Mexican stew originated in Jalisco and Michoacan

Birria has come up in conversation several times recently, making my mouth water in anticipation.

The word itself can be distressing if you happen to know Spanish but are not familiar with the cuisines of Mexico.

Birria refers to something that is grotesque or deformed and is often used casually to indicate a mess or failure. Yet this rustic meal is anything but a mess.

Birria at its best is a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures, on the same continuum as French pot au feu, Italian bollito misto and Irish corned beef and cabbage.

As you would expect, there is more heat in birria, though just how hot is up to you, as it is an optional condiment that provides the fiery chiles.

Most local taquerias serve birria, often only on weekends, though I?ve come across an increasing number that offer it daily. Most of these versions are closer to soup than stew and all I have had use goat meat and only goat meat, cooking until it is melt-in-your-mouth tender. I have not had a bad version yet.

For birria made using several types of meat, you will likely have to make your own, which is an entirely pleasant thing to do. Although it requires lengthy cooking, the actual hands-on preparation doesn?t take all that long.

If you are among the several dozen members of the Sonoma County Meat Buying Club, you received a pound of goat meat in your most recent shipment. If you are at a loss as to what to do with it, consider inviting friends over for a night of birria and cold beer.

It?s the perfect summer celebration.


Makes 10 to 12 servings

This version of birria, a rustic stew traditional in both Jalisco and Michoacan, Mexico, is adapted from ?My Mexico? by Diana Kennedy (Clarkson Potter, 1998, $32.50). Kennedy, who had grown tired of the versions of birria she encountered while traveling in Jalisco, was charmed by this version given to her by the Moreno family. It is traditional, Kennedy writes, to serve rice at the beginning of this meal, which you can do if you like. It is also traditional to serve frijoles de olla ? pinto beans ? afterwards. I like small corn tortillas, too. It?s a perfect sort of meal for a Sunday afternoon, with the entire family gathered around the table for several hours.

4 ancho chiles, veins and seeds removed

1 cup pineapple vinegar, ? cup white wine vinegar or ? cup rice vinegar

4 garlic cloves, chopped

4 1?-inch cinnamon sticks

? teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed

? teaspoon peppercorns, crushed

2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

1? ounces (? small tablet) Mexican drinking chocolate, crumbled

? Kosher salt to taste

6? to 7 pounds meat (see Note below), cut into large pieces

? Sauce for birria (recipe follows)

1 pound tomatoes, cored

? Finely shredded cabbage

? Sliced avocado, optional

? Minced white onion

? Minced fresh cilantro leaves

2 or 3 limes, cut in wedges

Begin preparations a day in advance.

Put the ancho chiles in a small saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and steep for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Put the vinegar into the work bowl of a blender, add the garlic, spices and oregano and pulse gently to break up the spices. With the motor running, gradually add the chiles and chocolate and blend until smooth. If the mixture is too thick to process correctly, add water until the blade releases; the mixture should be fairly thick.

Season generously with salt, taste and add a bit more salt if the mixture is flat.

Put the meat into a large container, pour the vinegar mixture over it and turn the meat until each piece is thoroughly coated. Cover and store in the refrigerator overnight.

Make the sauce and set aside until ready to serve.

To cook the meats, prepare a tamale steamer or other spacious steamer; the basket should be at least 4 inches above the water line. Fill the bottom portion of the steamer with 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Put the meat into the top part of the steamer and tuck it in a circle of parchment paper that fits tightly over the meat, so that nearly no steam can escape. Set the top part of the steamer over the bottom, cover with the steamer?s lid and reduce the heat to low.

Steam the meat until it is quite tender but not mushy, about 4 hours. Check the water level now and then and replenish it with more boiling water as needed. When the meat is nearly done, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the steamer from the heat, uncover the meat and use tongs to transfer the meat to a baking sheet or roasting pan. Roast it for about 30 minutes, turning once, until its surface glistens and is slightly crusty.

While the meat is in the oven, put the whole tomatoes into the steaming liquid, set over medium heat and cook for 15 minutes. Use an immersion blender to puree the tomatoes in the liquid until very smooth. Taste and correct for salt. Just before serving, heat through.

To serve, put the meats on a large platter. Put the cabbage, avocado if using, onion, cilantro and limes on the same platter, arranged separately if there is room or on a second platter if there is not. Put the sauce in a bowl alongside.

Ladle the broth into bowls and serve as a first course.

NOTE: It is customary to use a mix of meats for this dish. I prefer breast of lamb or lamb riblets, pork ? anything but the loin ? and inexpensive cuts of beef, such as brisket and tongue (which must be peeled after cooking). Best of all is goat meat. Although you might read that chicken also works, I do not recommend it; it becomes dry and stringy and develops an unpleasant taste when cooked this long. For the best flavor and texture, be sure to include on-the-bone cuts and cuts with plenty of fat.


Makes about 1/2 cup

Heed my words: This sauce is hot. When you are making it, do not lean over the saucepan or blender in such a way that you will breathe in the steam rising off of it. If you touch the chiles, scrub your hands vigorously before touching any tender tissues, such as your eyelids. And be sure to make it well in advance of serving it; the heat will calm slightly and the flavors will mingle and deepen.

20 chiles de arbol

? cup low-acid (5 percent) wine vinegar

? teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 garlic clove, chopped

4 peppercorns, crushed

?Kosher salt to taste

Put the chiles into a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and steep for 10 minutes. Drain and discard the cooking liquid.

Put the chiles into the work bowl of a blender, add the vinegar and pulse several times until the mixture is reduce to a paste. Add the oregano, garlic and peppercorns and pulse several more times, until the mixture is quite smooth.

Pass the sauce through a strainer into a small bowl and stir in a teaspoon of kosher salt. Carefully taste a small amount ? it is very hot ? and correct for salt. Cover and set aside for several hours or overnight.

Michele Anna Jordan can be contacted via e-mail at

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