What is Barbacoa & How to Make It

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Barbacoa refers to a cooking method that traditionally involved slow cooking meat over an open fire in a pit lined with hot rocks, although people today may use a grill or slow cooker. Barbacoa calls for unique seasonings and wrapping the meat in leaves to trap heat and smoke. The result: tender, flavorful meat that is often shredded and served in tacos, burritos or other dishes. 

Most people in the United States know barbacoa from the menu at authentic Mexican restaurants. But while associated with Mexican cuisine, food historians agree barbacoa likely began in the islands of the Caribbean Sea and later spread around the world. But it flourished in Mexico, where over the years it evolved into a specific style focused on sealing moisture and tenderness in the meat while imbuing it with a smoky flavor.

The best barbacoa starts with the best cut of meat. Acabonac Farms offers high-quality, ethically-sourced grass-fed beef and grass-fed lamb that provides you with the most flavorful, nutritious meat for barbacoa.

Key Takeaways

  • Barbacoa is a slow-cooking technique originally from the Caribbean and popularized in Mexico.
  • It has evolved and varies by region, incorporating different meats and spices.
  • Barbacoa is celebrated in various cultures for its unique flavor and communal preparation.
  • You can use the barbacoa cooking method at home with the right equipment and high-quality meat. 

What is Barbacoa?

Originating in the indigenous cultures of the Caribbean, barbacoa has evolved into a beloved delicacy celebrated for its tender, succulent flavors and deep-rooted cultural significance. The term "barbacoa" is believed to have originated from the Taíno word "barabicu," which refers to a wooden structure used for cooking meat over an open flame. Over time, the tradition spread to Mexico, Central America and South America, with each region infusing its own unique seasonings and techniques. 

Today, barbacoa holds a cherished place in the culinary landscape, revered for its authenticity and depth of flavor. It is significant in Mexican cooking traditions, serving as a culinary symbol of heritage, community and celebration. Barbacoa is a staple of Mexico's vibrant street food culture, where vendors specialize in preparing and selling barbacoa tacos, quesadillas and other dishes. 

Like barbecue in America, barbacoa is associated with festive celebrations and family gatherings. But there are differences between the two beyond cooking methods. For example, barbacoa typically involves using beef, lamb and goat, while barbecue encompasses a wider range of meats. The flavor profile of barbacoa is also different, with seasoning from a blend of spices such as garlic, onion, cumin and oregano, along with citrus juices like lime or orange. American barbecue, on the other hand, features a variety of dry rubs, marinades and barbecue sauces. 

What is the Difference Between Birria and Barbacoa?

Birria is a traditional Mexican dish that originated in the northern Mexican province of Jalisco. At its core, birria is a flavorful stew typically made with tender, slow-cooked meat, most commonly goat or beef, although variations with lamb, pork or chicken can be found. The hallmark of birria is its rich and aromatic broth infused with a blend of dried chilies, herbs and spices.

While both birria and barbacoa require slow-cooked meat, there are differences. Birria is typically simmered in broth, while barbacoa is cooked over a fire or in a slow cooker. The flavor profiles also differ. Birria is characterized by spicy broth with notes of dried chilies, garlic and aromatic spices, which differs from the rich, smoky taste with hints of citrus and spices found with barbacoa.

Birria and barbacoa are also served differently. Birria is served as a stew in bowls along with the broth and fresh toppings such as diced onions, cilantro and lime wedges. Barbacoa is typically shredded for tacos and burritos, or served on its own with cilantro, onions, salsa and avocado.

what is barbacoa meat

What Kind of Meat is Barbacoa?

When making barbacoa, choosing the right cut of beef is crucial to achieving great results. Here are some of the best cuts of beef for making barbacoa:

Beef cheek

Beef cheek is a popular choice for barbacoa due to its rich flavor and abundance of collagen, which breaks down during slow cooking, resulting in incredibly tender meat. It's often considered one of the best cuts for achieving authentic barbacoa texture and taste.

Chuck roast

Chuck roast is another excellent option for barbacoa, thanks to its well-marbled meat and connective tissue. Slow-cooking this cut allows the fat to render, infusing the meat with tastiness and creating a succulent texture.


Brisket is a flavorful and relatively fatty cut of beef that becomes incredibly tender when cooked low and slow. It's well-suited for barbacoa, as the long cooking process allows the tough muscle fibers in beef brisket to break down, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth meat.

Short Ribs

Short ribs are known for their rich, beefy flavor and succulent texture. Slow-cooking beef short ribs in a barbacoa marinade allows the meat to become tender and juicy, making them a delicious choice for this dish.

