Birria, real birria, is a sublime beauty. Like so many fantastic regional Mexican sauces, there is a perceived, daunting complexity to the making, but birria is far easier than it looks or tastes, and it rewards with stunning depth and complexity. If you’ve ever enjoyed a really good red or black molé, the effect is similar. Birria hails from the state of Jalisco, which is more or less in the middle of the country on the Pacific side; it runs inland for nearly half the country’s width, some 30,000 square miles of beach, mountain, forest and plain, with altitudes from sea level to over 14,000 feet. Many things considered ‘Mexican’ by us gringos come from here, from mariachi and ranchero music to birria and tequila.
The popular nickname for people from Jalisco is Tapatio, a name hot sauce fans everywhere will instantly recognize. That, the competing hot sauce Cholula, and la Rojeña distillery, home of Jose Cuervo, are easily the most widely known constituents of Jalsciense food and drink, but there’s much more. Fish from ocean and lake, wild game birds, corn, beans, and a dizzying array of chiles are just the start. The Spanish introduced stock animals, dairy, and additional fruit and vegetables. All that bounty has lead to a rich and varied cuisine that blends the old and new in an ever-evolving melange. For classics, posole, menudo, and guacamole all have their roots here, as does birria.
Birria is arguably the state dish, served for special occasions and holidays. It, like posole and menudo, are also celebrated as hangover cures, (and you could do far worse for a morning after repast). Basically a stew, birria is most often found served in tacos, with pickled onions and lime from street carts, birrierias, throughout Mexico. Like any other long standing, legendary dish, the ‘correct’ preparation of birria varies widely. Traditionally, the meat is goat or mutton, marinaded in adobo spices, then married with chiles, tomatoes, onion, and spices. Here in the states, neither of those proteins is widely available, so the dish is made with beef or pork ribs, or even chicken.
Below you’ll find our take on birria; it’s pretty true to the original. If you go with beef ribs as we did, find a big package of the rough looking, inexpensive stuff – The long, slow boil will tenderize any cut, so don’t spend big bucks on short ribs, which are popular these days, and as such, stupid expensive.
I offer preparations for both homemade adobo and achiote paste as well. My understanding is that the latter is actually a Yucateco specialty, (From the Yucatan Penninsula), but it would not be much of a stretch for there to have been a cross-country trade in such things. Both of these are amazing when homemade – night and day from anything store bought.
When you’re ready to shop, locate a Mexican grocery or carniceria near you and make a visit. You will likely find all the spices and chiles you need there, (most of which are really inexpensive and already ground), and bitter orange juice, too. A carniceria will likely have great ribs as well. Don’t forget fresh tortillas either – 4″ or 5″ corn are best.
Again, this may look daunting, but I assure you it’s not. Assemble all the pieces on your kitchen table, stage ingredients, and enjoy the journey – It will be absolutely worth the effort. Make the adobo, achiote, and pickled onions ahead of the birria, so you’ll have plenty of time to build that at a leisurely pace. Several of the prep steps can be done the night before as well, so break things up if it seems like it’s too much in one swell foop. I strongly suggest you print this whole thing out and read it through it a time or two before you cut loose; it’s not hard, but there are quite a few moving parts…
1/4 cup sweet paprika.
3 tablespoons ground black pepper.
2 tablespoons onion powder.
2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
2 tablespoons ground cumin.
1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder.
1 tablespoon garlic powder.
Blend all ingredients throughly and place in an airtight spice jar. Adobo can be used as a dry rub, or moistened to a paste with bitter orange or grapefruit juices; each of the wet variants brings a whole new angle to the marinade. Apply to your chosen protein and allow to rest, refrigerated and uncovered, for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
1 teaspoon cumin seeds or 1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon black pepper or 1 teaspoon chipotle pepper
5 allspice berries
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch nutmeg
NOTE: Annato is a colorant used to make cheese yellow, among other things; it will stain anything and everything porous it touches, (including your hands), so handle with care.
Put all ingredients into a spice grinder, and pulse until you’ve achieved a uniform, fine powder.
