[Photographs: Jillian Atkinson]
Machaca is a Northen Mexican type of dried meat, often made from beef. This preservation technique is a boon when access to fresh beef is sporadic or otherwise difficult, but it also concentrates the beef’s flavor, meaning you can do much more with less.
Slices or strips of beef are traditionally marinated with ingredients like salt and garlic, then left to dry under the hot desert sun. This natural drying process can take several days and, when it’s ready, the meat looks and tastes like jerky. But what makes it machaca is what happens next: The dried meat is pounded or crushed, typically by hand, with a large, coarse mortar and pestle, until it’s broken into small fluffy pieces. At that point, the machaca can be saved in a zip-lock back for later use, whether that’s folding it into scrambled eggs to make the Sonoran dish machacado con huevos, throwing it into a braise to rehydrate and soften, or adding it to simmering tomatoes and onions for a burrito filling.
The cut of beef used for machaca depends on what you prefer or, often, what you can afford. Chuck roast, top sirloin, or the brisket used in this recipe are all popular choices. I call for brisket because of how the muscle fibers in the cut easily separate after drying. If you do use brisket, be sure to trim most of the fat off the cap and, if you can, freeze it for an hour before you slice it, since partially-frozen meat is easier to slice thinly.
Instead of relying on a hot, dry climate, this recipe takes advantage of your oven instead (a dehydrator works great, too, if you own one). The first step of the recipe is to dry the salted and seasoned beef in a very low oven—that can be your oven’s “keep warm” setting, if it has one, or you can set it to its lowest possible temperature and then regulate the heat from there by cracking the door as needed. An oven thermometer is essential to making sure your oven doesn’t get too hot. (An oven thermometer is essential anyway to make sure your oven is running true to temp, so let this be an excuse to pick one up if you don’t already have one.)
Once the beef is dry, it’s time to pound it. You’re welcome to try using a mortar and pestle if you have one, but I’ve found that the jagged tenderizing teeth on a meat pounding mallet work very well. This pounding step will most likely fatigue your hand and wrist, so be kind to yourself and take breaks. As tempting as it may be, using a food processor to shred the beef isn’t a great idea: it will tear the meat into pieces that are too small for machaca.
Why It Works
- A very low oven (or a dehydrator) dries out the beef to a jerky-like texture without burning it.
- The spiky tenderizing teeth on a meat pounder are perfect for shredding the dried beef to bits.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- 2 pounds (900g) trimmed flat-cut brisket, partially frozen for about 1 hour before slicing (see note)
- 10 medium cloves garlic, minced (1 ounce; 30 grams)
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or fine sea salt (22g)
Set oven racks to upper and lower positions and preheat oven to “warm;” use an oven thermometer to confirm temperature is between 140 and 160°F (60 to 70°C). If there is no “warm” setting, set oven to its lowest temperature and regulate temperature by keeping door ajar and/or opening and closing it as needed while monitoring an oven thermometer. Alternatively, you can use a dehydrator; set the temperature of a dehydrator to 145°F (63°C).
Using a sharp knife, slice brisket against the grain into roughly 3- by 1-inch pieces that are between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick. In a large bowl, toss beef strips with garlic, black pepper, and salt until evenly coated.
Line two rimmed baking sheets with wire racks. Arrange beef on wire racks in a single layer, making sure none of the pieces are touching. Place both baking sheets in the oven and let dry for 30 minutes. Flip beef slices and dry for 30 minutes longer. Rotate baking sheets top to bottom and front to back and continue to dry in oven, flipping beef once or twice more during drying, until beef has darkened and dried to a jerky-like texture, about 2 hours longer. Once dry, let machaca cool completely.
Prepare a strong work surface that won’t move or slide around as you pound the machaca. Working with 3 to 4 slices of machaca at a time, cut the pieces into 1/4-inch strips. Arrange these strips together in a flat, tightly grouped layer on the work surface; then, using the spiked side of a meat pounder/tenderizer, smash machaca until the beef breaks apart into shreds and smaller pieces (about 150 short, hard strikes, though this will depend on how hard you hit as well as the design of the tenderizer you’re using); continue to re-gather the pieces of beef together as you work to prevent them from flying away. Use your hands to tear apart any remaining pieces that are bigger than a pebble. You should have a mix of light fluff, crumbs, and small pebble-size pieces.
The shredded machaca can be used right away in a recipe that calls for it, refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen in zipper-lock bags with the air pushed out for up to 1 month.
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