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.