Being from West Texas, beef cheek Barbacoa Norteña (Barbecue from Northern Mexico) is what I’m accustomed to.
Traditionally, barbacoa in Northern Mexico is made from either a cow head (including the cheeks) or goat meat (cabrito). The barbacoa in Central or Southern Mexico is more often made with lamb or pork.
Growing up in far West Texas, goat meat was a far more common protein for barbacoa since it was easy to raise yourself in the harsh West Texas climate. Beef wasn’t as common for us since it was more expensive and hard to raise. It wasn’t so uncommon for families that had more money, though.
Now that I live in what passes for the suburbs in West Texas, goats in the backyard are a “no-no.” I generally get my meat at the grocery store, and beef is readily available.
Honestly, it’s been years since I’ve had barbacoa cabrito.
Traditionally, when cooking barbacoa, the meat is wrapped, along with the other ingredients, buried in a hole with some hot coals, then cooked for hours.
The goal of burying your barbacoa is to cook it at a very low temperature for a very long time. Cooking it low and slow like this helps liquefy all of the fat and collagen, without burning the meat. This moistens the meat so that it’s softer than even the tortilla you’ve wrapped it in.
You don’t need to go dig a hole in your backyard to replicate it, though. We’ve got you covered. A Crock-Pot will do just fine.
Finding Beef Cheek Meat
Depending on where you live, beef cheeks may be hard to come by. If you can’t find them at your regular grocery store, most Mexican grocery stores will have them. If there isn’t one nearby, ask your butcher to order it for you.
Not finding it anywhere? You can substitute goat shoulder, and if you absolutely must, you can use beef chuck.
Beef chuck is just not the same, though. Beef cheeks have a much higher collagen and fat content, which gives them what I would call a sticky, slick texture when cooked.
That “sticky-slickness” is what makes Barbacoa Norteña so great.
Understanding How to Cook Barbacoa Norteña
Why Use a Crock-Pot?
I rarely break out my Crock-Pot to cook. Generally, my cast iron dutch oven works just fine or better. I find that the lower and slower cooking in my Crock-Pot works better for this.
We’re trying to replicate cooking slowly in a pit dug into the ground, so a Crock-Pot is probably our best choice, short of digging a hole in the backyard.
Wrapping the meat tightly in foil helps the meat steam in its own juices, rather than stewing in a bunch of liquid. It concentrates the flavors, rather than diluting them. Pouring water around the foil-wrapped meat and seasonings in the Crock-Pot allows it to heat evenly.
Lots of Kosher Salt
You’ll also notice that there’s quite a bit of salt in this recipe. That’s intentional. The salt is a critical part of tenderizing the meat.
It seems like a lot, and it is, but cheek meat can be tough. We want the extra salt to help break it down.
You’ll also want to give the salt time to work. Letting it dry brine in the refrigerator overnight will help make the meat juicy and succulent when it’s done.
With that being said, not all salt is the same. All of my recipes are developed using Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt. Different salts have different grain sizes, so should be measured differently.
Trimming Your Beef Cheeks
You don’t need to trim all of the fat off of the meat. Just trim off the large chunks.
By cooking low and slow in a Crock-Pot like that, you’re giving the fat and collagen enough time to completely liquefy.
Be sure to save the trimmed fat for rendering later. Just stick it in a resealable container in the fridge or freezer.
I save mine to make Salsa Borracha Norteña to go along with my barbacoa. It also makes a great base for brown gravy.
To Shred or to Chop
Generally, with barbacoa recipes, you’re told to shred the meat with two forks after it’s done cooking. That’s fine and it works out well after your done, but it’s kind of a pain.
I prefer to just chop it up finely with a sharp knife. It’s faster and comes out just as good.
Just be careful to pull out any bits and pieces of tough cartilage or membrane before you serve it.
Toppings for Your Barbacoa Norteña Tacos
Dress up your barbacoa with some of the authentic toppings below:
- Since barbacoa is fatty, an acidic salsa pairs excellently with it. You can try something like a Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde, Salsa de Chile Arbol or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Salsa Borracha Norteña is a salsa made especially for Barbacoa Norteña and has a little beer and a dash of tequila to amp things up.
- Since this is a Northern Mexico and Southern/Western Texas version of Barbacoa, flour tortillas are perfectly fine if you’re aiming for authenticity. I prefer corn tortillas toasted on a comal and doubled up on each taco. Bolillo rolls are also traditional if you’re craving a sandwich.
- As far as vegetables go, diced white onion and cilantro are what you’ll typically find on barbacoa tacos. Some lime wedges for squeezing over the top will liven it all up. If you like, thinly sliced radish will add a brighter, more peppery flavor
- Just remember, authenticity isn’t a prison. It’s just what people have come to like in a particular region. Do what makes you happy.
Beef Cheek Barbacoa Norteña
- 3 lb. beef cheek meat - trimmed of excess fat
- 1/4 cup beef stock
- 1 tbsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1/2 large yellow onion - coarsley diced
- 4 cloves garlic - minced
- 1 tsp. Mexican oregano
- 2 tsp. ancho chili powder - or, substitute regular chili powder
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups water
- Salsa Borracha Norteña - or another salsa of your choice
- Thoroughly mix the salt, cumin, black pepper, oregano, and chili powder in a bowl. Set aside.
- Lay out two large sheets of tin foil in a large pan or bowl (the bowl helps keep the liquids from spilling out while you wrap the beef). Use enough foil to completely wrap and seal the meat (I make an '+' pattern out of two large sheets).
- Rub the seasoning mixture into the meat, along with the minced garlic. Add the beef broth in the center of the tin foil (this is where placing the foil in a large bowl or pan helps). Place meat on top of the broth, surround with the onions and add the two bay leaves on top. Wrap tightly and place in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure that your foil pack is water-tight. You don't want any liquids to escape. It helps to roll the top first, then flatten out the sides and roll them up.
- The next morning, place the wrapped beef cheeks in your slow cooker and pour water in to about 1 inch from the top of the crock pot. Cover, turn on low, and let cook for at least 10 hours.
- Carefully remove the foil packet from the slow cooker. Unwrap, being careful not to spill any hot liquid on your self (I like to put it into a large bowl and tear open the foil with two forks). You can shred the meat with two forks, but I prefer to finely chop it with a sharp knife. Be sure to pick out any tough bits of cartilage or membrane that you find.