The best Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

While most of the meat options at Chipotle seem pretty straightforward, the barbacoa has always perplexed us. It looks like simple shredded beef, but its complexity is revealed after one bite. The meat itself is juicy and tender after it cooks for hours upon hours, and the spice profile really sets it apart from other styles of shredded beef. It's simultaneously spicy, savory, smoky, garlicky, and rich, and trying to figure out what we're tasting keeps us going back in for bite after bite. In the end, Chipotle's barbacoa seems like one of those meats that's so complex that it would be impossible to make at home.

When you look at traditional barbacoa cooking techniques, which use underground ovens, the dish certainly sounds impossible to replicate. Luckily, the modern-day Dutch oven does everything one of those underground pits can do, making it possible to create an incredible barbacoa in a matter of hours. But the real question isn't if we can make barbacoa: It's whether we can make barbacoa as good as Chipotle's at home. Did we pull it off? Read on to find out if we perfected the recipe!

Gather your ingredients for Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

Our first step in creating a Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe was to go to the source: Chipotle's website. Instead of publishing the exact ingredients for every dish, Chipotle has a general ingredients page. After scrolling through the listed ingredients and carefully tasting the real deal, we determined their barbacoa contains beef shoulder, bay leaf, black pepper, chipotle peppers, cloves, cumin, garlic, oregano, rice bran oil, salt, and water. The rice bran oil was the hardest ingredient for us to source, and we figured it might be for you, too. So, we swapped in olive oil, and we couldn't taste any noticeable difference in the end result.

When it comes to cooking the beef, we also took a slight departure from Chipotle's original methods. In the beef section of Chipotle's ingredients page, the company discloses that they cook all their beef sous vide. This cooking method cooks the food under vacuum, sealing it in a plastic bag before dropping it into temperature-controlled water. After cooking the beef for a long time, they add the aromatic spices and braise it at a low temperature before shredding it by hand. Since most home cooks don't have a sous vide machine, we opted to braise the beef in a Dutch oven for the entire cooking time instead.

For a full list of ingredients and step-by-step cooking instructions, scroll down to the directions portion of this article.

What kind of beef does Chipotle use in Chipotle barbacoa?

Chipotle's ingredients page is a bit vague about which cut of beef they use for their barbacoa. They state that their barbacoa comes from the beef shoulder because "those cuts have enough fat to keep the meat moist during our long braising method." The only problem is that there are several cuts of meat that come from the beef shoulder. We focused in on the chuck — the front shoulder — and decided to use a chuck roast. It contains a lot of connective tissue, which breaks down and becomes gelatin as the beef braises. That not only keeps the meat moist and tender, but it also enriches the braising sauce.

We also know that Chipotle is committed to sourcing beef that meets their animal welfare standards — animals raised without added hormones and antibiotics. More than that, according to Chipotle's 2018 Sustainability Report, none of the beef they source is raised conventionally, and about half of their beef supply comes from pasture-raised, grass-fed cattle. So, we chose grass-fed, locally raised chuck roast for our copycat Chipotle barbacoa recipe.

Why we chose chipotles in adobo for our Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

Many Chipotle copycat recipes use dried chiles for their copycat recipe, but we went a different route. Instead of using a dried chipotle pepper — which is very spicy — we decided to use chipotles in adobo instead. For starters, this stuff is really easy to work with. Simply open the can, puree the contents, and add it to the braise. No need to rehydrate the chilies in water or toast them in the skillet before using them. And, more importantly, adobo sauce is full-flavored and absolutely delicious, adding a level of depth to our barbacoa that's not easy to accomplish without it.

Chipotles in adobo are smoked, dried jalapeno peppers that have been rehydrated in a mixture of tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, and spices. When you puree the peppers into the sauce, the resulting mixture is perfectly spicy, sweet, tangy, and smoky. You will end up with leftover sauce because this recipe only uses three tablespoons, but never fear. The leftovers can be frozen in ice cube trays, and you can use it to make dressings, spreads, sauces, marinades, and more.

Can you cook this Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe in the slow cooker or Instant Pot?

