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post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
Here's the perfect use for an way undervalued piece of beef.

Contrary to some beliefs, barbacoa (bar-bah-COE-ah) is not Spanish for barbecue. Fairly well-known in South Texas and along the Mexican border, it remains either unknown or poorly-copied in most other areas of the country. After telling you the old way of preparing it, I'll show you a much simpler way that is every bit as good but much less work.

Traditional barbacoa de cabeza is made form a whole cow's head, which may be more of a challenge than most people want to take on! The head is then cleaned, eyes, ears and tongue removed, and then sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. Then it is combined with chopped onions, garlic and maybe cilantro, wrapped in a burlap sack, then wrapped well in maguey leaves. A large hole in the ground is dig, and a large hardwood fire built in in. Once that is reduced to coals, the wrapped head is placed in it and covered with more leaves, dirt, and more coals. Then the whole thing is buried under more dirt and left alone all day, or even over night. The next day, you dig it up, and shred off all the meat you can. Quite a large production, but there is a simpler yet just as tasty method.

Barbacoa isn't just braised or baked beef, and it isn't pot roast made from a cow's head. What really gives barbacoa it's unique taste and texture is the quality of the fat and connective tissue that is unique to that part of the animal. Around here, you can generally buy barbacoa two ways - regular or all meat. The only difference is that the all meat barbacoa does not contain all the little glands and other parts which come from the head, it is only the meat itself. Call me a wuss, but I go the all-meat route. Unfortunately, many places serve 'barbacoa' made from all different parts of the cow - I've even heard of it being made from chuck roast or even bottom round and brisket! That's a shame, because the best and easiest way to make it only takes a little effort to locate just the right ingredient.

Above is a shot of two cryovac bags of cheek meat, about 3.5 lbs. each. Most of the good solid meat from the head comes from the cheek muscles, which obviously get a lot of exercise, as cows spend most of their lives eating. It's meat, just like a roast is meat, so there's no need to be squeamish about it. Ask your butcher, or in supermarkets that serve an Hispanic population, and you can find beef cheeks for sale fairly reasonably - these I picked up for $2.39/lb. Now I have to warn you, it doesn't look like a roast or steak might - it's pretty ugly stuff. But you can easily see that the fat and other tissue looks different that you are used to seeing, and that is what gives real barbacoa that special taste and mouth-feel. Nothing else will do, because like I said before, we aren't making pot roast here.

Preparation is simplicity. For each couple of lbs of meat you chop up one whole large onion, and add a rounded teaspoon of minced garlic. The recipe is scale-able for whatever amount of meat you use. Here I have used three very large onions, tossed in the garlic, and am sauteing it for a bit in some vegetable oil.

Once the onions are a bit translucent, in goes the meat. Some people say to remove the silver skin, hard fat and other things before cooking, but I find it much easier afterward. Water is added to almost cover, the pot is brought to a boil and then reduced to a simmer. Then the waiting game begins. This batch cooked for about 6 hours, or until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the meat reached about 200 degrees. You'll need to check occasionally to keep the liquid level up.

Once the meat is falling apart, you remove it from the cooking liquid. Reserve the liquid and strain out the vegetables.

Once it cools, you can shred the meat off of the remaining connective tissue, silver skin and other non-edibles. Nothing works better for this than hands; be prepared to spend a little time here so you don't miss any of the good stuff. Once shredded, the barbacoa will have a tendency to dry out rather quickly. I put the reserved strained liquid back in the pot, and add the meat back in. This will keep it tasty and moist, and you can serve it by straining or squeezing it out.

Barbacoa is a dish with a light and unique taste this can be lost if served among a lot of other flavors, like in enchiladas or other heavy sauces or salsas. Not that it wouldn't be good, but you'd miss some of the flavor nuances. Now on to the tortillas.

Since often corn tortillas can be rather delicate if just heated in a microwave, I give them a quick dip for just a few seconds in hot oil before serving. Just wait for the small bubbles in the tortilla and pull it out of the grease.

You don't want them crispy, but it gives them some firmness and keeps the tacos from falling apart. If you hear crunching when you fold them in half to drain, they might be overcooked. Just make sure and drain them well on paper towels.

In it's most traditional form, it is served on corn tortillas and topped with salt and pepper and sliced onions and chopped fresh cilantro leaves, then finished with a drizzle of lime juice. Sometimes, a simple fresh Pico de Gallo goes well. The meat is the focus, and all the waiting proves very worthwhile from the first bite. Here is a shot of the finished dish, prepared and served in the traditional style.

Barbacoa freezes very well, so preparing a large batch and saving some in vacuum sealed bags works well for always having it on hand when you want some! Here is 3 lbs. of today's batch headed for the freezer.

