Barbacoa is a Mexican beef dish that’s slow cooked til juicy, soft and tender, then coated in a savory red chile sauce that has just a tiny hint of spice and a huge hit of flavor.
If you like carnitas, al pastor, adovada, carne asada, or birria tacos, you’re going to love barbacoa. But even better, it’s one of the easiest dishes to make at home.
What is barbacoa?
Barbacoa originated in the Caribbean as an in-ground slow cooked whole animal wrapped in leaves, but these days it’s most closely associated with Mexican food. Barbacoa is said to be the original word for barbeque, and it’s basically the same thing: slow cooked meat imbued with a lot of flavor.
Mexican barbacoa as we know it today is a juicy and flavorful soft shredded beef/lamb/goat seasoned with dried chiles and spices and cooked until it falls apart. It’s sweet, tangy, and just a little spicy.
You can serve it in tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, flautas, and much more. This version is an easy and simplified barbacoa de res, which translates to barbacoa beef, although you could adapt this recipe to lamb or goat if you want.
How to make barbacoa
- Soak the peppers. Soak the peppers in super hot water to rehydrate them. If you want to be extra, you can toast them over a low flame to coax out some extra flavor before soaking.
- Season the meat. While the peppers are soaking, season your meat generously with salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Make the marinade. Grab your blender and blend together the peppers, garlic, oregano, cumin, beef stock, and vinegar.
- Marinate overnight. Marinate as long as you can, or for at least 2 hours so the beef can absorb the flavors. Don’t forget to season your beef with salt and pepper first.
- Make the stew. Caramelize the onions to add a little sweetness, add the beef (you can sear it if you want, but we’re aiming for soft and tender meat) along with all the marinade, then top it off with extra beef stock, bay leaves, and cloves.
Barbacoa is made of beef, dried chile, garlic, onions, spices, vinegar, and beef broth. It’s amazing how such simple ingredients combine together to create a deeply flavorful, out of this world taste.
- Dried guajillo chiles. These sun dried peppers add an authentic touch of mexican flavor to any stew and you can usually find them in the Mexican aisle of your local grocery store. They are like a mild-medium pepper and don’t add any heat. If you can’t find guajillo, sub any dried mexican/southwestern peppers, such as ancho, new mexico, california, or pasilla. If you really can’t find them, you can sub a can of chipotle peppers in adobo.
- Mexican oregano. Mexican oregano is different than Mediterranean oregano; it’s actually a different plant. Mexican oregano is indigenous to Mexico and has a more woodsy, citrus-lime earthy flavor compared to Mediterranean oregano. You can find it in the Mexican aisle at the grocery store.
- Cumin. Cumin gives the barbacoa a nutty, earthy, spicy, almost lemon-y aroma.
- Vinegar. Vinegar tenderizes the beef and balances out the richness of the meat. You can use whatever vinegar you have on hand.
In my opinion, barbacoa is the best homemade taco filling other than birria. Once you have your barbacoa made, it’s easy:
- Shred the meat. When the beef is done cooking, take the beef out of the consomé and use a couple of forks to shred it up. It’ll be so tender that it’ll basically fall apart instantly. Spoon some extra consomé back on so it’s extra juicy.
- Warm the tortillas. You need warm tortillas for the best taco experience. Soft and pliable tacos are where it’s at. We like using a tortilla warmer but you can just wrap your tortillas up in slightly damp paper towels and pop them in the microwave for 30 seconds. You can also char them on the stove for some crispy edges or lightly frying them on a nonstick skillet.
- Fill the tacos. Be generous and top up your tacos with beef and a little drizzle of the consomé that the beef cooked in.
- Top it up. Finish off your tacos with some toppings. Classic is chopped cilantro and onions, but you can go with anything you like. We added some pickled onions and sliced jalapeños. Don’t forget the hot sauce!
For barbacoa de res, the meat is traditionally beef brisket, but you can choose any kind you like. Because it’s a stew, you want a cheaper cut that has some connective tissue and a little fat. The best cuts of beef that are ideal for stewing are: chuck, brisket, shank, cheek, and short ribs. The recipe specifies just one cut, but I usually do a combination of two or more, usually chuck and short ribs for some richness.
Instant Pot Barbacoa
This recipe is best made in the Instant Pot because it’s easy, fast, and it locks in flavor. It’s truly a one pot, set and forget kind of affair.
Slow cooker barbacoa
If you don’t have an Instant Pot, you can make this in a crockpot or other slow cooker. Saute the onions first on high heat, then add the rest of the ingredients and set to low heat for 4-6 hours, until the beef is tender and shreddable.
Saute the onions over med-high in a deep stockpot, then add the rest of the ingredients. Cover slightly ajar and turn down to a bare simmer for 4-6 hours, until the beef is tender and shreddable. Keep an eye on the liquid level by checking back every hour or so, adding more beef broth as necessary.
This is the same as stovetop with the bonus advantage that you don’t need to worry about it ever burning. Saute the onions over med-high in an oven proof pot such as a dutch oven, then add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and place in a 300ºF 4-6 hours, until the beef is tender and shreddable.
What to serve with barbacoa
Tacos filled with juicy, soft and tender beef coated in a savory red chile sauce that has just a tiny hint of spice and a huge hit of flavor.
- 2 lbs beef cheek, brisket, short ribs, shank, chuck roast, or mix
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 dried guajillo peppers
- 6 cloves garlic
- 2 tsp dried oregano Mexican preferred
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1/4 cup beef stock low sodium preferred
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1 medium onion diced
- 3 bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 cup beef stock low sodium preferred
- 12-16 4″ corn or flour tortillas or more as needed
- 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 lime cut into wedges
- 2-4 jalapeños sliced
Bring a pot of water to a boil and then remove from heat. Soak your dried guajillo peppers for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cube the beef and season all sides with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Add marinade ingredients to the blender. When the peppers are done soaking, hold them by the tip over the sink and use scissors to cut the stem off and allow the seeds to fall out, then add to blender. Blend into a smooth paste and rub all over the beef. Marinate for a minimum of two hours or up to overnight.
Set your Instant Pot on saute high. Add 1-2 tbsp oil, then saute the onions until golden and translucent (6-8 minutes). See notes for stovetop or crockpot instructions.
Add the meat with the marinade, bay leaves, and cloves to the pot. Barely cover with beef broth, then set to high pressure for 45 minutes.
When the Instant Pot is done, allow a natural release, then remove the meat from the consomé and shred. Spoon some of the consomé onto the beef after you’ve shredded it.
Make the tacos: warm the tortillas and build the tacos: a generous amount of barbacoa beef, and toppings. Enjoy immediately.
Estimated nutrition doesn’t include tortillas, toppings, or consomé.
Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 173
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 6.9g43%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.