Anyone for ultra-juicy Mexican pulled beef tossed in a chipotle-spiced sauce? Use this Beef Barbacoa for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, taquitos – the possibilities are endless. This is a slow cooker version and is simple to put together. Which means … effortless. YES!
Hailing from Mexico and the Caribbean, Beef Barbacoa is a dish of meat that’s traditionally slow-cooked – often in pits – with seasonings or a light broth until very tender. As with many well-known ethnic dishes, Barbacoa made its way across borders into the Western world, where it has evolved into a dish of soft, shreddable meat that’s much more boldly flavoured.
Made famous by the Tex-Mex chain Chipotle in the US, Western-style Beef Barbacoa has got a fair kick of spiciness from chipotles, a subtle smokiness, hint of spices (the cloves really sets it apart from other pulled Mexican beef), and uniquely, a good amount of tang from vinegar.
The beef is cooked until fall-apart-tender, then prised apart gently with forks before being tossed with the full-flavoured braising liquid.
Moistened and flavoured by the sauce, the meat is rich and extremely versatile. Use it for filling anything from tacos to burritos, enchiladas to quesadillas. I’m a big fan!
What Beef Barbacoa tastes like
Beef Barbacoa is slightly tangy with a subtle but distinct spicing. It’s not too chilli-hot, though to be fair, sometimes chipotles vary in heat!
The unique thing about Barbacoa is the slight tartness of the sauce from vinegar and lime, which cuts through the rich meat, and the warmth from cloves. This is what sets it apart from other Mexican braised beef fillings like my other Mexican Shredded Beef and everybody’s favourite 80’s-style Beef Taco Filling (we will never let this go!).
What goes in Beef Barbacoa
Here’s what you need for the Barbacoa Sauce:
Chipotles in adobo – The key flavouring here! Chipotles are dried and smoked jalapeno peppers. In tinned formed, they usually come in a tangy and spicy red sauce called adobo. You get smoky flavour and heat from the chipotle along with a good kick of spices, garlic and other flavourings from the adobo.
Sometimes dishes use both the adobo sauce and the chilli. We’re just using the chipotle chilli today;
Dark ale/beer OR beef stock – The original recipe for this Beef Barbacoa from my friend Kevin at Kevin is Cooking is made using beef broth/stock. Usually I make it the original way but I gave it a crack using beer and loved the subtle extra layer of flavour it brings to the all-important-sauce, so I decided to offer that up as an alternative.
For a dish like this, you can’t really go wrong with the type of beer you use. Dark ales are a great match for the sauce colour and deep flavours going on here (I used an Australian brand called White Rabbit, pictured above), but even an everyday lager or other ale will work great. A stout such as Guinness which we use for say Beef & Guinness Stew, would make the sauce flavours even richer.
Bonus points if you can get Mexican dark beer like the excellent Negra Modelo. We used to be able to get this at Dan Murphy’s in Australia but I haven’t seen it for a while;
Cider vinegar and lime juice – Both give this dish the distinctive tang that makes it Beef Barbacoa rather than just a standard Mexican pulled beef (not that there is anything generic about any well-made Mexican shredded beef!);
Spices and herbs – Cumin, oregano, cloves and bay leaves for our seasonings. The cloves in particular give this dish a unique flavour;
Garlic – Because Mexican food loves garlic as much as I do.
Best beef for Beef Barbacoa: Beef cheeks
As mentioned earlier, this Beef Barbacoa is a Tex-Mex version which is more boldly flavoured than its traditional counterpart.
In addition to extra flavour, the other difference is the cut of beef used. The Tex-Mex version tends to use beef cheeks. This cut yields pulled beef that is outrageously tender but also remains succulent and juicy, thanks to the fine fat marbling and ample connective tissue that breaks down with slow cooking into rich, lip-sticking gelatin.
Alternatives: Beef chuck or boneless Short Rib
While beef cheeks produce the best result for this dish, you’ll find most recipes call for beef chuck as a more accessible alternative. This cut of beef is not as well marbled, so it is not quite as juicy. However the cut is a popular choice for pulled beef dishes, and I regularly use it for things like Italian ragu.
For chuck, look for a piece that’s nicely marbled with fat for the juiciest result.
Boneless beef short rib would make a terrific alternative that’s almost as juicy as beef cheeks, as long as you can find ones without overly thick layers of fat in the meat.
I recommend avoiding leaner slow-cooking beef cuts such as bolar blade, lean brisket. The meat will tend to be rather dry and ropey.
How to make Beef Barbacoa
Three simple steps:
Brown the beef;
Blitz the sauce;
Slow-cook until fall-apart tender!
And yes, I know I’ve shown EIGHT steps below!
Season & brown the meat – Sprinkle the beef with a generous amount of salt and pepper (we do not add any into the sauce), then brown aggressively. I use that word intentionally! Colour equals flavour in both the beef and the sauce, so don’t hold back here. (Well, don’t burn it, but seek a deep golden crust alllll over each piece!)
