Gabriel Woods
Published by Gabriel Woods
Last Updated On: July 2, 2023

Ever since I first tried it at a restaurant, I’ve been eating barbacoa at least several times a month, so I decided to learn more about this meat and perfect my recipe.

Barbocoa is often labeled as braised beef in the US, but there’s much more to this dish. I’ve tried countless online recipes and talked with a friend chef to learn everything about barbacoa.

Today, I’ll explain what it is, what meat it’s made of, and the best way to make beef barbacoa.

Quick Summary

  • Barbacoa is a Spanish term for barbecue, traditionally involving slow-cooking meat over an open fire, with beef, goat, lamb, or mutton used in Mexico, and tougher cuts of beef commonly used in the US.
  • The meat is seasoned with chilies and spices, cooked slowly, and shredded before serving, often used as a filling for tacos, burritos, and more.
  • The choice of meat, including cuts like beef chuck roast, beef brisket, and beef cheeks, affects the flavor and texture of the barbacoa, with the presence of connective tissue and fat crucial for a juicy result.

What is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa meat on a white bowl

Barbacoa is a Spanish word for barbecue. This cooking style originated in the Caribbean and is popular in Mexico. It refers to meat cooked over an open fire.

The meat has to be far enough from the flames, so it cooks slowly and gets infused with the smoke of the wood being burnt.

In Mexico, barbacoa is cooked in a pit dug into the ground and covered with agave leaves. This seals in the moisture and infuses the barbacoa meat with smoky flavors.

The dish is seasoned with chilies and spices, and different types of meat can be used.

Barbacoa prepared in a traditional way takes a day. Nowadays, many cooks in Mexico and worldwide cook barbacoa on the stove or in a slow cooker.

The meat is cooked in a marinade and shredded before being served. It can be used as a filling for tacos, burritos, and more.

What Meat is Barbacoa Made of?

A raw beef brisket that can be used in making barbacoa

Barbacoa meat is usually made of tougher cuts that need to be slow-cooked for a long time. It’s most commonly made with beef in the US, but it can be made with beef, goat, lamb, or mutton in Mexico.

The most common cuts used for beef barbacoa are:

  • Beef chuck roast — It’s a primal cut from the cow’s shoulder and neck. Cows use their shoulders a lot, so this is a tough cut, full of connective tissue. It’s also fatty, and the fat renders with the tissue and creates juicy barbacoa.
  • Beef brisketBrisket comes from between the front legs. Cows depend on the brisket to hold them up. Because they are heavy animals, brisket muscles must be strong to support their weight (over 1,000 pounds). Brisket muscles are used a lot, so they also have a lot of connective tissue and fat.
  • Beef cheeks — These are from the region the cow uses to chew food, so they are full of sinew.

Any beef cut will pretty much work as long as it has a lot of connective tissue and fat throughout the muscles to keep the meat moist during cooking. Lean beef cuts become dry during the cooking process.

“A method of cooking meat that originated in Mexico; the term also can refer to the meat itself. Traditionally, lamb or goat is slow-roasted for several hours in a pit that is topped with maguey leaves. Some types of barbacoa, however, feature pork or beef, and many modern recipes use a slow cooker.”
- Encyclopedia Britannica

Also, you can combine several different cuts, especially if you’re making a lot of barbacoa. For example, combine oxtail and short ribs. These have bones and cartilage that transfer gelatin to the juices, so the meat has a rich flavor.

You can also use mutton, lamb or goat meat. These aren’t as common in barbacoa recipes in the US, but they also give delicious results.

If you want to go totally authentic, use meat from a cow’s head. This is an inexpensive cut because it’s usually undesirable, but it’s traditionally used in Mexican barbacoa.

Keep in mind the head is tough, so the meat needs to be cooked for hours.

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Step-By-Step Guide on Making Barbacoa

Preparing barbacoa meat by pouring broth in the cooker

Here’s how to make barbacoa step-by-step:

  1. Choose the meat — Select a fatty meat cut, such as a chuck roast or brisket and choose the cooking container. You can use an instant pot, Dutch oven, crock pot, or something else. I recommend a slow cooker because it’s made to simmer the food at a low temperature.
  2. Marinade and season the meat — Barbacoa seasoning is crucial. You can also marinate the meat for maximum flavor. Use lemon or lime juice, chipotle peppers, apple cider vinegar, cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and other spices. Make sure to cover the meat completely and leave the meat overnight.
  3. Wrap the meat — Use agave leaves or banana leaves and tie it with kitchen twine so it doesn’t unravel. Avocado leaves are another good option, as they give a slightly smokey flavor to the barbacoa. 
  4. Place the meat into the cooker — Put the meat in the cooker and add two cups of beer or 4 cups of beef broth. The meat should be cooked low and slow for six hours on a high-temperature setting or nine hours on a low setting in a large pot.
  5. Serve — When your authentic barbacoa is cooked, remove the banana leaves and shred the meat. You can serve it in corn tortillas.


Is Barbacoa a Cow Tongue?

Yes, barbacoa is a cow tongue, but it’s more commonly cow’s cheek, brisket, or chuck.

What Type of Meat is Barbacoa at Chipotle?

The type of meat for barbacoa at Chipotle is beef. It usually comes from the shoulder because it has enough fat for braising cooking methods [1].

What Meat Should You Use for Barbacoa?

You can’t go wrong with beef if you want to make barbacoa. However, make sure to get meat with a lot of connective tissues and fat, so it’s juicy and can be easily shredded when cooked barbacoa style.

Over the past two years, I’ve been ordering my meat from ButcherBox, an online meat delivery service that sells high-quality pork, beef, poultry, and seafood cuts.

They have a huge variety of grass-fed and grass-finished cuts, so you’re guaranteed to find brisket, chuck, and other cuts for barbacoa. Most importantly, animals are allowed to roam and aren’t raised in pens, which results in juicy, delicious meat.


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