The good word of birria deserves to be spread across every social media platform, to every corner of the world. This soulful dish ought to be eaten on the reg in households all over America and beyond. Mexican traditions are meant to be broken, so there’s no need to wait for a wedding or special occasion to cook it. (Let’s definitely keep it going as the number-one secret hangover cure, though, because that’s just science.) But in order for birria to be fully embraced worldwide, the fear of making it at home must be eliminated.
The way to make homemade birria sound less intimidating is to make sure there are lots of accessible ways to cook it. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and unearth a few user-friendly cooking methods for the average American household. The traditional approach—cooking birria over a pit in the ground—was crossed off the list for practical reasons, replaced by a more realistic set of options.
The cooking methods were:
- A cast iron Dutch oven over live fire
- A Crock-Pot from Grandma’s best friend’s estate sale
- The never-before-used wedding gift of an Instant Pot
As a bonus (because there happened to be an open Thomas Keller cookbook on the kitchen table), an Immersion Cooker, or sous vide, was used as well. Sous vide birria just sounded like the most unnecessary kitchen science project, so far from any traditional Mexican cooking method, that it simply had to be done.
To make everything even more official, I brought together a panel of hungry taste-testers with the goal of collecting opinions from folks with varying palates. The esteemed panel was as follows:
- JP Murphy, professional chef and operator of Cabin Attic burgers
- Audrey Sutherland, avid home cook and pop-up operator from Homesick Together
- Jack O’Shea, certified foodie and the world’s most modest rock star from the world-touring band Bayside
- Me, Jesse Valenciana, Takeout writer extraordinaire
The perfect birria is a most savory affair consisting of tender meat and a delicately viscous consomé, with a slick kiss of oil from the rendered fat and meat juices. The flavor profile of the dish is driven by an adobo sauce that is a perfect balance of rehydrated chiles and Mexican spices that create complex flavors. In theory, no one flavor should outshine the other.
Beef was the chosen protein for this experiment: a combination of bone-in short rib and chuck roast, which was found to have the ideal combination of flavor, fat, and cost-effectiveness. My goal was to figure out which method achieved the best birria that non-birria pros would want to eat more of.
The birria was served to the panelists in random order, to avoid any cooking method bias. Beer was provided, Jack made some pre-dinner tiki cocktails, and we were off to the races.
Going into this experiment, I was most skeptical of the Instant Pot, as the product was the least familiar to me. During COVID quarantine, I forced myself to learn the mystical, almost cultish enticement of the Instant Pot. How could this futuristic countertop techno-pod make a delicious stew that requires hours, patience, and the utmost love in one-fifth of the time (55 minutes)? HOW? My only guess is that there’s a little science wizard inside the machine that makes it so. Still, how good could Instant Pot birria possibly be?
Jack: “It has a nice viscosity to it. It’s insanely savory, but that heat cuts through it and tones down the oiliness. The oil actually allows the flavor to stick with you for a while without creating a tactile thing in your mouth.”
Audrey: “I like how the flavors come through in layers, with the balanced heat from all of the chiles. Kind of like a flavor crescendo.”
Conclusion: This was the overwhelming favorite. The consomé was evenly rich, resting on our tongues without the slickness of the oil from the rendered fat. The meat had a slight firmness and structure, but easily fell apart with the aid of a trusty salad fork.
This was the closest I came to the traditional method, using my trusty 9-quart Lodge cast iron Dutch oven to cook the birria over a blend of lump charcoal and briquettes. Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster, where briquettes keep a more maintained heat.
It’s said that when birria was cooked in clay pots set into the earth, corn masa was used to seal the pots and keep the birria cooking in its steam. Not having any masa readily available, I skipped that step, thus having to replenish the liquids that evaporated multiple times during the five-hour-long cooking process. About every hour, I added a combination of the birria adobo sauce and water.
As to be expected, this was the most labor-intensive cooking method. Devoid of any modern technology, it’s the most “authentic” approach but also takes a total of five hours. That’s not including the time it took to make the birria marinade, nor the time the meat spent marinating overnight.
