What Meat is Barbacoa Beef? An Overview of This Classic Mexican Dish

Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican dish that has become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years. Known for its signature smoky, spicy flavors, barbacoa beef makes a delicious taco or burrito filling. But what exactly is barbacoa and what type of meat is used to make it? This article will uncover the origins of barbacoa, the different meats that can be used, and how to make authentic barbacoa at home.

What is Barbacoa?

The term “barbacoa” originally comes from the Caribbean Taino people and referred to meats cooked over an open fire or pit. When barbacoa was brought over and adopted in Mexico, it evolved into a specific cooking technique where meat is slow-cooked and smoked in a pit in the ground.

Traditional barbacoa is a labor-intensive process involving digging a pit, lining it with maguey or banana leaves, placing the meat inside, covering it, and slow-cooking it over a wood fire for many hours. The meat essentially steams and smokes while sealed in the pit.

While still made this way for special occasions in Mexico, home cooks have adapted barbacoa for the stovetop or oven by braising the meat in a flavorful sauce or broth until fall-apart tender. No matter how it’s prepared, the hallmarks of great barbacoa are meat that is incredibly tender and infused with a smoky, spicy chili flavor.

What Meat is Used for Barbacoa?

The most common meat used for barbacoa in Mexico is beef, particularly cuts like brisket, chuck roast, or beef cheeks. However, traditional barbacoa can also be made from lamb, goat, or mutton. The key is using a tougher, collagen-rich cut that becomes tender after the long cooking time.

In the U.S., barbacoa is almost always associated with beef, likely because it’s the most readily available. Good beef cuts for barbacoa include:

  • Chuck Roast – Well-marbled for moisture and flavor. The shoulder location gives it great collagen.

  • Brisket – Another nicely marbled cut ideal for braising. Often used for Texas-style barbacoa.

  • Beef Cheeks – Very tender with fat and connective tissue. Can be costly.

  • Beef Shank – Lots of collagen makes it perfect for shredding.

  • Short Ribs – Similar to beef cheeks. Gelatinous and flavorful.

  • Flank Steak – A leaner cut that works if sliced thin across the grain.

The key when selecting beef cuts for barbacoa is to choose options with marbling and connective tissue. This allows the meat to remain moist while becoming incredibly tender. Avoid super lean cuts like eye of round that will dry out.

Other Meats for Barbacoa

While beef might be the most popular, barbacoa can be made from other meats as well:

  • Lamb – Lamb barbacoa is common in Mexico. Use shoulder or leg.

  • Goat – Another traditional choice. Opt for meat from the leg.

  • Mutton – Meat from a mature sheep. Can substitute goat.

  • Pork – Works well for a Mexican pork dish called cochinita pibil.

  • Chicken – Shredded chicken makes a lighter-style barbacoa.

  • Turkey – Ground or shredded turkey can be substituted.

  • Venison – For a gamey twist. Use shoulder or hindquarters.

When choosing alternative meats, opt for cuts with higher fat content and connective tissue for best results. Goat leg, lamb shoulder, and pork shoulder are all excellent options.

How to Make Barbacoa at Home

Traditional barbacoa is a serious undertaking, but homemade barbacoa can absolutely be adapted for the oven or slow cooker. Here is a simple recipe and process:


  • 3 pounds beef chuck roast
  • 2 ancho chiles, rehydrated and chopped
  • 1 chipotle chili canned in adobo
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Combine chiles, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, beef broth, vinegar, and spices in a blender. Puree until smooth.

  2. Place beef chuck roast in a slow cooker and cover with the pureed sauce. Add bay leaves.

  3. Cook on low for 8-10 hours until extremely tender.

  4. Remove roast from slow cooker and shred with two forks.

  5. Return shredded beef to the slow cooker and toss with sauce to coat.

  6. Serve barbacoa beef in tacos, burritos, tortas, or quesadillas. Top with your favorite fixings like onions, cilantro, lime, salsa, etc.

With this easy oven or slow cooker method, you can enjoy authentic tasting barbacoa without needing to dig a pit in your backyard. The key is using a flavorful blend of smoky dried chiles, warm Mexican spices, and broth to braise the beef low and slow until melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Toppings and Serving Suggestions

Barbacoa makes an incredible taco filling, but it also shines in these serving ideas:

  • Tacos – Top with cilantro, onion, queso fresco, salsa
  • Burritos – Add rice, beans, lettuce, guacamole
  • Tostadas – Layer on crispy corn tortillas with cheese, cabbage, crema
  • Tortas – Pile barbacoa on crusty sandwich rolls with avocado
  • Nachos – Drizzle with queso and bake for loaded nachos
  • Salads – Toss with greens, corn, peppers, avocado
  • Enchiladas – Roll in tortillas and smother with sauce and cheese
  • Quesadillas – Stuff in tortillas with Oaxaca cheese
  • Plates – Serve with Mexican rice, beans, salad

Barbacoa is also delicious on its own accompanied by warm tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro, and lime wedges for squeezing over the top. Get creative with how you use this versatile shredded meat!


What is the difference between barbacoa and birria?

Birria is another Mexican meat dish that is prepared similarly to barbacoa but has some key differences. Birria is specific to the state of Jalisco, while barbacoa is made all over Mexico. Birria meat is cooked in a pot along with a seasoned broth and then finished by simmering in the sauce. Barbacoa meat is simply smoked or braised solo.

What spices are used to season barbacoa?

The traditional spices and flavors in barbacoa seasoning include a blend of dried chili peppers like guajillo, ancho, and chipotle along with garlic, cumin, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, and Mexican oregano.

Is barbacoa spicy?

It can be! Barbacoa ranges from mildly spicy to very spicy depending on the types and amounts of dried chilies used in the sauce. Chipotle chilies in adobo and guajillo pack the most heat.

What is in barbacoa sauce?

A typical homemade barbacoa sauce contains blended dried chilies, garlic, beef broth, vinegar or lime juice, cumin, oregano, cloves, bay leaves, and salt. Some recipes also include tomatoes.

What do you put on barbacoa tacos?

Toppings for barbacoa tacos include chopped onion, cilantro, queso fresco or cotija cheese, salsa, guacamole, shredded cabbage, diced tomato, and lime wedges.


Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican meat dish made by slow cooking less tender cuts of meat until fork tender and flavorful. While many different proteins can be used, beef is the most popular choice, especially chuck roast, brisket, and beef cheeks. At home, barbacoa can be made in a slow cooker or oven by braising the meat in a sauce of dried chilies, spices, broth, and vinegar. This imparts the signature smoky, spicy flavors. Shredded barbacoa makes an incredible taco filling and serves as a versatile addition to many Mexican recipes. Now that you know exactly what meat is used for authentic barbacoa, you can whip up this hearty braise for a taste of Mexico at home. ¡Buen provecho!

BARBACOA “ESPECIAL” HOMEMADE RECIPE – Slow Cooked Beef Cheeks + Lengua


What cut of meat is barbacoa?

In the US, people typically make barbacoa with chuck roast, brisket and beef cheeks. However, any cut of beef that has a lot of connective tissue and takes a long time to cook until tender works well.

What does barbacoa beef taste 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.

Is barbacoa an organ meat?

After cooking, the meat and various organs – sweetbreads, eyes and even brains – would be stripped out and served as “barbacoa.”

Is barbacoa made from cheek meat?

Make the most incredible smoked beef barbacoa with beef cheeks and just three other ingredients. Traditional barbacoa is made by taking an entire cow head, wrapping it in maguey leaves, burying in the ground to cook and then picking all the meat from the skull.

Leave a Comment