Spiced with chilies, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin, our Mexican birria has depths of flavor that are as rich as its long history. This is a time-tested double act starring exquisitely tender lamb, and a piping-hot, super savory broth.
First things first. This is not a quick dish. The bone-in leg of lamb needs to marinate overnight, and then it’s going to get several hours’ slow cooking. Time is a key ingredient here, and it’s definitely worth waiting for the wonderful rewards it produces.
It all starts with a fiery adobo
In Mexican cuisine, adobo is typically a chili-centric, cook-in, marinade for meat. The one we’re using features ancho chilies and chile de arbol. Fruitily smoky and fairly mild, these two hot peppers are among the mainstays of spicy Mexican cooking. For our lamb birria, they’re mixed into a warmly aromatic, marinading paste with garlic, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, black peppercorns, a little vinegar, and salt.
Now, given that lamb has a deeper, more gamey taste than other cuts of meat, it’s ideally suited to being paired with pretty potent chilies. That’s especially true of cuts like shoulder and leg. Because lamb can hold its flavors further up the Scoville scale, I added bird’s eye chilies to the mix. The result? This is an adobo with the spark of high heat that lamb always handles outstandingly well.
And here’s why the adobo matters. It’s generously rubbed over and into the lamb many hours before it begins to cook slow-and-low in a big, tightly sealed — and I mean tightly sealed — Dutch oven. By making a few, bone-deep cuts in the lamb, you’ll ensure the adobo can really spread its flavors through the meat. And that will certainly happen by letting it sit overnight in your refrigerator.
Carefully capturing the essence of the lamb
There’s an important reason for taking care to get a good seal between your big pot and its lid — you don’t want anything escaping from the adobo-pasted lamb as it bakes for 4 hours in a 350F oven. You’ll be keeping the flavors right there in the pot — together with all the meaty, spicy juices that’ll later be used as the rich foundation for your birria’s sauce.
This sort of sealed-in cooking means the lamb isn’t exposed to any direct heat, not even from the pot’s base. That’s because it’s seated on some halved onions that keep it raised above the bottom of the pot. And while the lamb doesn’t get direct heat, the sauce’s cherry tomatoes certainly do — lots of it.
Birria sauce — the other half of this classic double act
Sometimes referred to as the birria’s consommé, the sauce combines the lamb’s spicy cooking juices with pan-charred cherry tomatoes. Seared over high heat in a heavy skillet with a little olive oil, the tomatoes soften, and their sugars sweeten as you give their skins plenty of blackening burn.
That fierce charring adds more smoky depth to the flavors of the ancho chilies and the chile de arbol. It also reduces the tomatoes’ acidity to a point where they have just enough sharpness to balance the lamb’s flavor-packed fattiness.
Remember those onions that served as a heat-protecting platform for the lamb? Well, they also play a part in the sauce, adding their own layer of sweetly caramelized, slightly tart savor.
And then there’s the oregano. With its punchy, scented taste, this lightly astringent herb has enough strength of character to distinguish itself in the sauce’s intensely rich flavors.
A bit of birria backstory
This has a poignant edge to it. Truly authentic birria is made with goat. These animals were introduced to South America about 500 years ago by the conquering Spanish — along with their domesticated pigs, cows, and sheep. As far as the Spanish were concerned, these were the ‘right stuff’ for European meat-eaters — and anything indigenous wasn’t.
But it seems the colonizers became really snooty about eating goat meat. Their disdain for anything made with it prompted them to give such dishes a rather ugly moniker– birria — meaning trash, valueless, without merit. In other words, goat was only suitable for being eaten by the subjugated locals.
Thankfully, attitudes and tastes have changed over the space of several centuries. Today, birria is lauded as a signature dish of Mexico’s Jalisco province, and there are loads of birria recipes for beef, pork, lamb, and, yep, goat.
Our recipe uses lamb for its bold, rich flavors — and because it’s a lot easier to find than goat. Also, telling certain people that you’re serving lamb birria will likely raise far fewer eyebrows than asking if they’d care for some goat.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Mitmita Lamb Chops With Spicy Fasolia: Spiced up with berbere seasoning, this is truly a memorable meal.
- Lamb Kofta Meatballs: Here’s an appetizer that you’ll have a hard time not filling up on.
- Spicy Oxtail Stew: Slow-cooked, rich with spices, and the shredded meat is incredibly tender.
Mexican Lamb Birria
- Heavy aluminum foil — for sealing the pot.
For the lamb’s adobo
- 4 ancho chilies these are the dried form of poblano chilies
- 6 dried arbol chilies even though they’re dried they keep their vibrant red color
- 10 dried red bird’s eye chilies
- 8 cloves garlic peeled
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 6 cloves finely ground
- 1 ½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
For the lamb
- 4 pounds bone-in leg of lamb It’s usually sold with the end of the bone cut through, so that the lower part of the leg will bend round and fit easily into a big Dutch oven. A good butcher will happily do this if you explain how you’ll be cooking the lamb.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, topped and tailed, peeled, and halved width-wise. The ones I used each weighed a little over 6 ounces. You want to prep the onions, so they’ll act as dome-like legs for the lamb to sit on and keep it raised above that big pot’s bottom.
For the birria’s sauce
- 1 1/2 cups lamb stock This is all the juices from the pot once the lamb has finished it’s time in the oven. For me, that amounted to 1 ½ cups of luscious liquid.
