Time to get cooking another Cuban favorite… Vaca Frita!! It’s very straight forward, and tastes so delicious.
Flank steak is slowly stewed for hours and tenderized. But we are not stopping there. Once the meat is fork tender, shred it and fry it to crispy perfection with lots of garlic and lime.
Now you will learn, my friends, why this classic recipe is a big staple in Cuban cuisine…
Lot of people know Ropa Vieja, a very popular Cuban National dish, which has a similar concept of braising the meat for a long time and shredding it in the end.
Now Vaca Frita might not be as well known as Ropa, but it delivers bold garlicky, citrusy Cuban flavors in perfectly seasoned and well cooked meat.
One bite and you are going to completely fall in love with this unique Cuban dish.
Vaca Frita is a Great Cuban Recipe, Why?
- It delivers the great Cuban flavors. The perfect balance of garlic and citrus with tender meat that is crisped up a bit. It may be something that you’ve never tried before, making it a very novel dinner idea.
- Only a few pantry staple ingredients are all you need to make Vaca Frita.
- Most of the cook time is done when the meat is simmering on its own, needing minimum attention from you during the process. In the end, it finishes with a quick fry in the pan. Yes, it takes long time to tenderize the meat, but the result is well worth that time.
- You can serve it in many different ways. We will tell you all later in the post.
What is Vaca Frita?
Vaca Frita is a very traditional and classic dish out of Cuba. It’s basically crispy shredded beef. Vaca Frita literally translates to “fried cow”.
The concept here is pretty basic. It all starts with mostly flank or skirt steak that is simmered low and slow until it is fork tender. The second part of the process is shedding the meat and frying it crispy in oil with plenty of garlic and lime.
It is topped with sautéed onions, and sometimes bell peppers too. It’s normally served during their special occasions and get togethers. Rice and black beans, along with plantains or tostones, are great accompaniments to Vaca Frita.
Like Ropa Vieja, it originated in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago located just off the western coast of north Africa.
It is believed that these slow braised beef recipes became popular in the plantations where slaves were given the toughest cuts of meat. And there started the story of how you can turn a not so palatable cut of meat into something flavorful and tender, by simply braising it slow and low and shredding it in some sauce in the end, or frying it… Pretty incredible!!
Vaca Frita was brought to the United States by Cuban immigrants. Its rich flavors and unique name has made it a favorite in the US, especially in Miami and other southern cities that host a large Cuban population.
Vaca Frita Ingredients
- Steak – Traditionally flank or skirt steak is used for vaca frita, as they shred well. You can use chuck roast as well, if that’s what you prefer or is what’s available.
- To season the steak – Garlic, onion, cumin, oregano, adobo, lime, black pepper, olive oil.
- Flavor enhancers – Cilantro and thyme.
- For frying – Olive oil, Spanish onion, garlic.
- Final seasoning – Lots of fresh lime juice.
How to Make Vaca Frita
Since Vaca Frita is such an iconic and popular Cuban dish, the cooking process varies slightly from one house to the next. Some people season the meat before boiling it, some give a miss to the seasoning in the beginning. Some like to sear the meat before simmering it, some don’t.
We personally believe in lots of seasonings and flavors, and always prefer to sear meat before putting it in a stew pot for braising. It might seem like an extra step, but it’s so well worth it when you see the final result. Here is how we make our version of Cuban Shredded Beef:
1. Season the steak: Cut the flank steak into 4-5 large pieces. Season the meat with the seasoning ingredients and mix well until all the steak pieces are coated all over. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator at least for 4 hours, or overnight.
2. Sear the steak: Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over medium high flame. Once the oil is hot, sear the meat pieces, browning them all over. (Do not discard the marinade)
3. Boil/simmer the steak: Once you get some color on the meat, add in water till the meat is submerged, along with the remaining marinade, cilantro and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium low, cover and cook for 2.5 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Check on it from time to time, making sure that the water hasn’t dried up. If the water is evaporating and the meat is getting exposed, add in a little more water to keep the meat submerged.
4. Shred the steak: Once the meat is tender, take it out in a big bowl and shred it with the help of forks. Add ¼ cup of the braising liquid to the shredded beef. Mix well.
5. Fry the shredded steak: In a wide frying pan, heat 3-4 Tbsp olive oil and sauté sliced onion for 10-15 minutes, until it starts caramelizing. Add in sliced garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Move the onions to the periphery and add the shredded meat to the middle of the pan.
Fry it undisturbed for 4-5 minutes over medium high heat. You can press down on the meat with a spatula to crisp it up a bit. Flip and pan-fry the other side of the meat for another 4 minutes, pressing down with a spatula, until the meat is sizzling and crisp, making sure it does not to burn, but just has brown crispy edges. Sometimes adding a little extra oil helps crisp the meat beautifully.
