Birria Vs Barbacoa: What’s The Difference, In fact?

Are you confused and want to know the difference between birria vs. Barbacoa? A simple answer is,

“Barbacoa is meat (mostly made with lamb or goat meat in Mexico where it has originated, but in the USA made using beef) barbecued in an earth oven/ fire pit. The meat is covered with (maguey) leaves and then with mud, or it’s grilled on an open fire. On the other hand, birria is basically a way of serving barbacoa with consomme sauce. It served as a stew or as a taco filling. Hence, birria is a product of barbacoa. However, barbacoa is not a birria.”

Nowadays, both dishes have evolved with time and are made differently in different states of Mexico and all around the world. It’s why we need more profound insight. 

Let’s break down what makes Birra and Barbacoa different and how to make them using traditional and modern ways. Let’s dig in!

What are the Key Differences between Barbacoa and Birria?

Before getting into the details of Barbacoa vs. birria, let’s know a few key differences between both dishes.

Barbacoa is original, while birria is fusion of barbacoa.

The main difference between birria and Barbacoa is that Barbacoa is barbecued meat (cooked in its own juices) as ‘barbacoa” refers to “barbecue” in Spanish. This meat is exclusively served in more traditional ways in Mexico: served with cilantro, onions, salsa, and fresh corn tortillas.

While birria is barbacoa meat that comes with fusion when it’s about serving it, usually, it’s served with a special sauce. Thus, birria is more saucier or soupier than barbacoa. For making birria, barbecuing meat isn’t essential: it can be slowly cooked, steamed, or braised. 

Cooking methods are different.

Different cities used several kinds and cuts of meat and various cooking methods to prepare both dishes. Traditionally, Barbacoa was made in two different ways. The most popular one is to wrap the meat in banana or agave leaves and steam-cook it in an underground oven. 

The second way to cook Barbacoa is by grilling it on an open fire. Even the word Barbacoa literally means “to cook over a fire.” The original habitats took grills; they used to cook fish and meat on fire. They also initiate the concept of grilling meat. 

The modern “barbecue” word used in Texas is also evolved and developed from the term “barbacoa.” Now in the modern-day, people steamed or slow-cooked the meat to make Barbacoa.

While birria is also now made in a casserole or a pot with a sealed lid. Most Mexican restaurants and cafes cook barbacoa meat in an underground oven. Then further slow-cooked or steamed with more spices and ingredients on a stovetop. 

Birria is served in different varieties; the one you’ll find everywhere is birria tacos, either shredded or chopped. Previously, it was primarily served as a soup, but birria tacos took the world by storm in 2020, according to The Washington Post. It is made of shredded birria meat and cheese wrapped in a tortilla soaked in sauce. The sauce is also served to dip the taco in with diced onions and chopped cilantro. 

Birria Vs. Barbacoa: What’s the Origin?

Both of the delicious dishes have different times of evolution and regions as well. Below you can learn about their origin.

Origin of birria

Birria is a famous spiced stew from the state of Jalisco called Guadalajara in Mexico. During the cultural exchange of the 16th century, the Spaniards came and introduced goats to Mexico. 

Before it, the native people mostly ate crops and seeds. Interestingly, the goats reproduced quickly and consumed much of these people’s sustenance: crops and seeds. Ecologically speaking, the goats were introduced to an unnatural habitat, leading to famine. 

Yet, to get rid of the smell and texture of goat meat, the people added fragrant spices and herbs to goat meat. Further, they cooked them in an underground oven to make the meat tender and flavorful.

With time the dish evolved, and many people started using different cooking methods like slow-cooking on stove stops. They also added other spices to give it a more delicious touch.

In short, birria is a Mexican dish: tender goat meat served with some stew.

Origin of Barbacoa

Barbacoa, on the other hand, is not exclusively a Mexican dish. It’s a way of preparing meat in the Caribbean/ Puerto Rico, as many historians believe. Later the style of cooking eventually made its way to Mexico. Now, it’s sold almost everywhere in Mexico, and each region makes it in its own style. 

So, the Mexicans have also used this more delicious barbacoa meat to prepare birria.

And, now, not necessarily the meat is cooked in the Earth oven, but also on grills or slow cookers.

Barbacoa Vs. Birria: What Types of Meat are Used in Mexico?

Birria and Barbacoa can be made from various meat types but are most traditionally made from goat meat. Substitutes for goats include lamb, beef, or chicken. 

Most Texas restaurants also follow the Tejano people’s tradition of making Barbacoa and using Cabeza da la vaca. Cabeza de Vaca is the meat from the cow’s head, including the succulent pieces of beef tongue and cheek. 

This meat is tender because of muscle fiber. It’s also somewhat stringy but deliciously flavorful. 

The cheek is the most desirable part, followed by the tongue. It has a lot of chewy cartilage and gristle. Tough beef cuts like brisket or chuck roast are more prevalent in the United States.

For making birria, the makers usually prefer lamb meat, beef, goat, and even seafood, meaning the options are truly endless. Most often, rib meat from lamb and the shank for beef is used. Also, you can use a variety of cuts because it will add depth and variety to your dish. 

You can try oxtail and short ribs. The cartilage and bones in those cuts will add gelatin to the meat juices, giving them more richness. 

