Venison Barbacoa

4.94 from 136 votes
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Venison barbacoa with all the accompaniments
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

OK folks, here it is: The best recipe for a deer’s front shoulder I’ve yet to find: Venison barbacoa.

This is a classic Mexican barbacoa, a mildly spicy, long-braised variant on barbecue works perfectly with the tough, sinewy front legs on a deer, or really any animal. Historically I’ve mostly used front legs for stew and for grinding, but this is even better. The meat cooks very slowly, and all that connective tissue dissolves into the broth and makes everything richer and just a little slick. Keeps your lips shiny.

Barbacoa, if you’ve never had it, is more warming than picante. Yes, there are chipotles in adobo in it, which can be bought in every Latin market I’ve ever been in, but not so many that your head blows off. The cloves are a stronger element, as are the cumin and bay.

If you want to test this recipe before making it, go to your nearest Chipotle restaurant and try their barbacoa: my venison barbacoa is virtually identical.

Serve it in tacos, burritos or over rice. And be sure to have at least a few of the traditional accompaniments, like cilantro, crumbled queso seco cheese, chopped onions, sour cream, fresh or pickled chiles, avocados — basically anything that works well on a taco.

You can buy chipotles in adobo in many supermarkets, and definitely in Latin markets or online. Oh, and read closely: My barbacoa recipe calls for 2 to 4 chiles in adobo, not cans of chiles en adobo! Many have made that mistake to their peril…

Still not convinced? Well, barbacoa may well be in the Top 5 Easiest Recipes on this website. It’s literally a crockpot-it-and-go dish. Minimal chopping, and the only thing you need to do as a cook is to shred the meat.

Want to up your barbacoa game even more? Smoke your venison neck, shanks or shoulder first. Real simple, just salt it well let it sit overnight, then smoke it for a few hours at about 200°F. Then proceed with the recipe. You’re welcome. No, seriously, doing this makes your barbacoa smack-yo-momma-in-the-face good!

Stupid crazy easy. Try it and you will not be sad. If you want a hot-weather variant of this recipe, try my Venison Yucatan.

One more thing: This stuff reheats beautifully, so make a big batch.

venison barbacoa with all the accompaniments
4.94 from 136 votes

Venison Barbacoa

This is maybe the best recipe ever for the front shoulders of deer, which can be sinewy and tough to deal with. Cooking with this method really lets nature take its course, and all that connective tissue will dissolve and the meat will be super tender. But it will still be really lean, so I add about 1/4 cup of lard, bear fat or duck fat to the shredded venison before I serve. You would use olive or vegetable oil. Of course, if you use fatty meats like beef or lamb or pork, you won't need to do this.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mexican
Servings: 6 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 3 hours 20 minutes


  • 2 to 3 pounds venison, from the shoulder or legs
  • 2 to 4 chipotles in adobo, canned
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup lime juice
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • 1 quart beef or venison stock
  • 1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
  • Smoked salt (optional)
  • Cilantro, shredded cheese, sour cream, avocados and hot sauce for garnish


  • Put everything in a slow cooker or Dutch oven and cook, covered, until the meat falls off the bone, which will be between 2 hours (for many domestic meats and young deer) and 6 hours if you have a very old animal. If you use a slow cooker, set it to “high.” If you use a regular pot, put it into the oven set to 300°F.
  • Pull all the meat from the bones and shred with forks or your fingers. Stir in the lard and as much smoked salt as you want. You want the lard or oil to coat the shreds of meat. Pour over some of the juices from the pot and put the meat in a pan for the table. Serve with tacos, in a burrito or on a bun.


Have lots of accompaniments for your barbacoa: It's a base for a meal, the do-it-yourself construction of your tacos is more than half the fun!


Calories: 126kcal | Carbohydrates: 8g | Protein: 4g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Cholesterol: 1mg | Sodium: 1543mg | Potassium: 380mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 2g | Vitamin A: 424IU | Vitamin C: 8mg | Calcium: 29mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

4.94 from 136 votes (32 ratings without comment)

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  1. This recipe is delicious and one of my favorite things to do with shoulders, neck, etc. Absolutely worth doing. You may never grind a shoulder again.

    I’ve made this recipe for years, but I just tried smoking it beforehand for the first time. It definitely adds an extra layer and I’ll do it again, although the chipotles themselves add some smokiness so maybe not a game changer. I’ve also made it in an instantpot with decent success, but it does seem like the spices cook in a little differently and it’s harder to hit that exact combination of tender and moist. It’s best with a long slow braise, just make it the night before or on the weekend.

  2. Make this annually for a family vacation, and it always slaps. This recipe is a big motivator to sit it out in the deer stand when things are slow

    1. Amanda: No, sorry. It’s essence is the long, slow cooking of cuts like shoulder, shank or neck.

  3. I don’t know if I can describe how good this recipe turns out, a neck roast, I up to a full can of adobo, and warm the tortillas in the leftover liquid birria style. Top with onion cilantro and jalapeño. It’s literally the best taco. 5 stars

  4. I just made this for the first time with my buck I got in November 2023. I used the neck portion of meat. I just have one thing to say; it is VERY clove forward with the 1 tsp portion recommended. Like another comment also mentioned, I would try to cut it in half next time. An interesting take on deer, though!
    Tangy, zesty, spicy and sweet with lots of spice wrapped in. More spice forward than hot.

