Vaca Frita -- literally translated as "fried cow" -- is my absolute favorite Cuban recipe. It takes 2 days to prepare, but hands-on time is limited and it is actually really easy to make using your slow cooker. Please do not be intimidated by this recipe! You can start this one morning and eat it for supper the next evening. First, you slow-cook the beef with tomatoes, onion, garlic, bell pepper, and spices all day. Then, you shred the beef and let it marinade with garlic, lime juice, and salt overnight. After marinating, you quickly fry the shredded meat with onion and more lime juice until it gets nice and crispy. The meat is bursting with flavor and the contrasting textures of melt-in-your-mouth tender with crispy edges is just wonderful. I'll show you how to make it with Paleo/Real Food ingredients. Look for the printable recipe and a shopping list at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!
Note: This post contains affiliate links to the products that I used to make this recipe. I only recommend products that I trust, use myself, and think you will love, too! Thanks for your support :-)
You can use many different cuts of beef for this recipe, but traditionally it is made with flank steak. You can also make it with just about any beef roast, with brisket or chuck roast working particularly well.
Prep is really fast and easy for this recipe. The most time-consuming part is peeling a whole head of garlic -- I should really try this nifty trick for peeling a whole head in 10 seconds, but I always forget. Anyway, after the garlic is peeled, you should crush each clove either with the heel of your hand or a wide chef's knife. Place roast in a 6 qt or larger slow cooker, add veggies and water, and then cook on low for about 8-12 hours, or until the meat is falling-apart tender.
Once meat is fork-tender, remove the roast and place it on a large plate or platter. Allow it to cool until you can handle it without burning yourself. You will need to discard the vegetables -- they have nothing left to give. All of their flavor is in the broth and infused into the meat. Plus, they are WAY too mushy to eat at this point.
Save the broth! Strain and freeze it to use in soup or another recipe later. It's full of flavor!
While you are waiting on the meat to cool, make the marinade in a small bowl. Use a garlic press to get about 1 heaping Tablespoon of fresh garlic. If you don't have a press, just finely mince the garlic with a knife and use a little extra. Mix garlic with 1 Tablespoon of good quality salt and squeeze in the juice of 1 or 2 limes (sometimes they aren't very juicy).
Once the roast is cool enough to handle, shred the meat using 2 forks and/or your hands. Place shredded meat into a large non-reactive bowl with an airtight lid, pour marinade on top and mix well with the beef. You may need to make a little extra depending on how large your roast is. It doesn't have to be exact.
Place the bowl in your refrigerator and allow to sit overnight for about 24 hours. If you are really pressed for time, you can let it marinade for an hour at room temp, but I don't recommend this. Note: if you use a large roast and have leftovers, there is no problem leaving the beef in the marinade for several days. I have made this recipe many times and eaten it 3-4 days in a row and the meat is totally fine.
You will need a large frying pan (I use a 12" one) and a lot of good-quality fat. You can use lard, tallow, or palm shortening. I would NOT use coconut oil, because the flavor of coconut would be too strong.
Work in small batches. Heat about 2 Tbsp of your fat of choice over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes to get it nice and hot. Spread out meat to cover about 1/2 to 3/4 of the surface area of the pan, and space the pieces out (as pictured). Let it sizzle and fry for several minutes on each side. As it is cooking, I like to use 2 forks to pull apart the meat even more (it is easier to shred it into small pieces while cooking than immediately after removing from the slow cooker). DO NOT crowd the beef in the pan or else it will steam rather than fry and the texture will not turn out correctly.
After about 5-8 minutes of cooking, add 1/3 or 1/2 of a chopped onion. Continue to stir frequently and fry until the onion is softened, about 3-5 minutes. I recommend using a stainless steel spatula so you can scrape up any crunch bits that try to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add additional fat as needed to keep everything well oiled. Total cooking time should be between 10 and 15 minutes, and the end result should be darkened, crispy beef and soft onions (see photo above).
If you are just cooking for one, you're done! If not, set aside and cook up additional batches as needed. Before serving, add all the beef and onions back to the pan and let them cook over medium heat for several minutes, stirring frequently, so everything is piping hot. Squeeze some fresh lime juice on top just before serving.
