MEAT: Barbacoa

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

The original barbecue. INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019

RECIPE / Christina Perozzi

Even though I lived in Los Angeles for years, I didn’t discover barbacoa until I moved to Chicago. Very similar to the classic Mexican dish served at Birrieria Zaragoza. I heard that they made the best tacos in town. I also thought they served a lot of beer, since the word birrieria (which means a place that serves birria, a Mexican goat stew from the state of Jalisco) is so similar to the Italian word birreria (which means an alehouse). Birrieria Zaragoza makes birria tatemada, which is more of a steamed and then oven-roasted version.

Making the more widely known Mexican dish, barbacoa, is more of a DIY outdoor project than a recipe. Dig a pit, line the earth with stones and then maguey (agave) or banana leaves, and wrap big hunks of meat (beef cheeks, lamb) in the leaves. Pile wood on top, light the whole thing up, and when the embers are glowing good and hot, cover everything back up with dirt. Now, go to bed. Screw that! You can mimic the pit process in a Dutch oven and serve up the incredibly tender, chile-spiced meat anytime. –Christina Perozzi, EIC Ingrain


Barbacoa is often made from the head of the cow; in other areas of Mexico, lamb or goat is the go-to meat. I like beef cheeks, an incredibly flavorful cut, like a cross between a juicy brisket and gamey, meaty beef hearts. They deserve a low and slow cooking approach; cow cheek muscles put in long hours of chewing work. The chile adobo acts as a spicy, peppery braising liquid; after several hours, the barbacoa meat can be served straight from the pot, the chunks bathed in the sauce. Or you can shred the meat, pop it into tortillas, and drizzle the chile sauce on top.

Order cheeks from your butcher, or hit a Latin market for both the cheeks and banana leaves or more traditional maguey leaves. The latter is typically much less expensive and loads of fun ($3 chicken wings! Pi​ñata candy!). Plus, you can grab the chiles, Mexican oregano, and beer while you’re there.

Sear the banana (easy-ish to find and more flexible than agave) leaves over a gas flame like your stovetop (use tongs, please, not your fingers, to hold the leaves) or use a blowtorch.

Serves 8 to 10

2 large banana leaves

3 pounds beef cheeks

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

Vegetable oil

Chile sauce (recipe below)

1½ cups water

12 ounces pale ale

To serve: corn tortillas + white onion + cilantro


2 large banana leaves over gas burner or with a blowtorch for a few seconds on both sides until blackened in spots. Cut into 4 pieces. Trim 3 pounds beef cheeks of tough cartilage, if needed, and slice each in half so each lies flat like a book. Sprinkle meat generously with kosher salt + freshly ground pepper.


Large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Coat bottom of pot lightly with vegetable oil, pat beef cheeks dry with paper towels, and sear meat in batches until golden brown. (Be patient: This is your fire-pit-flavor stand-in.)


**Chile sauce + 1½ cups water + 12 ounces ale (312 Dry Hopped or similar) in Dutch oven and stir to combine. Wrap beef cheeks in charred leaves and nestle each package in the pot. (Don’t worry if beef is not fully enclosed by leaves.)


Chile sauce to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and partially cover the Dutch oven with the lid. Slowly cook beef cheeks until tender when pierced with a fork (they will likely be tender yet retain some firmness, not fall apart) and liquid has reduced to a thick sauce, 4 to 5 hours. Stir meat occasionally and add a little more water, if needed, if sauce has reduced by more than half after an hour or two.


Barbacoa immediately, or cool and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days. Skim any large pieces of fat from the surface of the chile sauce, rewarm if needed, and season with salt + pepper, to taste. Serve barbacoa with plenty of corn tortillas + white onion (finely chopped) + cilantro (chopped).


4 dried chiles (mix of guajillo + ancho)

4 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 canned chipotle chile en adobo

1 teaspoon oregano

2 cinnamon sticks (or 1 teaspoon ground)

1½ cups water


Stem and seeds from 4 dried chiles (mix of guajillo + ancho).


Chiles into large chunks and place in a blender with 4 garlic cloves + 1 tablespoon cider vinegar + 1 tablespoon brown sugar + 2 teaspoons kosher salt + 1 canned chipotle chile en adobo + 1 teaspoon oregano (Mexican, if you have it) + 2 cinnamon sticks (or 1 teaspoon ground) + 1½ cups water. Purée until smooth.

Grocery List: Barbacoa

What does barbacoa pair well with? Chiles rellenos.

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