With taco fillings, I tend to gravitate toward carnitas. It’s rich, but light in flavor and seems to blend well with most salsas.
There are times, though, when I crave a more assertive, beefy filling that isn’t just a background note to all the other toppings, it’s the star of the show. When that craving hits, barbacoa must happen.
Barbacoa, in its authentic form, is a large chunk of meat, usually beef, lamb or goat, slow-cooked in pits, shredded and mixed with salsa for tacos.
Our version is cooked in a slow cooker, with a potent purée of dried chiles, smoky chipotle chiles, sautéed onions and garlic, and an array of spices. The chiles and spices bring a complex flavor to the beef, without overpowering it. The result is a memorable beef filling that doesn’t need salsa for flavor.
Getting that result comes from taking a few critical steps before the ingredients get to the slow cooker.
I know, it’s tempting to dump everything into the cooker, press “start” and let it go. While many recipes may work fine using that technique, in this case, it would be a missed opportunity to build flavor.
Toasting the dried ancho chiles briefly in a hot skillet enhances their flavor before they are soaked in broth and puréed with onions and garlic, which have been sautéed to bring out their natural sweetness, along with cinnamon, cloves and cumin. Toasting the spices as the onions cook also takes their essence to the next level. Browning the chuck roast caramelizes it (more flavor) before everything goes into the slow cooker.
While it may sound like a lot of work, it only adds 20 minutes to the prep time. Once you taste the barbacoa, you’ll be happy you took that time to do it right. Each step is designed to bring another layer of flavor to the surprisingly sophisticated spicy barbacoa.
Cooking it in the slow cooker makes it a good solution for a party in the heat of the summer, as there’s no need to stand over a hot stove or grill. It can also be made a day or two in advance. In fact, it only gets tastier on the second day, making it an even better candidate for low-stress entertaining.
Once the barbacoa is cooked, the hardest part is deciding how to serve it, mostly because the possibilities are endless. I love it in sandwich form. Much like barbecued beef, I serve it in a hamburger bun, topped with a cool, creamy coleslaw.
If you’re feeling like a salad rather than a bun, simply chop up some romaine and fresh tomatoes, and thinly slice some radishes. Top them with some of the warm barbacoa, and perhaps a dollop of guacamole and sour cream.
Tacos are a logical choice and a worthy option for this delicious filling. Serve it in a large bowl, with chopped red onions, diced avocado, loads of fresh cilantro and lime wedges, alongside a steamy stack of hot corn tortillas and let your guests construct their own perfect tacos.
All this meal needs is a side of Mexican red rice or refried beans, a big bowl of tortilla chips and of course, a cool beverage (I’m looking at you, margarita) to get a deliciously easy summertime party started.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.