The direct translation of ‘birria’ is ‘poor quality’ or ‘rubbish’ – but this spicy, Mexican, peasant dish is anything but.
Originating in the West Mexican state of Jalisco where ‘birreiria’ joints line the side streets, the stew was once made from iguana meat, but is now more commonly based around goat, mutton or lamb. It’s often eaten on celebration days such as New Year’s, Christmas and weddings, but served with tortillas and a side salad, birria works just as well with a group of friends round for Sunday lunch.
The birria-making process shouldn’t be rushed. The longer the meat has to marinade and simmer, then more tender it will be, and the richer the juices. Using a pressure cooker speeds up the cooking time and helps intensify the flavour, but simmering a pot throughout the day works just as well. Justify the time expenditure by making a big vat, and freezing what you can’t eat – or throwing a birria-based party and sharing the stew as the recipe intends. We've used lamb and pork, but you can use any meat - just lamb, pork, or lamb and beef if you prefer.
Ingredients Serves: 6
- Half a lamb shoulder, approx 1kg
- Half a pork shoulder, approx 800g
- 30g guajillo chillies
- 30g ancho chillies
- 30g cascabel chillies
- 6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp Mexican oregano
- 50ml vinegar
- 1 onion, peeled
- 350g flour and 225ml water, to make a dough to seal the edges of the cooking pan (only if not using a pressure cooker)
- 1 can of tomatoes, whizzed in a food processor or 450g passata
- 2 tsp sugar
- Extra sugar, to taste
- Chopped salad (optional)
- Pressure cooker (optional)
Marinading the meat - the day before cooking
- Place the pork and lamb joints whole, into a large dish. Leave the pork skin on - it adds richness and flavour to the stew. Using a sharp knife, cut slashes into the meat to help the marinade penetrate.
- Pull the stems from the chillis and discard. Tear each chilli into strips, and set half the seeds to one side, discarding half of the seeds. Heat a dry skillet on the stove, and - using a spatula - press the chilli strips against the hot pan until blackened and blistering. Place in a bowl, and cover with boiling water. Leave for 20 minutes.
- Add whole cloves of garlic to dry skillet, and leave until soft and blackened. Remove from heat, and squeeze out the garlic flesh, discarding the skin.
- Drain the chillis, and place the soaked chilli flesh, remaining chilli seeds, garlic, black pepper, cumin, mexican oregano, onion, vinegar and water into a food proccessor. Whizz until it forms a fine paste.
- Set aside 100g of the paste, and place in the fridge. Rub the rest into the meat, cover with clingfilm, and refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.
- This recipe can be done with our without a pressure cooker - without there is the extra step of forming a dough seal for the pan. A pressure cooker is great for larger cuts of meat - we often make two, or even three times the recipe.
If using a pressure cooker: Place the meat on the steaming plate at the base of the pressure cooker (the meat should not be touching the base of the pan). Pour in roughly 2 inches deep of water - may be 750ml or more. Seal the pressure cooker, and cook for 1 hour.
- Without a pressure cooker: Heat the oven to 170C. Place the meat on a trivet in a large dutch oven and pour 250ml water into the bottom.
- Slowly add the 225ml water you've already measured to the flour, mixing until a dough comes together. Roll out a long snake, roughly 1cm wide. Place it around the edge of the pan, and close the lid, to form a tight seal. Bake for 3 hours.
- When the meat is ready, it should fall off the bone. Remove meat from the liquid, and pull away from bone. Use two forks to break the meat up into bite sized pieces. You can throw away the pig skin if you like, but I prefer to pull it off, and dice it very finely with a knife, mixing it back in with the meat. Lay the meat in a single layer in a wide shallow, oven-proof dish. Set aside.
- Add the liquidised tomatoes, or passata to the meat cooking liquid, and simmer for 20-30 minutes to make a delicious broth. Taste, and season. Add a sprinkle of sugar if too tart.
- Whilst the broth simmers, take the set aside chilli paste from the fridge, and mix with the 2tsp sugar. Brush over the meat.
- When ready to serve, heat the oven to 200C or turn your grill to high. Warm the meat through and the tortillas. Scoop into individual bowls, and pour over a ladle of the broth.
- Serve with a pile of steaming tortillas, a chopped salad, and lots of friends.
If you enjoy authentic Mexican cooking, why not go one step further and try making your own tacos and tamales with a staple Mexican corn flour, masa harina? Great if you're looking for gluten-free options!