For better or worse, birria is all the rage. While we might have Instagram to thank for making the stew famous for aesthetic reasons in recent years, the traditional dish actually has incredibly deep roots in Jalisco, Mexico.
Typically made with slow-cooked meat and dried chile peppers, birria has countless iterations and is normally served alongside corn tortillas, various garnishes, and maybe a bit of tequila.
What is birria?
“Birria is one of the crown jewels of the state of Jalisco and represents the melting pot of Mexico between the indigenous ingredients and what the Spaniards brought over,” says Chef Aarón Sánchez, the James Beard Award-winning author, chef, and owner of Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans. “My mom’s family had a cattle ranch in Northern Mexico and I grew up with my abuela, or Mema as we called her, making delicious stews that were rich and deep in flavor and utilized the amazing beef, produce, herbs, and spices all grown at the ranch.”
In fact, Sánchez co-hosts a podcast with his mom, Zarela Martínez, called Cooking in Mexican From A to Z and the pair dedicated an entire episode to birria, chatting with the owners of Chicago restaurant Birria Zaragoza about why and how the Jalisco comfort dish has become so renowned in the U.S.
“My mom and I make dishes like this together, although she is known for taking the reins on the main dish and I usually am relegated to making all the sides,” Sánchez says. “Birria has a deep, rich history…and the foodie revolution has caused people to have a better understanding of regionality and the specific cultural significance of certain recipes.”
Instagram quesabirria vs. reality
What likely pops up on your Instagram feed is quesabirria, a brisket and melted cheese taco that is dunked in birria, and makes for the ultimate, splashy action photo. But Sánchez’s recipe gets back to the basics and covers how to make the stew itself. Instead of striving for the ideal photo, he encourages you to take your time in the kitchen.
“It’s like I always say, grandma’s food is the best because she’s never in a rush,” he says. “The process of toasting the chiles and resting in water is crucial because that’s the base of the flavor profile of the dish. Don’t skimp on that.”
Tips for making the best birria stew
Sánchez also stresses to use fresh tortillas or else the taco may not hold up with the stew and to try and find a Latin market somewhere near you because many of these items aren’t readily available at more standard grocery stores. But he also advises not to be overwhelmed by some of the ingredients.
“This is a beautiful dish and it looks intimidating, but it’s really simple once you have all the ingredients and have made it once or twice, you will get the hang of it and be sure to impress your friends and family with the rich textures and flavors,” he says.
Another insider tip that Sánchez shares is that birria can be the ultimate hangover food. “This is optimal for Sunday afternoons the day after a fiesta, that’s usually when my family likes to enjoy this, it will cure any over-celebrating you might have done the night before,” he says. “I also love to have this around the holidays because it’s so comforting.”
Aarón Sánchez’s Birria (Mexican Stew) Recipe
Yield: 4-6 servings
4 guajillo chiles
4 ancho chiles
1 cup hot water
1 pound beef top round, cubed for stew
1 pound baby back ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 ½ quarts water
6 garlic cloves
2 fresh bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon Mexican oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup diced onion
2 limes, cut into wedges
½ cup chopped cilantro
Corn tortillas, as an accompaniment
Directions: 1. On hot griddle toast the ancho and gaujillo chile and submerge in hot water. Let chiles sit for 20 minutes. Remove from water and puree in blender with a cup of warm water. Set aside. 2. In a deep Dutch oven, add the beef, ribs, water, onion, and garlic cloves. Bring to boil and cook for 1 hour. 3. At this point add the bay leaves, thyme, chile puree, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper and simmer for 1-2 hours. 4. Serve the stew on top of two tortillas (so the taco doesn’t get soggy), with white onion, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime on top.
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