What Is Barbacoa and How Do You Make It Yourself?

Last Updated on August 29, 2023 | 0 Comments

For many people, barbacoa is the go-to order at Mexican restaurants. With savory flavors and tender cuts of meat, it’s not hard to see why this dish is well-loved. Barbacoa has a history as rich as its flavors, with unique and mysterious origins and cooking techniques that have been developed over centuries. So, what’s behind the mouthwatering taste of this iconic dish?

Learn about the seasonings that make barbacoa so flavorful and the method that cooks the meat perfectly. Once you learn the process, you can make it yourself just as good as your favorite Mexican restaurant.


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What Is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa translates to barbecue in Spanish, and though it’s often served at Mexican restaurants, the cooking technique originated in the Caribbean. It’s believed by many food historians that this method is what all modern barbecue descended from. The Taino people cooked meats over an open flame, allowing the meat to cook slowly and soak in the flavor of the smoke and wood used to sustain the flame.

Though cooking the meat in the open air was the original method in the Caribbean, cooking the meat over an open flame in an underground pit quickly became the standard barbacoa technique. Originating in Mexico, the underground pit allows the meat to retain more moisture and become infused with more of the smoky flavor.

Traditional barbacoa prepared with traditional cooking techniques can be an all-day process, making it a meal for special occasions. Many restaurants that serve barbacoa begin the process the night before the next dinner service.

beef barbacoa
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What Kind of Meat Is Barbacoa?

Because barbacoa was made to cook low and slow, traditional cuts are tougher and larger parts of the animal. What kind of meat is barbacoa now and what was it originally? Traditional barbacoa found in Mexico tends to be beef, lamb, goat and mutton. However, in the United States, barbacoa is most often beef. Lamb, goat and mutton barbacoa is much harder to find in the United States. Most restaurants, including the popular chain Chipotle, serve beef barbacoa.

Beef cuts most often used to make barbacoa include brisket, beef cheeks and chuck roast. These are cuts that have more connective tissue and take longer to cook, allowing them to soak in the flavor and become tender. But the cuts also have to have a high enough fat content to retain moisture. For this reason, leaner cuts of meat won’t work, even in the underground pit that traps some moisture, as they’re more likely to dry out. 

Modern or upscale Mexican restaurants may make barbacoa from oxtail or short ribs. The cartilage from the bones adds a richer flavor to the overall dish.

lamb barbacoa
via Canva

How to Make Barbacoa

You can search for the best Mexican food in NYC, or you can learn a few techniques to make barbacoa at home. In fact, you can make slow cooker barbacoa for an easy weeknight meal. First, you just need a little bit of prep.

To start, marinate the meat with the barbacoa seasoning. You’ll want to rub the seasoning into the meat and leave it to soak in the flavors. The longer, the better as that will make the meat more flavorful. Leaving the meat to marinate for at least 24 hours will ensure a flavorful meal. However, if you don’t have a lot of time, opt for overnight.

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Traditional barbacoa is cooked with a liner of leaves. Agave, avocado and banana leaves are the most common and can be found at Mexican grocers. Line the slow cooker, pot, or pan with the leaves before placing the barbacoa meat and wrapping it in the leaves.

For slow cooker barbacoa, you’ll want to set it to a low temperature and let it cook for several hours. If cooking in the oven, set the temperature to 325 degrees, cover the pan with foil and allow it to cook for several hours. 

If you love experimenting with new food and cooking techniques like this, cooking classes in New Orleans, cooking classes in Dallas and online cooking classes are all great ways to learn more about cooking authentic world cuisines. Look for cooking classes near you to find a top-rated chef to share their culinary knowledge. 

a cooking class
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Barbacoa Seasoning

While a lot of the flavor can be attributed to the smoke from the wood the meat is cooked over, the addition of seasonings also provides barbacoa meat’s unique taste. And while the combination of seasoning can vary from recipe to recipe and family to family, there are a few that are standard:

  • Dried guajillo peppers
  • Ancho chile peppers
  • Cloves
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Mexican oregano
  • Thyme
  • Bay leaves
  • Cinnamon
  • Allspice
barbacoa tacos
via Canva

What to Serve With Barbacoa: Our Favorite Recipes

Barbacoa goes great with side dishes that add crunch, color or zest to the meal. Round out your barbacoa with:

Barbacoa is rich in flavor and history. The technique is a tradition across the Caribbean and Mexico, and its influences can be seen in both American barbecue and the dishes served in restaurants across the country. It’s still a favorite to make and enjoy whether it’s from an underground pit or the slow cooker in your own kitchen. 

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