Slow Cooker Barbacoa
Homemade barbacoa is easy to make and crazy delicious! This tender, flavorful beef is perfect for tacos, burritos, salads, and more. Let your slow cooker do all the work, or — if you’re in a hurry — follow my instructions to braise it in the oven for an equally amazing result.
There’s no better feeling than making a meal your family loves, right? Sadly, it can be all too rare to hear praise at the dinner table — even when it’s well-deserved.
But guaranteed, anything you serve with this tender, flavorful slow cooker barbacoa will be rewarded with oohs and aahs. Best of all, you’ll hear clamoring for seconds!
That’s really no surprise, though, considering this is a dish popularized by Chipotle, everyone’s favorite fast-casual chain. But this isn’t a mere knock-off.
For a home cook, this recipe is better than Chipotle barbacoa, not least because you can control the heat to your liking. Plus, the cost of making a big batch at home — whether for a large family, a gathering, or intentional leftovers — will be a fraction of what you would pay eating out.
What type of meat is barbacoa?
Barbacoa is known as an authentic Mexican dish made with beef, goat, or lamb meat, which is heavily seasoned with a chili-spice blend, then slow-cooked to tender, falling-apart perfection.
- Although traditional barbacoa may have been prepared with parts from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks, modern American recipes typically use chuck roast or beef brisket. They’re more accessible, to say the least! A well-marbled chuck roast is my go-to for this recipe.
Traditionally, barbacoa would be cooked over an open fire or leaf-covered pit. Of course, that is also a bit difficult to replicate for most modern home cooks.
Fortunately, there are two easy methods to get the same tenderness and incredible flavor in your home kitchen.
What you’ll need
- Chuck roast: the fat marbling in chuck roast yields super tender results, and it tends to be an affordable cut. Beef brisket also works well.
- Avocado or vegetable oil: for browning the roast.
- Beef broth: easily substituted with chicken broth, water, or even a light lager.
- Chipotle chilis in adobo sauce: crucial flavor and the signature heat! These are sold in a small can; save what you don’t use for a later use; they keep a long time tightly-covered in the fridge. (Find some ideas!)
- Chopped green chilis.
- Fresh lime juice.
- Brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, cinnamon, bay leaves, salt, and pepper: these spices and herbs add tremendous depth of flavor.
How to make slow cooker barbacoa
- Sear the beef. Cut into large cubes, trim any large pieces of fat, and sear in a large skillet over medium-high heat. This step is optional. It simply deepens the flavor and adds nice crispy edges. Transfer seared meat to your slow cooker.
- Blend seasonings. Add all of the chilis and seasonings to a blender or food processor, pulse until mostly smooth, and pour over the meat. This step is also optional; you can simply add all the seasonings straight to the slow cooker. I prefer a very smooth, even flavor and texture enough to make cleaning the blender worthwhile. Your call.
- Slow cook. Cook on low for 8-9 hours, then shred the meat with two forks and turn slow cooker to warm. Let the meat rest in the juices until ready to serve.
How to make barbacoa in the oven
If you’re in a hurry, you might be tempted to use your slow cooker on high — and this certainly works. However, I’ve achieved even better results in less time with a simple braise. And it saves clean-up, too!
- Sear beef and blend seasonings. Use a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron skillet, if you have one. It must have a cover and be oven-safe.
- Deglaze. Once the pieces of meat are seared on two sides, transfer them to a plate. Pour a bit a beef broth or water into the skillet and scrape to loosen any browned bits. This scoops up every little bit of flavor and ensures you have the most delicious result!
- Cover and braise. Stir the blended seasoning mixture into the skillet to make a sauce. Nestle in the seared pieces of meat, cover, and place in the oven. After 3 hours it will be perfectly tender and ready to shred!
Is barbacoa spicy?
As a starting point, 2 chopped chipotles in adobo sauce per 4 pounds of meat will yield a medium-spicy barbacoa similar to what most people expect from the dish at Chipotle.
If you want to make a more mild or kid-friendly barbacoa, simply use 1 chipotle or even just half of a pepper.
Conversely, you can always include more chipotles, or just an extra tablespoon of adobo sauce if you crave more heat!
How to serve barbacoa
Truly, the options are endless:
- Tacos: Stuff barbacoa into hard-shell or soft corn or flour tortillas for a next-level taco night.
- Burritos: Wrap it up with rice and your favorite veggies.
- Salad Bowls: Keep it low carb and serve barbacoa in a bowl with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and other toppings as desired.
- Enchiladas: Mix barbacoa with a bit of cheese, wrap up in large tortillas, drizzle with enchilada sauce, and bake.
- Nachos: Pile the shredded barbacoa generously on top of chips, sprinkle with cheese, and bake.
