Smoked Beef Cheeks (Barbacoa) Tacos

Slow smoked beef cheeks shredded and served on tacos topped with fresh, zesty salsa.
Mat Cotton
Mat Cotton
smoked beef cheeks barbacoa taco

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If there’s one thing a cow knows how to do well, it’s stand around all day chewing. 

That makes the cheek one of the hardest working muscles on the beast, and as such, one which lends itself PERFECTLY to low and slow bbq style, as without a long, slow cook, the cheek would be a chewy, inedible piece of fatty meat. 

However, give them a bit of love, and they’ll reward you with rich, intense, soft, beefy goodness. And if you serve them as I’ve done here, as the base for a taco with a fresh, zesty salsa, you’ll fall in love with them too…..!!

What you’ll need

  • You’ll need a smoker capable of low and slow cooking.
  • 1 beef cheek per person (plus I throw in one extra per 3-4 people to be sure).
  • 11 oz ginger beer per 3 cheeks.
  • A rub for beef – I have included my brisket rub recipe which is perfect for these, but I have used Lanes Brisket rub before with great results.
  • You’ll also need a couple of aluminum trays – get ones big enough for around 3 beef cheeks, as this will hold enough liquid to ‘boat’ the cheeks after smoking them, without being too shallow in the pan.
  • You’ll also need some brown sugar. If you want to use the beef cheeks for tacos (which I highly suggest you do), then you’ll need the ingredients listed below for them too.
  • Ideally, you’ll want a boning knife (or other sharp knife) too for trimming.
  • You’ll also need about 6 hours before you want to eat.

Making your rub

This rub is perfect for any cut of beef suited to low and slow bbq, and I use it on brisket, beef short ribs, and these beef cheeks.

It is a very simple rub, basically SPG – that’s salt, pepper, garlic. I like to use 2 parts pepper, to 1.5 parts kosher salt, to one part garlic granules.

Try to use granules rather than garlic powder, as when you apply the rub, powder has a tendency to ‘clump’, and you can get pockets of powdery, uneven rub on your beautiful beef cheeks.

I make this rub in bulk, so just adjust the amount to suit how many you’re cooking, and don’t worry too much about being dead accurate with the amounts, as long as you’re in the ballpark, you’ll be good.

If I’m preparing this rub at home, rather than at a BBQ competition, I tend to just ‘eyeball’ it anyway.

I’m I’m feeling lazy I’ll just use some Lanes BBQ Brisket rub, or any other brisket rub I have lying around.

Preparing your cheeks

You’ll want to trim all the exterior fat and silverskin from your beef cheeks.

We’ll be boating these in liquid and covering with foil to ensure they don’t dry out, but there is enough collagen and fat in these to ensure they stay moist even with the heaviest of trim.

raw beef cheeks on a wooden board
Collagen and intra-muscular fat will break down during the cook

Once you’ve trimmed your cheeks, pop them in the fridge while you prepare your smoker to around 250-300°F. These are quite forgiving, so don’t worry too much about dialing in your temp exactly, but keep it within this region for best results.

Once your smoker is firing up and getting to a stable temp, lightly oil your cheeks, and apply a decent quantity of rub, but not too much.

raw beef cheeks with a rub
Aim for a nice even coating of the rub

They’re a lot smaller than a brisket, so you don’t want to overpower them, and I really love the beefy flavor to shine. 

Smoking your cheeks

The first part of the process is to get some color into your cheeks and start to develop a nice bark, so you’ll want to put them in the smoker directly on the grill.

I use Australian Ironbark for the vast majority of my cooks, purely because I cook mainly in a large offset, and it is a hot burning, very hard wood – and cheap! Cherry works exceptionally well with these, as does oak or pecan too.

Try experimenting with different woods.

Check the temp after a couple of hours – you’ll want to boat these after 2-3 hours, or until you’re happy with the color. Or you can boat at around 170 °F.

They will still be quite firm at this stage but don’t worry, they’re going to transform into beautiful, sticky, glistening, pull apart deliciousness soon enough.

Boating your cheeks 

If you’ve never heard the term ‘boat’ in the smoking sense before, it’s simply the process of part wrapping your protein in foil with liquid. The easiest way to do this, especially with multiple cheeks, is to use a disposable aluminum tray.

