Chicken barbacoa is a Mexican dish made by slowly cooking chicken in a flavorful sauce until tender and juicy. The word “barbacoa” refers to the method of slow-cooking meat over an open fire or in a pit oven. Barbacoa originated in the Caribbean but was brought to Mexico, where it became a specialty of northern and central Mexico.
What are the origins of chicken barbacoa?
The origins of barbacoa can be traced back to the Taino people of the Caribbean, who cooked meat wrapped in banana leaves over hot coals or buried in a pit oven. Spanish explorers brought this technique to Mexico in the 16th century. In northern Mexico, barbacoa was traditionally made with lamb or goat, but chicken barbacoa has become popular as well.
The method of slow cooking meat makes it incredibly tender and infuses it with smoky, earthy flavors. Chicken barbacoa is often seasoned with traditional Mexican spices like garlic, cumin, oregano, chili peppers, and maguey leaves (also known as agave leaves).
How is chicken barbacoa traditionally cooked?
There are a few traditional methods for making chicken barbacoa:
- Pit oven – The chicken is wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in a pit dug in the ground over hot coals or heated rocks. This was the original method used by indigenous people.
- Above ground oven – The wrapped chicken is placed in a brick or mud oven above ground and slow-cooked using wood as fuel.
- Steam cooker – The chicken cooks in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid to create steam.
- Slow cooker or oven – Modern recipes often adapt the dish for home kitchens, using a slow cooker or oven to replicate the slow cooking process.
The key is to cook the chicken low and slow, allowing the meat to become fall-off-the-bone tender and permeated with the complex flavors of the sauce. Cooking times range from 2-4 hours depending on the exact method.
What cut of chicken is used?
Chicken barbacoa is most commonly made with boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Chicken thighs are perfect for barbacoa because they stay moist during the long cooking time. Boneless thighs allow the sauce to penetrate the meat fully. Other cuts like breasts, legs or wings can also be used.
What seasonings are used in the sauce?
While recipes can vary, traditional chicken barbacoa is seasoned with:
- Garlic – Provides a pungent, aromatic base.
- Onion – Adds flavor and sweetness.
- Cumin – The quintessential Mexican spice, adds earthy flavor.
- Oregano – A highly aromatic herb that complements the other spices.
- Chili powder or ancho chili – Provides mild to moderate heat and smokiness.
- Maguey or agave leaves – Imparts a subtle sweetness and herbal note. Can be used fresh or dried.
- Salt and pepper – Essential for seasoning.
- Other potential seasonings: bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon, vinegar, orange juice, tomato sauce or paste.
The sauce ingredients are blended together with a small amount of liquid like broth, water, or orange juice to form a marinade. The chicken is placed in the marinade before cooking to absorb all the incredible flavors.
What variations exist regionally?
Chicken barbacoa varies across different regions in Mexico:
- Northern states like Chihuahua, Sonora, and Coahuila favor goat meat for barbacoa, but also prepare chicken.
- Central Mexico is known for tender lamb barbacoa, but chicken is common too.
- Southern states often use the classic pit oven cooking method.
- Coastal regions incorporate tropical fruits and chilies into the sauce.
- The salsa served with barbacoa also changes – red or green chili salsa, pico de gallo, guacamole, or a vinegar-based salsa.
So while the cooking method stays consistent, the specific ingredients and salsas vary.
How is chicken barbacoa served?
Authentic chicken barbacoa is served wrapped up in its banana leaf packaging or corn husks. The incredibly tender meat literally falls off the bone. To eat it, you just peel back the wrapper, pull the meat off with a fork and top it with salsas. It is usually accompanied by:
- Corn tortillas – Essential for making tacos and burritos.
- Onions and cilantro – Standard taco garnishes that provide flavor and crunch.
- Limes – A squeeze of lime adds brightness.
- Salsa – As mentioned, the salsa served with barbacoa varies by region.
- Consommé – Many recipes also make a flavorful broth from the chicken juices to drizzle on top.
Beyond tacos, chicken barbacoa also shines in quesadillas, tostadas, tamales, tortas, or even Nachos.
What are some key tips for making great chicken barbacoa at home?
Here are some tips for authentic, flavor-packed chicken barbacoa made at home:
- Use bone-in chicken thighs for maximum flavor and moisture.
- Make sure the chicken is fully submerged in the marinade to absorb the flavors.