London Broil

While not a traditional cut for barbacoa, London Broil can be used as an alternative. This lean cut of beef, typically cut from the flank or top round, benefits from the slow-cooking process and can absorb the marinade well. However, due to its leanness, it may not be as tender as the other cuts mentioned above.

Barbacoa Recipe Substitutions

Alternative meat choices for barbacoa include goat and lamb. There is even a variation of barbacoa in the southern region of Yucatan called cochinita pibil that is made from pork.

How to Make Barbacoa: Step-by-Step Guide

Once you’ve selected a high-quality cut of meat for barbacoa cooking, it’s time to get in the kitchen. Here is a step-by-step guide to making barbacoa.

1. Prepare the Meat

While some fat is desirable for flavor and juiciness, too much fat can result in greasy barbacoa. Trim any excess fat from the meat, leaving a thin layer to enhance taste and help retain moisture.

Some common spices and seasonings used in authentic Mexican barbacoa include garlic, onion, cumin, oregano, bay leaves and dried chiles (such as guajillo, ancho and pasilla). Citrus juice, such as lime or orange juice, helps tenderize the meat and brighten the flavors. Other simple additions include black pepper, salt, cloves and a dash of cinnamon. This can be combined into a marinade that the meat sits in for at least eight hours in the refrigerator. Massage the marinade into the meat thoroughly, ensuring it coats all surfaces evenly.

2. Wrap the Meat

Traditional barbacoa cooking involves wrapping the meat with maguey or banana leaves for added flavor and moisture retention. Wrapping the meat traps steam and infuses the meat with a subtle, earthy tang. Some people use foil to accomplish this. If using banana leaves, briefly pass them over an open flame to soften them before wrapping the meat.

3. Choose the Cooking Method

Digging a pit, building a cooking fire and placing the meat on a rack within the pit may or may not be an option. If so, go for it. If not, find another method to cook the meat low and slow, allowing the cut to tenderize and develop its signature melt-in-your-mouth texture. You can achieve similar results using a slow cooker, oven or grill. You can also use a pressure cooker if you need to cook faster.

4. Cook Low and Slow

Regardless of the cooking method, the key to barbacoa is to cook it low and slow. If pit cooking, build a fire and allow it to burn down to hot coals. Place the wrapped meat in a pit dug into the ground or in a covered grill, and cook it slowly over low heat for several hours until the meat is tender and easily shreds with a fork. If using an oven, slow cooker or pressure cooker, follow the manufacturer's instructions for cooking times and temperatures.

5. Baste or Add Liquid

If desired, baste the meat with your marinade periodically during cooking to keep it moist and enhance its flavor. You can also add additional liquid, such as beef broth or water, to the cooking vessel to prevent the meat from drying out.

6. Check for Doneness

After several hours of cooking, the fork test is typically all you need to ensure the meat is cooked. It should be tender and easy to pull apart with a fork. If the meat is not yet tender, continue cooking it until it reaches the desired consistency. 

7. Rest Before Serving

Once the meat is cooked, remove it from the heat and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. This allows the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat, ensuring that each bite is moist and flavorful.

Best Modern Barbacoa Recipes

Barbacao is associated with tacos and burritos, but it can be enjoyed in many creative ways.

Barbacoa quesadillas

Cover flour tortillas with a layer of cheese, shredded barbacoa beef, diced onion and chopped cilantro. Fold in half and heat in a skillet over medium heat until the  tortillas are golden brown and crispy and the cheese is melted.

Barbacoa beef burrito bowls

Barbacoa beef is served atop a bed of rice and black beans, accompanied by a variety of toppings such as diced avocado, salsa, shredded lettuce and sour cream.

Barbacoa beef nachos

Elevate your game-day nachos with this fun and flavorful twist on traditional nachos. Top tortilla chips with tender barbacoa beef, melted cheese, black beans, diced tomatoes, jalapeños and avocado slices. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly, then garnish with fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.

Barbacoa-stuffed bell peppers

Hollow out bell peppers and fill them with shredded barbacoa beef mixed with cooked rice, black beans, corn, diced tomatoes and cheese. Bake until the peppers are tender and the filling is heated through, then garnish with fresh cilantro and a drizzle of lime crema.

Barbacoa hash

Yes, you can have barbacoa for breakfast or brunch. Mix shredded barbacoa beef with diced potatoes, bell peppers, onions and spices. Cook everything in a skillet until the potatoes are crispy and the flavors blend. You can top with fried eggs and avocado slices to complete a satisfying and delicious meal.