By this point, you can mix in the meat with the onion and garlic mixture. Cook till the meat is crisp to your liking. You can add a little bit of leftover braising liquid (about 2-4 tablespoons) to the meat for extra flavor. Serve immediately with a good dose of lime juice all over.
Tips and Tricks for the Best Vaca Frita
- If you want to make vaca frita quicker, you can always use a pressure cooker or instant pot to tenderize the meat. Normally, you can do that in 40-45 minutes in your instant pot or pressure cooker.
- When searing the meat, don’t overcrowd the pan, as it would just steam rather than browning and crisping up.
- When it comes to Cuban food, there is no such thing as “too much garlic”. Do not skimp on garlic unless you are not fan of it. But then again, you wouldn’t be looking for Cuban food… 🙂
- Use plenty of fresh lime juice to bring all of the flavors together.
- Very often, they use green bell peppers along with onions. If you want to bulk up this dish further, sauté sliced onion and bell peppers together.
What and How to Serve Vaca Frita
- Traditionally, Vaca Frita is served topped with sautéed onions and sometimes bell peppers. It is then served along with with rice and black beans.
- Fried plantains like tostones or maduros are great with this crispy fried shredded beef.
- You can serve vaca frita in tacos, burritos, or burrito bowls.
What is the Difference Between Vaca Frita and Ropa Vieja ?
Vaca Frita is actually very similar to the dish Ropa Vieja, which means “old tattered clothes” in Spanish. Yes, they have very funny translations, don’t they?
Both dishes are made with shredded beef like flank or skirt steak, or even brisket or chuck roast. However, Ropa Veija is stewed and tenderized in a tomato based sauce with lot of seasonings, then shredded in the sauce.
Vaca Frita, on the other hand, is cooked twice. Once when the meat is stewed or boiled, and again once it’s shredded and lightly fried to perfection with onions, garlic, and lime.
Storage and Meal Prep Ideas
Leftover vaca frita can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days, in an airtight container. Simply reheat it on stovetop in a skillet over medium high heat with a dash of oil to make it crispy and warmed through.
Cooked vaca frita freezes beautifully too. You can freeze it up to 3 months in a freezer bag, or in an airtight container.
It is a great meal prep option, too. You can cook a huge batch of vaca frita and store it in individual portions. Here, we suggest dividing it into two processes. Boil the meat, shred it and store it in separate individual freezer bags. When ready for a meal, thaw it over night in the fridge, then simply crisp it up with oil on stovetop in minutes.
If you are fan of Latin food, you must try this amazingly tasty Cuban restaurant special, Vaca Frita!! Simple, easy, humble ingredients can create magic when cooked right, and without skimping on those few ingredients that go in this dish.
Lets us know if you turn into a new fan of this “Fried Cow”, aka Cuban Vaca Frita…
Vaca Frita, on our Gypsy Plate… enjoy!
Seasonings for steak
- 2 pounds flank steak
- 5 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 Tbsp adobo
- 1 lime, juiced
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- Handful of cilantro
- 5-6 sprigs of thyme (optional)
- Water to cover beef
- 3-4 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large white or Spanish onion, sliced
- 6-8 garlic cloves, sliced
- Limes, to serve
- Cut the flank steak into 4-5 large pieces. Season the meat with all the seasoning ingredients and mix well until the steak pieces are coated all over. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least for 4 hours, or overnight.
- Heat olive oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat. Once the oil is hot, sear the meat pieces, browning them all over. (Do not discard the marinade)
- Once you get some color on the meat, add in water till the meat gets submerged, along with the rest of the marinade, cilantro and thyme.
- Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover and cook the meat for 2.5 to 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Check from time to time making sure that the water hasn’t dried up. If water is evaporating and the meat is getting exposed, add in a little more water to keep the meat submerged.
- Once the meat is tender, take it out in a big bowl and shred it with the help of two forks. Add ¼ cup of the braising liquid to the shredded meat. Mix well.
- In a wide frying pan, heat 3-4 Tbsp olive oil and sauté sliced onion for 10-15 minutes, until it starts caramelizing. Add in sliced garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Move the onions to the periphery and add shredded meat to the middle of the pan. Fry it undisturbed for 4-5 minutes over medium high heat. Press down on the meat with a spatula to crisp it up a bit. Flip and pan-fry the other side of the meat for another 4 minutes, again pressing down with a spatula, until the meat is sizzling and crisp. Sometimes adding a little extra oil helps crisp the meat beautifully. (See note 1)
- Mix in meat with the onion and garlic mixture. Cook till the meat is crisp up to your liking. You can add little bit of leftover braising liquid (about 2-4 Tbsp) to the meat for extra flavor.
- Serve immediately with a good dose of lime juice all over.
- You can fry the shredded meat and onion separately in two pans, and serve it separately, or arrange the sautéed onions on top of the meat. This is a great way to control how much you want to crisp up the meat or caramelize the onions to your liking.
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