Mexican Barbacoa: All You Need To Know

Barbacoa is the traditional preparation of meat, particularly sheep, beef, lamb or goat. Such meat is steam cooked inside an underground oven until it becomes extremely tender and beautifully succulent. While this preparation dates back over a century, the modern meaning of barbacoa sometimes refers to a similar preparation but instead of an underground oven, a stovetop or slow cooker is used.

traditional mexican lamb barbacoa

Do you notice a similarity between barbacoa and another word we use in English for cooking meats? Well, the term “barbecue” actually comes from the Caribbean Indian word “barbacoa.” However, despite these common origins, the two terms do not mean the same thing. Barbecues involve cooking food over a hot grill whereas barbacoa uses a steaming and/or baking process. 

Perhaps the best manifestation of this form of preparing food is Mexican barbacoa. This is used frequently in the central states of Mexico where you will often find a brick-lined oven measuring around 60 cm (23 inches) in diameter and around 1 m (3-feet) in depth. This oven is dug into the earth where wood is placed at the bottom and burned until the entire oven is red hot. 

Many of the meats prepared in this way are eaten regularly in parts of Mexico. For instance, beef barbacoa is wonderfully juicy and flavorful. This is often shredded and served in tacos, enchiladas, or as a dish all by itself. 

Traditional mexican slow cooked lamb tacos also called barbacoa
Traditional mexican slow cooked lamb tacos also called barbacoa

Today, we are going to guide you through Mexican barbacoa and discuss the history and variations of this traditional way of cooking meat. If you ever get the chance to experience the food from Mexican barbacoa, you will remember it forever.

What is Mexican Barbacoa?

As we discussed above, a brick-lined oven is dug into the earth and heated up until it is scorching hot. Once this has been prepared, a little liquid (typically water or pulque with aromatic herbs and vegetables) is placed into a large pot. A grill is placed on the bottom so no meat touches the pot’s base.

The meat prepared tends to be lamb or mutton. This is wrapped in maguey leaves and placed into the pot before the animal’s stomach is placed on top. Beforehand, this stomach would have been stuffed with other edible organs from the animal as well as a combination of spices, herbs, and different chiles. 

Barbacoa de res meat mexico style boiled cow meat

After this process, the oven gets covered with a metal sheet and a fresh layer of earth. The meat is then left to cook overnight undisturbed. 

After cooking, the layer of earth and metal sheet are removed and the organs (usually known as pancita de barbacoa) are perfectly cooked. At this point, these organs and the leaf-wrapped meat will typically be tender and moist while the liquid within the pot has transformed into a sumptuous soup. 

Upon being served, the meal usually begins with a small bowl of brothy soup known as consomé. This is then followed by some tacos made from the internal organs of the animal. Finally, tacos that have been made from the meat are eaten. 

These are no small meals, however. Feasts such as flautas or taco dorados are also common at these cooking events. Corn tortillas that have been wrapped in a portion of the shredded barbacoa meat are fried or deep-fried until they turn golden and crispy. These are then served with cilantro, onion, cream, guacamole, and/or a mixture of Mexican sauces. Hungry yet? We are!

Variations of Barbacoa

Barbacoa is not an everyday Mexican treat. As you can probably guess, going to this much trouble takes a great deal of preparation so barbacoa is usually kept for certain venues and occasions. You will generally find barbacoa at market stalls that sell it as breakfast, brunch, and/or dinner or small mom-and-pop restaurants. 

Group of friends making barbecue in the backyard at dinner time

Moreover, communities will often come together and prepare the dish as a collective group usually to celebrate their town’s patron saint. Barbacoa is also seen at certain party halls and private homes where caterers have been hired to serve barbacoa for special occasions such as weddings, quinceanera parties, or other social gatherings. 

Barbacoa tends to mean there is some sort of celebration occurring. Although it has simple ingredients, a rustic appearance, and a unique preparation, barbacoa is considered to be a delicacy in Mexico. It is a treat that is kept for special occasions.

Slow Cook Your Own Barbacoa

Fancy trying to make your own barbacoa? Well, you don’t have to wait for a special occasion. You can slow cook different ingredients to experience this incredible portion of Mexican cuisine.

cooking Mexican tacos with beef, traditional street food in Mexico city

The recipe below is based on a low-and-slow cooking method in a slow cooker but you can adapt it for a Dutch oven if required. We recommend wrapping the meat in banana leaves as well and slow roast in a baking pan that has been covered in foil.

The ingredients you will need include:

  • 1 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
  • 2 cups of beef broth
  • 2 to 4 guajillo (whole) (or you can use chipotle chiles in adobo sauce)
  • 4 to 5 cloves of garlic (peeled and crushed)
  • ¼ a cup of apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of sour cream
  • Black pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • Corn tortillas or small flour tortillas
  • 3 pounds of brisket, beef cheek, or chuck roast

When it comes to serving, you will need:

  • 2 sliced jalapenos
  • 1 bunch of fresh cilantro (chopped)
  • 1 small diced white onion (or a pickled red onion)
  • Cotija cheese


When making your braising liquid, you need to combine the cloves, cumin, lime juice, oregano, chiles, garlic, beef broth, sour cream, apple cider vinegar, and sauce. Thoroughly mix these in a food processor.  

Season this with salt and pepper and then blend again until the mixture is smooth. Add a tablespoon of water if the mixture seems too thick. Simple taste to check whether any more seasoning is needed. If so, toss some more in. 

Place the liquid into your slow cooker (or a crockpot) and then add in the bay leaves.

If necessary, cut the meat into small pieces and place it into the liquid before turning it to ensure the whole meat is coated.

Cook on low heat for around 8 to 10 hours. Make sure you check the tenderness at 8 hours as brisket can easily become dry and tough quickly. 

Once the meat has been cooked, transfer it into a large bowl (or platter). Shred this with two forks (or a pair of tongs). Take out the bay leaves from the liquid and dispose of them. 

Finally, ladle the braising liquid so that it covers the meat. 

Serve straight away with tortillas and top with onion, cilantro, jalapeno, and cotija.

Voila, your own barbacoa! 

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.