What Is Birria And How Do You Serve It?

If you love tacos or just Mexican food in general, you've probably heard about birria. You might even think you get what the big deal is about, but in 2019, the LA Times published a list of 17 places you needed to try in Los Angeles to truly understand birria. This begs the question, if you need to try 17 different takes on it, is birria more complex than it may at first seem?

Over the last handful of years, birria has become a buzzword online. Word of its glory has traveled far from carts and trucks in trendy West Coast cities like Los Angeles and Austin, to the world of New York City street food. This specific method of preparing and cooking this braised meat has created a flavor that Americans can't resist. 

The most popular take on it is the birria taco. These street food delights are prepared using birria meat served with its braising liquid on the side the form of a delicious consommé. Stateside, you'll most commonly find this served as a birria taco, also known as a quesabirria if melted cheese is part of the equation (which is always should be). I used my own expertise as an NYC foodie and journalist and consulted the research of other experts to go beyond the birria taco. There is just so much the average foodie doesn't know about this tasty and comforting Mexican dish. 

What is Birria?

Essentially, birria is just a way to prepare braised meat. It is typically either served with the broth it is braised in, stew-style, or with the broth served as a consommé on the side. In order to be considered birria, needs to be cooked for a long time in a broth that contains chilis and many other aromatic ingredients. The exact mix of chilis, herbs, and spices is not set in stone, nor is there one specific ingredient that makes a braised meat stew a birria. As you'll soon learn many different meats can even be used. 

That's right, birria can be made from other things than beef, even if that's pretty much the only variety of the dish you see in the United States. Speaking of how birria has been adopted by the U.S., we can't not mention the birria taco. Trust us, it will be coming up a lot. 

What kind of meat is used in birria?

The most common type of meat used for birria in the United States is beef. In our experience eating birria in New York City, it's clear this is going to be the only option for people this far from the West Coast. It makes sense, given how common beef is here, that it has won out over the more traditional protein used for birria since the dish's conception. 

Going way back to the origin of the dish, you will find that goat is what was originally used. This is actually how the dish got its name, according to Food Network. Birria comes from an old Spanish word that meant worthless, or of poor value and quality. This was referring to the goat meat, which required such a slow, long cook. Mutton, which can refer to sheep or lamb as well as goat, has also been used in the dish. In the US, where those are not common or popular protein choices, the clear winner has become beef.

How Is Birria made?

Making a good birria is no easy task, mainly because there is no one correct way to make the dish. It's more about the end result than the process, making it easy to cook but hard to get just right. 

According to Food Network, there are a variety of ways to approach cooking birria and all will work. Some people marinate their meat before braising it, while others don't. You can begin the braising process in water before adding seasonings or use the marinade you made beforehand. Either way, you begin making birria by slow cooking your meat and doing so, either on the stove top or in the oven, until the meat is tender and falling apart. 

Spices and seasonings are good to have, but chili peppers are essential to the dish. Dried guajillo peppers are one of the most commonly used, but depending on how you like your heat level, there are plenty of chilis such as ancho or chili de árbol that can give your birria an extra kick. Just sure to boil the chilies before putting them into the consommé in order to get the most flavor out of them, resulting in the best tasting birria possible. 

Where did Birria originate?

Birria originated in Jalisco, a state in Mexico. According to Vallarta Eats, it comes specifically from the town of Cocula and was first concocted around the 16th century. This was an era of change when the Spanish conquistadors were displacing and subjugating the native Mexican people. Goats were an animal the conquistadors introduced to the natives and, as explained earlier, it was one of their least favorite to eat. However, famine soon left them no other choice. 

In order to tone down the gameness of goat, birria in its first form was born. By mixing in a great deal of herbs and spices to mask the taste of the meat and cooking it for a long time to avoid the texture turning out too tough, the originators of the dish did everything they could to hide the meat. While this method is largely abandoned nowadays, in the 16th century, birria was cooked in an underground oven overnight.

How did birria become popular in the United States?

According to Eater, the peak birria taco boom on the West Coast was around 2018. It's taken some time for that to spread all the way to the East and even longer to become a trend in all the places between. But the modern beef birria boom started long before then. It began in the 1950s in Tijuana, Mexico. It is here that many of the birria recipes we know in the United States originated, including birria de res (or beef birria) and the quesabirria taco. Over the decades, the proximity to San Diego and other southern California cities created a slow creep of children of immigrants introducing birria to the state. In the 2010s, this creep became a boom thanks to one of the biggest food trends of the 2010s — food trucks. 

Anyone who lives in a big city will immediately associate the birria taco with food trucks. This in part due to the Instagram and social media friendliness of the dish. We mean c'mon, it simply looks delicious and there is something satisfying about watching someone dunk an entire taco in broth.  Hand in hand, these two factors played a part in making birria tacos as big of a deal as they are today. 

Birria vs. Barbacoa

Listen, you'll hear no comment from us on why these two preparations are commonly confused in English. If you've only heard of one of them, one might sound like the other, but if you've tasted them you know that's not the case. You already know what birria is but what is barbacoa?

Like the word birria, barbacoa refers to a cooking method; the way the meat is cooked. Similar to birria, this method takes a large portion of meat and enhances it with chili peppers and other aromatics and spices before cooking it low and slow for many hours. Barbacoa is traditionally cooked over hot stones in a hole in the ground and it can be made with beef, pork, lamb, or goat (via Eat Mex City). The meat would be first wrapped in maguey leaves and then set in the hole above pots of water atop the stones. Like the traditional ways of preparing birria, these methods are no longer the only way to make a barbacoa. 

