How to make tender barbacoa in under 2 hours

Using a Ninja Foodi, Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker to make barbacoa cuts the time from overnight to 2 hours from start to tacos.

One of my earliest memories involves finding the head of an animal staring at me at eye level upon opening the refrigerator door. I wasn't yet of school age. My father had asked me to get him a cold drink from the fridge. My memory is fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it was a pig. What I do remember is opening the door and screaming bloody murder. My father, on the other hand, couldn't stop laughing. He has always found great joy in scaring us girls, but I think he had genuinely forgotten about the pig since he had been occupied digging a hole in our backyard. A hole that would shortly be filled with coals and, once ready, joined by various pig parts. Sunday would be a celebration, and the barbacoa Dad was making would be the highlight.

What is barbacoa?

Barbacoa refers to pit barbecuing. A pit is dug into the earth, and coals are lit. Once the coals are ready, banana or maguey leaves are used to line the pit and envelop the meat. The pit is then covered, and the buried meat slowly roasts, usually overnight. Depending on where in Mexico the barbacoa is being made, the meat can be lamb, mutton, goat, pork or beef. It's a head-to-tail method of cooking and depending on the meat being cooked, the stomach is sometimes stuffed with the organ meat chopped and highly seasoned with chiles and spices. 

That Sunday celebration was the only time I remember having traditional barbacoa in our home. In later years, barbacoa – it was usually beef – was made in a tightly covered roasting pan low and slow in the oven. 

Barbacoa in the modern kitchen

I used this oven method exclusively until I was gifted a Ninja Foodi pressure cooker a few years ago. After some experimenting, I realized that I could benefit from the kind of tender meat you get with barbacoa, not in the 5 hours it took to cook in the oven but in 2 from start to finish. 

It all starts with the sauce. I use a combination of the two dried red chile peppers that are the workhorses of so many salsas in the Mexican kitchen – ancho and guajillo:

  • Ancho chiles are dried red poblanos. Erroneously, both the fresh and dried versions of these are often labeled as “pasilla” here in the U.S., which is a completely different pepper. The pasilla pepper is the dried form of a fresh chilaca pepper. Ancho chiles have a sweet, slightly smoky and fruity flavor. They are generally not spicy and are often used in combination with other chiles to help add balance to sauces. 
  • Guajillo chiles have mild to medium heat and add a nutty flavor to sauces. They are most often paired with ancho chiles and used to give sauces body and a gorgeous red color. 

Onions and garlic, of course, make an appearance in the sauce, as do Mexican oregano and cumin. A surprise might be the addition of cinnamon (which makes the beef taste more "beefy") and cocoa powder (which accentuates the chiles). And like most of our family's Mexican cooking, I use a combination of chicken bouillon and sea salt. 

What kind of meat to use?

Today's recipe uses beef chuck roast. I have future plans to experiment with lamb and pork (in the style of the Yucatan peninsula, where a pit barbecue is called a pib, as in the pork dish called cochinita pibil). 

Can this be made in an Instant Pot?

I don't have an Instant Pot, but from my research, basic manual pressure cooking in both the Instant Pot and the Ninja Foodi is the same. I have successfully used recipes developed by Instant Pot users in my Ninja with no adjustments needed. 

Let's cook this Easy Barbacoa!

Wash and dry the chiles. Trim off the stems, then cut a slit up the side. Remove and discard the seeds and veins. 

Cut the chiles into 2-inch pieces.

Peel the garlic and slice the onion.

Heat some oil over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add the onions and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles, and sauté until fragrant, about 3 more minutes. Crush the oregano over the skillet, then add the spices, bouillon and salt, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add a couple of cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, turn off the heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a blender and purée until smooth; set aside.

While the chiles rehydrate, trim the meat, cutting away gristle and excess fat. Cut the meat into 2-inch by 3-inch pieces.

Add the meat to the Ninja Foodi pot. Pour the sauce in, turning the meat to cover thoroughly. Securely attach the pressure cooking lid and move the venting knob to seal. Pressure cook on high for 1 hour, followed by a quick release. 

Transfer the meat to a bowl or serving platter and shred it using two forks. Pour over some of the sauce, mixing to saturate the meat. Transfer the rest of the sauce to a bowl and serve on the side. Stuff meat into warm corn tortillas, garnish the tacos with pickled red onions, cilantro, and your favorite salsa or more of the chile sauce, and finish with a squeeze of lime.

Quick & Easy Barbacoa

Serves 6 


3 ancho chiles, rinsed and dried
5 guajillo chiles, rinsed and dried
½ medium onion
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 fat cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon whole Mexican oregano
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon Knorr's chicken bouillon
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 cups water plus ½ cup, divided use
2½ - 3 pounds chuck roast

To serve:
12 corn tortillas, warmed
Cilantro leaves
Your favorite salsa (such as roasted salsa verde)


Cut stems off chiles and slit them up one side. Open the pods, and remove and discard the seeds and veins. Cut the chiles into 2-inch pieces. Thinly slice the onion. Heat oil over medium-high heat, and once shimmering, add the onions. Sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Lower heat to medium and add the chiles and garlic, cooking until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Crush the oregano in your hands over the pot. Add the rest of the spices, bouillon and salt, stirring for 1 minute. Add 2 cups of water, bring to a boil, cover, turn off the heat and let sit for 15 minutes for the chiles to rehydrate. 

Meanwhile, trim meat, discarding the gristle and excess fat. Cut the meat into 2-inch by 3-inch pieces. Add to the Ninja Foodi pot (or Instant Pot, if using). 

Transfer the chile mixture to the blender and pureé until smooth. Pour the sauce over the meat. Add the ½ cup of reserved water to the blender, swirl to loosen the residual sauce, and add it to the meat. Rotate meat to cover on all sides. Pressure cook on high for 1 hour, followed by a quick release. 

Transfer the meat to a bowl, and shred it using 2 forks. Pour some of the sauce over the meat. Stuff the meat into tortillas, garnish with your favorite salsa, pickled red onions, and cilantro, and finish with a squeeze of lime.

Until next time my friends … ¡Buen Provecho! (Good eating!)
xo, ani