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Birria vs. Barbacoa (What’s the Difference?)

Birria vs. Barbacoa (What’s the Difference?)

Birria and Barbacoa are both mouthwatering dishes from Mexican cuisine. Their differences are in their specific origins and how they’re cooked.

Mexico has a rich food culture and is known for its variety of powerful flavors. Mexican meat and dishes are as diverse as the country itself.

Regarding Mexico’s most flavorful meat, it’s hard to beat birria and barbacoa. They’re both very delicious items that are cooked in similar ways. However, they’re usually made using different kinds of meat.

Both the dishes originated in Mexico and tend to look really similar. Therefore, it’s no surprise that some people confuse the two dishes. Even though they have a lot of similarities, many other things help set these dishes apart.

In this article, I’ll highlight all the differences you need to know between the dishes birria and barbacoa. Let’s also learn more about where they come from.

So let’s get right to it!

What is Birria Called in English?

The word “birria” translates to an exquisite savory dish full of culture and tradition. It’s stewed meat that is seasoned with chili peppers.

As you know, birria is an amazing traditional dish from Mexico. It was originally made with goat meat, but now it can also be made with beef, veal, lamb, or pork.

There are multiple different ways in which you can consume this meat. For instance, it can be served as a stew or taco filling.

This dish is well seasoned with a mixture of chiles. The most common ones include guajillo, pasilla, cascabel, and morita. However, it can also include cinnamon, thyme, bay leaf, and cumin.

If you want to cook this meat traditionally, the first step is to salt it. Then, let it marinate with the sauce for approximately 12 hours.

Later, the meat is wrapped in maguey stalks with more of the marinade mixture. It’s placed in a sealed pot and is cooked directly over the fire. It can also be baked.

Once the meat is soft enough to fall off the bone easily, the juice is separated. Pre-roasted and ground tomatoes are added to it and kept for boiling.

The broth is seasoned, and the meat is added again. Now, it’s ready to be served with any garnishes that one may like. The common ones are chopped onions, oregano, limes, tortillas, and hot sauce.

This dish has become one of the favorite foods for not only the people of Guadalajara but for all Mexicans. The combination of many ingredients and powerful flavors make this dish stand out.

In Guadalajara, this dish is found almost everywhere. You’ll find it in restaurants as well as street stands. Usually, it’s served with broth, but it’s also eaten as dry meat in tacos.

Why is it called barbacoa?

Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in Mexico. Although many people call the dish itself barbacoa, originally, this word referred to a cooking method.

Ultimately, the word was barbecue. This term can also be used to refer to the meat itself.

Traditionally, a lamb or a goat is slow-roasted for several hours in a pit to make barbacoa. This pit is covered with maguey leaves.

It’s currently unknown exactly which part of Mexico barbacoa comes from. It varies a lot between some states. For instance, in Chiapas, barbacoa is made with pork and cooked with raisins.

However, this cooking style is said to have originated from the Taino people of the Caribbean before it became popular in Mexico. It’s popular in central Mexico, mainly in the state of Hidalgo. There are many different ways of eating barbacoa, varying from region to region.

In Mexico, the traditional way of cooking this meat is by digging a big hole in the ground. Then they heat the stones to high temperatures and put them at the bottom of the hole.

The meat is wrapped in banana leaves or pencas de maguey. The wrapped meat is then lowered into the hole.

This dish’s most common meat is a lamb or a goat. However, it can also be prepared using pork, ram, fish, or chicken. For instance, in the south of Mexico, using seafood as barbacoa is very common.

Moreover, this dish is often consumed along with a soup known as consomme. This soup is prepared with special leaves and the juice of the meat being cooked.

After seasoning it, it’s also introduced into the hole to be cooked at the same time as the barbacoa. The hole is covered with even more banana leaves, and the dish is left to cook for about eight hours until it’s served.

Mexican meat in special sauce
Mexican meat soaked in a special sauce.

What is the Difference Between Birria and Barbacoa?

The main reason why most people tend to confuse birria and barbacoa is that birria is technically a product of barbacoa. Birria is made by submerging barbacoa, which is meat, in a sauce that prepares it. Birria has a lot of variety, depending on which part of Mexico you’re in.

Barbacoa is from central Mexico, and its name comes from the cooking process. The meat is placed in a pot on a rack with water and herbs to allow for it to steam. It’s not completely submerged in the liquid.

It’s made using lamb or goat meat and is eaten with consomme, a type of soup. The meat is dipped and soaked in consomme. Barbacoa can be eaten in many ways, depending on the specific region. It can be eaten as meat in tortas or tacos, known as maciza.