Another main difference between the two dishes is that barbacoa is not cooked or served in liquid. Eat Mex City says that it is often served with a broth on the side but barbacoa is never served as a stew. It's closer to traditional American barbecue in terms of taste and preparation.  

What does birria taste like?

Describing exactly what birria tastes like using only words is no easy task, because its flavor can be so vast and varied, but also because its so bright and bold. In general, we would describe our experience with the meat and broth combo as savory, spicy, tangy, and full of comforting flavors. You are going to get different flavors from different birria recipes based on two main components, the meat and the chilis. The difference between beef and goat is mighty, as is the difference between Guajillo and Ancho. The chili peppers chosen will determine the spice level as well as the sweetness, as will the protein.

With a birria taco, that flavor permeates everything. From the dunked tortillas to the meat and finally the consommé, that flavor is reinforced three times over. The tortilla and cheese of a quesabirria make for a completely different textural experience altogether, though. Additionally, birria tacos are most often topped with onions and cilantro, ingredients that in their raw form bring strong contrasting flavors to the party.  

What to make with birria

The most common preparation for birria that you'll see stateside is the taco. The appeal of the birria consommé on the side is enhanced by the ineffable ability to dunk your taco. Adding a Mexican cheese like Oaxaca or chihuahua turns a simple birria taco into a birria quesadilla, or quesabirria if you want to be official and correct.

Birria De Res is the specific name of the Tijuana-inspired beef stew that has become popular to use in the American birria taco. Typically, these decadent tacos are made by first dunking the tortillas in the birria before even putting it on the grill with the meat and optional cheese. They are then topped with chopped onions and cilantro.

The most authentic version of birria loses the taco shell and instead serves the dish as a hearty, savory stew with some form of carbs on the side. Depending on where you are dining, this can mean tortillas, but birria can also be served with bread or rice; anything you would serve with a stew.

Another take on birria that fuses Mexican and Japanese cuisine is birria ramen. As it turns out, the warming flavors and the preparation make these two distinct dishes a more natural fit than you might think. It has become such a common combination that Mexican fast food chain Del Taco even had it on its menu for a brief time, as seen on Reddit.

Where to buy birria

We've already outlined the finer points of making birria at home. It's not an easy or quick task, so we also understand wanting to go out and buy some birria in a pinch. Still, "Where do I go for birria?" is not a question with an easy answer, compared to other popular dishes.

Given the birria taco's origin as street food, our best advice is to do a quick Google search for Mexican restaurants or food trucks near you that serve the dish. You don't have to live in a metropolis like NYC or LA. If you have a local Mexican community or neighborhood in your area, there's a chance there is worthwhile birria to be found close by.

One of the biggest signs of birria's success has been this widespread adoption. The zenith of this Americanization of the Jalisco dish has to be Taco Bell's Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco. This limited-time item gave the Taco Bell treatment to the quesabirria taco, with dips of nacho cheese and red sauce instead of the traditional consommé. We wouldn't recommend it if you are trying birira for the first time, but the Taco Bell item is a perfect encapsulation of how popular this dish has become.

Nutritional information about birria

If you haven't figured out that birria is delicious, well we don't know what else we can do to convince you. However, we can advise you to perhaps not eat it every day. Birria can be high in some areas, especially in its most popular form. Let's first look at an example of birria stew. The University of California Los Angeles dining facilities serve beef birria along with a side of Mexican rice and corn tortillas. The beef dish itself clocks in at 380 calories, 19.5 grams of fat, 6.5 grams of saturated fats, 42.5 grams of protein, and over 800 milligrams of sodium per serving. 

This is a great example that shows birria is a solid high protein meal, but it's a bit high in fats and sodium content. This is only exacerbated when adding cheese and a little dunking cup of broth for your quesabirria. A diet high in fats could lead to an increased risk of heart disease and obesity, according to the World Health Organization

Varieties of birria

We've covered the different types of dishes commonly made with birria meat; tacos, quesadillas, and stews along with less traditional combinations like ramen and enchiladas. These dishes aren't the only way the flavors birria have been experimented with. There are regional variants and unusual takes on the meat stew. One of these is the controversial chicken birria.

The question that plagues foodies with this one; "is chicken birria really birria?" While critics of this New York Times recipe online caused an uproar, the more educated would know that pollo en birria is a take on the dish that goes back decades. In a YouTube video with over 1 million views from the channel De mi Rancho a Tu Cocina (from my ranch to your kitchen), a Michoacán abuela cooks a chicken birria. The popular channel shows off the YouTuber's grandma and her authentic flavors and cooking methods.

Other region specific varieties include the Pátzcuaro and Tangancícuaro birria. Food blogger Don Cueves visited the two regions in Mexico and contrasted the two different takes on the dish. He described the Pátzcuaro as having a savory chili broth, while the Tangancícuaro birria was served in a thick and mild tomato sauce. All these examples just go to show how birria has changed through time and tradition.

How to store birria

When it comes to storing cooked meat, the same rules you are used to definitely apply to birria. Like most cooked meats, if you store birria in an airtight container it will stay good in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. If you made an extra large batch, leftovers can be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months. The big question when it comes to storing birria (especially if you've made it for tacos) is whether or not to store the meat and the brother together or separately.

The answer is simply in how you've prepared the dish and intended to eat it. If you've made a birria stew, it should be stored as one. You wouldn't separate a stew. If you intend to make more birria tacos you can store the meat and broth separately. This way you can dip the tortillas in the birria consommé before making your tacos to give them that extra hint of flavor. Plus, you don't want to have to separate the two each time you reheat the meal.

Speaking of reheating, according to Mexican food blog Isabel Eats, the best way to reheat frozen birria is to let the meat thaw overnight before heating it in a pot over medium-high heat until it is warmed through.