Birria is a legacy that many famous restaurants in Mexico and the U.S. have inherited. Its great success is due to that unique recipe that only grandparents can pass on. Birria has been perfected for generations by birrieros, the birria cooks, leaving aside sophisticated culinary techniques. Delicious result of good taste and respect for its ingredients that complement each other perfectly.
As a chef, I respect many who prepare Birria because they make it perfect; it is a complicated task. It has too many techniques; often, they are even a family secret.Abraham Tamez
Even the New York Times wants to talk about it! The magazine presented a great post, The Birria Boom is Complicated but Simply Delicious, about its hype in the United States. This recent interest led us to ask why it has been so successful? We unveil the ancestral secret of birria to succeed in Mexico and the world.
What is birria?
It’s a Mexican dish dating from the Spanish colonization. The authentic birria is that exquisite combination of goat meat, adobo based on chile and spices, and perfect cooking on the embers in underground ovens.
A peculiarity of this dish, in addition to its great flavor, is the versatility of this dish before the commensal; It can serve with a tasty red broth or taquitos with roast meat.
This dish has been introduced with beef head, flank steak, pork, chicken, and the most innovative with mushrooms. But we ask: if it is not goat meat, is it birria? The purists will say no.
However, when people replicate the dish in different places shows us that this recipe has transcended. It has crossed countries, as well as cultural and temporal barriers.
«Birria» refers to something ugly or of little value. The Spanish settlers assigned this adjective to the goat because people considered it an animal of little value. They thought it was culinarily «useless» due to its limited, thick, and stinky meat. There are even phrases using «birria» as something negative: «This man is a birria» or «That party was a birria.»
BIRRIARoyal Spanish Academy
Person or thing of little value or importance; looking pitiful.
BIRRIA: Traditional preparation techniques
The ingredients to prepare birria vary according to each region and its availability. The principal variation is the chile for the adobo and the meat’s quality; the last one depends on the area’s climate and altitude.
The original birria recipe is from Jalisco, where this dish first emerged. However, there is a disagreement over which is the best recipe. For now, there is not an agreement about it; everyone has their favorite birria.
It is important to emphasize that the birria arose when trying to cover the goat’s pungent aroma. Therefore, your original recipe must include this type of meat.
The more experienced birrieros know that a good birria is equal to good raw material. That is why they usually buy their meat in private farms, where they grow goats in small corrals. Both its quality of life and the animal’s food influences its flesh and flavor. San Luis Potosí, Mexico, is known for goat farms; there produce several races. The oldest ones in Mexico are Mancha, Alpina, and Merinos.
They use all the pieces of the goat to make birria. Before cooking, it is essential to cut it appropriately to set the meat rightly. First, the head is placed, with the legs around; the spine, livers, shoulders, and ribs are on top. Then they cover that meat with a maguey stalk to obtain uniform cooking with a smooth consistency.
The adobo is based on ancho, guajillo, pasilla chiles, and a long list of spices: cumin, bay leaf, pepper, thyme, garlic, oregano, ginger, sesame, tomato, onion, and vinegar.
The last one helps strengthen the dish, covering the goat’s smell, enhancing the flavor of spices, and tenderizing the meat.
This adobo is an essential part of birria; it can be slightly modified depending on prepared. In some regions, they add chili puya or other available dried chilies. These ingredients combined make the itch neutralize, creating a slightly spicy mixture.
It is an important accomplishment to have reached that a product so stinky and complicated to cook can be prepared so well and eaten so delicious.Abraham Tamez
Cooking in underground ovens
The birria seeks two textures in its preparation; half roast meat, another half in broth. The traditional birrieros usually use the famous underground holes or ovens; stone kilns were adapted to the method.
These underground ovens have the function of creating heat, as well as steam. It generates slow cooking that allows the meat to soften until it separates from the bone practically by itself.
The underground ovens are utensils that have prevailed since our pre-Hispanic gastronomy. Not only were they practical for that time, but they also represented a tribute to Mother Earth. She provides food to us and also allows us to make it from within her. Even with modern utensils at hand, many birrieros keep this ritual intact. They consider that all the elements that prevail underneath add flavor to birria.
The birrieros must master the point of the embers in the hole to get good cooking. This equation between wood, fire, and time is perfect for exquisite cuisine. Time for its part is a critical variable; a minute or so or less, your cooking may come short or go overdone. It will result in harsh or rubbery meat, making it inedible.
They don’t need alarms. Their experience is so vast that they know when the birria is ready. The aroma and even the type of smoke they give off are the best watchful eye.Abraham Tamez
The maguey is a great unknown for those who do not belong to the great lineage of birria. This step is an essential part of the ritual. You should cover the meat with a maguey stalk to cook it in the well. However, its role in the cooking process is not very clear yet.
The main answer to this mystery is that it is an inherent part of the birria ritual. If you ask a birriero, the answer indeed is, «that’s how my family taught me to do it.» Chefs have analyzed the cooking methods; the conclusión is that maguey provides aroma, flavor, and protection to birria. They also believe this step benefits the tenderizing process of meat.