While Chipotle cooks their barbacoa using a sous vide machine, we decided to use a Dutch oven to braise the beef. But, if you don't want to cook your barbacoa on the stove top or in the oven, you can certainly use a slow cooker or the Instant Pot instead. Let's start by saying that any of these appliances will work, but some work better (or take less time) than others.

A Dutch oven is our favorite way to braise beef because it's both stove top- and oven-safe, it holds heat well, and it's large enough to handle a whole chuck roast. That said, it will take about 3-1/2 hours to braise barbacoa in a Dutch oven. If you're looking for a shortcut, an electric pressure cooker like the Instant Pot can cook small chunks of chuck roast in 15 to 20 minutes per pound, so our five-pound chuck roast would be finished in about 90 minutes. That said, you have to cut the meat before cooking it, which we've found doesn't result in barbacoa that's as tender as a whole-cooked, long braised chuck roast. Finally, a slow cooker will make your meat just as tender as a Dutch Oven, but it will take at least eight hours for it be tender enough for our purposes. 

Start by browning the beef for Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

Okay, after reviewing all the ingredients and cooking options, we're finally ready to get started cooking our Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe. We'll start by preheating the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and seasoning our beef all over with salt and pepper. It might seem like a lot of salt, but it's a very large cut of meat. It's difficult for salt to penetrate to the inside of such a substantial roast, so we need to use more than we would for thinner cuts of meat. Don't worry; you won't oversalt the meat by adding a whole tablespoon of salt here.

Instead of just tossing all the ingredients into the pot at once, we're going to brown both sides of the beef first. This adds a layer of flavor to the dish by caramelizing the exterior and bringing out the meat's beefy flavor. You could certainly skip the browning part (and you would if you were using a slow cooker here), but you'll miss out on adding a level of complexity to your barbacoa.

Then add the rest of the barbacoa ingredients and braise

After the beef is browned on both sides, it's time to add the remaining ingredients: All the spices, the pureed chipotles in adobo, and the water. It may seem like a small amount of water, but that's common in braising. The liquid should only come a quarter to halfway up the side of the chuck roast to add moisture to the cooking environment. Too you use much water, the beef will simmer instead of braise. If the liquid reduces too much over the cook time, you can always add an additional cup later.

Once the liquid is simmering, all you need is a little patience and some time. In about 3-1/2 hours, the beef will transform from a tough roast to tender and shreddable. When the roast is tender and shreds when probed with a fork, it's ready to eat. We recommend flipping the roast every 30 minutes to ensure even cooking, but it will turn out just fine if you happen to forget.

Should you braise this Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe on the stove top or in the oven?

If you don't have an oven-proof pot like a Dutch oven, you may not have a choice about braising in the oven. That's okay, because it's totally acceptable to braise your Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe on the stove top. Simply reduce the heat to low to maintain a simmer inside the pot. Depending on your range, this may take some fiddling for the first hour or so to find the perfect level of heat. You don't want the barbacoa to boil, but it needs to be warm enough to produce some bubbles.

The reason we love braising in the oven is it's so easy. You set the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, put a lid on your pot, and place it on the middle rack in the oven. The ambient temperature of the oven keeps the liquid at the perfect simmer level. The only annoying part about using the oven is taking the pot in and out of the oven to flip the roast, but we think it's worth it.

Shred the beef for this Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

Now that the beef is finished cooking, you have two options. The best option is to let the whole roast cool down completely in the cooking liquid before shredding it. As a tough cut like chuck roast cooks, the connective tissue inside the meat releases moisture and gelatin into the cooking liquid. When you let the meat and the liquid cool together, that moisture can make its way back into the meat, resulting in a juicier, more tender barbacoa.

Of course, not all of us have time to wait that long, so you can certainly shred the beef right after cooking. We suggest letting the meat rest at least 30 minutes in the juices to let some of that moisture redistribute. Then, shred the beef using two forks, tongs, or your hands (if it's cool enough). Strain the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and place the shredded beef back into the strained liquid to keep it as juicy as possible.

