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