You have heard of the concept of a “bucket list,” tracking the experiences you want to have during your lifetime? Well, rather than making commitment to go skydiving or backpack through Europe (no thanks to either for me), I’ve narrowed down my bucket list to focus on foods. Cooking is a joyful adventure for me, but I am prone to become overwhelmed with too many new ideas in a way that, ironically, puts me in a cooking rut. What better way, I thought, to expand my culinary knowledge and have the satisfaction of accomplishment, than to put my wish list foods on a schedule? I wrote about this in October, when I finally tackled pierogi, the delicious potato and spinach-filled dumplings that were easier to make than I expected. Today, I’m making good on a promise from that post. I’ve moved barbacoa to the “done” column.
Despite having spent at least half of my growing-up years in southern Colorado, where I lived part-time with my mom, I had never heard of barbacoa until the Chipotle chain of restaurants popped up in my current city. Most of the “Mexican” food I knew was the standard Americanized fare, which is odd, given the demographics in Colorado. Who doesn’t love fajitas and burritos and such? But there are so many more interesting Mexican foods, and this is undeniably one of them. Barbacoa is beef, but it’s not the same as steak, as you might have in fajitas. It is rich and savory, tender and spicy, and super-versatile as a filling for a variety of casual dishes. And you know what I learned this week? It is ridiculously simple to make.
You need a good-size (preferably grass-fed) chuck roast, which is essentially the same thing you would use to make a pot roast. It’s full of marbling, which renders down into the most succulent texture in a slow cooker. Add a few spices or Mexican rub of some sort, onions and garlic, some hot peppers if you’d like, and just enough liquid with some smoky and acidic tones to tenderize and give balance to the meat. Put it in the slow cooker and wait for the magic.
For my husband, Les, and me, this mouthwatering magic could not come at a better time. The Super Bowl is just days away, and in a normal year, that would put our kitchen skills into preparation overdrive for the arrival of guests at our annual big game party. As strange as it was to have only the two of us at the table for Thanksgiving, it will be even weirder to not have a houseful for the Super Bowl. We are making the best of this pandemic reality the same way we did for Thanksgiving—by trying out a few new foods. Les will no doubt make his pimiento cheese and—spoiler alert—his amazing smoky guacamole. I may not be able to resist whipping up at least a half dozen deviled eggs and maybe a batch of hummus to snack on. But our main dish item for this year’s scaled-down celebration is this barbacoa. Delicious. Done.
3-4 lb. beef chuck roast
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 Tbsp. smoky pepper BBQ rub* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. oil (olive, canola or avocado are all good here)
1 medium onion
5 cloves garlic
1/2 fresh poblano pepper*
1/2 red jalapeno*
1 small can mild chopped green chiles
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. chipotle puree with adobo*
2 tsp. liquid smoke
Juice of 1 lime
About 1/2 cup water or beef broth
2 dried bay leaves
An ideal smoky BBQ rub for this dish would include some type of smoked pepper (ancho or chipotle, for example), some garlic, onion and herbs. The main thing I recommend when choosing a pre-made rub is to pay attention to the sodium content. Ingredients are listed in order of their ratio, so if salt is listed early, the blend has a lot of it. Les and I recently ordered some fantastic blends from a company called Flatiron Pepper Company. I respect the fact that they do not include salt in their blends—it means I have more control of the sodium that goes into my dishes, and I’m also not paying a premium for a cheap ingredient. If you want to make your own rub, you might try my “Fire & Brimstone” seasoning, which is detailed in this week’s post for Tex-Mex Stuffed Sweet Potatoes.
We enjoy spicy foods at our house, and I used a couple of fresh peppers that we already had on hand. Poblanos have some mild heat, but primarily a smoky flavor. Red jalapeno is hotter. Use what you’re comfortable with, or leave them out altogether in favor of an extra onion. This is what’s great about cooking at home—you get exactly what you like. 😊
For the chipotle puree, we dump a can of chipotles with adobo directly into the food processor. The result is a thick, smoky sauce that has heat but also some fruitiness and a big dose of smoke. It keeps well in the fridge for several weeks and is a good addition to any type of Mexican dish or chili.
As always, I’ll get you started with a visual walk-through of how I made it. You’ll find written instructions below, and keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.
- Cut the chuck roast into equal, baseball-sized chunks. Sprinkle them all over with kosher salt and black pepper (unless your spice blend already has both).
- Combine the BBQ rub and oil in a large bowl. Toss the roast chunks in the oil until all sides are evenly covered. Cover the bowl and rest it at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour.
- Chop up the onion, garlic and any fresh peppers you are using, and set them aside, along with the canned green chiles.
- In a measuring cup, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk until blended.
- Heat a large pot or skillet over medium-high heat. Drizzle a small amount of oil into the pot and add the roast chunks, a few at a time to avoid crowding the pan. Remember that a quick drop in temperature will prevent good searing. Turn the pieces over when the bottom is browned, and continue this until all sides are browned. Our slow cooker has a browning feature, so I was able to do this directly. A cast-iron skillet would be perfect for this, if your slow cooker has a ceramic crock. Transfer the meat chunks to the slow cooker when they are browned all over.
- Scatter the onions, garlic, peppers and green chiles over the top of the meat.
- Pour the liquid ingredients into the cooker. If you used a separate skillet for browning, you may first want to swirl some of the liquid into it to deglaze and gather up all the tasty browned bits, so that you don’t miss any of that fabulous flavor.
- Tuck the bay leaves down into the liquid. Cover and cook on low setting for about 10 hours. We set this up at bedtime and woke up to the most amazing aromas.
- When the meat is nice and tender, remove it with tongs to a cutting board or glass baking dish and shred it. We found that undisturbed overnight cooking left the submerged bottom of the meat chunks tender, but the exposed parts were still firm. We simply turned the meat over and gave it another hour or so. To shred the meat, use two forks to pull it apart in opposite directions.
- Return the shredded meat to the flavorful liquid and keep it warm until ready to serve. If you plan to serve it later, refrigerate the meat and liquid together, and re-heat the amount for your recipe in a saucepan over low heat, or return it to the slow cooker if you plan to serve the whole amount.
Barbacoa is so good as a filling for street-style tacos, with fresh crunchy radishes and cilantro, plus a squeeze of lime. Or wrap it up in a larger flour tortilla with rice and peppers. Or serve it in a bowl with black beans, rice, lettuce, avocado and pico de gallo or salsa. If you’re like me, you probably won’t be able to resist having “just one more taste” straight from the slow cooker.