Preparation techniques in the modern kitchen
Diners seek new gastronomic experiences. Therefore, chefs must remain innovative.
We currently find «reinvented» versions of birria. We have seen chefs around the world experimenting with their preparation and presentation of the dish. Birria in pizzas, cakes, and nachos, you can find birria with beef, rabbit, pork, chicken, and even seafood. Variations of the dish that some will enjoy and others will prefer not to try.
Today we are experiencing a global migration, allowing us to find cochinita in China and birria in the U.S. We know the flavors will never be the same as the original because the ingredients are different. Tropicalizing a particular dish with ingredients at hand and getting a similar taste is an important task; Mexicans abroad surely appreciate it.
Currently, the great chefs have migrated from the well to high vacuum techniques. This technique resembles the cooking process in an underground oven, allowing the juices to remain in the product. They have managed to speed up cooking and make it more practical in modern kitchens. The result of the birria is very similar. Still, we will not be able to imitate it one hundred percent in this modernity.
The essence of birria will always come from those ancient techniques. Even with advances in modern cooking, new methods, techniques, and tools.
The great secret for a perfect birria: respect for its ingredients, preparation method, and traditions.
Pairing and how to eat it
Birria has two presentations on the table; a steaming broth with meat and a dry and chopped roast meat. That choice depends on tastes; someones enjoy the taquito with roasted meat dipped in the tasty broth.
Birria is a daytime dish, as it is greasy and spicy, it is not always suitable for dinner. It is the favorite dish of partygoers; its fats and seasonings cure hangovers and bring them back to life. Commonly you will find establishments that only open on weekends in the morning when the place is busiest.
Accompaniments for the birria: red onion, coriander, and lemon. Of course, the freshly made corn tortillas and an excellent red sauce that complement the dish perfectly.
The accurate pairing for birria is icy beers or refreshing pulque.
Being a spicy and high-fat dish, it can pair with a Down Under Pale Ale beer. For its aromatic notes of mint, lemon, mojito, guava, pineapple, and passion fruit.Abraham Tamez
Birria in the United States
It arrived at the border and the United States due to the common migration that our country experiences. Wherever we go, Mexicans carry our traditions. We have involuntarily spread our gastronomic culture worldwide.
During 2019-2020 this dish had a great boom through social media; TikTok videos circulated with combinations as unusual as delicious. Among the most curious were waffles and pizzas with birria, which show us this dish’s great flavor and versatility.
The New York Times wrote about it. They made a compilation with different gastronomic exponents dedicated to making birria in the U.S. The post spoke about their traditions and innovations; they also presented some recipes based on birria. Netflix is not far behind; in 2020, it added a chapter on birria in its series «Las crónicas del taco.»
Birria restaurants in Mexico
Among the famous Birria restaurants in Mexico is «La polar,» one of the most historical places in Mexico City. On the other hand, Jalisco has many restaurants; you will feast on whatever site you eat. Jalisco locals generally recommend the restaurant «birrieria el chololo» located in Tlaquepaque.
History of birria
Birria was created in Jalisco, specifically the city of Cocula. This famous Mexican delicacy originated during the viceroyalty. It was a period with cultural mixes that gave way to new ways of life and gastronomic experiences.
The goat arrives in Mexico
The goat arrived in Mexico with the Spanish conquerors, who also transported other domestic animals; horses, pigs, sheep, donkeys.
The main product obtained from goats was their milk, to later produce cheese. However, it was not the most appreciated animal as it had no other gastronomic use.
Once the goatherds were in Jalisco, they began to reproduce quickly, motivated by the weather conditions. The goats become tireless predators destroying everything in their path. The goats affected land for crops, mainly in Sayula, Jalisco.
Being a plague and an animal non consumed by the Spanish, they used it for servitude. It was a kind of «poisoned gift» because they believed that such «birria» was useless; they even thought meat could make them sick.
If you want to know more about the goat arriving in Mexico, you can read «la Senda del cabrito.»
Origin of the Birria
The massive proliferation of wild goats finally brought them to Cocula, Jalisco, the place where birria arises, a delicacy worthy of our indigenous roots. The natives in Jalisco began to hunt the goat plague to control it and used their meat as food. When they noted the cooked meat characteristics (stinky, thick, unpalatable), they began experimenting to do it tastier.
Eventually, they came up with the perfect combination of spices and ingredients to mask the goat’s pungent smell. Besides, by baking it underground, they achieved a much more palatable texture.
The birria has spread to other Mexico regions, such as Michoacán, Colima, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and border cities with the United States in recent years. It has even crossed frontiers, having a significant presence in Los Angeles, California.
After knowing the origin and work involved in making birria, we respect even more the birrieros. Mexico has a wide variety of flavors, and birria is one of its great exponents. Please share with us your favorite birria restaurant.