If you’re an avid consumer of Mexican food, you may have heard of birria. But exactly what is birria?
And how is it different from another popular Mexican dish, barbacoa?
If those are some of your questions, you’ve come to the right place.
Birria originated in Mexico but then made its way to the United States.
Now, you can find it on the menu of many authentic Mexican restaurants nationwide.
Unfortunately, it’s not yet a household name. So many people don’t order it because they have no clue what it is.
Don’t worry, though. You’re about to find out!
What Is Birria?
In simplest terms, birria is a type of Mexican stew.
It first appeared in Jalisco, Mexico, in the 1500s when Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors came to Mexico.
They brought plenty of goats, which then multiplied into a whole plethora of goats.
So they did what most people do when bombarded with livestock. They began cooking them!
The word birria actually means “worthless.” (Which isn’t the most appealing name for a food I’ve ever heard.) I
t makes sense, though, when you realize that the people didn’t enjoy goat meat.
They thought it was “worthless” meat. Eventually, they found that they could make it palatable and even tasty.
They did this by stewing it slowly for many hours and adding flavorful ingredients.
And thus, birria was born. Today, it’s a spicy stew typically made with chiles, meat, and other spices.
Traditional birria still uses goat or lamb meat.
However, people now make it with beef, chicken, and other meats.
It’s a hearty, slow-cooked stew served in its braising liquid. Because of the spices and chiles, it typically has a bright red color.
Today, people eat the stew by itself or put the stew meat in tortillas to make birria tacos.
What Kind of Meat Is Birria Made Out of?
As I mentioned, traditional birria is made from goat meat or occasionally lamb.
Even today, those are still the most popular meats for making it.
However, they aren’t the only meats you can use.
Through the years, people have adapted birria recipes to include beef, chicken, etc.
The following sections will examine some of the most popular options.
Some Americans may find it strange that goat meat is the most popular option for birria.
After all, outside of some rural regions, goat meat isn’t something we consume that often.
However, if you want the most authentic birria possible, you must use goat meat.
Getting goat meat is simple enough if you live on a farm or near a farming community.
It may be harder to find in large cities, though.
Try searching local farmers’ markets and butcher shops, especially independently-run ones.
You might not be able to find it fresh. Still, you can usually locate frozen goat meat with little trouble.
If you can select the particular cut, opt for goat legs.
Lamb (or Mutton)
For whatever reason, lamb is typically easier to find in the States than goat.
You can find it in most large-scale grocery stores like Publix or Walmart.
You can usually find it frozen or fresh in most places. If you’re using lamb meat, try to find lamb ribs.
They have the most meat and the best flavor. They’re also relatively easy to work with.
Shoulder meat is another good option.
Mutton, like goat, is harder to find in America. Still, if you can locate it, it makes a good substitute for goat meat.
Beef (or Cow’s Head)
Beef became a popular option for birria in the 1950s in Tijuana.
At that time, it was more affordable than goat meat, and one street vendor took full advantage.
She began using beef instead, and now, people all over use it.
Just remember that cooking birria means cooking it slowly and for a long time.
Tender cuts of beef will fall apart and not hold up under the strain.
That’s why it’s important to use tougher cuts of beef.
Some people even use meat from a cow’s head, though you aren’t likely to find that in America.
It’s more common in a single town in Jalisco called Mascota.
There, they use the cheeks, organs, and other parts of a cow’s head for a richer flavor.
The tender white meat of chicken isn’t always the best option for birria.
However, you can make it with the dark meat of chicken, particularly the thighs.
This is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to make birria, as chicken is widely available.
Still, you won’t be able to cook the meat for nearly as long as you would “regular” birria.
Therefore, some people don’t consider chicken birria a “true” birria.
Birria vs. Barbacoa (What’s the Difference?)
If you’ve ever had barbacoa, you may wonder how the two are different.
After all, they have many similarities. That’s because birria is a type of barbacoa.
Not all barbacoa is birria, though.
Think of barbacoa like American barbecue.
The two are incredibly similar. They’re hearty, meaty, and mostly solid. Birria, on the other hand, is more stew-like.
The methods for cooking each are also different.
Most people make birria in a lidded pot on the stove.
Though sometimes, they’ll cook the pot in an underground oven also used to make barbacoa.
Birria also contains outside liquids to help the stewing process. Chiles and spices are also common ingredients.
Barbacoa is almost always cooked in an underground oven.
It’s actually an oven that’s been dug into the ground, but underground oven sounds cooler.
Chefs also add banana leaves and agave to line it. Then, the barbacoa cooks in its own juices without any additional liquids.
As a result, it’s much less soupy than birria.
How to Make Birria
There are numerous birria recipes online and in cookbooks.
All of them have different instructions for preparing it. In other words, there’s no single way to make it.
Here’s an overview of the steps for one of my favorite recipes, though:
1. Choose and prepare the meat. For this recipe, let’s assume we’re using goat meat. You select your cut and remove any small bones. Slice the deboned meat into 3- to 4-inch pieces.
You can also cook meat whole and on the bone with a large enough pot.
This is an excellent method for cooking a whole goat leg.
2. Prepare the marinade. You can prepare the marinade with whatever spices and seasonings you prefer. I typically add garlic, onions, ancho chiles, tomatoes, and a dash of cayenne.
Roast your peppers in a skillet before adding them to bring out their flavor. Do the same thing with the other ingredients.
Then, add some water and boil everything. Once you have a fragrant, flavorful, and still liquid marinade, it’s ready to use.
3. Marinate the meat. You can soak your meat in the marinade overnight. Or you can generously rub the marinade all over the meat and refrigerate it overnight.
I prefer soaking mine in the marinade. Doing so seems to make the meat more tender and flavorful.
4. Cook the meat. You can use a Crockpot or cook your birria on the stove. Some people cook theirs in the oven, but I don’t have good luck with that method.
Simply remove the meat from the marinade and place it in the pot. Then, let it cook for several hours.
Stovetop cooking requires about 3 to 4 hours over medium heat.
If you’re using a Crockpot, you may need to leave it for several additional hours.
Alternatively, if you’re using a pressure cooker, you can have it ready in about 45 minutes.
5. Serve. Once the meat is tender enough to fall apart (or off the bone), it’s ready. Serve it as a stew in its juices. You can also dip tortillas in the liquid and fill them with meat for birria tacos.
We’ve already talked about the ways to serve birria.
However, there are a few variations you can make to the ingredients, as well.
As for meat, goat, mutton, beef, and lamb are typical. Some people, though, make vegan birria using canned and shredded jackfruit.
The variety of chiles you can use is endless. Here are some of my favorites:
- Anaheim (dried)
Other ingredients and seasonings you can add include:
- Fire-roasted tomatoes
- Mexican oregano
- Black or white pepper
- Bay leaves
- Ground ginger
Use any combination of these ingredients (or your own!) to make birria that suits your tastes.
If you’re making birria tacos, you also want to add cheese and other toppings.
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