Mostly about food, this blog is just a place for me to throw things that are of interest to me. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by an look around. This represents just some of the stops on the various pathways that this amateur home cook finds himself.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Contrary to some beliefs, barbacoa (bar-bah-COE-ah) is not Spanish for barbecue. Fairly well-known in South Texas and along the Mexican border, it remains either unknown or poorly-copied in most other areas of the country. After telling you the old way of preparing it, I'll show you a much simpler way that is every bit as good but much less work.

Traditional barbacoa de cabeza is made form a whole cow's head, which may be more of a challenge than most people want to take on! The head is then cleaned, eyes, ears and tongue removed, and then sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. Then it is combined with chopped onions, garlic and maybe cilantro, wrapped in a burlap sack, then wrapped well in maguey leaves. A large hole in the ground is dig, and a large hardwood fire built in in. Once that is reduced to coals, the wrapped head is placed in it and covered with more leaves, dirt, and more coals. Then the whole thing is buried under more dirt and left alone all day, or even over night. The next day, you dig it up, and shred off all the meat you can. Quite a large production, but there is a simpler yet just as tasty method.

Barbacoa isn't just braised or baked beef, and it isn't pot roast made from a cow's head. What really gives barbacoa it's unique taste and texture is the quality of the fat and connective tissue that is unique to that part of the animal. Around here, you can generally buy barbacoa two ways - regular or all meat. The only difference is that the all meat barbacoa does not contain all the little glands and other parts which come from the head, it is only the meat itself. Call me a wuss, but I go the all-meat route. Unfortunately, many places serve 'barbacoa' made from all different parts of the cow - I've even heard of it being made from chuck roast or even bottom round and brisket! That's a shame, because the best and easiest way to make it only takes a little effort to locate just the right ingredient.
Above is a shot of two cryovac bags of cheek meat, about 3.5 lbs. each. Most of the good solid meat from the head comes from the cheek muscles, which obviously get a lot of exercise, as cows spend most of their lives eating. It's meat, just like a roast is meat, so there's no need to be squeamish about it. Ask your butcher, or in supermarkets that serve an Hispanic population, and you can find beef cheeks for sale fairly reasonably - these I picked up for $2.39/lb. Now I have to warn you, it doesn't look like a roast or steak might - it's pretty ugly stuff. But you can easily see that the fat and other tissue looks different that you are used to seeing, and that is what gives real barbacoa that special taste and mouth-feel. Nothing else will do, because like I said before, we aren't making pot roast here.
Preparation is simplicity. For each couple of lbs of meat you chop up one whole large onion, and add a rounded teaspoon of minced garlic. The recipe is scale-able for whatever amount of meat you use. Here I have used three very large onions, tossed in the garlic, and am sauteing it for a bit in some vegetable oil.
Once the onions are a bit translucent, in goes the meat. Some people say to remove the silver skin, hard fat and other things before cooking, but I find it much easier afterward. Water is added to almost cover, the pot is brought to a boil and then reduced to a simmer. Then the waiting game begins. This batch cooked for about 6 hours, or until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the meat reached about 200 degrees. You'll need to check occasionally to keep the liquid level up.
Once the meat is falling apart, you remove it from the cooking liquid. Reserve the liquid and strain out the vegetables.
Once it cools, you can shred the meat off of the remaining connective tissue, silver skin and other non-edibles. Nothing works better for this than hands; be prepared to spend a little time here so you don't miss any of the good stuff. Once shredded, the barbacoa will have a tendency to dry out rather quickly. I put the reserved strained liquid back in the pot, and add the meat back in. This will keep it tasty and moist, and you can serve it by straining or squeezing it out.
Barbacoa is a dish with a light and unique taste this can be lost if served among a lot of other flavors, like in enchiladas or other heavy sauces or salsas. Not that it wouldn't be good, but you'd miss some of the flavor nuances. Now on to the tortillas.
Since often corn tortillas can be rather delicate if just heated in a microwave, I give them a quick dip for just a few seconds in hot oil before serving. Just wait for the small bubbles in the tortilla and pull it out of the grease.
You don't want them crispy, but it gives them some firmness and keeps the tacos from falling apart. If you hear crunching when you fold them in half to drain, they might be overcooked. Just make sure and drain them well on paper towels.

In it's most traditional form, it is served on corn tortillas and topped with salt and pepper and sliced onions and chopped fresh cilantro leaves, then finished with a drizzle of lime juice. Sometimes, a simple fresh Pico de Gallo goes well. The meat is the focus, and all the waiting proves very worthwhile from the first bite. Here is a shot of the finished dish, prepared and served in the traditional style.
Barbacoa freezes very well, so preparing a large batch and saving some in vacuum sealed bags works well for always having it on hand when you want some! Here is 3 lbs. of today's batch headed for the freezer.
Oh, and that juice you reserved? Drizzle some of that on your dog's dinner and see how much he loves it!


Anonymous said...

OH My Goodness!

Jeanette said...

I was so glad to find your recipe for Babacoa! Even though I have lived in south Texas all my life I just got around to trying it. I will definitely be making Barbacoa soon!

Monica Escamilla said...

Thank you so much for this recipe. I am a Native south Texan living in Colorado and missing some of this amazing food. I cant believe how easy it is.

Mark said...

I'm glad you all are enjoying this! I need to post more often - keep on reading!

gloria morelos said...

Thanks for sharing! I have steamed tongue & cheek meat....delicious! I will definitely have to try this.