Barbacoa: What Part of the Cow Is Used in This Mexican Delicacy?

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Grilled Chuck Roast on Wooden Plate

Most of us will order barbacoa in restaurants without knowing exactly what the word means or what type of meat it is. In fact, I’ve done it myself. I knew it was beef, but I had no idea what cut it might be. That’s when I decided to put together this guide. 

Barbacoa What Part of Cow

Barbacoa doesn’t refer to a cut of meat. Like corned beef and London broil, it’s a term that refers to the preparation technique, not the cut. That said, chefs prefer to use fatty cuts that contain a great deal of connective tissue, such as chuck and brisket. The meat needs to cook for a long time, so lean and tender cuts would dry out in the process. 

Defining Barbacoa 

What is barbacoa? You might have seen it on the menu in a Mexican restaurant and resisted ordering it because you weren’t sure what it meant. That’s understandable, but all dedicated carnivores should try this delicacy at least once in their lives. 

In Spanish, barbacoa stands for barbecue—specifically, barbecued meat. Both the technique and the term have origins in the Caribbean, where indigenous folk called the Taino would cook their beef over an open flame. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because American barbecue is derivative of this method. Many food historians agree that barbecue wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Taino. 

Mexico also took a page out of the Taino’s book, but they altered the technique somewhat. Modern Mexican barbacoa is made by digging a pit in the ground, then building a fire in the pit and using it to cook the meat. The chef may also cover the meat in agave leaves beforehand. 

Since the meat isn’t exposed to the open air, it retains more moisture. It’s also intensely flavorful, as the smoke has nowhere to go. You can prepare it in an oven if you have to, but authentic barbacoa should be made outdoors. 

Sliced  Barbecued Beef On Wooden Board

What Part of the Cow is Barbacoa?

Traditionally, chefs used the cow’s head to create this unique dish. It was a good way to dispose of a relatively undesirable cut. What’s more, the head’s lack of popularity meant that it was also inexpensive, so using it was a win-win. 

If you’re turned off by the idea of using a cow’s head, or if you just can’t find one, it’s fine to use another cut of beef to make barbacoa. Most American chefs will use chuck roast or brisket, although some will still use beef cheeks if they can procure them. 

Barbacoa refers to a preparation method, not a cut of beef. Any cut that contains a lot of fat and connective tissue will do the trick. It’s not a good technique to use for cuts that are naturally lean or tender, because the finished dish won’t have the right texture. 

Chuck Roast 

The chuck is a primal cut of beef, which means it’s one of the large pieces that’s initially separated from the steer during butchering. This particular primal comes from the neck and shoulder region

Since the shoulder gets a lot of exercise during the steer’s lifetime, it’s naturally tough, with plenty of connective tissue. It also contains a great deal of fat. These qualities combine to make the chuck roast an ideal cut for barbacoa. 


The next time you buy a beef brisket, try making barbacoa instead of following your traditional recipe. Most pitmasters are familiar with this primal, which is located in the lower pectoral area, between the steer’s front legs. 

Cow’s don’t have collar bones, meaning the brisket muscles are responsible for holding up a great deal of the animal’s weight. As a result, the meat is tough and loaded with connective tissuemuch like the chuck

Beef Cheeks

Even if you can’t find (or don’t want to find) an entire cow head to make your barbacoa, you can achieve a similar effect by using the beef cheeks.

The terminology behind beef cuts is often confusing. In this case, though, the cut is exactly what it sounds like—the cheek of the animal. 

Since cows use these muscles to chew their cud, the cheeks can be quite sinewy, but the butcher will usually trim the sinew away to leave a clean muscle. Even then, the meat is far from tender, so it’s best to give them the slow-cooking treatment. 

Beef cheeks aren’t easy to find. Since there are only two per cow, they’re considered a specialty cut. What’s more, they’re not all that popular, so it’s rare for butcher shops to stock them. You might have to plan ahead if you want to experiment with beef cheeks. On the plus side, though, the cut is usually set at an affordable price. 

Beef Cheeks Dish

How to Make Barbacoa at Home 

You don’t have to dig a hole in the ground in order to make barbacoa. Sure, that’s the authentic Mexican preparation, but there’s no need for home chefs to go to all that trouble. 

You can achieve similar results with a Dutch oven, slow cooker, or smoker. You’ve probably already guessed that I prefer the smoker, since it will provide a flavor boost that hews closely to the real article. 

However, some folks like to use the slow cooker to help the meat retain moisture. If you’d like to try this method instead, take a look at this video tutorial

In this recipe, I’ve opted for chuck roast. Feel free to substitute brisket or beef cheeks as desired, but bear in mind that you might have to adjust the proportions to make up for any discrepancies in the weight. 


  • 1 chuck roast, untrimmed (3 to 4 pounds)
  • 1 can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (7 ounces)
  • 1 onion, sliced 
  • Juice of 1 lime 
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • 1-½ cups diced tomatoes 
  • 1 small can green chiles (4 ounces)
  • 2 cups beef stock or broth 
  • 3 bay leaves 
  • 1-½ teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1-½ teaspoons ground cumin 
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder 
  • 1 teaspoon paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder 
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt 
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

For Serving:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Minced cilantro 
  • Sliced radishes
  • Shredded cabbage
  • Cotija cheese or queso fresco 
  • Salsa roja


Meat Smoker

1- Set the smoker to 250 degrees. I like to use oak as a smoking wood for barbacoa, but for a stronger smoke flavor, you can substitute hickory

2- Set an aluminum pan under the cooking grate to catch the drippings. 

3- While you’re waiting for the smoker to come to temp, make the spice rub. Mix together the garlic powder, cumin, onion powder, paprika, chili powder, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. 

4- Pat the chuck roast dry with paper towels. Cover it all over with the spice rub mixture. 

5- When the smoker is hot enough, put the chuck roast directly on the cooking grate. Close the lid of the smoker and let the roast cook for about 2 hours, until it’s brown all over. 

6- As the roast cooks, make the sauce. In a blender or food processor, combine the chipotle peppers (with the adobo sauce), lime juice, orange juice, tomatoes and chiles. Blend until the mixture is smooth. 

7- When the roast has achieved an internal temp of 165 degrees, remove it from the smoker. Carefully remove the aluminum pan from beneath the grate, taking care not to spill any of the precious beef drippings. 

8- Add the sauce and beef broth to the pan, along with the chuck roast. Top the meat with the sliced onion and bay leaves. 

9- Cover the pan with foil and return it to the smoker. Allow the beef to braise for another 3 hours, or until it’s cooked to 200-203 degrees. The meat should be probe-tender

10- Remove the barbacoa from the smoker and allow it to rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour

11- Remove the bay leaves. Shred the beef and mix it with the sauce that’s left behind in the pan. 

12- Serve on warm corn tortillas topped with chopped cilantro, radishes, cabbage, cheese, and salsa.

Final Thoughts 

While chuck roast is a great option for beef barbacoa, you can use any cut that’s naturally tough and fatty. The key is to prevent the meat from drying out as it cooks. 

Once you’ve sampled your very own homemade barbacoa, your Taco Tuesdays will never be the same again. This delicious spicy beef is a popular Mexican restaurant staple for a reason—it’s a carnivore’s dream come true. 

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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