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What Part of the Cow is Barbacoa?

What Part of the Cow is Barbacoa?

Everyone knows about barbacoa. It is delicious meat associated with Mexican cuisine.

However, most people happily shovel barbacoa into their mouths without knowing what it is or what part of the animal it is.

What is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa is a Spanish term that stands for barbecue. As I mentioned above, barbacoa is considered a Mexican way of cooking meat. 

However, the term barbacoa, as well as the technique, originated with the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean.

Furthermore, the general consensus among most food chroniclers is that all types of American barbeque were derived from the Taino’s technique. 

Typically, barbacoa means meat that is cooked over an open flame. The key to cooking barbacoa is to place the beef far enough from the fire to gradually be exposed to the smoke and absorb its smoky flavor.

If you place the beef too close to the oil will drip from the meat into the fire, causing a flare-up, ultimately burning the meat or injuring you. 

Mexico took this old Caribbean technique and mastered it. Today cooking barbacoa involves slow-cooking meat in a pit dug into the ground.

However, Mexican barbacoa is different from its Caribbean counterparts because it is not exposed to the open air. 

The pit creates a seal that helps steam the meat, lock in moisture, and give it a smoky flavor. 

Additionally, the beef is covered with agave leaves like Hawaiian kalua pork and Peruvian pachamanca. 

Authentic barbacoa can take the entire day to cook, so it is saved for special occasions or made at specific restaurants that have the ability to prep the barbacoa a day in advance.

Nevertheless, many people have changed the recipe so barbacoa can be prepared indoors in an oven. 

What Part of the Cow is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa is not one cut of meat. It can be several types of meat. 

Authentic Mexican barbacoa is made with the meat from the cow’s head. 

Cow heads are one of the less desirable cuts of meat, so they are inexpensive and perfect for making barbacoa. 

The head is pretty tough. For example, the beef cheeks are carved from the muscle region the cow uses to chew food. Furthermore, the head and cheeks are full of sinew. 

Usually, the sinew would be removed to make the beef cheeks look more presentable. However, since they are still attached to the head, the tough connective fibers will still be left on the meat. 

In contrast, people in the US make barbacoa with beef cheeks, chuck roast, or brisket. 

Nevertheless, any cut of beef that is filled that has a healthy amount of connective tissue will work well. 

Chuck is a primal cut of beef that’s carved from the cow’s shoulder and neck. Specifically, it’s the space between the lower neck and upper shoulder.

The shoulder is one of the parts of the body the cow uses the most, so it is tough and loaded with connective tissue. 

Chuck roasts are fattier, so the fat will render along with the connective tissue creating tender and juicy barbacoa. 

Brisket can also be used to make barbacoa. It is located in the pectoral region of the steer. The brisket is the region directly between the front legs. 

Unlike humans, cows were not designed with collar bones. Therefore, they depend on the pectoral muscles (brisket) to hold them up as we rely on our legs to hold us up. 

Cows weigh between 1200 and 1400 pounds, so the brisket muscles need to be strong enough to hold up the animal’s entire weight. This results in the brisket being one of the animal’s most used muscles.

For this reason, brisket is tough, filled with connective tissues and fat, and must be cooked low and slow to yield tender meat. So, it’s perfect for making barbacoa.

How to Make Barbacoa

Making barbacoa at home is super easy. As I mentioned, people have adapted the recipe to be made without digging a pit into the ground.

We are going to use one of these shortcuts to cooking authentic barbacoa. However, before we get to the barbacoa, let’s discuss a few quick tips. 

Remember that you may have to alter the recipe depending on the type of meat you use.

Select a fatty cut of beef such as chuck roast or brisket that takes longer to render and break down. You can also use beef cheeks or cow head like I am using. 

You can cook the barbacoa in a smoker, slow cooker, instant pot, or Dutch oven. 

The slow cooker is best since it was designed to simmer foods at low temperatures. However, any of the other cookers will still work. 

Authentic barbacoa is seasoned really well, so don’t be stingy with the seasoning. You can even marinate the barbacoa for maximum flavor.

Lemon or lime juice, garlic, oregano, chipotle peppers, cumin, and lots of other spices pair well with beef.

Since we are using the cow head, I kept the seasoning simple. A simple sprinkling of salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and chili powder is all you need to season the cow head. 

Once you season the cow head or whatever beef cut you are using, wrap it with a few layers of banana leaves. 

Use kitchen twine to secure the beef in the banana leaves and prevent them from unraveling. 

Place the cow head into a slow cooker, then add two cups of beer or 4 cups of beef broth. Cover the slow cooker and cook the barbacoa for 6 hours on high or 8-9 hours on low until it is tender. 

If you use beef brisket or chuck roast to make barbacoa, cut it into 1/2-1-inch pieces before cooking it. 

Remove the banana leaves from the cow head of meat and pull it apart. If you used the cow head, peel the skin off the tongue before shredding it. 

Final Thoughts

Barbacoa is a versatile dish that can come from several places on the cow. Depending on the cut of beef you use, you can educate others on what barbacoa truly is and where it comes from.