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There's no denying it: People love Chipotle's beef barbacoa. Poke your way around the internet and you'll find that it's as packed with clone and copycat recipes as beans in a burrito. And it's with good reason.
By fast food standards—I might even go so far as to say by any standards—it's tasty stuff. Slow-braised naturally raised beef shoulder clod flavored with chipotle chilis and cumin, it's tender, juicy, and well-seasoned.
At least usually. There are times, I must admit, when I've been less than impressed. A recent visit revealed barbacoa that was not only had the texture of mushy paper, but was so overwhelmed by cumin that all subtlety was lost.
Like with break-ups and tonsillectomies, there's an easy way and a hard way to go about solving this problem.
The easy way: if you're in NYC, head to Chipotle's location on 18th Street and 8th Avenue—a.k.a. "the secret Chipotle" test location where all meats are cooked from scratch right on premises (other Chipotles get their meat pre-cooked from a central Chicago facility). The meat there—and particularly the barbacoa—is head and shoulders above the meat served at other Chipotle locations.
This is, of course, only useful news if you happen to be strolling through Chelsea when the urge for a burrito strikes, which leaves us with the hard way: I think you already know what it's going to be. That's right, we're going to make it ourselves. And while we're at it, why not set ourselves the goal of making it even better than Chipotle's?
"Barbacoa" vs. Barbacoa
Let's set one thing straight right off the bat. What we're making here has little to do with traditional Mexican or Caribbean barbacoa, a method in which whole sheep are slow-cooked in pits covered with maguey leaves. We're not even making the more modern form of barbacoa, made with the head of a cow or chunks of cow, goat, lamb, or pork meat.
With traditional barbacoa, the meat is likely to be cooked in a relatively bland broth, then subsequently removed, gently pulled, and mixed with a salsa or other seasonings. The broth can then be served as a hot soup to accompany the meal. But what we're making here is a delicious beast unto itself: in our version the broth is what adds flavor to the meat, not the other way around. This means starting with a flavor packed base, and using much, much less of it so that its flavor is concentrated.
The Layering Game
Chipotle is proud of their food, and thus make it pretty easy to figure out exactly what goes inside. Take a quick peep at Chipotle's ingredients page, and you'll see it all laid out for you:
Spicy, shredded beef, slowly braised for hours in a blend of chipotle pepper adobo, cumin, cloves, garlic and oregano until tender and moist.
I like this policy. They seem wise enough to realize that when it comes to good food, it's more about technique and balance than "secret" ingredients. How you put together the braising liquid is far more important than what goes into it. The best way to go about it? Break it down ingredient by ingredient, maximizing the flavor you draw out of each one.
We know that chipotles form the backbone for the flavor, but one chili gives you, well, one-dimensional flavor. As I discovered when working on my Texas Chili Con Carne, it's best to use a blend of dried chili peppers, each with their own distinct flavor profile to build out your sauce into one with a more robust, nuanced, and balanced flavor, and to start with whole chilis instead of chili powder. They have better flavor, and give you the benefit of being able to blend them yourself.
You can work with what you can find, but I went for a mix of Ancho (for its dried fruit richness), Choricero (for its fresh brightness), and Negro, for its musty earthiness. Rather than using dried chipotles, I decided to use the more readily-available chipotles canned in adobo sauce.
Dried chilis benefit from a dry toast to help deepen and develop their flavors. I toast mine in a dry pan, then simmer them in chicken broth until completely softened so that I can then blend them into a smooth purée.
This gives you a much nicer texture than simply grinding them, which delivers a gritty end result.
Garlic is a key component of the flavor here, and after trying a few different combos, I decided to go with a small onion as well. I tried incorporating them in various ways—lightly sweated, raw into the liquid broth, charred on one side—and in the end discovered that a deep caramelization was the way to go, adding depth and a distinct sweetness as well.
Spices and dried herbs also benefit from a good toasting, so I added the cumin, cloves, and dried oregano to the same pot towards the end of the onions and garlic cooking. Why dry oregano instead of fresh? Well, often you'll want to use fresh herbs, but herbs that grow in dry, hot climates tend to have less volatile aromatics (otherwise, they'd lose'em all to the atmosphere under the heat of the sun). So even when dried, herbs like rosemary, thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, and oregano will retain plenty of flavor.
After cooking down the aromatics, I added my canned chipotle peppers, then deglazed the pan with a bit of apple cider vinegar—a common ingredient in adobo sauce (which is essentially what we're making here). Finally, I added my toasted dried chilis along with the chicken broth and pureed the whole thing together.
It tasted... fine. Complex, and deep, but still not mind-blowingly meaty. I needed something to beef up the flavor, quite literally.
Searing The Steer
If there's one surefire way to add meaty flavor to a dish, it's to add meat to it, and anybody who's ever cooked a steak or a burger knows that searing the meat—that is, triggering what's known as the Maillard reaction to turn your meat brown—adds depth and flavor to it that's unachievable by any other means.
Easy, I thought. I seared off my beef (after trying a few cuts I decided to go with chuck for its good balance of fat and flavor, and its inexpensive price—short ribs would be great if money is no object), added my adobo sauce, the popped the whole thing in a low oven to braise until tender. Four hours later, I pulled this out
It sure smelled great, and it even tasted fine. But the outer 1/4-inch or so—the seared portions—was dry and tough. It wasn't the end of the world, but I really wanted my tacos to be tender and moist through and through.
Applying no sear at all before simmering revealed meat that was much more tender, but lacked in flavor.
So here's the dilemma, and it comes up in braised meat dishes all the time: a hard sear will give you great flavor, but robs you of some tender texture. No ear, on the other hand, delivers great moist, tender texture, but is missing the complexity and richness of meat braised with a sear first.
How could I get the best of both worlds?
Steering the Sear
That's when I realized that I don't need to sear the same beef that I'm eating. It's custom to sear the beef you're going to braise, and when it comes to ease of preparation, it's certainly the best way to do it. But we're after the best here.
So, I thought to myself, what if I were to sear an extra flavorful cut of beef like, say, oxtail, and use that to flavor my braise, leaving the chuck destined for eating totally raw when it goes in the pot?
The only question was whether or not the chuck would pick up enough of the seared flavor during its four hours in the oven.
I started a new batch of barbacoa, this time searing off a pound of oxtails in a Dutch oven before adding my adobo sauce and the raw beef chuck.
Just as I was about to close the lid and throw it in the oven, I caught a glimpse of a bottle of fish sauce hanging out in my cupboard and thought, what the hell? Fish sauce is, after all, packed with glutamates—the chemical that gives our food the sensation of meatiness. Indeed, I often splash some into my Bolognese sauce or even into my chili, when the mood strikes. (Don't worry, it doesn't make anything taste fishy)
The results? Crazy tender barbacoa with an intense beef flavor balanced by the rich, spicy, tangy sauce. The best part about using the oxtails? You get little bonus snacks for the cook in the kitchen. I like to nibble the fatty little pieces from around the bones, saving the tender chuck meat for my tacos.
Let's just do a quick recap:
What you can get from Chipotle:
Pretty juicy, a little heavy on the cumin, moderately tender, somewhat beefy.
What you can make yourself at home:
Extremely juicy, perfectly balanced, rich deep spicing, tender enough to gently stroke a dead kitten back to life, flavor like a cow eating another cow while wearing leather.
Any more questions?
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.