How to Cook Barbacoa

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When it comes to barbacoa -- beef slowly cooked until it can be easily shredded and used in tacos or other Mexican and Southwestern-inspired dishes -- there are two main cooking methods. These differ dramatically in the cut of beef used, the preparation style, the amount of time required and how flavorings are added. While one mimics the traditional Mexican, Caribbean and, later, South Texas method, the other is similar to that used by popular restaurant chains like Chipotle. Pick your style by the type of beef you prefer and the amount of time you have available.

Pick Your Meat

  • Traditional barbacoa is made from cow's heads -- or, in some cases, an entire cow, sheep, goat or pig, or assorted meat chunks from any of these animals -- cooked in a pit dug into the ground. It can be difficult to find whole cow's heads at local supermarkets. Check your local butcher shop for cow's cheeks, which work as well. For a modern take on barbacoa, choose a chuck roast or boneless beef short ribs.

Prep and Season

  • Thoroughly wash the cow's heads or cheeks, if using. Cut off any gristle, hairs and bits of remaining hide or ask the butcher to do this for you. Season the meat with salt, pepper and your choice of herbs and spices, then wrap each individual head completely in heavy-duty aluminum foil. To prepare the chuck roast or short ribs, trim off all visible fat and brown each side of the meat in heated oil in a Dutch oven. Once browned, add a mixture of prepared or homemade adobo sauce, broth and seasonings. Alternatively, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats suggests first browning oxtails in oil, then adding the barbacoa beef to the browned meat and oil in the Dutch oven along with adobo sauce and seasonings.

Cook Until Soft

  • To cook your barbacoa in an underground pit, burn wood chunks in a hole dug large enough to hold all of the cow's heads snugly. Allow the fire to die down to embers. Put the foil-wrapped heads into the pit and cover everything completely with a thick layer of banana or maguey -- also known as agave -- leaves. Check the pit frequently to make sure the embers haven't died out. For modern-style barbacoa, add broth to a Dutch oven, put the lid in place and braise the meat on low heat or place it into a 275-degree Fahrenheit oven. Turn the meat over every half an hour throughout the cooking time.

Shred and Serve

  • Barbacoa in a pit requires approximately eight to 10 hours to cook thoroughly. Braised or oven-roasted barbarcoa beef needs between four to six hours of cooking time. Once the meat is done, it should be easy to shred apart with a fork. Check that the beef has reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Shred the meat into large chunks and serve it immediately or, if time allows, cool and refrigerate the beef in the cooking liquid for several days to concentrate the flavors.

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