Birria Vs. Barbacoa: Cooking Method

The traditional and authentic way of cooking Barbacoa?

The authentic Barbacoa is made using the classical way of digging holes in the ground. This practice is pretty common in Mexico. 

People usually make it on special occasions such as Patron Saint celebrations, weddings, quinceañera parties, or other grand social events.

Step-by-step process of making authentic Barbacoa

  • First, they dig a 2 X 2 meters pit in the ground.
  • The meat pit’s bottom is filled with coal fire.
  • Then, maguey leaves are placed around the hole. One side is directly into the coal, and the other point upwards. Some people prefer to use banana leaves instead of maguey leaves.
  • A large pot of seasoning is placed directly on the fire, and a grill grate is placed over it.
  • Next, large pieces of spiced meat are placed on these hot coals. This meat could be anything from lamb, goat, chicken, or beef. 
  • The next step is to put leaves on the meat, so it’s fully covered.
  • Then the hole gets covered with an iron sheet and later with dirt to seal it and let it cook for 11 hours. 

This way, the meat cooks slowly at a constant temperature (experienced barbacoa cooks and native people know the depth of the hole precisely to get the trick done), resulting in tasty and tender Barbacoa of all kinds.

The delicious smell of tender meat after opening the hole is matchless; the same goes for the taste.

Authentic Mexican birria cooking method 

There are a variety of ways to serve the birria. The first way is to serve it with consomme: a spicy stew or soup made using Mexican chilies and spices. 

The birria stew is done by cooking lots of spices, herbs, blended onion, and tomato. Spices can vary based on the city, but the ones that give it authentic Mexican flavors are cumin, salt, bay leaves, garlic, guajillo chiles, ancho chiles, and vinegar. 

Let’s have a look at how the birria is made:

First, The meat is marinated and slow-cooked, preferably barbacoa meat. Once Barbacoa is cooked, the meat is added to the sauce made with spices and herbs. 

The other way to prepare birria from scratch is by cooking meat on the stovetop first. 

Here’s how you can make it at home:

  • Add the 2 pounds of meat(beef boon and beef neck to a pot and give it a quick boil on medium heat. After boiling, remove all the fat or foam that appears on the top. 
  • Add 5 garlic cloves and one whole onion to the pot. 
  • Add roast beef chunks. 
  • Next, add seasoning: 2 tablespoons of chicken bouillon and 1 tablespoon salt. The seasoning will add depth and flavor to your meat. Let it cover and rest it for about an hour on medium heat. 
  • Now the most crucial step is to add Mexican chilies that will give it an authentic Mexican flavor.
  • Take 3 chile ancho, 3 chile pasilla, and 13 guajillos, remove the stems, and wash it properly. 
  • Add water, 3 tomatoes, and 4 to 5 garlic cloves for making soup, and let it cook. While you wait, toast your chilies on low, medium heat.
  • Once the chilies get toasted well, add them one by one into the pot of tomato and hot water. 
  • Next, roast some dry seasoning like bay leaves, black pepper, and cinnamon stick and add them to water. 
  • Let them all cook and then cool down for 5 min. Once get soft, it is ready to blend. Add in the blender, and give it a nice blend.
  • Use a strainer, add this sauce to the meat pot, and let it cook for about 3-4 hours.
  • The cooking process takes 4 hours to achieve excellent, tender, and juicy meat. 

Once cooked, you can serve it either as stew or with tacos. Whether you go for the stovetop or the earth, once cooked, both will deliver a rich and juicy flavor filling for tacos. 

Birria Vs. Barbacoa Taste

Barbacoa is tender and juicy, while birria is relatively saucy. Alternatively, birria is slightly spicy and insanely savory compared to Barbacoa. 

Each region of Mexico has its particular way of making birria and Barbacoa. The variations are endless. They can differ depending on the type of meat cut used, the variety of spices, the material used for wrapping the meat, and the baking/steaming process.

How Long Does it Take to Cook Barbacoa?

The whole process, from preparing everything, digging the hole, and then 4-12 hours of the cooking process, depending on the size of meat pieces and cooking method that you choose, e.g., instant pot. It’s a time-consuming task. That’s why people usually come together to make it on their special occasions.

Can Barbacoa be Made at Home?

You can, but digging a hole in the house is not an option. However, you could use an instant pot slow cooker or a Dutch oven to make it; but nothing beats the quality of that traditional Barbacoa del Pozo (Pozo = hole in the ground) cooking. 

It also lacks the complexities of the deep, rich, authentic sauce and Mexican taste. 

Barbacoa is not only eaten individually but also a famous filling for many Mexican dishes, like enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas. Barbacoa is a perfect addition and a nice variation from your typical ground beef filling if you like tacos. The sky’s the limit with how to use Barbacoa in your cooking.

Barbacoa Vs. Birria, Which One Should You Try? Final Verdict

Barbacoa and birria are everywhere in Mexico, from big restaurants to street stalls. However, every city makes these dishes with its specific style that gives its unique signature taste. We recommend you try out Barbacoa, made traditionally using an underground hole. 

Birria, however, can be found easily even in the United States. Many restaurants sell them, and surprisingly, you can find them good and full of flavor. It might not be the same as authentic cuisine, but chefs who follow the proper process can make delicious Barbacoa. 

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