Transfer to a small mixing bowl, and add a tablespoon of cold water; mix into a thick paste that holds together well – For this recipe, 1 to 2 tablespoons of water is plenty.
You can place the paste into an ice cube tray, cover, and freeze it, and it’ll last a good 6 months; just pop out a cube when you need some. Refrigerating in an airtight container will last a good 90 days.
To use the paste as a marinade, blend a tablespoon of paste with 6 to 8 cloves of roasted garlic and 1/2 Cup of bitter orange juice, (also called Seville orange juice by some purveyors), or grapefruit juice.
Smear onto chicken or pork and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
3 Pounds Beef Ribs
5 mild Hatch or Anaheim Chiles
2 dried Pasilla Chiles
2 dried Ancho Chiles
1 12 oz. can Tomatoes
1 small Sweet Onion
4 cloves Garlic
12 black Peppercorns
1 tablespoon Achiote Paste
1/2 teaspoon Cumin Seed
Freshly ground pepper
12 to 16 small corn tortillas.
Pickled sweet onions
Fresh Lime wedges
1 small sweet Onion (Red or yellows are fine if you prefer more bite)
3/4 Cup White Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Refried Black Beans
1 12 ounce can Black Beans
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1-2 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Butter
1/4 Cup Cream
Sea Salt and freshly ground Black Pepper to taste
Combine beans, stock, and smashed or pressed garlic in a pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer while building the birria.
Drain beans and transfer to a skillet over medium heat. Smash beans with a fork or potato masher to a nice, rough consistency.
Add butter and whisk with a fork to incorporate.
Add cream and whisk to incorporate.
Season to taste with salt and pepper, reduce heat to low.
M’s Mexi Rice
1 Cup long grain white Rice
1 1/2 Cups Chicken Stock
1 Tablespoon Butter
1/2 teaspoon Chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Combine rice, butter, and seasonings in a pot over medium high heat. Sauté the rice for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add stock bring to a boil.
Cover and reduce heat to low.
Simmer covered for 15 to 20 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is fluffy.
Remove from heat, leave covered and set aside until service.
At least 4 hours prior to cooking, and up to overnight, prepare a wet adobo rub per instructions above. Evenly coat your meat, and allow to marinate, refrigerated and uncovered.
In a large stock pot over medium heat, add the ribs in tight layers. Season with a tablespoon of sea salt and cover with fresh water until you’ve got a couple inches over the highest ribs.
Bring the pot to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low.
Boil ribs for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, skimming as needed; if the water gets down to rib level, add a bit more to keep them covered.
Rinse, peal, and thinly slice one of the sweet onions. In a mixing bowl, combine vinegar, sugar, salt and oregano, whisk to incorporate. Toss onions into the bowl and make sure they’re fully covered by the brine. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
If using whole dried chiles, put them in a small bowl and cover completely with water. Allow to soak for 30 to 60 minutes, until the chiles are soft and pliable.
Rinse, stem and seed Hatch or Anaheim chiles. Rinse, peel and quarter the remaining onion. Peel the garlic cloves and leave whole. Roast all those ingredients on a baking sheet under a broiler, turning once or twice, until chile skins are blistered. Remove from oven and hot baking sheet, and set aside to cool.
Prep Adobo and Achiote paste, per above.
When rib meat is tender and starting to separate from the bones, use tongs and transfer ribs to a colander for a 15 minute rest.
Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the rib broth, pour the rest off and return the pot to the stove, with the burner off.
Add peppercorns and cumin seed to a spice grinder and pulse to a smooth powder.
Remove reconstituted chiles from soaking water, then stem and seed them.
In a blender or food processor, combine all chiles, the roasted onion and garlic, tomatoes, pepper and cumin, and achiote paste. Pulse to a smooth consistency. Add a cup of the reserved broth and pulse to incorporate; you can add more broth if you prefer the sauce a bit thinner.
Place a single mesh strainer over the stock pot and run the sauce through, gently pressing by hand. Turn heat to medium. When the sauce starts to bubble, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.
Heat tortillas, wrapped in foil, in a warm oven.
Separate the rib meat from bones and fat, and hand shred.
Add the meat to the sauce, reduce heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes longer.