Pairs well with the following side dishes:
- Tostones (twice fried green plantains)
- Platanos Maduros (fried sweet ripe plantains)
- Couve a Mineira (garlicky Brazilian collard greens)
Slow Cooker Cuban Vaca Frita
Prep time: 20-30 minutes
Cook time: 8 - 12 hours
Total time: 8:20 - 12:30 hours
Ingredients for Slow Cooker
- 3-4 lb grass-fed beef (brisket, chuck roast, or flank steak)
- 4-6 roma tomatoes
- 2 onions (any color)
- 2-3 bell peppers (any color)
- 1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
- 3-4 dried bay leaves
- 2-3 tsp spice mix ("Sazon" substitute, recipe below)
- filtered/purified water for cooking
"Sazon" spice mix (to avoid MSG and excessive refined salt in the pre-packaged kind
- 1 part garlic powder
- 1 part dried coriander (substitute dried parsley if for some reason you can't find it)
- 1 part paprika powder
- 1 part ground cumin
- 1/2 part unrefined sea or Himalayan salt
- 1 heaping Tbsp fresh pressed or minced garlic
- 1 Tbsp unrefined sea or Himalayan salt
- Juice of 1-2 limes (depending on how juicy they are)
Ingredients for Frying
- Shredded marinated beef
- several Tbsp cooking fat (lard, palm shortening, or tallow -- NOT coconut oil
- 1 onion, sliced or chopped
- 1-2 limes, quartered
- Thaw roast in fridge about 2 days before you want to cook it.
- Gather all ingredients for the slow cooker. Place thawed roast in your slow cooker's crock. Coarsely chop all vegetables (onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes) and add them. Peel garlic and crush each clove using the heel of your hand or the broad side of a chef's knife and add to crock.
- Make "Sazon" spice mix. To make just enough for this recipe, use 1/2 tsp each of the garlic powder, dried culantro or parsley, paprika powder, and ground cumin and 1/4 tsp of salt. Or, make a larger batch to use in other recipes. It's a great all-purpose Latin seasoning. Sprinkle over ingredients in crock and then add filtered/purified water to cover ingredients.
- Set slow cooker to low and cook for 8-12 hours, or until meat is falling apart tender (able to shred with a fork).
- Carefully remove roast from your slow cooker and place it on a large plate or platter to cool. Strain broth and freeze for a soup or other recipe (don't throw it away!). Discard vegetables.
- While you wait for the roast to cool, make the marinade. Press or mince the garlic into a small bowl and mix with salt and fresh-squeezed lime juice.
- Once roast is cool enough to handle, use 2 forks to shred the meat. Place shredded meat in a large non-reactive bowl, then pour marinade on top and mix well with the meat. Make additional marinade if necessary. Cover bowl with an air-tight lid and place in refrigerator overnight (about 24 hours). Note: If you made a large roast and will be eating leftovers for a few days, do not worry about leaving the beef in the marinade. I have eaten beef that has been sitting in this marinade for 4 days and it tastes absoultely delicious.
- Work in small batches. Heat about 2 Tbsp of your fat of choice over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Spread out meat to cover about 1/2 to 3/4 of the surface area of the pan, and space the pieces out (as pictured). Let it sizzle and fry for several minutes on each side. As it is cooking, I like to use 2 forks to pull apart the meat into even smaller pieces that get crispier. DO NOT crowd the beef in the pan or else it will steam rather than fry and the texture will not turn out correctly.
- After about 5-8 minutes of cooking, add 1/3 or 1/2 of a chopped onion. Continue to stir frequently and fry until the onion is softened, about 3-5 minutes. I recommend using a stainless steel spatula so you can scrape up any crunch bits that try to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add additional fat as needed to keep everything well oiled. Total cooking time should be between 10 and 15 minutes, and the end result should be darkened, crispy beef and soft onions (see photo).
- If you are just cooking for one, you're done! If not, set aside and cook up additional batches as needed. Before serving, add all the beef and onions back to the pan and let them cook over medium heat for several minutes, stirring frequently, so everything is piping hot. Squeeze some fresh lime juice on top just before serving and garnish with an additional lime wedge. Enjoy!
Where to Buy Tools and Ingredients
The following links for products that I used in this recipe are from my affiliate partners. My full affiliate disclosure is here. I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, but you pay the same price as everyone else. I appreciate your support and I only recommend products that I personally use and love and think you will like, too! Thanks so much for your support.
- Hamilton Beach 6 qt Slow Cooker
- Ball Freezer-Safe Canning Jars
- Reusable Canning Lids (I love these so much!)
- the Tim Ferriss-recommended Kuhn Rikon Garlic Press
- Real Salt or Himalayan Salt
- Pyrex storage bowls with lids
- Tropical Traditions palm shortening
- US Wellness Meats Brisket, Chuck, or Flank Steak
- US Wellness Meats lard or tallow
- Wusthof Classic 8" Cook's Knife
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