It all comes down to the three chiles.

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In 2020, the most popular recipe on foodandwine.com was chef Claudette Zepeda's Birria Tacos. This September, at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Zepeda demonstrated just how versatile the dish is, forgoing the usual tacos and stuffing the birria meat into soft, pillowy bao.

No matter the vehicle you choose for your birria, the most important component is the chiles in the adobo. Zepeda's recipe calls for ancho, guajillo, and cascabel chiles, all stemmed and seeded, but you can play around with the proportions, she said during her demo. Customizing chile use allows home cooks to tailor the dish to their heat and flavor preferences.

Birria Tacos Recipe
Credit: Greg Dupree

Guajillo, she noted, is not super spicy, so you can use more guajillo than ancho if you prefer less heat. "Guajillo is the chile of chiles," she said. "You could even use all guajillo if you wanted. You can really customize this dish to your family's liking."

In Zepeda's family, cascabel is non-negotiable. "My mom says cascabel is the most important chile to use in birria," she said. "Whatever Mom says, we do. I don't question it."

Get the Recipe: Birria Bao

To prepare the adobo, the recipe calls for toasting and then boiling the chiles. The most crucial thing to remember when making the sauce is not to overboil the chilies, which turns them bitter. According to Zepeda, this is the most common mistake people make when preparing birria.

Another mistake to avoid: Don't throw away your cilantro stems! Include them chopped up with the leaves in your garnish to get the maximum flavor from the herb.

Keep these tips in mind and you'll be well on your way to perfect birria. You can watch Zepeda make the Birria Bao in a recent episode of Chefs at Home, along with a Birria Maria cocktail, Cinnamon-Sugar Churros with Cajeta, and Baja-Style Caesar Salad.