JP: “This consomé is so dark and beautiful. There’s a lot more char on the meat, and it’s smoky on the nose. It’s eating a bit saltier than the first one.”
Audrey: “I’m not an overly spicy person, so I like the tame heat on this one. I’m getting some coffee notes in the consomé, plus there’s a smokiness that adds extra character. The flavor all together is very savory and rich. My personal favorite.“
Jack: “The meat is incredibly tender and the consomé is thick enough to where it would hold up in a tortilla. The flavors really hint at the dish’s authentic story. You really think about eating this the way it’s presented in its origin.”
Conclusion: There was visible separation in the consomé; a thin layer of slick, tasty oil on top of the thicker, richer broth. Regardless, it was a beautiful pool of a deep cinnamon-colored liquid with a layer of foamy, tawny shaded rendered fat bubbles.
The Crock-Pot is the New Balance walking shoe of kitchen appliances: no frills, predictable, reliable, but if your kitchen pals see it on your counter, you’re gonna be the butt of a few wisecracks. The only time people admit to using a Crock-Pot is when they’re making pulled pork for their company’s holiday potluck.
Honestly, though, I started my birria-making career using a Crock-Pot, so I appreciate the convenient “set it and forget it” nature of this tried-and-true tool. (We all know you have one living in the back corner of your least opened cupboard.)
For this method, the meat was browned and submerged in the adobo sauce the night before the birria showdown. The Crock-Pot was then set on super low, cooking undisturbed for a total of 14 hours. The best part of using the Crock-Pot is waking up more excited than a kid on Christmas morning because your home is filled with the beautiful aroma of birria spices.
JP: “I don’t know if the meat had trouble breaking down, but it tastes like there’s more water content in the meat. The broth feels thinner and it doesn’t have the body like the other ones do.”
Jack: “I think the meat is broken down nicely and is way more tender. It’s also less spicy. You don’t get that heat like the other ones had.”
Audrey: “This tastes like meat covered by a packaged, pre-made sauce.”
Conclusion: The consomé and oil separated the most in this method, resulting in the most oily outcome. The meat fell apart by just looking at it, and was overall a very well-balanced representation of the dish.
The sous vide approach came about by happenstance, and hopefully it’s a delightful surprise for my editors. Before now, a “sous vide birria” Google search inevitably sent me into a multi-hour Reddit black hole. My approach ended up being based on a beef tongue recipe that kitchen scientist Thomas Keller wrote in his book Under Pressure.
The meat was submerged in its adobo sauce at 158 degrees and cooked for 14 hours. The meat was still very much intact after cooking, so we resealed and submerged it for another 6 hours.
Audrey: “The spices taste different; they’re muted, one-dimensional and not as developed. The flavors come at you at different times so there’s a lack of harmony. The other birrias’ flavors come together at the same time. It tastes more like a beef soup because of its steak-like consistency.”
Jack: “The broth and fat are incorporated differently and there’s no separation between the oil and other liquids. I think this version is really decadent and deserves to be served with a couple of sides.”
JP: “It’s like a party where everybody was invited at different times. The other birrias were like, It’s a fiesta! We’re all here!”
Conclusion: The sauce was very rich and decadent with no oil separation. The meat didn’t fall apart, so we could have bumped the heat up 20 or so degrees to obtain a different texture. As it stood, the sous vide meat would have been great to serve in conjunction with something else, sliced over rice or even as a sandwich. On its own, it did not resemble anything close to traditional birria.
After the official taste testing was complete, the beer was flowing and the panel was in agreement on the matter of just how delicious birria is. I snagged some fresh heirloom corn tortillas from the Wizard of Maiz himself, Chef Julio Hernandez, and whipped up some gooey quesabirria before a bag of tortilla chips was opened. Before long, the birria was being used as a topping for almost everything that resided in my fridge.
The lightly buzzed conclusion that we came to was that birria was hella versatile and needs to be made more often. So next time you’re entertaining guests or stuck attending a snoozefest potluck party, erase the thought of making chili and whip up some dang birria!
We promise not to laugh if you use a Crock-Pot.