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Barbacoa vs Birria: What’s the Difference?

  • Joel CZ 
  • 5 min read
barbacoa vs birria
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Birria and barbacoa consist mainly of cooked lamb or goat. But do you know how to distinguish these two classic Mexican dishes?

I will briefly explain the main differences in today’s article, so you know what to expect.

The thing is, you will find multiple recipes with variations that each region of the country contributes to, which can be a little confusing.

However, I will tell you some elements that most of them use, which become the basis of both stews.

What is Birria, and how is it eaten?

barbacoa vs birria
Traditional birria – Source: Robert Briggs / shutterstock.com

The birria, typical of Guadalajara Jalisco, is mainly prepared with goat meat, although you can find mutton, lamb, pork, chicken, veal, or beef.

There are two ways to eat birria: tacos or soup. Although the traditional one is the soup made with goat meat.

I remember when I was a kid in Guadalajara, I would wait for Sundays to arrive so my parents would take me to the market to eat birria. The soup version is my favorite.

What is Birria made of?

The birria meat is seasoned with a mixture of chiles (the most used are guajillo, pasilla, morita, and cascabel), garlic, onion, black pepper, cloves, vinegar, cumin, cinnamon, thyme, sesame, and bay leaf.

In the traditional process, the first step is to salt the meat and let it marinate with the sauce for about 12 hours.

The meat is then wrapped in maguey stalks with more marinade mixture and placed in a sealed pot to be cooked directly over the fire or baked.

You may want to read: Guajolota, the Delicious Tamale Torta that Everyone in Mexico City Loves

Once the meat is soft and comes off the bone easily, the juice is separated, and the previously roasted and ground tomato is added to it and brought to a boil.

After the broth is seasoned, the meat is added and ready to be served with chopped onion, oregano, limes, tortillas, and hot sauce.

This dish’s combination of ingredients and flavors has made it one of the people’s favorites, not only of tapatíos (Guadalajara residents) but of all Mexicans.

This dish can be found practically everywhere in Guadalajara, from restaurants to street stands.

What is Barbacoa?

barbacoa vs birria
Barbacoa tacos – Source: Guajillo studio / shutterstock.com

The term barbacoa refers to a pre-Hispanic cooking method that consisted of forming a hole in the ground, heating it with wood embers, and placing stones to cook at high temperatures.

In Pre-Hispanic Mexico, they made barbacoa with poultry, deer, and fish.

The meat is placed over these stones to be cooked and wrapped with banana or maguey leaves, depending on the region.

To finish this preparation, the wrapped meat is buried underground and left to cook for long hours.

The introduction of sheep, cattle, and pigs during Colonial Mexico integrated new meat ingredients into this cooking method, which originated in pre-Hispanic cuisine.

What is real Barbacoa made of?

Nowadays, barbacoa refers to slow-cooked meat distinguished by its flavor and soft texture.

The method of preparation and ingredients vary depending on the region of the country.

In the North, it is prepared with beef or kid, in the Central Highlands with lamb or goat, and in the South with chicken or pork al pibil.

However, the most authentic one is made with lamb meat wrapped in maguey stalks and cooked in an earth oven.

The oven is a hole in the ground about one meter deep, usually with brick walls.

At the bottom of the hole, wood is lit, and the fire is kept alive until the bricks have absorbed the heat and are red-hot.

To steam the meat, a pot of water is placed first; with the help of a grate, the meat is placed on the pot without coming into contact with the liquid.

Sometimes, ingredients such as onions, chili peppers, and spices are added to the water to use the meat juice as a consomé (broth).

In some places, the entrails are also seasoned, and the animal’s belly itself is used as a cooking bag and introduced on top of the wrapped meat.

Once all the elements are in the oven, the hole is covered with a sheet of foil and fresh mud to prevent the steam from escaping; it is left buried overnight.

Barbacoa vs Birria, which one is your favorite?

As you can see, both of these delicacies are very similar, but the flavor is different.

It is important to note that the barbacoa and birria are made with beef in many Mexican regions. This happens in areas that don’t have access to goat or lamb meat.

If you see birria somewhere, make sure it is made with goat meat.

If you want to try the original ones, I recommend always looking for authentic recipes.

Likewise, if you find barbacoa, ensure it’s made with lamb. Enjoy, and see you next time!

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