- Tostadas: Tacos’ crunchy, open-faced, fun little sister!
- Tortas: Stuff barbacoa into a crusty roll, add peppers or other toppings of choice, and enjoy this delicious Mexican sandwich.
- … or just throw forkfuls directly into your mouth. Also perfectly acceptable once you see how amazing it tastes! 🙂
However you opt to serve your homemade barbacoa, rest assured that the meat is so flavorful, you can and should keep the rest of the toppings simple. You want all those spices to shine!
Our very favorite way to enjoy barbacoa is in hard-shell tacos with a generous amount of the meat and a small sprinkling of red onion, Cotija, and cilantro. That’s it!
Storing, reheating, and freezing
Storing: If you end up with leftovers of your homemade barbacoa — and I strongly encourage making a big batch for that express purpose — let the meat come to room temperature, then store in an airtight container with the residual juices. Barbacoa will keep about 5 days in the fridge.
Reheating: Leftovers are easily warmed in the microwave. Most of the time, 2-3 minutes on high power will do the trick, depending on the amount. You can also warm a larger amount in a skillet over medium-high heat.
Freezing: Barbacoa freezes really well! Store in a zip-top bag or airtight container, leaving a little room at the top, for 3-4 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight, then reheat in the microwave or a skillet. Or, pop the frozen barbacoa straight back into the crockpot and cook on low, stirring occasionally, until loose and warm.
More Mexican recipes
- Shrimp Tacos with Green Chili Adobo Sauce
- Skinny Baja Chicken Tacos
- Jalapeno Lime Fish Tacos
- Instant Pot Ground Beef Tacos
- Chipotle Street Corn Dip
- Skinny Margaritas with Orange Juice and Agave
- Mexican Chocolate Cake with Cinnamon Frosting
Slow Cooker Barbacoa
- 3-4 pounds chuck roast or beef brisket
- 1 tablespoon avocado or vegetable oil
- 2 chipotle chilis in adobo sauce
- 1 (4 ounce) can mild chopped green chilis
- juice of 2 limes
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons oregano use Mexican oregano if you have it
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup beef broth can substitute chicken broth, water, or a light lager
- 2 bay leaves
- Trim any large sections of fat from the edges of the beef, and cut into cubes of roughly 2 inches.
- Warm oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. (If planning to cook the barbacoa in the oven, use a pan with a lid — a Dutch oven or deep cast-iron skillet, if you have one.)
- Sear: Add the pieces of beef and cook without touching for 2-3 minutes, until the bottom gets a nice brown sear. Do this in two batches, if you need to, rather than crowding the pieces together in the pan, which would prevent them from developing the best sear. Turn each piece and brown on the other side. If cooking in the oven, transfer meat to a plate. If using a slow cooker, place the meat straight in it.
- Make the sauce: Combine chipotle chilis, green chilis, lime juice, brown sugar, Worcestershire, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cinnamon in a blender or food processor. Blend into a mostly smooth sauce. Only if using a slow cooker, add the beef broth.
- To finish in the slow cooker: Pour sauce over the meat, add bay leaves, cover, and cook on low for 8-9 hours.
- To braise in the oven: After transferring meat to a plate, add beef broth to the skillet and scrape to loosen any browned bits. Pour in the chili mixture, stir into a sauce, and remove pan from the heat. Return meat to the pan, turning each piece to coat well. Add bay leaves, cover, and braise for 3 hours at 300 degrees F.
- Shred: When the meat is tender and falling apart, remove bay leaves and shred with two forks. Leave the shredded meat in the slow cooker or pan to stay warm and soak up more juices until ready to serve. Sprinkle with more lime juice and fresh chopped cilantro, if desired, and enjoy!
- Serve: Use in tacos, burritos, enchiladas, salads, and more! Our very favorite and most simple serving suggestion is to fill tacos with barbacoa and top with red onion, cilantro, and Cotija cheese. Barbacoa is very flavorful; you don’t need to add a lot. See post for more ideas.
- Slow cooker vs. oven: The oven is faster, slightly more hands-on, saves one pan to wash, and keeps all the flavor from the searing step in the barbacoa. Both options deliver a delicious, tender result! You can also use the slow cooker on the high setting for 5-6 hours.
- Optional steps: Searing the meat is optional, but definitely helps develop the flavors and texture. Blending the seasonings is optional, as well — you can simply add all the ingredients to the slow cooker or pan, and have a more chunky sauce at the end.
- Spice level: 2 chopped chipotles per 4 pounds of meat yields a medium-spicy barbacoa, similar to what you’d expect at Chipotle. Scale up or down as desired.
- Store: Leftovers keep up to 5 days tightly-covered in the fridge, or freeze for 3-4 months. Defrost in the fridge; warm in the microwave or in a skillet.