Understanding Barbacoa vs Birria: Traditional Mexican Cooking Methods and Their Differences

Barbacoa and birria are traditional Mexican dishes; birria is barbacoa meat soaked in a special sauce, while barbacoa is a cooking method using various meats like goat, lamb, or beef cooked in a pit or oven.

Difference Between Barbacoa and Birria

Birria comes from the barbacoa meat and is soaked in a special birria sauce to create a unique kind of barbecue. Authentic barbacoa is made using an age-old cooking process for which there is no reasonable substitute.  

Even with the plethora of international fare in the United States that includes every possible incarnation of  Latin American cuisine,  people still ask, “What is the difference between Barbacoa and Birria?” when ordering from restaurants.

The answer to this question depends on your own location, but universally, beef birria would not exist if not for beef barbacoa, because the latter is derived from the former. Birria is a type of barbacoa.

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What is the difference between Barbacoa and Birria?

As noted by Eat Mexico City, an informative website about food in Mexico, depending on where one is located at the time, the word, barbacoa is technically the name for a cooking method that has been transposed through the years, to represent a particular meat variety.

Delicious Mexican style birria taco.

Birria, on the other hand, is simply barbacoa that has been submerged in a specially-prepared sauce. This explains the confusion surrounding barbacoa vs birria.

What kind of meat is a barbacoa?


A barbacoa is commonly meat, either goat meat or lamb, that has been cooked in a large hole in the ground while wrapped in banana leaves. However, other meats are used for the process, depending on the regions within specific countries.

For instance, in America, what is referred to as barbacoa is often made from beef and is cooked in an oven. In Northern Mexico, it is made from young goat, which is called, cabrito. In Southern Mexico, barbacoa is often made with seafood, such as fish or shrimp.

What does barbacoa style mean?

In an article about Mexican heritage food by researcher, Humberto Tomé Ortiz, the author explains that the term, barbacoa style refers to the cooking method used to prepare the above-referenced meats.

In Texcoco Mexico, barbacoa is made using an ancient Mayan cooking method called, pib, which could possibly have pre-historic origins.

Using this method, a large hole or specially made earthen oven is used to hold an animal, (usually a sheep) that is slaughtered, skinned, and otherwise prepared, before being wrapped in either banana leaves, or maguey cactus leaves. The carcass is left in the hole or oven to slowly cook overnight.

How large is the pib?

The determining factor about the pib size used depends on the amount of food being prepared.

Additionally, the preparation techniques vary from one region to the next. In Maxcanu and Hopelchen, west of the peninsula, the pib ovens are square and approximately one meter per side. In Valladolid, and Tizimin to the east and in Peto, and Tekax in Southern Mexico, the holes are traditionally elongated into rectangles because, in this particular process, a number of large pots are situated in a row, up to a dozen.

Circular ovens can be found on the Northern coast, due to the strong coastal winds. The depths of pib ovens can range from a few centimeters to approximately one meter.

How are the pibs or ovens prepared to cook the barbacoa?

Oven preparation begins the day prior to serving the meat. If the cooking is to take place in a coastal area on a beach, the oven is dug straight into the sand. Methods of preparation varies, according to regional customs.

Some regions line the ovens with dried palm fronds while others use newspaper as kindling to ignite the fire faster. In some regions, the wood is placed beneath the stones, and in others, it is placed on top of the stone.

Most of the time the two are combined in a small pyramid shape to allow the air to flow through and keep the fire going longer.  (Alonzo Báez, W. (2019); pages 47)

The medium size stones that are used in the ovens are tested prior to use by tossing them against one another. If they sound hollow, they are discarded because these stones will break and crumble under the combination of the weight of the animal and the heat.

Only solid stones are used because they remain in their original configuration and are better conductors of heat.

Different types of regional hardwood are also used in the ovens because hardwoods result in a longer-lasting, more intense fire.

Occasionally, aromatic woods, such as oak are added toward the end of the cooking time. This helps intensify the flavor of the food. Both freshly cut and dried woods are added to keep the charcoal hotter for longer periods of time.

Once the oven is ready, the fire is lit and burns until the wood turns to charcoal. (Chef Wilson Alonzo (2020) Piíb técnica de horno en tierra maya. Yaaxche (Halachó)

How long does it take to cook the barbacoa?