- Cook low and slow – aim for at least 2 hours, up to 4 hours.
- Use banana leaves or corn husks to wrap the chicken if possible, as they impart flavor.
- Let the chicken rest about 10 minutes before shredding to retain juices.
- Save any cooking juices to make a consommé to drizzle over the finished dish.
- Serve with fresh tortillas, salsas, onions, cilantro, and lime wedges.
- Leftovers freeze well for future tacos, tostadas, etc.
What are some popular salsas and condiments to serve with chicken barbacoa?
Chicken barbacoa tastes amazing with all different kinds of salsas spooned over the top. Here are some classic choices:
- Pico de gallo – A fresh salsa made with tomatoes, onion, jalapeño, cilantro and lime. Adds a hit of bright acidity and spice.
- Guacamole – Cool, creamy avocado provides the perfect contrast to the tender chicken.
- Tomatillo salsa – Tart green tomatillos and chilies make a tangy, green verde salsa.
- Roasted salsa – Charred tomatoes, onions and peppers lend a deeper, smoky flavor.
- Chipotle salsa – Smoky chipotle chilies in adobo sauce bring on the heat.
- Mango salsa – Sweet mango balances the savory chicken beautifully.
Beyond salsas, extras like sliced radish, cilantro, lime wedges, diced onion, queso fresco and sour cream can all enhance chicken barbacoa tacos.
What drinks pair well with chicken barbacoa?
To complement the bold, savory flavors of chicken barbacoa, you’ll want a refreshing drink. Here are some excellent choices:
- Horchata – The sweet rice and cinnamon flavors contrast the spices in the barbacoa.
- Jamaica (hibiscus tea) – Slightly tart herbal tea cuts through the richness.
- Mexican beer – Any light Mexican lager like Modelo, Pacifico or Victoria.
- Margarita – The classic – sweet, sour, and salty complements barbacoa well.
- Jarritos – A Mexican soda like mandarin or lime to mix up the flavors.
- Agua Fresca – Refreshing fruit-infused waters like hibiscus, tamarind, or mango.
Any of these drinks would pair perfectly with a big plate of chicken barbacoa tacos!
What are some fun ways to use up leftover chicken barbacoa?
One of the bonuses of making chicken barbacoa is the leftovers! Shredded barbacoa chicken is extremely versatile for creating new dishes. Here are a few delicious ways to repurpose leftovers:
- Barbacoa breakfast burritos or tacos – eggs love the flavor of barbacoa!
- Barbacoa pizza – pile barbacoa on a vegetarian pizza for a Mexican twist.
- Barbacoa salad – top a spinach or kale salad with shredded chicken.
- Barbacoa rice bowl – mix with cilantro lime rice and black beans.
- Barbacoa soup – add to vegetable or bean soup for a boost of protein.
- Barbacoa nachos – load tortilla chips with chicken, beans, salsa and all the fixings.
With so many possibilities, you’ll look forward to leftovers!
What are some common mistakes to avoid when making chicken barbacoa?
It’s easy to mess up chicken barbacoa if you aren’t careful. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:
- Overcooking the chicken – It will dry out if cooked too long. Follow recipe timings closely.
- Using the wrong cut of chicken – Thighs work best, breasts will be dry.
- Not marinating the chicken – Don’t skip this step or the chicken won’t have much flavor.
- Rushing the cooking time – Slow and low is key – at least 2 hours of cooking.
- Using the wrong type of chili – Pick ancho or guajillo dried chilies for authentic flavor.
- Forgetting to rest the chicken – Let it rest 10 minutes before shredding for juiciness.
- Serving without garnishes – At least chop onion, cilantro and limes to bring it all together.
Pay close attention to the recipe and cooking techniques to avoid overcooked, bland chicken.
Chicken barbacoa is a traditional Mexican celebratory dish with incredible depth of flavor. By slow-cooking chicken in a marinade of chilies, spices and maguey leaves, the meat becomes fall-off-the-bone tender and infused with smoky, aromatic flavor. Authentic chicken barbacoa takes time to make but is well worth the wait. When you pull off the wrapper and take that first bite of juicy, spice-rubbed chicken topped with fresh pico de gallo, you’ll be hooked! With its versatility to create tacos, burritos, nachos, salads and more, chicken barbacoa is sure to become a favorite meal for your family.