from the Mexican agave plant also used to make mezcal and tequila, cooks outside of Mexico have found more available alternatives. For example, this Tasting Table recipe for slow cooker barbacoa uses chuck roast wrapped in banana leaves to simmer in a spicy and aromatic adobo sauce.

Mexican adobo sauces are complex blends of rehydrated dried chilies with Mexican herbs and spices like cumin, oregano, and garlic. These sauces marinate the meat while also creating incredibly flavorful brothy drippings, which Mexicans call consome. Similar to birria, barbacoa is often served with a side of its consome for an extra juicy, concentrated flavor. Typically, shredded barbacoa is spooned into fresh corn tortillas as a favorite taco filling, garnished with cilantro and white onion. You can also take a cue from birria by adding cheese to your tacos and dipping them in consome. Tacos dorados are another popular application for barbacoa; the juicy, tender meat is wrapped in corn tortillas and deep fried for a crunchy contrast. Since it's a long, labor-intensive dish, barbacoa is a special occasion feast enjoyed at family gatherings or featured as a weekly special in Mexican taquerias or comida corrida restaurants.