Barbacoa is well-known for its irresistible melt-in-your-mouth texture and rich flavour. But what exactly is barbacoa? Here’s what you need to know about this classic Mexican dish.
What is barbacoa?
Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in the Dominican Republic with the Taíno people, who called it barbaca, from which the term barbacoa derives. This style of cooking eventually made its way to Mexico. The English term 'barbecue' comes from barbacoa, but these two words don't denote the same thing, despite their common origins. Barbacoa is a steaming/baking process, while barbecue involves cooking food over a grill.
The term 'barbacoa' refers to both the preparation of the meat and the meat itself.
In modern Mexico, it refers to beef, goat, lamb, mutton or pork slow-cooked over an open fire or, more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground and covered with agave leaves. However, the interpretation is vague, and nowadays barbacoa may refer to meat steamed until tender, juicy and succulent. It can be prepared over an open fire, on a stovetop or in a slow cooker.
What to make with barbacoa
The traditional Mexican way of eating barbacoa is to serve it with warm corn tortillas topped with salsa verde. They are filled with shredded meat and fried or deep-fried and then served topped with onion and cilantro, cream, guacamole, and/or spicy Mexican sauces.
You can also serve barbacoa over rice with whatever fresh veggies and ingredients you like – you can't go wrong with corn, black beans, green onions, tomatoes, avocados, and cilantro.
How to make barbacoa
A brick-lined oven, about 60 centimetres (23 inches) in diameter and about a meter (3 feet) deep, is dug into the ground. The bottom of the oven is filled with wood and burnt until the whole thing is red hot. A large pot is prepared with a bit of liquid (water and/or pulque with aromatic herbs and vegetables) and a grille underneath to prevent the meat from touching the bottom of the pot. The meat, wrapped in maguey leaves, is placed inside the pot and then topped with the animal’s stomach, into which the other edible organs are stuffed along with chiles, herbs, and spices. A metal sheet and a layer of earth cover the oven, and the meat is allowed to cook slowly overnight. When uncovered, the leaf-wrapped meat and organs are cooked to tender, succulent perfection, and the liquid has become a delicious soup.
Modern barbacoa can also be prepared in the oven or a slow cooker. Although the ingredients and the technique used could differ slightly – depending on the recipe – some steps are always the same. Here are a few guidelines:
Cooking it low and slow gives it maximum tenderness, juiciness, and flavour. A slow cooker certainly helps, but you can achieve the same result with a Dutch oven over low heat.
The meat is strongly seasoned in traditional barbacoa, so make sure you don't skimp on the spices.
Make wise choices when it comes to meat – most modern recipes call for beef chuck roast or brisket. Select a fatty meat that takes a long time to cook and break down.
While the preparations described above are common throughout Mexico, each region has its particular way of making barbacoa. There can be variations in the type of meat, the type of condiments, the wrapping material used – in some places, meat is wrapped in banana leaves instead of maguey leaves – as well as the method of baking or steaming. Cooking methods vary in different locations: barbacoa can be steamed in a large stove-top pot or roasted in a regular oven. Even vegetables, herbs, and spices range from naturally sweet orange juice and cloves through a variety of fresh and dried chilli peppers, all the way to bitter herbs and vinegar.
However, the common feature of all barbacoa is a long, slow cooking time and a result that is tender, easy to shred, and maintains its natural moisture.
Barbacoa is considered a delicacy, a gourmet dish for special occasions despite its unsophisticated ingredients and rustic appearance. Like many iconic meat recipes that are difficult to prepare, barbacoa is not something you'd find on a regular Mexican menu. Generally, you can enjoy the dish at three types of venues: traditional family-run restaurants or market stalls, local community groups that prepare it together (for example, during their town's patron saint celebration), and banquet halls or private residences where it is served at a wedding, quinceañera party, or other social events.
Oana Coantă, chef and co-owner of Bistro de l'Arte in Brașov, Romania, has dedicated over two centuries to honouring local traditions and ingredients. Find out how, plus what she wants to see from S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy finalists competing in the South East Europe and Mediterranean region, where she will judge.
Like Proust and his madeleines, the flavours of chefs' childhoods often evoke powerful memories and responses. Some Asian chefs have taken the snack-aisle treats of yore and reimagined them, with fascinating results. Kiki Aranita investigates.
It's BBQ time, and with that comes the irresistible caramelised char we get only from grilling - there really is nothing better than great company, hot weather, cold summer drinks and a smoking BBQ. Here's how to deliver the very best.