  5. This is a Hall of Fame recipe especially for those who “don’t like venison” or complicated recipes. If there is a downside it’s the smaller amount of burger you get from your deer or elk since the shanks, neck and shoulder are perfect for this.
    I do question the Nutrition label. 4 gms of protein?? Serving size must be a teaspoon which is definitely not my serving size.

  6. Amazing flavor. We had a cow elk that was of voting age and this roast could have gone a full 8 hours. Not quite shredable at dinner time so it got chopped. Flavors were beautiful, accompaniments were spot on and I served with a cilantro rice. For anyone that thinks elk or venison is gamey, this should be a go-to hands down!

  7. Really delicious, but I had to increase the spices and add coriander. The directions say to add everything to the slow cooker, so I added the oil, but that shouldn’t have been added until it was done, like the cilantro.
    Thank you – this redeemed a tough roast I had made that was full of gristle. It made the gristle soft, edible, and nutritious.

  8. this is one of my go to recipes for white tail shank now. I have also done a whole shoulder. I love to save the leftover drippings and liquid to use as a chili base. I freeze it to use later and the gelatinous drippings make some of the best chili I have ever eaten. I don’t even add meat, just loads of beans, peppers, and onions.

  9. Hi Hank, I have five lamb shanks and one neck that I’m going to use for this recipe. My question is, what is the function of so much vinegar and lime juice? Does that help tenderize the meat or is it just for flavor? I am thinking a half cup of each might be a little tangy for our tastes so I might dial it back a bit, but wanted to make sure it wouldn’t negatively affect the texture or anything. Thanks! Really looking forward to trying this!!

  10. If you are going to put in fridge or freezer for later would you coat the meat with oil before or after freezing/fridge?

  11. I shot a deer in Wisconsin last weekend and have one of the front shoulders ready to smoke up, and this recipe seems like the perfect fit. I’ve followed this recipe previously with an elk roast, but am curious to know if after smoking the intact front shoulder, would you recommend removing the meat from the bones and then crockpotting, or just cut at the joints and put everything in the crockpot until the meat can be pulled off?

    1. Tony: I would put the whole thing in the crockpot, if it fits. If not, just hack away until it does. Then pull the meat after it’s cooked a while.

  12. Love this recipe. My wife and I both harvested a deer this past October during archery season, so we have a good supply of venison to work with. I did make a few substitutions/additions………added a few cubes of beef tallow, cut back on the cloves a bit, and added some ground ancho peppers. Squeezed a little lime juice over each taco when serving, along with a few drops of Marie Sharp’s Beliize hot sauce. Turned out great, my wife and I both loved it. Going to make it again in a couple weeks when the grandsons are here. Thanks, Hank! PS – looking forward to your future Minnesota-based recipes and work. We live in the U.P. of Michigan, and are avid foragers, hunters, fishermen, and gardeners. Love to forage for mushrooms in our area, especially oysters.

  13. Curious if this is just the upper arm/shoulder or does it include the lower arm too? Planning to make this in a few days with my antelope so wanted to make sure.

      1. Ok thanks. Would you adjust the ingredients for different amounts? Does the recipe for 2 to 3 pounds include the bones?

    1. I made this tonight on recommendation from a from a friend. it was great. my deer was a young doe and it definitely required more than 2 hours in the crock pot on hi. I transferred it to the instant pot for 30 mins. the venison turned out great! next time I would reduce the cloves and cut the vinegar/ lime juice in half. A bit sour.

    2. I had a lot of venison odds and ends given to me (chops, round steak and a roast. I wanted to use as much as possible as soon as possible and this recipe was definitely the right choice. I used the dried chiles I had on hand instead of going to the grocery store. The liquid in the crock pot was perfect for cooking and dipping the tacos. It was absolutely amazing used for birria style tacos.

  14. This recipe is so fabulous. Flavors are superb. I used my Dutch oven at 300°F.l for 2 hrs. Braised the elk roast. Used banana peppers from my garden rather than green chili’s and shallots rather than red onion. Omitted the tbsp salt and used beef bullion. Blended all the solids and juice. Then added the lard to the sauce with the shredded Elk. Served on flour tortilla with shredded Colby jack, radishes ans their greens from my garden.

  15. I made this for a wedding reception attended by a group of 10+ young adults. Minutes after we arrived, one of the youngsters discovered the venison barbacoa, and went to tell the others. Next thing I saw was a small army of twenty year olds marching towards the dish. It was gone in 10 minutes (and I doubled the portion). The scene of the feeding frenzy was priceless. I’m doing it again for our daughter’s graduation party this weekend.