Strands of delicious flank steak get fried to crisp perfection in this Vaca Frita recipe. Alongside Ropa Vieja, this dish is synonymous with Cuban cuisine and happens to be a personal favourite of mine. It’s incredibly easy to prepare, requires only a few ingredients, can be made ahead of time, and can be adapted to feed large crowds. It also happens to be Paleo, Whole30-compliant and gluten-free, making it great no matter which program you’re following.
What is Vaca Frita?
Vaca Frita literally translates to “fried cow” in Spanish. It’s most often made with flank steak, but can also be prepared with brisket, chuck roast or any inexpensive cut of beef that can be shredded. It’s a staple in Cuban cuisine and normally served with rice, beans, yuca, maduros or tostones.
How do you Make Vaca Frita?
Depending on the family recipe, you’ll find small variations in the dish, but the basic preparation for vaca frita is almost always the same.
The beef is first boiled, then shredded and fried in oil with onions. Some people marinate the beef in mojo (a garlic, sour orange, lime and oil mixture) first, others season it with dry seasonings, and others do neither.
When it comes to boiling, aromatics are almost always added to the liquid to flavour the meat. Usually it’s onions, garlic, bay leaves and lime juice. Sometimes white wine is added, other times green bell peppers.
As for frying, onions are a usual suspect. They add flavour and also juiciness that helps balance the crispy strands of beef. Sometimes garlic and additional seasonings, such as cumin or adobo, can make an appearance. Again, it’s all about the family recipe.
Typically, the onions are fried first and then the beef is added. Personally, I prefer to reverse the order because I find that the beef gets crispier this way and the onions don’t break down as much.
White rice and black beans are a staple Cuban side dish. They may not be Paleo or Whole30 compliant, but they’re delicious and may be something you want to experiment with in your Food Freedom.
For Paleo and Whole30 options, you can try my tostones (twice-fried plantains), fried sweet plantains (called maduros), or boiled yucca. I also love to serve vaca frita with some ripe slices of avocado! Yum!
What you Need
As mentioned, flank steak is the most common cut used, but brisket, chuck roast or any inexpensive cut of beef that can be shredded will also work. Of course, the thicker the cut, the longer it will take to boil before it becomes tender.
To flavour the beef as it boils, add aromatics to the water. I use onion, garlic, green bell pepper, bay leaves, and whole peppercorns. Since the beef is marinated in salt before boiling and then seasoned with salt while it fries, I don’t think it’s necessary to add salt to the water.
Stock Pot or Sauté Pan
Cast-Iron or Stainless-Steel Frying Pan
You’ll need a frying pan to finish the vaca frita. I recommend a cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet because it’s best to fry the beef over high heat. This will achieve a crispy crust on the meat without damaging the pan.
Vaca Frita - Whole30, Paleo
- 1.5 pounds flank steak cut into 2 inch strips *with the grain
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 green bell pepper – quartered
- 2 medium yellow onions 1 halved, 1 thinly sliced
- 8 cloves garlic 5 left whole, 3 finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 3 tablespoons avocado oil
- Season the flank steak with salt, garlic powder and pepper. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate anywhere from 1 hour to overnight.
- In a cold stock pot or sauté pan, combine the flank steak, green pepper, halved onion, whole garlic cloves, bay leaves, lime juice, and peppercorns. Cover with water and place over high heat to bring to a boil. Drop the heat to medium-high to maintain a steady simmer and cook, adding more water if too much evaporates in the process, until the meat can be easily shredded with a fork, 1.5 to 2 hours.
- Transfer the meat to a bowl and let cool. Strain the cooking liquid and reserve. Using your hands or two forks, shred the meat into thin strings. Set aside.
- Preheat a cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add avocado oil and heat until shimmering. Add the shredded meat to the hot oil in a single layer and cook, undisturbed, until a crust forms, around 2 minutes. Add the onions and garlic, season with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until the onions are slightly soft and translucent, around 4 minutes. Add ¼ cup of the reserved stock and stir to coat (remaining stock can be frozen for up to 6 months). Taste the vaca frita for seasoning, adjust with salt as desired, and serve immediately.