recipe for using smoked beef cheek to make barbacoa tacos in caramello tortillas

BBQ Smoked Beef Barbacoa using Beef Cheeks

Hit with smoke, layered with flavor and cooked until ridiculously tender. Make the most incredible smoked beef barbacoa with beef cheeks and just three other ingredients.


Traditional barbacoa is made by taking an entire cow head, wrapping it in maguey leaves, burying in the ground to cook and then picking all the meat from the skull. Epic? Yes. Laborious?  Even more so. Luckily, this version is not only a little more approachable in terms of time, ingredients and equipment, but also harnesses the goodness of beef cheeks. Beef cheek meat is very similar in texture and makeup to brisket – it’s rippled with collagen which converts to delicious gelatin once slow cooked. And though “cheek” might sound a bit weird to some, they are not an organ, but actually a muscle just like any other steak.

Beef cheeks can be difficult to track down – not everywhere sells them, and some processors or larger branded beef programs don’t offer them. There are some online options, but I’ve always had luck at my local Mexican grocery/butcher store. You can also find them at some groceries or large wholesale retailers like Sam’s Club where they are sold in vacuum seal packages. A warning with cheeks – they are often sold with lots of sinew and other less desirable bits and pieces, and you may have to trim them back to get to the actual cheek meat. Even then, you’ll have to trim some of the silverskin off the actual cheeks themselves. What you are looking for is a small beef “pillow” which is the actual cheek. This is what they look like when properly trimmed:

raw denuded beef cheek from Lone Mountain WAgyu

This particular recipes calls for the cheeks to be immersed in a braising liquid, which helps get them nice and tender for pulling. You could also try this recipe for more traditional smoked beef cheeks that end up being like baby briskets! The key to the bark on such a short cook time is using my Hardcore Carnivore Black seasoning, which has activated charcoal and coarse black pepper. It sort of acts like a meat cosmetic to give you incredible color before they have even started cooking. This way you end up having lovely flecks of that bark in the final shred mix.

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recipe for using smoked beef cheek to make barbacoa tacos in caramello tortillas

BBQ Smoked Beef Barbacoa using Beef Cheeks

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5 from 1 review

  • Author: Jess Pryles



23 lb of beef cheeks

34 tablespoons Hardcore Carnivore Black seasoning OR 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt

4 cups beef broth

6 cloves garlic

To serve: tortillas, salsa, fresh lime and salt to taste.


  1. If necessary, start by trimming beef cheeks. Cut away and discard any sinew to leave behind “pillows” of muscle that are the actual cheeks.
  2. Preheat a smoker to 275f.
  3. Coat the cheeks well in the Hardcore Carnivore Black seasoning, then place into the smoker and cook for 2.5 hours.
  4. Smash the garlic cloves with the side of a knife or bottom of a pot to split them open slightly. This makes them more aromatic. Place the cloves along with the beef broth in a foil pan.
  5. Add the beef cheeks to the braising liquid in the pan, and return to the smoker to cook for a further 4-5 hours until tender. To speed the cook, you can cover the pan with foil, but this will reduce the smokiness. Cheeks are ready when they are completely probe tender and pull apart easily.
  6. Shred the cheeks and then spoon some of the braising liquid over the meat for maximum moisture. Add extra salt, if desired. Serve with tortillas, salsa and a wedge of fresh lime.

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