The length of the cooking time depends on many variables, such as the type of meat used. A chicken will cook in much less time than a large animal. Another variable is the type of side dishes cooked with the barbacoa.

Some regions make dishes from corn, chilis, and other regional vegetables. Others make pots of stew or sauces. Tamales are also cooked in some regions.  (Alonzo Báez, W. (2019); page 51)

Once the food is situated inside the pib and along the outer stones surrounding the hole, a layer of wild leaves is placed on top of the food to induce steam. Banana peel is another option.

This is a step where the leaves of the banana are omitted, however. This type of leaf has a resin or wax that is flammable. Depending on the time of year and what leaves are available, aromatic leaves are also added at this step to infuse the food with more complex flavors.

Seasonal adjustments may be made to the cooking rituals. During the rainy season, for instance, additional firewood may be added and the food will be covered less.

Each step taken has a specific implication for the outcome of the process. (Alonzo Báez, W. (2019); page 52)

Barbacoa used in rites, rituals and celebrations

Barbacoa has been used for hundreds of years in various rites, rituals and in celebrations. During Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration, the food from the pib is set out for consumption by the souls of those who have died and are remembered.

Once the celebrations are over, the hole is cleaned and a banana and spipche leaf cross is erected, then blessed with holy water by a priest. The official end comes when the hole is permanently closed and a prayer is said over the meal.

Only certain people are allowed near the pib during the cooking. It is said that if those who have not been approved to approach the pib do so, it will spoil the food.

(Cocom Tah, G. (2013-08-05). “Pib, horno rústico de los Mayas”Sal! Revista (in Spanish). Retrieved 2022-05-2)

What does birria meat have to do with barbacoa?

Birria is actually shredded meat from the barbacoa that has been simmered in a sauce. It is made from sheep, beef, goat, or whatever meat has been chosen to be cooked in the pib. It was originally developed in Jalisco and does not have the same mysterious traditions as barbacoa does surrounding it.

As the barbacoa meat nears the end of its cooking phase, some of the meat is transferred to a pan that contains a spicy sauce that is made with special herbs, leaves and chilis.

A lid is placed on top and a rope of corn dough is placed at the juncture between the lid and the pot to keep the steam from escaping the simmering meat. Afterward, the pan is slowly simmered until the meat is very tender and has the consistency of pulled pork.

The birria is simmered for approximately four hours, or until it becomes tender.  Meanwhile, a delicious sauce is prepared that consists of onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, chili pepper, adobo sauce, fresh oregano, ground cloves, and cumin.

This is mixed with chopped, roasted tomatoes and chopped fresh tomatoes and added into the cooking broth at the end of the birria cooking period. This constitutes a flavor infusion for the meat and a base for the soup that results from the cooking.

How is birria eaten?

Traditionally, birria is eaten in two different ways at the same sitting. It is ladled from the pot into a deep dish. This method has the consistency of a soup. Fresh oregano and chopped onion are added to this soup. Some people enjoy the addition of beans as well.

The other method of eating birria is by extracting the meat from the soup and eating it wrapped in tortillas, taco-style.

What is the difference in birria tacos?

Birria tacos change according to the regions and traditions in which they are made. For example, birria tacos that are made in Guadalajara are usually made with sheep or goat meat, and other ingredients are added to the sauce to change the taste.

In Colima, pork is sometimes used, instead of goat or ram meat. The Michoacans use smaller animals, such as local fish, chickens, or other fowl, and in Zacatecas, goat or ram meat is used, but the sauce is much thicker than in other regions and contains a different mix of ingredients.

A word about barbacoa and birria in Mexico City

First time visitors to Mexico city are sure to want to try barbacoa, which is sold on virtually every block from push cards, tiny stalls or in restaurants. It is available in a variety of styles and with different traditional sauces.

Restaurants sell it as the aforementioned soup or as tacos, but it is recommended that one try the soup first, in order to experience all of the complex flavors first, before wrapping the meat inside a taco.

What about barbacoa and birria in the United States?

There are a surprising number of restaurants in the United States that serve traditional barbacoa and birria.

However, one well-known fast food restaurant advertises it on their bargain menu, but does not, at all, follow tradition. This barbacoa is made from beef, and is infused with a garlic cumin mixture, cooked sous-vide to lock in the moisture, and then marinated in the company’s signature spicy chipotle pepper adobo, and is spiced with cloves, oregano, and bay leaf. The meat is then slowly braised at a low temperature until done.

