Recipe to Feed a Crowd: Slow-Cooker Barbacoa Beef

Recipes from The Kitchn

There are very few foods that feed a large crowd with little effort. Tacos may be the simplest option for feeding a lot of people, and today we are bringing you one of our favorite taco stuffings: barbacoa beef, tender and full of rich, complex flavors. Yes, did you know you can make that tasty stuff you buy at Chipotle in your own kitchen — and in your slow cooker, no less?

I have a serious thing for barbacoa. It's a love affair to be written about as in the steamiest of romance novels. (You know, if those were about food, instead of people.) Barbacoa is full of flavor and so simple to make. It's a set-it-and-forget-about-it type meal that can be made with little preparation in your slow cooker.

Barbacoa is a simple dish that can be made into all sorts of meals. You might make tacos, burritos, extreme nachos, even hash for breakfast in the morning. Once it's prepared, the uses are endless, and knowing you have some on hand always makes for good eats.

So even if you're not having 30 football-crazed fans over to your house to watch the big game, make the full amount anyway. It's a perfect recipe to freeze for later. Use a muffin tin to freeze individual portions. Pour the sauce over the top to help the meat freeze in one solid chunk. When frozen solid, pop out the individual muffin cup portions and toss them in a freezer bag or container for more long-term storage.

Editor's Note

Just stepping in to clear up some confusion about the original recipe, which called for cooking the barbacoa on WARM for several hours, and problems some people were having with the meat not becoming totally tender after even an overnight cooking time. I did some research with my favorite food science side kick, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, and learned that roasts like this need to hold an internal temperature of 160°F to 180°F for several hours in order for the collagen in the meat to dissolve enough for the meat to become "fork-tender."

The problem is that the WARM setting on many slow cookers is below 160°F (but not all slow cookers, which is why this recipe worked for some people and not others). Barbacoa cooked below 160°F meant that while the meat was definitely cooked all the way through, it still tasted chewy and tough in texture. Science! So cool!

The solution for this recipe is to simply switch the cooking method to 8 to 10 hours on LOW. This setting will hold the meat within its ideal cooking temperature range without any trouble (and this is true for all models!), giving you perfect, fall-apart-tender shreds of beef every time. The recipe below has been updated to reflect this revised cooking method.

Also, I have cut the amount of cloves from the original 2 teaspoons down to 1 teaspoon, as per many of your suggestions. Thanks for the feedback!

Happy slow cooking! - Emma

Slow Cooker Barbacoa Beef

Makes enough meat to stuff 30 tacos

4 chipotle peppers (from a can), minced, plus all the adobo sauce it sits in
1 medium bunch cilantro, chopped
1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 head garlic, peeled and cloves smashed
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Juice of 4 limes
1/2 cup cider vinegar
5 to 7 pounds beef brisket
4 to 6 cups beef or chicken stock
5 bay leaves

To serve:
Corn tortillas
Diced onions
Minced cilantro

Stir together the chipotle peppers and their sauce, cilantro, red onion, garlic, clove, salt, lime juice, and cider vinegar and pour into a 7-quart slow cooker (if you have a food processor, you can also pulse till combined before adding). Place the brisket on top of this mixture. (Cut the brisket into a few pieces if necessary to better fit in the slow cooker.) Add stock to cover the meat and place the bay leaves on top. Use tongs to turn the meat a few times in the sauce.

Put the lid on the slow cooker. Cook for 8 to 10 hours on LOW. When done cooking, it should shred easily with two forks.

Transfer the meat from slow cooker to a rimmed baking sheet. Use two forks to pull the meat apart. Discard the fat, if desired (though if you plan on frying it again before use, the small fat bits are extra tasty and should be kept!). Place the shredded beef in large bowl and ladle the cooking liquid over the top a few scoops at a time. You want the meat to hold the liquid but not swim in it; you may not need to use all of the cooking liquid. (The leftover liquid is very tasty and can be frozen in cube-sized portions for use in later dishes.)

To keep the barbacoa warm for guests, you can return the shredded beef to your slow cooker and keep it warm on the WARM setting. Serve with fresh tortillas, onion, cilantro, and salsa.

Recipe Note

Doubling this recipe: If your slow cooker is large enough to hold double the amount of meat, you can simply double the recipe. Otherwise, plan ahead and make two batches back to back. Once the meat is shredded, it should be reduced enough in volume to be warmed in a single slow cooker.

Using other cuts of meat: Other than brisket, any tough "roast" cut will work: shoulder or rump roast, top or bottom round. Similar cuts of pork, lamb, or goat also make fine substitutes.

This recipe was updated October 19, 2013.

(Image credits: Sarah Rae Smith)

Per serving, based on 30 servings. (% daily value)
20.2 g (31.1%)
8.2 g (40.8%)
0 g
1.6 g (0.5%)
0.2 g (0.7%)
0.4 g
17.1 g (34.2%)
85.3 mg (28.4%)
366 mg (15.2%)