Oh, and that juice you reserved? Drizzle some of that on your dog's dinner and see how much he loves it!
post #2 of 19
Looks tastey!! I'll have ta save the cheek meat for this when i do my next butchering.
post #3 of 19
That looks great. I'm not sure I can get check meat here, but I will try the recipe using other pieces. Thanks for the lesson.PDT_Armataz_01_34.gif
post #4 of 19
PDT_Armataz_01_34.gif POINTS. Thanks for the tutorial. I love Barbacoa tacos, especially at deer camp, keeps easy and heats up quick
post #5 of 19
excellent! points!
post #6 of 19
The Walley-World's here in town have cheek meat in the meat case. Its got its standard wal-mart label but in both English and Spanish. I was looking at a couple weeks ago.....thanks for your post, it looks real good! PDT_Armataz_01_34.gif
post #7 of 19
POINTS from one fellow South Texan to another. Most of the 'real' barbacoa that I've made has been from lengua (tongue meat). I hit it with a combination of smoke & steam. Tongues also come out great in the crock pot with fresh herbs. In Northern Mexico and around here, barbacoa is a traditional Sunday morning treat. The leftover stock, known as 'consommé' and menudo are nature's two best remedies for a hangover.

MG, your QVIEW exemplifies the art of making barbacoa to perfection - right down to the tortillas! Thanks for sharing,

post #8 of 19
speaking of tortillas, if any of you texans care to share a recipe for homemade tortillas with a montanan, i'd be grateful!
post #9 of 19
TasunkaWitko... wish I could help you out with the tortilla recipe but there are just so many authentic Mexican places around here that sell cheap ( but delicious ) tortillas that I don't even bother trying to make my own.

I am sure somebody has a recipe though
post #10 of 19
I could eat a few of the tacos. Great post, great info. Definately worth points. Good job.
post #11 of 19
The above is about as right as can be. However, if you really want to make your own, you need a sack of "MASECA" tortilla flour (wally-world carries them- and that's the brand too). Just moisten the flour with water to make a soft dough that's not sticky. You will need a tortilla-press to make them uniformly round and flat. They have them for sale at Hispanic stores for around $10 bucks. (I can get one and mail it to you if you want) The're aluminum, round and use a lever to mash down the dough to a standard shape. They're actually pretty neat if you make your own, or you can use the tried-and-true way of flappin the dough back and forth across your palms until it forms the flat tortilla. Good luck. I have tried this. Never got the hang of it, nor can I flip a pizza crust in the air like Italian Pizza guys either! I'm thinking you have to be a Mexican grandmother to pull this one off.

You need a thin hot griddle- a wok works fine. Spray with PAM or have it well seasoned. Slap that puppy on there for about a minute, flip it over, for another and you are done! It's that easy. If you want browning marks, let it sit for a nother 30 seconds on each side. That's it.

If you are really going to do it by hand, have a pot of refried beans ready, some chopped cilantro, and diced up queso fresco. You will have some serious tacos there, my friend!
post #12 of 19
The best barbacoa I have had has been whole head meat served on gordita - the thicker, heavier style of tortilla made for Mexican "sandwiches". Not that crap that Taco Bell calls gordita either. The real thing is made using masa harina, as in tamales and good tortillas. A good gordita will absorb the juice liberally, something most tortillas can't do. Luckily, I work with some Mexican ladies that are expert at making both. These ladies tell me about the gorditas (which interestingly they even call sandwiches occasionally) that their mothers had prepared for them when they got home from school with plantains, chorizo, chilis, whatever.

Most of our ideas of Mexican is totally skewed by fast food and even Tex-Mex. Real Mexican food is far different than we can imagine, for the most part. Go further south and it gets even more interesting. Salvadorian food is something to behold. We have a local restaurant that is ran by a Peruvian guy serving Portuguese/Brazilian food. Way cool stuff with tapioca (read manioc) and other rare-to-us veggies as well as grilled meats that make you drool. We prepare European, Asian, even Middle Eastern foods routinely, but sometimes I think we skip over the best stuff going and it is right next to us. There's a whole continent down there!
post #13 of 19
Thread Starter 
All very true! Even within Mexico itself, there are easily a dozen different 'styles' of Mexican food. Most derive from what is locally available, so it can be very regional.

BTW, Athabaskar, that is quite the interesting screen name. Any of your ancestors come across the land bridge like mine did? icon_wink.gif
post #14 of 19
Thread Starter 
Here's some recipes for both flour and corn tortillas, plus a bonus recipe at the end. Forst of all, although other tools can be used, you really ought to get yourself a comal. It is essentially a flat cast iron skillet with no sides but a small lip instead. Useful for so many things besides tortillas, I use them for sandwiches, scrambled eggs, anything you'd want better access to than skillet sides will allow.