The chain restaurant offers the consumer’s choice of cheese, sour cream, lettuce, and assorted vegetables and serves it over brown rice.

While this entree is a more healthful version that contains less sodium and an increase in fiber, it is not authentic barbacoa and serves as a poor substitute.

Can barbacoa be made at home?

Barbacoa can be made at home, but in many cases, it is not a suitable option to dig a large hole in one’s lawn in order to cook it.

Fortunately there are some new digital products, such as the new instant pot slow cookers that can enable one to enjoy the flavors of barbacoa without the time and labor investment.

Barbacoa made with a slow cooker or instant pot is surprisingly delicious, and contains all of the same spices as authentic barbacoa. However, it is not steeped in tradition and lacks the complexities of the deep, rich authentic sauce.

FAQs about Barbacoa and Birria

What is the difference between beef birria and barbacoa?

The difference between beef birria and barbacoa lies in the type of meat used. While birria is prepared with beef or goat meat, barbacoa can be made with beef, pork, lamb, or goat. Both dishes are incredibly tasty and you can’t go wrong with either choice. Additionally, barbacoa can be enjoyed as a stew or in tacos, offering versatile options for savoring this delicious dish.

Is barbacoa always beef cheek?

Barbacoa is not always made from beef cheek. In the U.S., it is commonly prepared using various parts of cattle heads, including the cheeks. However, in northern Mexico, barbacoa is often made from goat meat (cabrito), although it can also be made from beef head.

What part of the cow is in barbacoa?

The part of the cow that is in barbacoa is the meat from the head, specifically the cheek or cachete. This cut of meat is known for its collagen content and is slow-roasted to enhance its savory flavor and silky texture. Barbacoa is a cheap yet flavorful dish, often served during weekend breakfasts.

Is barbacoa a cow tongue?

Barbacoa is not made from cow tongue, but rather from whole cow heads. These heads, known as “cabeza de la vaca,” are a prime source of leftover beef cuts. They contain a combination of chewy cartilage, gristle, and delectable pieces of beef cheek and tongue, which can be challenging to obtain but are incredibly succulent.

What does Mexican barbacoa taste like?

Mexican barbacoa has a slightly tangy flavor with a subtle yet noticeable blend of spices. It is not excessively spicy, although the heat level may vary depending on the chipotles used. What sets barbacoa apart is the gentle tartness of the sauce, derived from vinegar and lime, which complements the savory meat, along with a hint of warmth from cloves.

What is the birria meat made of?

The birria meat is made of goat meat traditionally, but beef birria has also gained popularity recently. It is a hearty and fragrant stew-like braise, rich with chilies and warm spices like cinnamon and ginger. We absolutely love it and we are sure you will too.

What does barbacoa mean in Mexican food?

Barbacoa in Mexican food refers to a cooking method that originated in Mexico and can also be used to describe the meat itself. Traditionally, lamb or goat is slow roasted for several hours in a pit covered with maguey leaves.

What is better barbacoa or carnitas?

Barbacoa and carnitas are both delicious and popular menu items known for their flavorful taste. They are both incredibly tender due to the extended cooking time that helps break down the collagen in the meat. If you have a preference for beef, then barbacoa would be the ideal choice for you. On the other hand, if you prefer pork, then carnitas would be the better option.

Why are birria tacos different?

Birria tacos stand out due to their unique characteristics. These tacos are distinguished by their tortillas that are filled with the succulent and tender meat from the stew. To achieve their visually appealing appearance and irresistibly crispy texture, the tortillas are first dipped in the thin layer of fat that rises to the surface of the birria. Once filled with the flavorful meat, the tacos are then cooked on a griddle. The combination of these elements results in birria tacos that are not only visually captivating but also incredibly addictive.

How can you tell if birria is beef or goat?

You can determine if birria is beef or goat by observing the texture and how well it combines with the spices. Beef birria has a chewy consistency, resembling Chipotle’s barbacoa, which is typically made from beef instead of the traditional sheep. On the other hand, goat birria is tender and tends to blend more harmoniously with the spices.

What’s another name for birria tacos?

