One of my missions in life is to discover the perfect taco. I find it a worthy mission, and if I ever find that perfect taco, I think that my life would have been lived well. I believe birria tacos (sometimes called “quesabirria”) deserve a spot among the all-time best and have gotten me much closer to this noble goal, though the perfect taco still eludes me.
Beef Short Ribs or Chuck Roast for Birria Tacos?
A variable that you’ll find in the dozens and dozen of recipes for birria tacos that you’ll find online is the type of beef used for the filling.
Since we’re slow cooking it, a fatty cut is essential. If it is too lean, it’ll end up tasting dry and stringy. Not good.
We settled on either beef chuck or short ribs, or a combination of the two. For this recipe, we chose to use 100% beef short ribs. It came out super succulent and tender.
Beef short ribs are expensive, though. If you want to make a more reasonably priced meal, you can substitute beef chuck. Just substitute about 0.6 pounds of chuck for every 1 pound of short ribs to make up for the weight of the bones in the ribs (a little over 3 1/2 pounds for this recipe). I also recommend cutting the chuck into smaller pieces prior to cooking. Maybe 3-inch by 3-inch chunks.
Whichever you choose, an important step is to get a good sear on the meat before you braise it.
Searing creates the Maillard Reaction (aka, browning) in the meat. The Maillard Reaction is a chemical reaction where hundreds of new flavor compounds are created.
It’s kitchen folklore that the purpose of browning meat is to sear in its juices. It isn’t, and it doesn’t; the purpose is to restructure the proteins on the meat’s surface to add complexity and depth to the flavor.
So, don’t skip this step.
Oversized Pot with a Tinfoil Gasket
When we initially started cooking this recipe, we tried to cram everything into our 7.25 quart enameled dutch oven.
The fit was way too tight and wouldn’t allow the liquid to circulate correctly.
We ended up using our giant 9-quart cast iron dutch oven instead. There was plenty of room for everything. The only challenge was lifting it in and out of the oven.
If you don’t have a dutch oven big enough to accommodate everything, you can remove the bones from the short ribs to save space. I prefer to leave the bones in, though, because they do add flavor.
Birria is traditionally cooked in earthen pits or specially made pots and ovens designed to keep steam from escaping. In an attempt to replicate this style of cooking, we made a gasket out of heavy-duty aluminum foil to place between the lid and pot to create a tighter seal.
Just tear off two pieces of heavy-duty tinfoil slightly larger than the opening of your dutch oven and place it over the top of the pot. Put the lid on and press down tightly.
It’s imperfect, but it was sufficient. If you want to go crazy with it, you can take Rick Bayless’s advice and seal the pot with a rope of masa that runs the circumference of the lid.
He also rubs the meat with the adobo and sets it on a rack above the water level inside the pot. While I’m sure this is exceptional, it’s a bit much in a home kitchen.
Straining the Sauce
I am lucky enough to have a Vitamix Blender. It’s powerful enough that I don’t even bother straining the adobo after blending it together.
If you don’t have one, you’ll need to strain your adobo through a fine-mesh sieve.
Just pour it into the sieve, then force it the rest of the way through with a plastic serving spoon.
The Trick to Pulling Beef Quickly
After you cook your short ribs, they should be fork-tender. The problem is it takes a while to actually pull it with forks. Especially considering you need to remove the bit of cartilage that surrounds the bones.
An easy trick that only takes about a minute to do is to remove the bones and throw everything else into a stand mixer with the paddle attachment.
Run it for about a minute at low speed, and it will pull everything for you. Just remove the cartilage bits, and you’re all set.
Spoon off the Fat
After you’ve finished cooking your birria and have removed and pulled your meat, you should spoon the fat off of the surface of the braising liquid.
Just use a plastic serving spoon and remove and discard as much fat from the surface as possible.
The liquid underneath is more flavorful, and the fat will just make your tacos and consomme taste greasy.
Cooking Your Birria Tacos
The first time you cook tacos like this can be a bit of a challenge. You’ll quickly get into a rhythm, though, so keep working at it.
The following steps worked well for us:
- dip both sides of the tortilla into the broth
- drop it in a hot, well-oiled cast-iron skillet, cook 60 seconds
- flip, add meat and cheese, cook 60 seconds
- fold over, cook 30 seconds
- flip, cook 30 seconds
It is critical to keep the skillet well oiled. If you don’t, you might run into problems with sticking. Add more oil as needed.
A thin metal spatula and nylon tipped tongs are also very helpful. The metal spatula can be slipped underneath the tortilla to help pry any stuck-on bits loose, and the nylon tipped tongs will keep you from tearing the tortilla when moving them from the broth to the pan and from the pan to a plate.
Condiments and Garnishes
With the meat being very fatty, a vinegary hot sauce is a good pairing. The acid offsets the fattiness of the meat and enhances the flavor.
Since birria tacos are originally from Jalisco State in Mexico, we like to use either Valentina or Cholula hot sauces, both produced in Jalisco. They are both vinegar-based, so they pair nicely.
To top it all off, we like to have plenty of chopped cilantro, lime wedges, and finely diced white onion on the side. These add a much-needed freshness that balances out the fattiness of the meat.
Birria Tacos with Consomme
- 6 lbs. beef short ribs - or substitute 4-5 lbs. chuck roast
- 1 tbs. chicken bouillon paste - 1 tbs. or enough to make 3 cups of stock according to the instructions
- 1 large yellow onion - peeled and chopped into large chunks
- 4 cloves garlic - peeled and smashed
- 5 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 22 corn tortillas
- 2 tbs. vegetable oil
- 8 oz. queso asadero or Oaxaca cheese - or other melting cheese (substitute Monterrey Jack if queso asadero is unavailable)
- 3 tbs. cilantro - chopped
- 1/4 small white onion - diced
The Day Before Serving
- Season beef short ribs on all sides with salt, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.
The Day of Serving
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Seed, stem, and devein the chiles (just stem the arbol chiles and shake out the seeds, no ned to de-vein). Arrange on a cookie sheet with a little space between and toast in the oven for 6-7 minutes.
- Add chiles and garlic to a pot with enough water to fully cover them. Cover with lid and bring to a simmer. Cook until the chiles are very soft. About 30 minutes.
- Add all of the adobo ingredients to a blender. Blend very well, adding a couple of cups of the cooking liquid to properly blend to a very smooth puree. 2-5 minutes.
- Add all of the adobo paste back into the cooking liquid, along with the chicken bouillon paste, whisk thoroughly.
- Working in batches, brown the ribs on all sides.
- Pour the cooking liquid into a very large dutch oven and dissolve the bouillon paste into it. Whisk thoroughly. Add the ribs to the pot and add enough water to almost cover. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, and salt. Bring to a simmer.
- Cut off a piece of foil large enough to fold over once and cover the top of the dutch oven. Place it on the pot, then tightly push the lid down over it so that it functions as a gasket.
- Place the pot in the oven and cook for 3 hours or until fork-tender.
- Take the pot out of the oven, and remove the meat. Shred with a fork, discarding the bones and gristle. Add 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid back into the meat and stir well.
- Spoon off any fat that has risen to the surface of the dutch oven and discard.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot. Dip the corn tortillas into the broth to wet both sides, then place on the skillet. Don't flip until the tortilla firms up. (follow the cooking steps above to make this step easy for you)
- Once you flip the tortilla, add some of the shredded meat and cheese. Fold over and fry on each side until somewhat crisp.
- Serve with a bowl of the broth, cilantro, fresh onions, and hot sauce.