Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The first time I tried making birria on my own ended with me recuperating in bandages. I had grown up eating both my mother’s and grandfather’s birria recipes, and figured it would be easy to whip up an enormous batch to celebrate my own birthday. It was too much for any of my pots, so I grabbed a flimsy foil roasting pan that tipped a cascade of boiling broth over my foot. I canceled my party and spent the evening on the phone with a nurse instead.

As soon as I was able to wear shoes again, I started taking careful notes on my mom’s recipe. I wanted to recreate her savory red chile broth served alongside chunks of succulent beef that I knew so well, and I wanted to do it without a trip to the ER.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As a child, birria was generally reserved for parties. Its straightforward technique of slowly simmering a slab of meat in a flavorful chile-infused sauce, requiring only the occasional peek into the simmering pot, made it an ideal choice for feasts and large gatherings. This was perfect for my family of more than sixty cousins. We’d dip birria’s fork-tender chunks of beef into its signature crimson chile braising broth while huddled around the table as we sipped our horchata and played a round of loteria using uncooked pinto beans.

In more recent times, dunking tender shreds of birria into its red broth has become an online trend akin to popping egg yolks or stretching apart a gooey strand of cheese. Its popularity fueled the creation of endless fusions including birria fries, birria pizzas, and birria ramen. These novel dishes can be fun to try, but the heavily-spiced stew hardly needs anything more than onion, cilantro, and lime to enjoy. My family eats birria the way many people in Mexico do: The meat is scooped onto a plate and served with rice, beans, and tortillas alongside a small bowl of its flavorful broth.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Beyond my burned foot, my first attempts at recreating my mom’s birria had other pitfalls. My early versions resulted in dry, tough meat that wouldn’t easily shred. The consomé was too thin and it had very little flavor. These versions were a far cry from my family’s birria. 

I’ve spent years since then crafting the birria recipe below, one that I’m proud to serve at my family gatherings. It is thoughtfully loaded with chiles and spices that work in harmony to provide lots of flavor. The meat is moist and falls apart with each bite while the consomé (braising liquid) is viscous enough to slightly coat the meat. The combination of the beef with the chile sauce has robust heat that builds with every bite, but it never overwhelms you. 

While this recipe is based on my mother’s recipe, I’ve added a few of my own twists—a different blend of three chiles for more heat and a touch of gochujang for a welcome fermented savoriness.

What is Birria

Birria, which translates to “something of little to no value,” got its name from the low esteem Mexicans held for the goat meat brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Early versions of birria date back to the 1600’s in Jalisco, where the goat meat’s unwanted flavor was disguised by coating it in a paste made from dried chiles such as guajillo chiles and spices like black peppercorn and cumin. Then, the meat was tenderized by simmering it for hours over low heat before it was wrapped in a warm tortilla and topped with raw onions for a slight crunch and cilantro for freshness, and served alongside its flavorful cooking broth.

The resulting broth, referred to as consomé, is an integral part of the dish that’s used for dunking or spooning over the meat. This is different from a French consommé, which is prized for its clarity and lack of fat on the surface or cloudiness of the broth. The consomé of birria is dark red with visible specks of fat floating on the top. You actually want to keep some fat in the birria consomé since the richness and flavor it carries is an important aspect of the dish. 

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

There’s an inevitable discourse in the comment section of any online birria recipe regarding what constitutes “authentic” birria, with some insisting that it must be made from goat. But the answer isn’t so simple. As birria spread across Jalisco and its neighboring states, variations using beef, pork, turkey, and even seafood appeared. The chiles and spices used depend on the type of meat—each pairing produces a unique version of birria that is no less authentic than the next. Although my family is from Jalisco (associated with goat birria), our recipe uses beef, tomatoes, and tomatillos. My grandfather started making birria with beef when he moved to the US because beef was more readily available than goat. My mom continued using beef as it’s what she had available, and now beef is the staple in our family’s birria recipe.

The Key Ingredients in the Consomé

In Mexico, it isn’t unusual for birria to be prepared using the entire animal. Some restaurants even allow their customers to select the cut when ordering birria. At home, beef chuck is a great choice for birria. It’s an affordable cut with lots of fat, which means lots of flavor and juiciness even with long cooking. Its relatively high amount of collagen-rich connective tissue breaks down into gelatin over the low and slow braise to further ensure meat that is tender and remains juicy. 

Birria’s flavor base starts with toasting cloves, cumin seeds, and black peppercorns until they’re fragrant to draw out their depth of flavor. Then, the dried chiles, tomatoes, and tomatillos are softened in boiling chicken stock with the toasted spices. Some recipes call for water instead of stock, but the chicken stock is critical for getting the right sauce consistency while preserving its savory backbone. While not required, a good homemade chicken stock is ideal, since it will have a natural viscosity thanks to gelatin from the bird’s connective tissue, something most store-bought stocks lack.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

My mother’s recipe uses just one type of chile, but I’ve come to prefer a combination of California, guajillo, and árbol chiles for a flavor that is simultaneously fruity, nutty, and moderately spicy. The tomatoes and tomatillos provide tartness and acidity to cut through the richness of the dish. 

After softening the chiles and other ingredients in the stock, I blend them until smooth. Following my family’s practice, I also add achiote paste to the blender—a mixture made from ground annatto seeds, spices, and vinegar—because it enhances the birria’s vibrant red color and adds a slightly tangy, earthy taste. While I have seen a few other birria recipes that use a small amount (a couple teaspoons) of achiote paste, I’ve never found another birria recipe that uses achiote paste to the extent that my family’s recipe does. It adds an earthy depth that is unique.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In my years of testing and tweaking my own recipe, I kept looking for ways to add another dimension of chile flavor beyond the blend I’d settled on. I first tried adding fresh along with the dried chiles, but fresh chiles did not add the flavor I wanted, making the birria taste more like a raw salsa than a rich and potent braise. Eventually I settled on the savory chile punch of gochujang, the fermented Korean chile paste. Gochujang is commonly used in Korean braises and stews to lend a touch of sweet, savory funk, and so while not a typical addition to birria, I’ve found that a small amount adds a wonderful sweetness and umami that balances the bitterness of the achiote and rounds out the marinade’s acidity.

Birria Braising Technique

Now let’s talk about technique. Birria is essentially a braise—the beef is slowly cooked in a flavorful liquid until meltingly tender. In classic French technique, braises generally begin with a browning step, in which you first sear the beef to develop a deeper, more complex flavor, and then add the liquid to slowly cook and tenderize it.

But in keeping with my mom’s birria recipe, I don’t pre-sear the beef because there’s no need. While it’s easy to default to browning the meat out of habit, it’s not at all a required step—it depends on the recipe and what your flavor goals are. In the case of birria, the flavor of the final consomé should be balanced between the chiles and the beef. When the beef is seared first, the flavor of the beef overpowers the other aromatics and throws off the balance. 

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As you can read about more in this article on the science of stewing, even meat that’s braised or stewed low-and-slow can become overcooked and dry. To avoid that, you want to keep the braise at a very gentle simmer, monitoring the heat level as needed throughout cooking to avoid boiling or scorching; 180 to 190°F (82 to 88°C) is the ideal simmering temperature range, in which the beef’s tough collagen will have softened into tender gelatin yet the meat itself won’t yet be dried out.The lid should be kept on to prevent the liquid from evaporating too quickly and ensure the steam is trapped inside the pot to cook the meat.

How to Serve Birria

After a few hours, the meat should be soft enough to be pierced by a fork but shouldn’t be falling apart. Once you’re ready to serve, chop up the meat to use as suggested in the recipe, or use as a filling for a mulita or quesabirria. To make a mulita, layer a portion of the chopped beef with an even layer of your preferred melty cheese between two tortillas that have been dipped in the consomé, and griddle to perfection. To make a quesabirria, use just one tortilla that is dipped in the consomé, fill with the chopped beef and cheese, then fold over before griddling. Serve alongside a small bowl of consomé that’s infused with a sprinkle of raw onion and cilantro for further dunking. 

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

As long as you are savoring birria’s succulent meat and deeply flavored broth, there is really no wrong way to enjoy this birria recipe, although I recommend sharing the experience with family or friends.

In a large saucepan, toast peppercorns, cumin seeds, and cloves over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken stock, tomatoes, tomatillos, guajillo, California, and árbol chiles. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn off the heat, and let rest until tomato skins begin to shrivel and chiles soften, about 15 minutes.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Transfer chicken stock mixture to a blender. Crumble achiote paste into the blender by hand. (see notes) Add gochujang and garlic cloves and blend (in batches if needed) into a smooth puree. Set aside.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Generously season beef all over with salt and pepper. In a stock pot or large Dutch oven, add the beef, blended chile sauce, water, onion, and bay leaves and cook, covered, until just simmering.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Continue to cook, covered, adjusting heat as needed to maintain gentle simmer (about 180-190°F; 82-88°C), until beef is fork-tender, 3 to 4 hours. Discard onion and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper to taste. Hold warm until ready to serve.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For Serving: Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to a cutting board. Using 2 forks, shred beef into bite-sized pieces or lightly chop. Ladle consomé into individual serving bowls and top consomé with diced onion and cilantro (this is for dunking and/or spooning over the meat). Serve shredded beef with prepared consomé, warm tortillas, rice, beans, and lime wedges. (see notes)

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, 3-quart saucepan, stock pot or large Dutch oven

Notes

Achiote paste is available at most latin markets. When shopping for achiote paste, search for a brand that doesn’t include artificial dyes in the ingredient list; it isn’t necessary due to the annatto seed’s natural food coloring properties. My preferred brand is El Yucateco.

Gochujang, a Korean fermented chili paste, is available at Asian markets and well-stocked food stores.

I recommend wearing plastic gloves when crumbling the achiote paste into the blender to prevent your hands from staining red.

Serve the consomé hot to prevent the fat from solidifying. If the fat begins to solidify, gently reheat until liquified and gently stir it into the consomé.

I recommend a Mexican-style tomato rice for serving.

The braised beef can also be used as a filling for a quesabirria, mulita, taco, or sandwich.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Birria submerged in its liquid can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. 

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