A wide variety of sides pair well with barbacoa. They include Mexican rice, which has tomatoes, onions, garlic and spices. The rice provides a hearty and flavorful base for the tender meat. You can serve guacamole, which has a coolness that balances the richness of the meat. Warm corn tortillas can complement the savory meat, while grilled vegetables or a tossed salad also pair well. Other sides to consider include salsa, pickled red onions and cilantro lime crema.

Tips for Making Barbacoa

Cooking barbacoa beef requires certain essential equipment that is needed in every cook’s kitchen if they work with meat. They include tongs and meat forks, a sharp knife and cutting board and a basting brushing to apply marinade as the barbacoa cooks. It’s also important to have banana leaves or foil that you can use to wrap the meat. 

You may or may not have the space to dig a fire pit. Many choose to use an outdoor grill instead of a pit. If outdoor cooking is not an option, a Dutch oven or slow cooker is ideal for cooking barbacoa meat.  An instant pot or pressure cooker works if cooking time is limited.

While cooking barbacoa is relatively straightforward, there are common mistakes to avoid. Choosing the wrong cut of meat tops the list. A close second is cooking the meat at too high a temperature - the idea is to cook slow and low. Another mistake rookies make is skipping the marinade. Take a cue from ancient cultures who knew it was wise to take the time and rub a good marinade into the cut of meat, making it more tender and flavorful.

As with all cooking, it’s important to not get distracted. Cooks who fail to monitor the process stand a good chance of overcooking the meat, ruining a great cut of beef or lamb by making it mushy or dry. Barbacoa requires patience and attention to detail. Monitor the cooking process closely, adjusting the heat as needed and checking the meat periodically to ensure it's cooking evenly.

Where to Buy the Best Meat to Make Barbacoa at Home

Barbacao is a popular cooking method because of its rich tradition and the flavorful, tender meat it produces. For those who love cooking, it’s a wonderful tradition to explore. Acabonac Farms is the perfect place to start to find the right cut of quality meat. You’ll find a wide variety of meat for use in barbacoa, including beef, lamb and pork.

Making authentic barbacoa requires using authentic beef. We offer 100% grass-fed beef from our farm that uses sustainable and regenerative farming practices. Our goal is to produce nutritious and healthy products while also using an approach that sustains and replenishes the environment. Our premium cuts, including grass-fed brisket, grass-fed short ribs, london broil and pasture-raised lamb, are ideal for slow-cooking methods like barbacoa. They're perfect for both seasoned barbacoa enthusiasts and those just discovering the cooking method.

Order online now to get the highest-quality local meats directly to your door

best meat for barbacoa

Frequently Asked Questions about Barbacoa

Is barbacoa the same as barbeque?

No. While both are traditionally cooked outside over a fire, barbacoa is a method developed in the Caribbean that calls for cooking meat low and slow over hot coals in a pit. The meat is wrapped in leaves to retain moisture and flavor. In addition to differences in cooking methods, barbacoa also typically has different spices and seasonings than barbecue, with an emphasis on garlic, onions, cumin, dried chilies and citrus juices.

What is the difference between barbacoa and carnitas?

Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican dish typically made by slow-cooking seasoned meat, most commonly beef, lamb or goat, over an open fire. Carnitas is a dish made from slow-cooked pork, typically pork shoulder, which is seasoned with salt and spices and simmered in lard until tender and crispy. The cooking process renders the pork fat, resulting in tender, juicy meat with crispy edges.

Can barbacoa be made with other types of meat besides beef?

Yes. Barbacoa cooking is often also used with lamb or goat.

How long does traditional barbacoa take to cook?

Cooking time depends on the cooking method, as well as the type of meat used and the size of the cut. When using a traditional method such as pit cooking, the process takes anywhere from four to eight hours. When using a slow cooker, barbacoa typically cooks on low heat for six to eight hours or on high heat for three to four hours, depending on the size of the cut. In a pressure cooker, barbacoa can be cooked in as little as 60 to 90 minutes.

Traditional barbacoa cooking methods require patience and time, but the result is tender, savoury meat that is well worth the wait.

Is barbacoa considered healthy?

The health value of barbacoa depends on various factors, including the ingredients used, portion sizes and individual dietary needs and preferences. To make the healthiest barbacoa, consider using lean cuts of meat, such as the 100% grass-fed beef from Acabonac Farms.

Where can I try authentic barbacoa?

Many Mexican restaurants offer barbacoa if you want to sample how it tastes. But the best barbacoa comes from your own kitchen or backyard, and starts with using the premium cuts of 100% grass-fed, ethically-sourced beef and lamb that you can find at Acabonac Farms. 

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