3 cups unbleached flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
4-6 Tbsp. vegetable shortening or lard
about 1 1/4 cups warm water

Mix dry ingredients together. Add in the shortening or lard. Cut the shortening into the mix with pastry cutter or just use yoru hands.

Add warm water a little at a time until your dough is soft but not sticky. Knead the dough for a few minutes longer. Separate the dough into 12 equal pieces and let them rest
t for at least 10 minutes - longer is better. Heat up your comal or pan to medium/medium-high.

oll out the dough into a flat circle. I roll it one way, then flip and turn 90 degrees and roll outthe other direction. Keep at it until they are fairly thin.

Lay it out on the comal, it will cook fairly quickly. Flip over and cook the other side. It should end up with random small brown patches from the cooking. Put them in towel or a tortilla warmer untill finished with all of the batch.

2 cups masa harina
1 1/2 cups of warm water

Mix masa harina and water together to form a dough. Knead for about one minute adding more water if necessary.

Divide dough into 10-12 balls. They should be about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Dust each with additional corn flour and set aside.

Press each tortilla in a tortilla press or roll out between two pieces of plastic wrap until it is about 6 inches in diameter and very thin.

Put the raw tortilla on your comal or hot griddle and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side.

3/4 cup masa harina
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons lard
1 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
salt to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
oil for frying

Mix masa harina and lard. Slowly add in the stock/water while mixing. Mix the salt and garlic powder into the flour and then add to the Masa mixture. Knead the mixture in the bowl for 2-3 minutes.

Pull off pieces of dough and roll in your hands to form a golf-ball sized ball. Lightly coat the balls with flour and place between to two pieces of plastic wrap. Roll out the balls or use a tortilla press until the gorditas are about 1/4 inch thick, much thicker than for tortillas.

Heat a comal (or a griddle) until hot. Cook the gordita for about one minute on each side, or until it is cooked through. Heat the oil over medium heat.

Place the cooked gorditas in the oil one at a time and cook until the gordita puffs up. Drain on paper towels.

Slice an opening in one end to open the pocket and stuff with your favorite fillings such as meat and beans. Maybe I'll have to do a post on traditional gordtas around here to get the fillings just right, but that's a different show.

post #15 of 19
That is interesting. Thanks for the QVIEW and expanding our knowledge base.points.gif
post #16 of 19
Excellent post my friend, thanks for sharing all the information on this treat. I worked in Brownsville, Texas quite a bit, and barbacoa was always on my plate, including my weekly walks to Matamoros. Here in Cali, I've seen folks use goat meat and call it barbacoa. I don't make it because nobody in my family, or my wifes's will eat it, aside from myself. Viva Tejas!
post #17 of 19
my thanks to all for the helpful replies. rivet, i might take you up on that as living in rural north-central montana, we don't see too any hispanic stores. i'll look around and let you know - if necessary i'll get a money order together and shoot it to you. we do have a walmart, believe it or not, and it's only 25 miles away ~ i ahve seen that maseca and will see if i can grab some. i hear you loud and clear on the old grandmother thing. - my wife's slocak grandmother is still the best cook i know, even though she passed away a few years ago.

mgwerks - thanks for the recipes - i'd like to be giving them a try and if i am able to, will be posting on results!
post #18 of 19
mg that was great!! The last barbacoa I eat was on a hunting trip in W Texas a couple years ago. Now after reading your excellent post I want to try somemore. Over here in SE Texas we have many Mexican meat markets. I am going to have to try this. Thanks for sharingpoints.gif but it may be tomorrow.icon_razz.gif
post #19 of 19
Excellent post, I am going to be trying that. I live in S.Tx and there use to be an older mexican guy that use to do the in ground method each week, sold on Saturdays. The BEST barbacoa de cabeza around.
Now to a funny story, at our Co. where I work for we have a guy from New York, one of the best guys you could hope to meet. Over the yrs we have been introducing him to fine Mexican food, spices etc and having fun along the way. Habeneros and chilipitins were some good ones but the barbacoa was the best. I sent one of my guys over to pick up 2lbs BBQ de cabeza and a couple dozen corn tortilla's, told him to take a couple pics of the head-- can you say fresh. The cook always had some out back of shop.
So as we were eating breakfast later that AM, we started to enlighten him on BBQ de cabeza as to the origins.One pic had a scraped skull with the bowl of meat in it with our name on it, that my guy took a pic of. Told him he was eating cow face.The New Yorker hit the bathroom ASAP.
Over the yrs my friend from New York has come to love Barbaqoa and can seriously eat some hot peppers now.
The best place for BBQ de Cabeza is gone with the passing of the cook, he always wrapped the head in foil, then put in ground and covered. Cow face breakfast Tacos around our shop is still good for laugh.
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