In Mexico, important celebrations call for Birria, and lots of it, eaten as a savory stew or stuffed into tortillas. Find out how to take a tough, inexpensive cut of meat and turn it into this supremely tender delicacy, with just a few spices and a little time.
In my opinion, this is the ultimate party food. I learned how to make this recipe for Birria (pronounced BEER-ya) in Aguascalientes, a town in Mexico that I’ve fallen in love with. Traditionally, it’s a dish made with a tougher cut of goat, slow-steamed with fragrant spices until meltingly tender. It’s served shredded and it can be eaten any way you see fit, even by the forkful.
Choosing the meat. The best meat for birria depends on where you live, what’s available to you, and what your budget is–as well as what you like to eat! Birria is delicious with tougher cuts with connective tissue that break down beautifully during long, slow braises. You can even use a combination of different cuts/animal protein. Some birria cooks swear by bone-in cuts, but it’s up to you.
Whatever you choose, don’t make this dish with a prime steak with lots of marbling. Save that for the grill!
Beef: so many cuts to choose from! Beef cheek, oxtail, chuck roast, short ribs, stew meat.
Lamb or goat: because the animals are smaller in size, there’s less to choose from. Shoulder might be your best bet.
Before you start cooking, gather the cumin, garlic, peppercorns, and cloves together in a square of cheesecloth and tie with twine to form a sachet. (More details on making a sachet are here for you, if you need help!) If you prefer to use ground, dry spices, mix them together in a bowl to rub on the meat before you start cooking.
Season the meat to taste with salt–I usually use about 1 teaspoon per pound of meat that I plan to cook. If you’re using a dry rub, go ahead and press it over the surface of the roast, too. Then you’re ready to choose the way you want to cook it.
On the stove:
In the traditional method I learned, birria is steamed over water in a pot for several hours until it’s tender enough to fall apart. You will need to keep an eye on the pot and replenish the water level occasionally, as the steam evaporates. To make this recipe, you will need a large pot with a lid and a steamer insert or steaming basket that fits inside the pot.
- To start, place a steamer insert or basket inside the pot and fill the pot with a couple inches of water–not so much that the water rises into the steaming basket, though. Place the seasoned meat along with the sachet inside the insert.
- Then cover the pot and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Keep cooking at this low temperature for 4 to 5 hours, but check every once in awhile to make sure the water level doesn’t get too low, which will cause the pot bottom to burn.
- You’ll know the meat is ready when it’s crazy tender and falling apart. And that’s it!
(You can also accomplish this in an oven, using an oven-safe Dutch oven. Bring the meat and water to a simmer, and place the covered pot in a pre-heated oven set to 350 degrees, for 4 to 5 hours. Check the water level after 2 hours, to make sure the meat stays moist.)
In the slow cooker:
Crockpot birria= hands-free cooking so you can go about your day, run errands, and come home to a fantastic-smelling house.
- First, place the seasoned meat and the spice sachet into the bottom of the slow cooker, and add a little water (½ cup or so) to create the steam the beef needs during cooking.
- Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 6 hours or LOW for 8 to 10 hours. That’s all there is to it!
In the Instant Pot:
This version is for all the diehard electric pressure cooker lovers out there. The Instant Pot makes short (delicious) work of things!
- Place the seasoned roast and the spice sachet in the bottom of the cooking chamber of the pressure cooker. Add some water (½ cup or so) to the pot, then cover, seal, and set to HIGH PRESSURE for 45 minutes.
- Once the cooking time is up, let the pressure cooker release naturally before opening. The meat should be falling apart and ready to be shredded.
Shredding the birria:
How easy was that? Once the meat is fully cooked and fall-apart, absolutely fork tender, move it to a rimmed baking sheet–something that can collect all those delicious juices. Then you can shred the meat up using two forks or your hands. Discard any cartilage, bones, or extra fat.
Tips I’ve learned from making birria at home:
- Timing may vary. Larger cuts of meat may take longer, depending on what you are working with.
- There’s *almost* no such thing as over-cooking. With birria, the goal is tender. As long as the pot doesn’t burn, you’re probably okay.
- Make more than you think you need. There are many ways to enjoy the leftovers! In a burrito bowl, in tacos, or how Mexicans enjoy it: a mulita, sandwiched between small corn tortillas with melted cheese.
- Make ahead. This reheats like a dream in the crockpot or in a low oven. Add a tiny bit of water to moisturize, cover, and heat until warmed through.
- Make the salsa, too! Salsa de Birria is what the hungry people of Aguascalientes serve with this style of shredded meat. Made of cooked tomatoes, tomatillos, and chilies, then puréed until smooth. It’s phenomenal stuff and so easy to make!
Serve birra with:
- Warm tortillas, flour or corn
- Chopped onion and cilantro
- Salsa de Birria, of course!
- Sliced radishes
- Pickled red onions
- Lime wedges
Round out your fiesta with these recipes:
- Barbacoa. The difference between birria and barbacoa? Hot coals!
- Mexican Rice. Easiest thing ever and great for crowds.
- Guacamole. Make enough for everyone!
- Agua de Jamaica. Hibiscus tea is my summer favorite.
- How to make Ceviche. Another classic recipe, straight from Mexico.
- Avocado Sauce. Creamy and dreamy and spicy all at the same time.
For the spices (a sachet of whole spices or ground):
- 4 whole cloves or ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 clove garlic or ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds or ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 8 whole black peppercorns or ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the birria:
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck roast or lamb or goat meat
- Minced onion
- minced fresh cilantro
- Lime wedges
- Tortillas corn of flour, warmed
- Salsa de Birria
To prepare the spices:
- To make a sachet, lay a piece of cheesecloth (see notes for substitutions) on a flat surface. Add cloves, garlic, cumin seeds, and peppercorns. Tie with kitchen twine.
- To use ground spices, in a small bowl, whisk together ground cloves, garlic powder, cumin, and ground black pepper.
To prepare the beef:
- Season beef liberally with salt on all sides. If using ground spices, rub the beef all over with the spice mixture.
To make birria on the stove in a pot with the steam insert:
- Fill the bottom of the pot with 1-2 inches of water and add steam insert. Set seasoned beef on steam insert.
- Cover the pot and bring water to a simmer over medium-low heat. Steam the beef in the pot until tender and falling apart, about 4 to 5 hours. Check the pot occasionally, adding more water if necessary, to prevent the pot from burning.
- Remove beef from the pot and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or other rimmed work surface. Using two forks or your hands, pull apart the beef to shred the meat. Separate and discard any fat or gristle.
- Transfer to shredded beef to a serving platter. Serve with tortillas, onion, cilantro, lime wedges, and Salsa de Birria, if desired.
To make birria in a slow cooker:
- To the bottom of the slow cooker, add beef and water. Add sachet of spices if using. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 6 hours or LOW for 8 to 10 hours.
- Remove beef from slow cooker and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet or other rimmed work surface. Using two forks or your hands, pull apart the beef to shred the meat. Separate and discard any fat or gristle.
- Drain the juice from the slow cooker. Return the shredded meat to the slow cooker and keep warm until serving. Serve with tortillas, onion, cilantro, lime wedges, and Salsa de Birria, if desired.