On the other hand, birria originates from Jalisco and is said to be the juicier version of the dish barbacoa. A notable difference is that the meat in birria is completely submerged in the sauce when cooked. This differs from barbacoa, where the meat sits above the sauce on a rack.

As the birria is done cooking in the juice, a blend of herbs, tomatoes, and onions is added. Birria is mostly eaten as a soup, but birria tacos have also taken the world by storm. These tacos are filled with meat and cheese in a tortilla.

Both delicacies are quite similar. However, their flavors are very different. It should be noted that both dishes are made with beef in many Mexican regions where there isn’t easy access to goat or lamb meat.

If you want to try the original dishes, look for authentic recipes. This means that have birria from a place where it’s made with goat meat. Similarly, find barbacoa from a place where it’s made using a lamb.

Here’s a video explaining the difference between birria and barbacoa in more detail:

Hope this helps!

What is Similar to Birria?

To be clear, birria comes from barbacoa meat, and this meat is soaked in a special sauce which is known as the birria sauce. This creates a unique type of barbecue. Barbacoa and birria, however, are very similar. The difference mainly lies in the flavors.

In short, birria is shredded meat from the barbacoa which has been submerged in a sauce. It can be eaten in many different ways.

It can be made using different types of meat, but the cooking style will remain similar. The only thing that’s changing is the flavor and extra things that are added to birria.

Birria can be eaten as tacos as well. However, these tacos differ depending on the regions and traditions in which they’re made. For instance, birria tacos of Guadalajara are usually made with sheep or goat meat.

Take a look at this table summarizing the different meats used to make birria based on different regions:

ColimaGoat, Ram, or Pork is used.
MichoacanLess common proteins are used, like chicken and fish.
ZacatecasGoat or ram meat is used but the sauce is prepared thicker.
GuadalajaraGoat or sheep meat is used and sauce is prepared to depend on the village.
Amazingly, a dish can be eaten in so many forms!

What is the Difference Between Barbacoa and Carnitas?

The main difference between carnitas and barbacoa is that pork cuts are used to make carnitas. Barbacoa can be made using different meats like beef, lamb, or goat meat.

Another notable difference is that after hours of slow cooking, the shredded meat used for carnitas is roasted or pan-fried. This makes it crispy.

In Mexican cuisine, there’s confusion around many pairs of dishes. For instance, people confuse tacos and fajitas, burritos and enchiladas, and many more.

Carnitas and barbacoa are just another pair of dishes in Mexico that are constantly thought by people to be the same.

However, there are many differences between them. The meat which is traditionally used for carnitas is pork. The heavy marble parts are chosen for this dish.

Comparing Carnitas and Barbacoa: Understanding the Distinctive Aspects

It can also be made using chicken. The breasts and thighs of the chicken work well for this dish.

On the other hand, barbacoa is made using many different types of meat depending on the region. For instance, in northern Mexico, the meat for barbacoa includes beef head and goat meat. Lamb is also a popular choice.

Many people also tend to confuse them because of how both dishes look. When they’re fully cooked, the end product is always shredded meat. However, if you look closely, carnitas look more crispy and crunchy because they’re roasted.

Furthermore, in terms of texture, barbacoa may seem heartier and juicier as compared to carnitas. While carnitas is lighter in flavor, barbacoa can be much bolder because of the flavor of beef.

Mexican dish seasoned corn
Seasoned corn- a famous Mexican street dish!

Final Thoughts

  • These are delicious Mexican dishes but have unique characteristics that set them apart.
  • Birria was originally made with goat meat but now with beef, veal, lamb, or pork. It is a flavorful stew seasoned with various chili peppers.
  • Barbacoa is more than just a dish; it’s a cooking method that involves slow-roasting meat. It is traditionally lamb or goat, in a pit covered with maguey leaves.
  • The preparation of these dishes can vary by region. Barbacoa can be made with diverse meats, including seafood. Birria can be prepared using different meats and flavors depending on where it’s made.
  • While they may look similar when fully cooked and shredded, but they are not. Birria’s meat is submerged in a flavorful sauce. In contrast, barbacoa meat sits above the sauce on a rack. It creates distinct textures and flavors.
  • Barbacoa is often served with a soup called consomme. It enhances the overall experience. On the other hand, birria is enjoyed as a stew or in tacos filled with this special meat.
  • Many people mistakenly interchange birria and barbacoa due to their visual similarities. Understanding their origins and unique qualities helps differentiate them.
  • Whether you’re savoring the juicy birria or the hearty barbacoa, exploring these dishes reveals the richness of Mexican culinary traditions.

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