Why It Works
- A blend of mild, fruity, and bright-tasing chiles creates a deeply spiced barbacoa.
- Seared oxtail adds meaty flavor to the braising liquid.
- Leaving the beef chuck unseared ensures juicy meat that is completely tender.
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 chiles 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.
Blending Chiles for a Balanced Flavor
We know that chipotles form the backbone for the flavor, but one chile 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 chile 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 chiles instead of chile 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 chiles 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.
Alliums and Other Aromatics
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 chiles 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: Cooking the Beef
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 sear, 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: Choosing Flavorful Cuts of Beef
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/dorado 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?
1 whole dried New Mexico, costeño, or choricero chile, seeds and stem removed (see notes)
1 whole chile ancho or pasilla, seeds and stem removed (see notes)
1 whole chile negro, seeds and stem removed (see notes)
1 quart low sodium store-bought or homemade chicken stock, divided
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil, divided
1 pound oxtails
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, finely sliced
6 medium cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons dried oregano
4 chipotle chiles packed in adobo, roughly chopped, with 2 tablespoons adobo sauce
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 whole chuck-eye roast (about 4 pounds), or 4 pounds boneless shortribs
2 whole bay leaves
Warm corn tortillas, onions, cilantro, salsa, limes, and other condiments for serving
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 275°F. Add dried chiles to large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or stock pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until slightly darkened with intense, roasted aroma, 2 to 5 minutes. Do not allow to smoke. Remove chiles to small bowl and set aside. Alternatively, place dried chiles on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power in 15-second increments until pliable and toasted-smelling, about 30 seconds total. Transfer to a 2-quart microwave-safe liquid measuring cup or bowl. Add 2 cups chicken broth, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high power until gently simmering, about 5 minutes. Remove from microwave and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Season oxtails all over with salt and pepper, and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Remove oxtails and set aside. Reduce heat to medium.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until deep brown and onion is just starting to char on the edges, about 10 minutes. Add cumin, cloves, and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chipotle chiles, vinegar, and remaining chicken broth. Scrape up browned bits from bottom of pan, simmer until reduced by about half, then transfer entire contents to the jar of a blender.
Add soaked chiles and their liquid to the blender along with fish sauce. Start blender on low and slowly increase speed to high. Purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Set aside.
Place beef chuck in Dutch oven. Add oxtails, bay leaves, and sauce. Bring to a boil over high heat. Place lid on pot slightly cracked, then transfer to oven. Cook, turning beef occasionally, until completely tender and a cake tester or metal skewer inserted into meat shows little to no resistance, about 4 hours. Discard bay leaves and oxtails (meat from oxtails can be eaten if desired). Transfer chuck to a large plate. Return Dutch oven to stovetop and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced to about 1 1/2 cups, about 5 minutes.
Beef can be cut and served immediately, but for best flavor, transfer beef to a sealed container along with liquid and refrigerate up to five days. When ready to serve, slice beef against the grain into 1 1/2- to 2-inch slices, then shred into large chunks with fingers or two forks. Return beef to a pot along with the sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook, gently stirring and folding until beef is hot, tender, and coated in sauce. Season to taste with salt. Serve immediately, piling the beef into warm corn tortillas with onions, cilantro, salsa, limes, or other condiments as desired. Alternatively, serve as-is with rice, noodles, grits, or cornbread.
Look for dried chiles in a large supermarket or Latin market. If you can't find these exact chiles, any combination of mild, fruity and bright-tasting chiles will do, such as guajillo or Colorado.
Make Ahead and Storage
Barbacoa can be stored in its liquid for up to five days in refrigerator. The flavor should improve with time. Reheat gently on the stovetop or the microwave. Serve with store-bought or homemade corn tortillas, and make sure to reheat them right!
This Recipe Appears In
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 10|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 47g||61%|
|Saturated Fat 19g||94%|
|Total Carbohydrate 17g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||11%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||11%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|