Strain out the sauce for the perfect Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

Give the cooking liquid a quick taste, and you'll see why this step is so essential to making the perfect Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe. This stuff is pure gold! What was once water has become a rich, deep, and ultra-flavorful liquid infused with the flavor of the beef and spices that cooked in it. You wouldn't exactly want to drink it (it's a little bold for that), but you definitely want all that flavor to coat your shredded beef.

The only problem here is that there are chunks of garlic and spices in this liquid. While garlic is easy enough to avoid, getting a piece of cloves in your burrito could easily ruin your eating experience. Luckily, there's an easy solution: Pass the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer before combining it with the shredded beef. That will remove any unsavory bites while preserving all the tastiness of the flavor-infused liquid. If you don't have a fine-mesh strainer, you can use a cheesecloth-lined strainer. In a pinch, you can also use a paper coffee filter.

How to reheat Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe

This Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe makes about eight portions, which is kind of a lot. Don't worry if you have leftovers; they taste great the next day, and you can also freeze the excess if you need to. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says frozen foods remain safe indefinitely, but it's best to consume cooked meat within two to three months for best quality.

The best way to store copycat Chipotle barbacoa is in an airtight container. We recommend keeping the shredded meat with the cooking liquid, which will keep the meat from drying out in the refrigerator. Then, to reheat the barbacoa, add the shredded beef to a small sauce pot along with the cooking liquid. Heat the mixture gently over medium-low heat until the meat is heated through. Alternatively, you can heat the barbacoa in the microwave, but we find the quality is better when the meat is heated on the stove top.

How close did we get to the original Chipotle barbacoa?

This is one of those cases where we actually think our version is better than the original. Seriously! The meat is super tender, but it hasn't lost its texture like some braised meat, giving it a pleasant chewiness. When it comes to the spice profile, we nailed it. It's absolutely perfect: A little heat from the chipotle and chili powder, a slight punch from the garlic, smoke from the cumin and adobe sauce, herbaceous notes from the oregano, and something you can't quite put your finger on — that's the cloves.

It tastes great on its own, and it was even better when we used the meat for tacos. Our homemade burrito bowls were equally incredible when we combined the shredded meat with our copycat Chipotle rice, pinto beans, chopped tomatoes, and diced avocado. The recipe below was enough to feed a crowd, and it provided plenty of leftovers if you're only feeding one or two. If you're tired of going out to eat, this is a good recipe to keep in your back pocket.

Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe directions

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Serves: 8

Ingredients:

  • 1 (4 to 5 pound) chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 tablespoons pureed chipotles in adobo
  • 2 tablespoons chile powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or rice bran oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cups water

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Season the beef with the salt and pepper on all sides and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the crushed garlic, adobo sauce, chile powder, ground cumin, dried oregano, and ground cloves. Set aside.
  4. In a large Dutch oven or oven-proof stock pot, heat the oil over high heat until it's shimmering. Add the seasoned beef and cook until it's well browned, about 5 minutes. Flip the meat over and cook for an additional 5 minutes, until it's browned on both sides.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium and add the prepared spices, bay leaves, and water to the pan. Stir until the spices are well incorporated. Bring the mixture up to a simmer.
  6. Cover the pan tightly with the lid and transfer the pot to the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to low to maintain a simmer on the stovetop. Cook for 3-1/2 hours, turning the beef every 30 minutes, until the meat is tender when pierced with a fork.
  7. The beef can be shredded immediately, but let it rest at least 30 minutes in the cooking liquid. If you have more time, the barbacoa will be more flavorful if it cools down completely in the cooking liquid. The next day, reheat the chuck roast and the sauce in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. When the fat has melted and the gelatin has liquified, remove the chuck roast from the pot and shred it with two forks. Pass the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer and return it to the pot. Add the shredded beef to the pot and simmer, stirring frequently, until it's heated through.
  8. Store any leftover barbacoa in an airtight container with the strained cooking liquid. To reheat the leftover barbacoa, gently simmer the meat and the liquid over medium-low heat until it's heated through. Alternatively, you can use a microwave, but we think the quality is better using the stovetop method.