If Instagram can teach us anything about the bizarre era we’re now living in, it’s the fact that time-consuming, intricate cooking efforts have never felt more appealing than they do right now. Innumerable social media posts and videos celebrate the art of homemade sourdough, boeuf bourguignon from scratch, and DIY pickle brines. But if you find yourself eager for a kitchen endeavor with international flair that harks back to the days when we could stroll to our favorite food truck and pick up a flavorful and reasonably priced meal without the need for face masks and judicious social distancing, then we’ve got a project for you: Birria tacos.
What is birria?
“Birria is a traditional dish from Jalisco, Mexico. It’s [classically] made from goat or sheep, [and] it is slow-cooked by wrapping the meat in ‘pencas de maguey,’ which are agave leaves, [then] sometimes roasting the meat in a pit or in a brick oven along with chilies and spices [with] a pot placed under the meat to capture all the drippings, which are then used to make a ‘consommé,’ which is a broth [meant to be] served alongside the meat,” explains chef de cuisine Gabriela Hinojosa of SweetFire Kitchen at La Cantera Resort & Spa in San Antonio.
Chef/owner Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Socalo in Southern California, who co-operates her establishments with long-time collaborator Mary Sue Milliken, also offers up some best practices for birria-making: “[Birria is] braised, so [it’s] cooked in a broth typically for 3-4 hours, depending on the size of the meat. You want it to be a fatty cut, like shoulder or butt. The broth itself is very important. We do it with guajillo chiles, but you could make it with other chilies, particularly dried ones, [along with] sautéed onions, mushrooms, [and] carrots. Then, [it gets] slow-cooked till the meat falls off the bone [Birria is] served typically with tortillas and-most importantly — the broth, then may be finished with chopped onions, cilantro, and fresh chiles.”
Why are tacos an ideal way to showcase birria?
A long-standing and much-respected culinary tradition in its home country of Mexico and in areas of the U.S. with a strong Mexican presence, birria recently became something of a social-media superstar, largely thanks to media coverage of food trucks in major gourmet cities like Los Angeles, Austin, and New York. This press and social media attention mainly focused on birria tacos, which are easy to serve on a truck while also highlighting the nuanced taste profile of birria in a simple and obviously appealing manner.
Hinojosa believes that birria tacos provide new diners with an accessible intro to this dish without sacrificing flavor, telling us that “I think [that birria tacos] are a good way to introduce birria to a new crowd. However, birria is traditionally served in a platter smothered in the consommé with tortillas on the side, so that you can make your own tacos. [I like] this way better [than pre-made tacos] because the hot broth keeps the meat moist and eats cleaner because the fat in the meat is kept hot, preventing the birria from having a fatty feel on the palate.”
John Adler, the vice president of culinary operations at Blue Apron, agrees that the traditional birria consommé must accompany birria tacos, explaining that “the best braised meats are served in their own juices … and the best braised meat sandwiches are dipped in that braising liquid! Imagine a French Dip sandwich or an Italian beef sandwich from Chicago done in the form of a taco. You cook your seasoned meat, soak it in its juices, and then dip the bread component in those juices so the flavor experience is complete throughout. So with birria, you [should] fry your tortilla quickly to give it some structure, and then dip it in the birria juices before filling the taco. It is often served with a cup of the broth on the side, which only adds to the experience.”
Which techniques should first-time birria makers keep in mind when attempting this dish?
Although birria requires a sizable time investment, it’s not an inherently complicated dish in terms of skill and technique. At its essence, birria is a braise, so a successful version really relies on patience and proper seasoning. Looking for a few tips to ease your process? Check out the following ideas from Feniger:
“[Make birria] with bone-in lamb shoulder or butt, [and] maybe cut the meat into 3 chunks [to make it easier to handle]. I might brown the lamb first with salt and pepper, then cover with broth (even chicken stock will do). Then, add chilies and cook till the meat falls off the bone. Skim the stock after it’s done and then refrigerate. Once the broth is cold, you can easily remove the [remaining] fat. [The skimming process makes] the stock just delicious. When serving, finish with chopped red onion, cilantro, and lime. We make a mint and jalapeno salsa with lime and a bit of oil [to serve with birria]; it cuts the richness of the dish. I [also] love it with beans and pickled vegetables.”
This lamb birria recipe yields tender and bold meat and a flavorful base for consommé. Just add tortillas!
(By Gabriela Hinojosa, chef de cuisine, SweetFire Kitchen at La Cantera Resort & Spa, San Antonio)
Hinojosa likes to use a slow cooker to prep her birria, stating that “typically, birria is made from a whole goat or sheep. But when cooking at home, I recommend using cooking a leg of lamb, which is more meaty. A great way to cook it is to use a slow cooker.” The slow cooker also offers an easy opportunity to collect the meat juices after the braise and serve as an accompanying consommé.
- 5 lb leg of lamb
- 3 tomatoes
- 7 tomatillos
- 3 guajillo chiles
- 3 arbol chiles
- 2 tbsps ground cumin
- 2 tbsps black pepper
- 1 cube chicken base/bouillon
- Add tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles, cumin, pepper, and chicken base to a blender and blend until smooth.
- Add the lamb and the puree to a slow cooker and cook for 5-6 hours or until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve with tortillas and consommé.
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