Another name for birria tacos is quesabirria, also known as “cheese birria.” This Mexican dish consists of birria-style cooked beef wrapped in a tortilla with melted cheese and typically served with a side of broth (consomé) for dipping.

What is birria tacos vs normal?

Birria tacos are different from normal tacos as they have a spicy and flavorful filling typically made from goat stew, although it can also be made with beef, eel, chicken, or pork. What sets birria tacos apart is that they are dipped in a stew before being fried, resulting in a deliciously juicy bite.

What is the difference between birria and barbacoa and carnitas?

The difference between birria, barbacoa, and carnitas lies in their preparation and presentation. While all three dishes share similarities, they have distinct characteristics. Barbacoa can be served either shredded or chopped, birria is typically shredded and accompanied by a sauce or broth, and carnitas are usually chopped. The term “carnitas” translates to “little meats” in Spanish.

Which is better barbacoa or carnitas?

Barbacoa and carnitas are both delicious and popular menu items known for their flavorful taste. Due to their lengthy cooking process that breaks down the collagen in the meat, they are both incredibly tender. If you have a preference for beef, then barbacoa would be the ideal choice. On the other hand, if you prefer pork, then carnitas would be the better option.

What does all meat barbacoa mean?

All meat barbacoa refers to a cooking method that involves preparing various types of meat (originally lamb or goat, but now commonly beef or pork) to achieve moist and tender outcomes. Traditionally, this technique involves steam-cooking the meat underground, although contemporary barbacoa can be made over an open flame, on the stovetop, or using a slow cooker.

What is birria made of?

Birria is made from a variety of meats such as goat, beef, lamb, mutton, or chicken. The meat is marinated in a flavorful adobo consisting of vinegar, dried chiles, garlic, and a blend of herbs and spices including cumin, bay leaves, and thyme. After marinating, the meat is cooked in a delicious broth known as consomé.

Is Chipotle’s barbacoa beef?

Chipotle’s barbacoa is made with Responsibly Raised beef, which is cooked sous vide to achieve tenderness. This cooking method involves heating the beef at a precise, low temperature for an extended period of time, ensuring that the meat retains its moisture.

What is the best cut of meat for birria?

The best cut of meat for birria can be boneless beef chuck roast, short ribs, stew meat, oxtail, or beef cheeks (or a bone-in cut can be substituted). In Mexico, it is also common to use lamb or goat for birria.

What’s the difference between barbacoa and al pastor?

The difference between barbacoa and al pastor is that while some restaurants serve al pastor with pineapple to create a taco with a sweet and savory flavor, barbacoa is traditionally prepared using beef and seasoned with dried chilies, spices, and fresh lime juice.

What is the best cut of meat for Mexican tacos?

The best cut of meat for Mexican tacos is flank steak, which is favored due to its leanness, tenderness, and quick cooking time. Another option is skirt steak, a thinner and flavorful cut (be cautious not to overcook it). If flank or skirt steak is not available, sirloin steak or tenderloin steak can also be used.

What makes barbacoa different?

Barbacoa is different because it is typically made with tougher cuts of meat that need to be cooked slowly for a long time. Traditionally, barbacoa is prepared using large cuts of meat or whole animals. In the United States, barbacoa is commonly associated with beef, whereas in Mexico, it is made from beef, goat, lamb, or mutton.

What is birria meat?

Birria meat is a type of meat stew or soup that can be made from goat, beef, lamb, mutton, or chicken. It involves marinating the meat in a mixture of vinegar, dried chiles, garlic, and various herbs and spices such as cumin, bay leaves, and thyme. The marinated meat is then cooked in a flavorful broth, known as consomé in Spanish.

Is barbacoa always head meat?

Barbacoa is not always made from head meat. In the U.S., it is commonly prepared using parts from the heads of cattle, like the cheeks. However, in northern Mexico, it is more frequently made from goat meat (cabrito), although beef head is also occasionally used.

What is barbacoa traditionally?

Barbacoa traditionally refers to a method of cooking meat that originated in Mexico, also known as “barbecue” in Spanish. The term can also be used to describe the meat itself. In the traditional preparation, lamb or goat is slow roasted for several hours in a pit covered with maguey leaves.

What part of a cow is barbacoa?