Place three beef cheeks into a tray and pour in around 11 oz of ginger beer.

You don’t have to be exact, you want enough ginger beer to cover around a third of the way up the beef cheeks. This amount of course will vary depending on the size of your tray.

If you like, experiment with the liquid you use too.

smoked beef cheeks in a tray with liquid
Pour in enough liquid to cover 1/3 of the way up the beef cheeks

If you don’t have ginger beer or the store is closed, use stock. Or regular beer – the stuff Uncle Bob brings over before he drinks your premium stuff.

A good stout or Porter works fantastically. Hell, even a Dr.Pepper might work! 

Once you’ve done that, Sprinkle some brown sugar over the beef cheeks, around 2 tbsp for three cheeks.

Then, cover the tray with aluminum foil and put back into the smoker for another two-three hours, or until the cheeks probe like butter, and easily pull apart.

pulled beef
Shred the cheeks directly in the liquid

The internal temp will be around 203-210°F, but cook to the probe test, NOT to temp. As with brisket, they are done when they’re done.

The temp is a guide, you can start to check the probe test from around 195-200°F. If there’s any resistance, put them back in for longer. I’ve had cheeks be ready at 195°F, and also not ready until 210°F.

Once they’re ready, you can pull them apart in the leftover liquid.

You can serve your beautiful shredded beef however you want, but keep reading for the steps to make our delicious tacos.

Making your salsa

You can start to prepare your salsa while your beef cheeks are still smoking, but hold off on the final step until just before you’re ready to serve, or you’ll end up with a horrible, watery salsa.

chopped salsa

You will need:

  • 4-5 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 small red onions
  • 1 lime
  • some garlic paste or 3 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • some olive oil
  • bunch of cilantro.

Finely dice the onions and tomatoes, and finely chop the cilantro and garlic cloves.

Combine in a large bowl, and pop back in the fridge covered in cling wrap. Just before serving, squeeze in the juice of 1 lime, and a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste, then mix and combine.

The Payoff

These beef cheeks go really well with some mashed potatoes and you can make a jus with the leftover liquid, but how I love to serve them is in tacos.

Load some pulled cheek onto a tortilla, spoon over some of that zesty, fresh salsa we made, add some finely sliced red chili or jalapeno if you like a bit of a kick, and stuff that into your hungry little mouth!

You deserve it after the wait. Serve with a cold Corona (no, not that one) and a wedge of lime. Perfection. Cheers, mate.

smoked beef cheeks taco

Smoked Beef Cheeks (Barbacoa) Tacos

5 from 2 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American, Mexican
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 6 hours
Author: Mat Cotton

Ingredients

  • 1 beef cheek per person (plus 1 spare)
  • 11 oz ginger beer
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • tortillas

For the rub:

  • 2 parts ground pepper
  • 1.5 parts kosher salt
  • 1 part garlic granules

For the salsa:

  • 4-5 ripe tomatoes (I like roma tomatoes), diced
  • 2 small red onions, finely diced
  • juice of 1 lime
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 finely chopped garlic cloves
  • bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Make the rub by combining all ingredients in a large bowl and mixing well.
  • Trim your beef cheeks of all external fat and silverskin.
  • Lightly oil cheeks and sprinkle over rub on both sides of cheeks.
  • Prepare your smoker to 250 – 300 F.
  • Smoke beef cheeks for around 3 hours, until the deep mahogany color, or 170 F.
  • Prepare your salsa by combining all ingredients, except oil and lime juice, s&p. Refrigerate until needed.
  • Boat your beef cheeks in an aluminum tray, and cover with 330 ml ginger beer, and then sprinkle 2 tbsp brown sugar per 3 beef cheeks over cheeks. Cover with aluminum foil, then put back into the smoker.
  • Smoke for a further 2-3 hours, until they probe like butter. This should be around 203 – 210 F. Rest beef cheeks.
  • Add a drizzle of olive oil and juice of 1 lime to salsa, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Pull beef cheeks and serve on tortillas with the salsa and some sliced chilli.
Mat Cotton

Mat Cotton

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