TIP: Don’t crowd the pan, or the beef will stew rather than brown. Work in batches. Meat also cooks faster when it has room;
Sauce – Place all the Sauce ingredients in a Nutribullet, blender, food processor, or other blending appliance;
Blitz until smooth – This is quick, maybe 10 seconds on high;
Slow-cook – Pour Sauce over beef in the slow cooker. Slow-cook for 8 hours on low to make the beef “fall-apart-at-a-touch” tender. (Alternative cooking methods: Slow cooker set on high – 6 hours; oven – 3 – 3.5 hours covered, Instant Pot/pressure cooker – 1 hour);
Remove beef from the sauce;
Shred meat using forks – Tip: Use the back rather than front of the fork so the meat doesn’t get stuck in the prongs. Yes, ignore the photos – follow the video!;
Sauce it! Toss the shredded beef together with the sauce from the slow cooker. How much to use is up to you. I usually douse it with 4 big ladles. Yes, the sauce seems somewhat watery but it’s meant to be. It’s got plenty of flavour in it so you don’t need lots when stuffed into tacos etc;
Use for tacos, stuffed into burritos, taquitos, enchiladas, quesadillas, make burrito bowls! I’ve provided some easy adaptable recipe links and a bit more guidance on this below. 🙂 Click here to jump to this section.
How to serve Barbacoa Beef
Barbacoa is a Tex-Mex meat filling you can use for almost any Mexican Dish. Here are just a few ideas, including links to recipes where you can switch out the protein with this Barbacoa.
1. Barbacoa Tacos
Pictured in this post! I’ve included:
Flour tortillas – Given a quick char in hot, dry skillet;
Pickled red cabbage from this Fish Tacos recipe;
Lime crema – Crema is a slightly tangy, creamy Mexican condiment. My lime crema version is made with sour cream, lime zest and juice, a tiny amount of garlic and a touch of water for thinning (to make it drizzle-able, if that is a word!); and
Fresh coriander/cilantro leaves – Rarely does a taco get made in this household without it!
Or go the retro version like in these old-school Beef Mince Tacos: iceberg lettuce, tomato, sour cream, shredded cheese and CRISPY corn tortillas!
Switch out the beef in my Beef Burritos recipe with this Beef Barbacoa.
Add 1 can of black beans + 1 can of corn (drained) to the meat, plus some extra Barbacoa sauce. Toss well and use to make Beef Enchiladas. ie replace the ground beef filling in that recipe.
Use as the protein in Quesadillas. Follow this recipe here. Mix and match fillings!
5. Burrito Bowls
Make Burrito Bowls with:
Pickled red cabbage from this Fish Tacos recipe or even just plain sliced iceberg lettuce (there’s nothing 80’s about that! 😂);
A big scoop of fresh Pico de Gallo;
Avocado – Diced, sliced or else go the whole way and make it Guacamole;
Lime Crema – per #1 (Barbacoa Tacos) above, or even just plain sour cream; and
Fresh coriander/cilantro leaves
That’s just a few ideas to get you started. For some more inspiration, have a browse through all my Mexican recipes!
My standard fallback use: Mexican Sliders!
Then of course, there’s the good ol’ fallback that I always mention: stuffing into warm rolls, melt some cheese on top under the grill. It’s sliders, Mexican-style. SO GOOD! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Beef Barbacoa – Mexican Pulled Beef for Tacos and everything!
- 2kg / 4 lb beef cheeks , or chuck beef(see Note 1)
- 1 tsp salt , kosher/cooking
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil , for searing
- 4 bay leaves
- 4 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (Note 2)
- 3/4 cup dark ale (beer), or low sodium beef broth/stock (Note 3)
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 4 tbsp lime juice
- 6 garlic cloves
- 4 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- Cut beef: Cut large cheeks in half so you have around 12 – 15 pieces cheeks. If using chuck, cut into 12 or so pieces.
- Season: Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Brown beef: Heat oil in a large pot or skillet over high heat. Sear beef in batches, browning aggressively all over. Place beef in slow cooker.
- Blitz sauce: Place Barbacoa Sauce ingredients in a blender, food processor or similar (I use a Nutribullet). Blend until smooth – it shouldn't take long.
- Slow cooker (see Note 4 for alt. cooking methods): Pour sauce over cheeks in slow cooker. Add bay leaves. Arrange cheeks so they are submerged as much as possible. Don't worry, they will release juice as they cook and raise the liquid level.
- Slow-cook for 8 hours on low. The beef should be effortless to shred when done.
- Shred: Remove cheeks from slow cooker into a pan. Shred using 2 forks.
- Sauce: Pour over 3 or 4 ladles of the sauce, then toss.
- Slow cooker on high: 6 hours
- Instant Pot/Pressure Cooker: 1 hr on high
- Oven: 160°C/320°F (140°C fan) for 3 to 3 1/2 hours (cover tightly with foil)
- 1/2 cup sour cream (full fat)
- 2 tsp lime juice (adj to taste)
- 1/2 tsp lemon zest
- 1/8 tsp garlic, finely grated using microplane (or garlic crusher)
- Pinch of salt
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