- 2 yellow onions This is the 4 onion domes that the lamb sat on while it cooked, they’ll be really soft.
- 2 pounds red cherry tomatoes left whole
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 heaped teaspoons fresh oregano Strip away any hard, dark stalks and finely chop all the rest
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 4 cups water
For the tortilla
- 8 tortillas The store-bought, heat-and-eat ones I used were 8 inches in diameter.
For serving — limes and cilantro
- Two fresh limes quartered
- 1/2 ounce fresh cilantro chopped
Preparing your adobo
- You first need to rehydrate and soften all the dried chilies. So, put the chilies in a bowl and cover them completely with boiling water. Let the chilies sit in the water for 30 minutes, then tip them into a fine-meshed sieve to drain, and discard the water.
- Remove any of the chilies’ stalks — the ancho chilies usually come with their stalks still attached. Now add the chilies — seeds and all — to your food processor, together with all the adobo’s remaining ingredients — the garlic, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, vinegar, black pepper, and salt.
- Give the mix a good blitzing until you have a uniformly smooth paste. That took me about 2 minutes with the processor running on high. That’s it. Adobo done. Time now to prep the lamb.
Preparing your lamb
- Use a small, sharp, finely-pointed knife to make 4, down-to-the-bone, width-wise cuts into either side of the lamb — that’s 8 cuts in total. Start and end the cuts 1 ½ inches from the sides of the leg, and take some care not to cut all the way through the meat.
- Transfer the lamb to a good size mixing bowl, and pour the adobo paste over it. Now use your fingers to work the adobo into the cuts in the lamb. Then spread the remaining paste as evenly as you can all over the outside of the lamb. Now set the bowl in your refrigerator so the lamb marinates overnight in its adobo coating.
Cooking the lamb
- Set your oven to 350F / 180C.
- Place the onion domes in the Dutch oven. Arrange them so they’ll act as supports for the lamb. Now set the adobo-coated lamb on top of the onions. As much as possible, you’re aiming for those onion domes to hold the lamb above the bottom of the Dutch oven.
- Cover the top of the unlidded Dutch oven with heavy foil. Use enough so that it overlaps the top by two inches. Press the Dutch oven’s lid down onto the foil, and then use your fingers to crimp the foil into a good, tight seal all around that big pot’s top edges.
- Now set the sealed pot on a middle shelf in the heated oven, and let it cook for 4 undisturbed hours.
Cooking the sauce
- Once the 4 hours is up, turn off the oven, remove your big pot, and let it sit and cool for fifteen minutes or so. While that’s happening, you can start giving the cherry tomatoes a good charring (next step.)
- Set a big heavy skillet — I used a deep-sided, 12 inch one — on a high heat, and add one tablespoon olive oil. As the oil is just starting to smoke a little, add half the cherry tomatoes. Let them sit on that high heat for about 4 minutes. You’ll find the tomatoes flatten slightly with all that heat on their undersides — that’s grand. Now give them a stirring turn to expose their upper sides to that charring heat. Let them run for another 4 minutes, and then turn them into a bowl. Now repeat the charring process for the rest of the tomatoes.
- Once the Dutch oven has had its fifteen minutes’ cooling, remove the top and the foil. Carefully lift out the lamb and set it aside on a plate. You’ll probably find the lamb still has some of its adobo coating. That’s fine — it’ll get mixed with the lamb when you break it apart into chunks once you’ve finished making the sauce. Return the plated lamb to your still-warm oven — it’ll keep nicely hot in there while you complete your sauce.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove the halved onions, and tip them into your food processor. Blitz them smooth, and pour them back into your Dutch oven with all its cooking juices from the lamb. Set the Dutch oven over a medium heat and stir in the water and oregano.
- As soon as the sauce starts gently bubbling, turn off the heat. Now’s the time to check it for saltiness — adjust according to your taste.
- If you feel the sauce is too thick — I like mine to be the consistency of a good variety of canned tomato soup — add a little more water.
Heating the tortillas
- Like it said on the pack, I heated these for about 60 seconds each side in a dry skillet set on a high heat. Stack the heated tortillas on a serving plate and cover them with a cloth to keep them softly warm.
Preparing your birria for serving
- Set your sauce onto a medium heat to bring it almost to the boil — so it’s ready for serving. While that’s happening, take the lamb from the oven and place it in a good-looking serving dish. I used a warmed, 14-inch, cast-iron gratin dish.
- Now use a pair of forks to quickly pull the lamb apart into bite-size chunks — but don’t shred it into long stringy pieces. Bite-size chunks — albeit a little raggedy around the edges — are what you’re aiming for here. If you find any tough, sinewy bits, cut them away and discard them. I then pick out any particularly well-fatted pieces, chop them finely, and mix them back into the chunks of lamb — after all, fat is flavor.
To serve — in handsome soup bowls.
- Pour the nicely hot sauce into an ample serving bowl, and present it on your table alongside the dish of lamb, and the plated tortillas. Offer the quartered limes and chopped cilantro in little bowls for self-service.
- Let folks ladle the sauce into their bowls — about ¾ full is grand. They can then top their birria sauce with a polite helping of lamb.
- Eat with soup spoons and meat-corralling pieces of tortillas. For me, a good squeeze of lime over the lamb, and a little garnishing cilantro is just dandy — muchas gracias!