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Here’s what you need to know about the classic Mexican dish.

By Corey Williams
February 24, 2021
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Barbacoa is known today for its irresistible melt-in-your-mouth texture and bold flavor. But what exactly is barbacoa — and can you make it at home? Here's what you need to know:

What Is Barbacoa? 

Mexican slow cooked lamb tacos also called barbacoa on white background
Credit: carlosrojas20

Barbacoa is a method of cooking meat (historically lamb or goat, though beef or pork is often used today) that produces tender and juicy results. It's traditionally steam-cooked underground, but modern barbacoa can be prepared over an open fire, on the stove, or in a slow cooker.  

The word "barbacoa" refers to both the preparation of the meat and the meat itself. 

Barbacoa is usually cooked in a flavorful marinade and, when the meat is very tender, it is shredded before it's served.  

Barbacoa vs. Carnitas

Instant Pot Crispy Chicken Carnitas

Carnitas, which means "little meats," is a Mexican dish of braised pork. 

Barbacoa and carnitas look similar, but they are not the same. The most notable difference is in the type of meat used: Barbacoa can be made with lamb, goat, beef, or pork. Carnitas is generally made with only pork. 

Barbacoa History

Mexican Beef Barbacoa Stew, Traditional Mexican Food
Credit: Robert Patrick Briggs

"Since the discovery of the 'New World,' the word barbacoa has variously meant a framework of sticks, a native-cooking method using that frame, and a Mexican cooking technique for steaming meat in a hole in the ground," Marvin C. Bendele writes in Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket.

Many food historians believe barbacoa originated in the Caribbean and that the style of cooking eventually made its way to Mexico. Mexican barbacoa is traditionally prepared in an underground brick-lined oven and is cooked with herbs, spices, and chiles.

How to Make Barbacoa

Barbacoa-Style Shredded Beef
Barbacoa-Style Shredded Beef | Photo by Baking Nana

You can make modern barbacoa in a Crock-Pot or in the oven. The ingredients you use and the technique will change slightly depending on the recipe, but here are a few basic guidelines:

  1. It’s cooked low and slow for a reason — this allows for maximum tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. A slow cooker certainly comes in handy in this situation, but you can recreate the experience with a Dutch oven and low heat.  
  2. Traditional barbacoa is strongly seasoned, so don’t skimp on spices. This top-rated recipe, for instance, calls for a marinade made with beef broth, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, chipotle peppers, garlic, cumin, oregano, and cloves.
  3. Choose your meat wisely. Most modern recipes call for beef chuck roast or brisket. Opt for something fatty that will take a long time to break down during the cooking process.

Barbacoa Recipes

Make restaurant-quality barbacoa at home with one of our top-rated recipes: