Traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex Barbacoa – It’s Not Barbecue But It’s Close, With a Few Twists

Barbacoa is extremely popular in many parts of Mexico and the United States. States close to the border know barbacoa as a delicious meat item, available only on the weekends as a special Sunday breakfast meal. Others eat barbacoa with regularity, enjoying it any time or any day.

So What exactly is barbacoa? It is not “barbecue” in Spanish, as many believe. In central Mexico, it means goat or lamb meat wrapped in large leaves and roasted on hot coals. In Texas, Mexican ranch hands used cattle heads for this roasting method. Basically, they wrapped the heads in the leaves (later it was foil), and buried them in the ground with hot coals. Restaurants had even adopted similar methods of cooking these heads (cabezas).

As the years went by, restaurants had to quit burying the heads because of health codes. Now, they roast and steam the heads in ovens, which has actually been beneficial to the restaurants. A much larger group of fans has taken a liking to this kind of cooking method.

To cook authentic barbacoa at home, it will take a very good relationship with your butcher or slaughter house manager. But fortunately for you, the head of a cow is often thrown away in many parts of the United States. Your relationship with your butcher will prevent this, and allow you to purchase the heads at very low prices, or even free in some cases.

So once you have secured a good source of cattle heads, how will you cook this at home? One of the very best methods of cooking a cow’s head for barbacoa is to steam, or roast it in a large, electric turkey roaster. It works perfectly, and will produce some of the finest barbacoa since the “burying in dirt” age.

Follow these techniques for perfect barbacoa results. This will make about 2 pounds of meat, or enough to feed 6 to 8 hungry breakfast diners. Now do not become hesitant about using these techniques. You will be doing this because of your love of interesting foods, and barbacoa is just one of them.


One 20 to 25 pound cow’s head, skinned and cleaned

1 cup dry rub (recipe below)

2 Onions, cut in half

18″ heavy-duty aluminum foil

Rinse the head well out with a hose. Cut out the tongue (if still there), and reserve for another interesting meal. Sprinkle the dry rub all over the head and place it, forehead down, in an 18-quart roaster. If it does not fit well, angle it to make it fit.

Add 8 cups of water and the onions, then cover. If the roaster lid does not fit, place two sheets of wide foil over the top of the roaster and seal it.

Turn the roaster oven to 350 degrees F., and heat for about one hour, until the water is boiling rapidly. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees and allow the head to steam for about 12 hours, or overnight. The cheek meat should easily pull off the bone when it is done. At this time, pull off all of the meat and discard the jaw bones. You will then find another large piece of meat inside. Remove that meat and any other that is still attached to the bones.

Cut away any excess fat, cartilage, or blackened meat, but do not over-clean the meat. It is the tiny bits of fat that gives barbacoa a unique texture.

Chop the meat and put it in a bowl. Wet it down with a little of the cooking liquid to keep it moist. Serve immediately as a filling for hot flour or corn tortillas. Garnish with your choice of the items below, or add your own.

Dry Rub Recipe:

3 tablespoons salt

1/4 cup chili powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion

Mix all ingredients together.


Lime quarters

Chopped onion

fresh cilantro, chopped

Your favorite salsa

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