Barbacoa de Res (Beef Barbacoa)

Chef Jonathan Zaragoza pays homage to the history of barbacoa in this recipe, breaking down the process into simple steps to help home cooks succeed with this cooking project.

Barbacoa de Res

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Roast Time:
4 hrs 30 mins
Marinate Time:
8 hrs
Rest Time:
3 hrs 10 mins
Total Time:
17 hrs 30 mins
8 to 10 servings

While “barbacoa” translates to “barbecue” in Spanish, the roots of barbacoa extend beyond Mexico. For Jonathan Zaragoza, recognizing the history of barbacoa is the first step to recipe success. “The technique of wrapping meat in some sort of leaf and burying it in an earthen pit to cook for hours isn’t unique to Mexico, but it’s a technique that we have perfected over the course of centuries. The word 'barbacoa' is said to have come from the Taíno language specifically in pre-Hispanic Cuba, and it roughly translates to a wood-burning hole in the ground used to cook meats,” says Zaragoza. 

Traditionally, the meats are wrapped in agave leaves, but Zaragoza opts for banana leaves to impart a bit of their flavor to the meat while it cooks. “I love using banana leaves to keep the meat from drying out during the cook and give it an earthy flavor as well.” 

This recipe uses beef cheek for a silky texture and chuck for some added flavor and chew, while the juices from the meat give you a stick-to-your-lips consistency that is rich with beefy goodness. It’s a satisfying filling for tacos, especially paired with Zaragoza’s bright yet umami-charged salsa roja taquera, which is enhanced with chicken bouillon. 

“Barbacoa isn’t just a dish; it’s deeper than that. It’s a method of cooking, an ancestral ritual, and for many, a religion,” Zaragoza says. “The recipe I’m sharing with you is an adaptation for the adventurous home cook. Think of this recipe as the rabbit hole into the beautifully diverse world of barbacoa and Mexican food.”


Adobo Marinade

  • 3 ounces dried ancho chiles, seeded (about 8 chiles)

  • 1/2 ounce dried pasilla chiles, seeded (about 2 chiles) 

  • 2/3 ounce dried guajillo chiles, seeded (about 4 chiles)

  • 2 cups unsalted beef stock

  • 14 unpeeled garlic cloves

  • 2 medium plum tomatoes

  • 1 small white onion, quartered

  • 12 whole allspice berries

  • 8 whole cloves

  • 1 (2-inch) Ceylon cinnamon stick

  • 2 teaspoons black peppercorns

  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds

  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 1/4 cup white vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons lard

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt


  • 3 pounds beef cheeks, cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch chunks

  • 2 pounds boneless chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch chunks

  • 1/4 cup canola oil

  • 6 cups unsalted beef stock

  • 1 small white onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups), plus more, diced, for serving

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped

  • 5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

  • 7 (3-inch) fresh thyme sprigs

  • 5 (3-inch) fresh marjoram sprigs or oregano sprigs

  • 3 fresh or dried bay leaves

  • 10 (12- x 14-inch) banana leaf pieces

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • Salsa Roja Taquera, charred corn tortillas, fresh cilantro leaves, and lime wedges, for serving


Make the adobo marinade

  1. Heat a 12- to 15-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Add chiles; cook, turning often, until charred and slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Transfer chiles to a large, wide saucepan. Remove skillet from heat. Add beef stock to saucepan with chiles; bring to a boil over high. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook, undisturbed, until chiles soften, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let steep, covered, 10 minutes.

  2. Heat skillet over medium-high. Add unpeeled garlic, tomatoes, and quartered onion, and cook, turning occasionally, until tender and charred in spots, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer tomatoes and onion to a blender. Transfer garlic cloves to a small bowl; let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add allspice, cloves, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, oregano, cumin, and anise to skillet; cook over medium-high, stirring constantly, until toasted and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.

  3. Transfer chiles, steeping liquid, toasted spices, apple cider vinegar, and white vinegar to blender with tomatoes and onion. Squeeze garlic cloves from their skins into blender; discard skins. Process until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides as needed. Pour mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a large bowl; use a spatula to press on solids and pass through as much mixture as possible. Discard solids.

  4. Heat lard in a medium saucepan over medium until melted. Slowly pour chile mixture into saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, bubbly, and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in salt. Transfer adobo marinade to a bowl; let cool completely, 1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes.

Make the barbacoa

  1. Combine beef cheeks, chuck roast, and adobo marinade in a large bowl; toss to coat. Let marinate, covered, in refrigerator 8 to 12 hours.

  2. Remove beef from bowl, scraping any excess marinade back into bowl; reserve excess marinade (1 to 1 1/3 cups). Pat meat dry with paper towels. Transfer to paper towel–lined baking sheets; let stand at room temperature 1 hour.

  3. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in lower third position. Add oil to a large roasting pan placed across 2 burners on stovetop; heat over medium until shimmering and just starting to smoke. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding, sear beef until browned on 2 sides, 5 to 8 minutes per batch. Remove meat, and set aside. Add stock to pan, and deglaze, using a wooden spoon to scrape up browned bits from bottom of pan. Add onion, carrot, garlic, thyme, marjoram, and bay leaves. Remove pan from heat. Place a roasting rack in pan; set aside.

  4. Toast banana leaf pieces over a medium-low flame (or over low heat of an electric stovetop) until fragrant and pliable, 30 seconds to 1 minute per piece. Line roasting rack with 4 to 5 banana leaf pieces, overlapping leaves and allowing ends to hang over sides of roasting rack. Transfer beef to rack, and spread with reserved adobo marinade. Fold overhanging banana leaves over beef, and top with remaining 4 to 5 banana leaves, overlapping and tucking leaves to tightly encase meat. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil. Cook in preheated oven until meat is very tender, 4 hours and 30 minutes to 5 hours.

  5. Remove pan from oven; let rest 30 minutes. Unwrap top banana leaves, and transfer beef to a large platter. Shred meat using 2 forks. Spoon any accumulated marinade and beef juices from bottom layer of banana leaves over meat; discard banana leaves. Pour beef juices in roasting pan through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a large bowl; discard solids. Sprinkle beef juices with salt, and serve alongside beef with Salsa Roja Taquera, corn tortillas, diced onion, cilantro, and lime wedges.


From start to finish, this barbacoa requires about 15 hours — but you can prep some of the components well in advance. Here’s the plan:

Up to 5 days ahead: Make Tomato Salsa.

Up to 2 days ahead: Make Adobo Marinade.

The night before: Marinate beef.

Day of: Sear, wrap, and roast marinated beef; char tortillas; and prepare toppings and garnishes. 

Make ahead

Barbacoa can be stored in an airtight container in refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.

Suggested Pairing

A cooling Mexican pilsner like Bohemia Pilsner

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