Food52sdays (Wednesday Edition): Beef Cheek and Cabbage Tacos

beef cheek tacos

Incredibly good. Oh!

Wow. Wow-wow-wow. You need to stop whatever you are doing and go purchase some beef cheeks. If you already own beef cheeks, what are you waiting for?!  This was one of the Tastiest Things Ever.

Cheeks are great because a)they’re cheap and b)they are really flavorful.  The harder the work the muscle does, the tougher but more flavorful it is. And cheeks are busy. All that chewing.  Don’t believe me? Just go look at a cow. Odds are, no matter what else he or she is busy doing–swatting flies, wandering, daydreaming, being milked, cogitating or tipping–that cow will also be chewing. Busy jaws. Busy cheek muscles.

beef cheeks

Does this look tender to you? No, it does not. But, from this...

So how can you take a ridiculously tough cut of meat with all manner of connective tissues, membranes and fats marbled throughout and turn it into magically tender and flavorful food? Well, you can’t. But your stove or oven can.  Low, moist heat applied over a Very Long Time will break down all that connective tissue so that eventually, that tough hunk of cheek falls apart when you just barely touch it with a fork. Trust me. It will happen.

braised beef cheeks get this. My-oh-my.

As with the recipe inspiration, I went in a Mexican Direction with my flavors. Initially I was going to go Thai-ish with green chile paste and coconut milk and What Not, but we found traditional Mexican sour cream at the International Foods grocery, and I quickly changed my mind.

You can take your flavors in whatever direction you want, too.  Go French by using red wine and beef stock for your braising liquid. Go good old American by going with onion soup mix and beef stock.  Give a nod to the Italians by making it like osso bucco and serving with some gremolata.

Serve it with steamed vegetables, or over gnocchi or pasta.  Pair it with Israeli cous cous. Or spaetzle.  Or mashed potatoes.  The thing is that within reason, there’s no bad way to make this.  Just remember, a ton of time in a very low oven in a moist environment will yield the Tenderness you Seek. And all you have to do is sleep on it.

beef cheek tacos

Simple garnish of guac, Mexican sour cream, red onions in lime juice and fresh cilantro.

Like I said, I stayed in Mexico with my version. Here’s what I did. It was awesome, so make it this way if it sounds good to you. Otherwise, just remember the formula:

Tough, cheap meat + yummy liquid + time and low heat = tender goodness

Beef Cheek and Cabbage Tacos
Recipe type: Main
I added half a head of cabbage to the mix during the last couple of hours of the braise because it was staring at me sullenly from the crisper drawer. I highly recommend this, whether or not your cabbage is sullen. It added a sweet, earthiness that played nicely with the rich meat. Remember, this is what [em]I[/em] did, so don't feel that you need to follow it to the letter. I used 4 pounds of beef cheeks, and it made a Very Ton. Use this in tacos, burritos, over rice, layered into a Mexican lasagna or in any other ways that sound good to you. Don't limit yourself to tacos.
What You Need
For the Marinade
  • 12 large dried peppers, your choice (I used 4 each of three kinds)
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • lots of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon dark cocoa powder
  • 1 Tablespoon grated piloncillo (or just use brown sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 small sweet onion
  • ¼ cup vinegar (I used garlic-infused rice wine vinegar because it sounded good)
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • a heavy pinch of kosher salt (you can add more later)
For the Cheeks
  • 3-4 pounds beef cheeks
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral oil
  • kosher salt, to taste
  • 1 dark lager, such as Negro Modelo or Dos Equis Dark
  • ½ cabbage, divided into 2 wedges, top to bottom (optional)
Taco Fixin's
  • your favorite taco-sized tortillas (we used corn tortillas)
  • diced red onion
  • lime juice
  • Mexican sour cream (if you can find it)
  • cilantro
  • your favorite guacamole
What To Do
For the Marinade
  1. De-stem all the chiles, get rid of most of the seeds and tear into pieces.
  2. Add all the other marinade ingredients [em]except the tumeric[/em] into a medium sauce pan.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for ten minutes.
  4. Pour the marinade into your blender. Make sure it is no more than half full. Puree until smooth. *Be careful when blending hot liquids. Cover the blender loosely with a towel rather than snapping the lid on. Start on low speed and then increase the speed until the marinade is smooth.
  5. Pour into a bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water and stir to cool quickly.
For the Cheeks
  1. Pat the cheeks dry. Score them all over in a criss-cross pattern to a depth of about ¼".
  2. Place the cheeks in a gallon-sized zip-top bag and pour over the cooled marinade.
  3. Press out as much air as you can, and zip the bag closed.
  4. Place in a container and marinate in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours.
  5. When you're ready to cook, preheat the oven to 225F.
  6. Heat a large, oven-safe Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  7. While the pan is heating. Remove the cheeks from the marinade, scraping off as much marinade as you can.
  8. Dry the cheeks off as well as you can--they'll brown better that way--and reserve the marinade. Sprinkle fairly liberally with kosher salt.
  9. When the pan is hot, add the oil and then brown the cheeks on all sides.
  10. Pour in the marinade and the beer and bring to a gentle boil.
  11. Let boil for about 5 minutes, just to cook off some of the alcohol.
  12. Cover the pan tightly and put it in the oven.
  13. Go to bed or work or shopping or whatever, and let the tasty marinade, time and low temperature work their magic.
  14. If you're using extra vegetables, such as my sullen cabbage, add them during the last hour or two of cooking.
  15. With two forks (you'll really only need one--it'll be [em]that[/em] tender--shred the meat into as small a thread as you want. Or leave it in chunks. It will fall apart anyway.
  16. Serve now, or better yet:
  17. Let the meat cool in the cooking liquid--speed up the process by using an ice bath again. Or let sit at room temperature for about an hour, stirring occasionally to cool and then put in the freezer. Once the meat has cooled down significantly, refrigerate the whole shebang. Cooling and reheating is always a welcome step to a braise as these meals always taste better the next day.
  18. Reheat over medium-low heat.
  19. Once the meat is nice and hot, pour everything through a large strainer set over another pot. Press down on the solids.
  20. If you used cabbage, go ahead and chop it up into bit-sized pieces.
  21. Cover and reserve the meat.
  22. Bring the strained cooking liquid to a boil and reduce by half, until somewhat thickened and a bit syrupy.
  23. Reintroduce the meat and cabbage to the sauce and make sure it's nice and hot.
  24. Assemble your tacos as you See Fit, and enjoy.
Other Stuff to Know
I made rice in chicken stock flavored with lime juice and then folded in a bunch of cilantro after the rice was done. Very tasty, but make what you like.

Wanna see the marinade? Okay.

marinade for beef cheeks tacos

Everyone goes in the pool...

marinade for beef cheeks tacos

...boils for about ten minutes...

marinade for beef cheeks tacos

...and then gets pureed.

I know that looks like a Very Lot to do, but please don’t shy away. Embrace the cheeks. But, if you just can’t see eating face, use your favorite braising cut–the one you like to use for pot roast. Because really, that’s all this is. The best, most meltingly tender pot roast ever!

If you’ve cooked along, please let me know in the comments and/or feel free to post on the facebook wall.  And tell me, if you’ve never had beef cheeks before, does this inspire you to give them a try?

Thanks, and have a lovely day.





  1. says

    Beef cheek tacos are my absolute favorites!!!  The cheek meat is just melt-in-your-mouth tender.  And I love that you added cabbage to the mix.  I usually top my tacos with shredded raw cabbage, so I’m sure the cooked cabbage is absolutely delicious too. 🙂  

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