I feel like I could write an entire blog devoted to tacos and keep myself in material for years. Endless variations can be traced from region to region for authentic tacos and those variations can be reshaped and reformed by fusing them with other cuisines and ingredients or methods to create yet more variations. I mean, have you ever had a Korean pork belly taco with kimchi? They’re phenomenal.
But one of the great, classic taco varieties is barbacoa, and here we’ll be looking at a great method for making smoked barbacoa tacos at home with some guidance from MeatChurch. Will it be 100% authentic, like those served in Mexico? Goodness no! (You’ll see why, below.) Will it be delicious and amazingly rich? Our temperature control will all but guarantee it!
What is barbacoa?
Barbacoa was the great Great Granddaddy of American BBQ. Originally it was a Caribbean Taíno food, but it made its way to both the U.S. and Mexico. In the U.S., it became barbecue in all its regional variations. A method similar to the Arawak version evolved independently in Mexico, using a pit called a pib, and the method later took on the borrowed name of barbacoa. (The original word still persists in the name of another great Mexican dish, cochinita pibil.)
It is often made by cooking a whole sheep or goat in a pit dug in the ground and lined with leaves, though there are regional variations in Mexican barbacoa just as there are in American barbecue. Renowned Mexican food specialist Diana Kennedy has this to say about it:
Meat cooked en barbacoa is Sunday food in Mexico, and caries tremendously from region to region. The word barbacoa refers to pit barbecuing… There are specialists who dedicate themselves to this pit barbecuing, as it takes a great deal of preparation and long cooking. Perhaps the most popularly known barbacoa is that of central Mexico—the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and Mexico—where the unseasoned meat, usually mutton, is cooked in a pit lined with maguey (century plant leaves. The head of the animal is included… Traditionally the very soft meat is eaten as tacos, wrapped in soft, steaming tortillas and doused with a fiery sauce.—Diana Kennedy, Mexican Regional Cooking, pp. 118–119
And while I desperately want to make barbacoa that way, it is, let us say, a bit of a production. We can, however, do our best to replicate some of the function and feel of barbacoa in our smokers.
What meat for barbacoa tacos?
Barbacoa is usually made with the whole animal, most often jointed out into large primal cuts and then packed in a hot pit to steam/roast for 12 hours or more. Much of that meat is rich in connective tissue that will give the final product a luscious, rich mouthfeel—some say that the meat from barbacoa should be softer than the tortilla on which it is served. To replicate that soft, unctuous feeling, and to mimic to some extent the inclusion of the head in many barbacoa pits, we’ll use beef cheek, but you could make this same preparation with more traditional cuts of beef, as well.
Cheek is so full of connective tissue that when it is finally properly cooked, it feels as if it’s a mass of gelatin that is held together with fat and meat. It’s incredible. Yes, to be more authentic, you could use goat or sheep or lamb cheek, but a whole head for those is probably easier to find than the cheek itself! Beef cheek can probably be had from any good Latin meat market or even an actual, non-grocery store butcher.
Beef cheek is a weird cut of meat. The structure is odd as is the shape. The cuts have a lot of fat seams running on and through them, and you can trim as much surface fat away as you like. We didn’t trim any on this cook, and it was great, but I’ll probably trim some next time I make this dish.
How to cook beef cheek
To cook beef cheek to its optimal doneness, we need to break down all that collagen and render all that fat. Cooking it at 275°F (135°C) until it hits 160°F (71°C) internal temp and then braising it in a pan kind of approximates the pit-cooking of the original barbacoa, and it’s the perfect way to go. The small pieces could dry out if we left them in the dry environment of the smoker until they were completely cooked, and the cooking is accelerated by the humid environment. Covered braising not only eliminates evaporative cooling in the meat, but also provides more direct heat transmission from the pan of hot liquid.
As we braise, we’ll be looking for a final internal temperature of 203°F (95°C) that is also probe-tender. We’ll use our Smoke X2™ for this with our Billows™ BBQ control fan so we can keep our temperatures where we want them.
Serving barbacoa tacos
Corn tortillas are traditional, and you can warm them on either the grill or a hot cast iron pan. Make sure you have sharp-tasting, crisp white onion diced for the tacos as well as some chopped cilantro and lime wedges. If you have a favorite salsa recipe, use it!Print
Barbacoa tacos based on those from Meat Church BBQ
- 1 package fresh beef cheek, about 3 lbs
- Your favorite BBQ seasoning
- 18 oz beef stock or broth
- 1 head of garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 white onion, chopped
You’ll also need a half-size steam pan or disposable aluminum pan and some foil.
- Corn tortillas
- Chopped cilantro
- Finely diced white onion
- Salsa of your choosing
- Preheat your smoker to 275°F (135°C). If using the Billows BBQ control fan, set it up with your Smoke X2 to maintain that temp.
- Trim the beef cheeks to your liking.
- Season the beef cheeks well with the BBQ rub. Allow the seasoning to sit on the meat for a few minutes before you smoke them.
- Put a probe into the largest cheek section and set the high-temp alarm to 160°F (71°C). Smoke the cheeks! This step will take about 2–2-1/2 hours.
- When the beef gets up near the target temp, heat the beef broth.
- When the meat is fully at temp, place it into the pan with the onions and garlic and add the hot broth. Cover the pan tightly with foil.
- Insert a probe through the foil and set your high-temp alarm for 203°F (95°C). Put the pan back into the smoker and smoke to temp (about 4 more hourss).
- When the high-temp alarm sounds, check that it is at the proper temperature throughout and that it is probe tender using a Thermapen® Mk4.
- Allow the meat to rest in the pan for at least 15 minutes, during which time you can heat your tortillas and prepare your toppings.
- Shred the meat and taco up!
The texture on these tacos is completely unique. The meat is so soft, so juicy, and the deep, smoky flavor is amazing. Using the Smoke X2 will help you get perfect results on this exciting, fun cook. Shake up your next taco night with something different, and make these (semi-)authentic barbacoa tacos!
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