Barbacoa is made from the meat of a cow’s head, specifically the cheek or cachete. It is an affordable option that is packed with flavor. Traditionally enjoyed during weekend breakfasts, slow-roasting the cheek enhances its savory taste and creates a smooth, velvety texture due to its high collagen content.

What is another name for birria tacos?

Another name for birria tacos is quesabirria, also known as “cheese birria.” It is a popular Mexican dish that consists of birria-style cooked beef folded into a tortilla with melted cheese. It is typically served with a side of broth, known as consomé, for dipping.

Why is it called barbacoa?

It is called barbacoa because the Tainos referred to their cooking preparations as “barabicu,” which means “sacred firepit,” and this term eventually evolved into “barbecue.” These cooking techniques were highly effective in preventing their food from spoiling prematurely.

Does barbacoa taste like BBQ sauce?

Barbacoa does not taste like BBQ sauce; instead, it has a distinct savory flavor that sets it apart from Southern BBQ spice blends. It offers a pleasant medium heat with subtle hints of cumin, onion, and garlic. Different regions in Mexico utilize various meats in their barbacoa recipes.

What part of the cow is barbacoa from Chipotle?

The part of the cow that Chipotle’s Barbacoa mainly comes from is the shoulder, as this cut contains sufficient fat to ensure the meat remains moist throughout the lengthy braising process. Consequently, the end result is exceptionally succulent and tender.

What is the best way to eat barbacoa?

The best way to eat barbacoa is by making tacos dorados (fried tacos) and adding Mexican crema, shredded cabbage, and salsa as toppings. Another delicious option is to serve it with frijoles de la olla (stewed beans) and queso añejo (aged queso fresco) along with some avocado. Regardless of how it is served, barbacoa is a dish that brings celebration to any meal.

Do Mexicans eat barbacoa?

Mexicans do eat barbacoa, which can be found 24/7 in restaurants and taco stands throughout Mexico and even globally. However, it is not commonly prepared for a casual weeknight dinner.

What is barbacoa sauce made of?

Barbacoa sauce is made of beef broth, chipotle peppers, adobo sauce, yellow onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar, ground cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, lime juice, and allspice.

Can you make birria with barbacoa?

You can make birria with barbacoa. Barbacoa is a cooking method that involves marinating or not marinating meat and cooking it wrapped in banana leaves in a dug hole with a fire. The meat is cooked for several hours until it becomes very tender. Birria is the final product that is made using the barbacoa cooking method.

What Mexican dish is called barbacoa?

The Mexican dish called barbacoa is a method of cooking meat that originated in Mexico. It is also used to refer to the meat itself. In this traditional cooking method, lamb or goat is slow roasted for several hours in a pit topped with maguey leaves.

Why is barbacoa cooked underground?

Barbacoa is cooked underground because the Mayans developed a method of steam-cooking meat in underground ovens. This technique, described in the book Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cuisine: The Food of the Ancient Mexicans, was used as a source by Barbacoa Renatos. The underground cooking helps retain the juices, smoke, and heat within the oven, preventing their escape and forcing them back into the meat.

What kind of tacos barbacoa?

Tacos barbacoa can be prepared using various types of meat such as beef (which is the most popular in America), goat, lamb, or mutton. The slow cooking process allows for the use of large cuts of meat with connective tissues that gradually break down, infusing the meat with rich flavors.

Is barbacoa like carne asada?

Barbacoa and carne asada are not the same. Barbacoa is primarily a cooking method, whereas carne asada usually consists of beef steak, like flank steak or skirt steak, that is sliced after being cooked. You can find a fantastic recipe for carne asada, along with a picture, by clicking here.

What is the difference between birria and Quesabirria tacos?

The difference between Birria and Quesa-Birria is that the Quesa-Birria is a creative variation of a quesadilla, featuring a filling of birria meat. Made with beef, cheese, and chilies, the Quesa-Birria is served alongside a consomme-based dipping sauce.

What is birria sauce made of?

The ingredients used to make birria sauce include dried chilis, annatto paste, onion, Roma tomatoes, and spices. This flavorful red sauce is combined with the remaining beef cooking liquid to create a delectable dipping sauce for the tacos. Additionally, I set aside half of the sauce to be served as a salsa on top of the tacos.

Is birria always beef?

Birria is not always beef; it is a traditional Mexican dish that originated in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. Originally made with goat meat, it can now be prepared using beef, veal, lamb, or pork.

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