Are you confused and want to know the difference between birria vs barbacoa? A simple answer is,
“Barbacoa is meat (mostly cow or beef) barbecued in an earth oven. 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 also around the world. It’s why we need deeper insight.
Let’s breakdown what makes Birra and barbacoa different and how to make them using traditional and modern ways. Let’s dig in!
What is the Key Difference between Barbacoa and Birria?
The main difference between birria and barbacoa is that barbacoa is meat, and birria is also barbacoa meat that is served with a special sauce.
On the other hand, birria is more saucier or soupier than barbacoa. It’s usually steamed or braised and is spicier.
The barbacoa is slow-cooked in its juices and less spicy. Different cities used different kinds and cuts of meat and different cooking methods to prepare both dishes.
Traditionally barbacoa was made with two different methods. The most popular one is to wrap the meat in banana or agave leaves and steam cooks 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 the barbacoa meat in an underground oven. Then further slow-cooked or steamed it with more spices and ingredients on a stovetop.
birria is served in different varieties; the one you will find everywhere is birria tacos. Previously it was served mostly 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 the 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 popular spiced stew from the state of Jalisco called Guadalajara. 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 ate much of these people’s sustenance: crops and seeds. The goats were introduced to an unnatural habitat which led 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 different 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 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 with 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 on grills or slow cookers.
Barbacoa Vs Birria: What Types of Meat are Used in Mexico?
Birria and barbacoa can be made from various meats but are most traditionally made from goat meat. Substitutes for goats include lamb, beef, or chicken.
For making Barbacoa, most restaurants in Texas also follow the tradition of the Tejano people and use 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. In the United States, the tough beef cut like brisket or chuck roast is more popular.
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
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 celebration, wedding, quinceañera party, or other grand social occasions.
Step-by-step process of how the authentic barbacoa
- First, they dig a 2 X 2 meters hole in the ground.
- The bottom is filled with coal fire.
- Then, maguey leaves are placed in a triangular shape 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.
- Next, large pieces of spiced meat are placed on these
- A wooden grid with meat is placed on these leaves. This meat could be anything from lamb, goat, chicken, or beef.
- The next step is to put leaves on this meat, so it’s fully covered.
- Then the hole gets covered with an iron sheet and then with dirt to seal it and let it cook for 4 hours, at least.
This way, the meat cooks slowly at a constant temperature (experienced barbacoa cooks and native people know exactly the depth of the hole to get the trick done), resulting in the 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 Mexico flavor 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 foamy thing that comes 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 tablespoons of 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 important 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.
- To the min soup process, add water, three tomatoes, and 4 to 5 garlic cloves, 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 1 -2 hours.
- The cooking process takes 4 hours to achieve a nice 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. Birria is the more saucy dish. It’s slightly spicy and utterly 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 definitely 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 in case you have 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. If you like tacos, barbacoa is a perfect addition and a nice variation from your typical ground beef filling. The sky’s the limit with how to use barbacoa in your cooking.
Barbacoa vs. Birria, Which One Should You Try? Final Verdict
You can find barbacoa and birria 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 that is made in the traditional manner using an underground hole.
Birria, on the other hand, can be found easily even in the United States. Many restaurants sell it, 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 right process can make delicious barbacoa.