This ultimate version of one of Cuba’s most famous dishes, this Ropa Vieja recipe is positively PACKED with flavor!! A myriad of flavorful ingredients and spices come together to make this dish truly unforgettable. Make a double batch while you’re at it and you’ll be glad you have the leftovers!
What is Ropa Vieja?
Shredded beef and vegetables that resemble a heap of colorful rags – that’s Ropa Vieja. From the Spanish term for “old clothes”, this is one of Cuba’s most popular and beloved dishes. So popular in fact that it’s one of the country’s designated national dishes.
This dish dates back to the Middle Ages of Spanish Sephardi, a loose adaptation of a dish that remains popular in southern and central Spain. Traditionally it was a way to stretch the leftovers of stews such as puchero or cocida, both of which are garbanzo-based dishes as is the original Spanish version of Ropa Vieja. This dish was later taken to Cuba where the Cubans made it their own.
Central in this dish are beef and tomatoes, both naturally umami-rich ingredients. Added to that are zesty bell peppers, caramelized onions, and to that we’re going to add some additional ingredients and spices that will make your taste buds sing with joy!
What is the Best Cut of Beef for Ropa Vieja?
Traditionally Ropa Vieja is made with flank steak. Have a look around the internet at all the ropa vieja recipes and virtually all of them call for flank. That piqued my curiosity because here’s the thing: Flank steak is from the bottom hard-working muscle area of the cow (ie, very lean/very little fat) so it not only has less flavor than some other cuts of beef, it’s also notoriously tough.
Because of its low fat content, flank steak is best suited to very quick, high heat cooking, like grilling. It’s not the best choice for braising or slow cooking because without the fat content and connective tissue it dries out during the cooking process. For all of these reasons flank steak used to be one of the cheaper cuts of beef. But in recent years the price has sky-rocketed and in many places is double the cost of chuck.
But flank still continues to be used in nearly all ropa vieja recipes out of tradition because of its shape – the grains of the cut yield long strands of shredded beef resembling the dish’s namesake, torn clothing.
© Paul Cowan | Dreamstime
Flank steak is unique in that respect with those long tough strands. But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice tenderness, flavor or cost for the sake of having long shreds of beef. So I went to three different butcher shops and chatted with their butchers. First I wanted to see their reaction when I told them I was looking for flank steak for a low and slow-cooked dish. All three raised their eyebrows and asked me why on earth I’d want flank steak for that. They all shook their heads and said that, hands down, the best choice for slow-cooked shredded beef was chuck. Better texture, better flavor and at nearly half the price of flank.
Chuck works so well for slow cooking because the long cooking time over low heat breaks down the cartilage, melts the fat and keeps the beef moist while also adding a ton of extra flavor. It’s by far the most popular beef cut of choice for slow cooking and shredding.
So what about the aesthetics element, those long strands of beef you get from the flank steak? Chuck has short strands that after slow cooking and shredding typically look less pronounced and are mushier. The way around that: Simply ask the butcher to cut you a piece of chuck that is taller than it is wider (the height running with the direction of the grains). That way you’ll get longer strands along with a deliciously flavorful, tender and moist shredded beef.
The “Ultimate” Ropa Vieja
Today we’re going to make some ultimate Ropa Vieja with a wonderfully rich depth of flavor! In the end you’ll have to make your own judgment call, but I’m pretty confident you’re going to love it!
And at the same time we’re going to take a shortcut and braise the meat in the sauce rather than the traditional method of braising it in water, shredding it and then adding it to the sauce. Doing it the first way releases those flavorful juices from the beef directly into the sauce and saves us a lot of time. To mimic the extra step of making a separate stock, we’re also going to add whole carrots, celery and bay leaves and then discard them at the end, infusing the sauce with some umami qualities and natural sweetness from the vegetables.
For our ropa vieja recipe we’re also adding an array of other classic Cuban and Spanish ingredients such as olives, pimientos and capers. In addition to the red bell pepper that’s caramelized with the onions, we’re also going to add roasted red bell pepper in the end for added smokiness, sweetness and flavor.
You may be wondering, “what’s the difference between pimientos and red bell peppers? Aren’t they the same thing?”
A pimiento, also called pimento or cherry pepper, is a variety of red chili pepper that is sweeter and more aromatic than red bell peppers (though some varieties of pimientos are hot). They add a nice element of natural sweetness and flavor to this dish.
All of these ingredients combined with delicious spices result in a truly unforgettable Ropa Vieja – it’ll become a staple dish in your home!
Does it Freeze Well?
Yes, ropa vieja freezes well! Freeze it in a freezer-safe container or freezer bag for up to 3 months.
Ropa Vieja Recipe
Let’s get started!
Pat the beef dry and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Once very hot add the beef and brown generously on all sides.
Transfer the beef to a plate. Do not discard the drippings and blackened bits in the pot, they are key to the flavor.
Add the sliced vegetables to the pot and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until caramelized.
Add the garlic and spices and cook for another minute.
Add the white wine and bring it to a rapid boil, deglazing the bottom of the pan (scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan).
Add the broth, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Return the roast to the pot along with the pieces of carrots and celery. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 3-4 hours or until the beef is fork tender and falls apart easily.
Discard the celery, carrots and bay leaves.
Transfer the beef to a plate and shred it with two forks.
Return the shredded beef to the sauce.
Stir in the olives, roasted red peppers, capers and pimientos.
Simmer uncovered to thicken the sauce for 30 minutes.
Stir in the parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Your Ropa Vieja is ready to serve.
And its flavor only improves the next day if you can be patient enough to wait!
Serve with steamed or yellow rice and black beans.
Ropa Vieja only tastes better the next day as the flavors have more time to meld, so this is a perfect dish to make in large batches for leftovers!
For more incredible beef stews from around the world be sure to try our:
- Irish Guinness Stew
- Hungarian Goulash
- Sega Wat (Spicy Ethiopian Beef Stew)
- Pörkölt (Hungarian Beef and Onion Stew)
- BEST Beef Stew
- Beef and Pepper Stew
- French Beef Stew
- Hachee (Dutch Beef and Onion Stew)
- Domoda (Gambian Peanut Stew)
- Beef Barley Soup
Ultimate Ropa Vieja
- 2 pounds chuck ask your butcher to cut it taller than wider so you get long strands of beef along the grain. OR you can use flank steak (see discussion in this post about cuts of beef and why we recommend chuck over flank)
- 1 large yellow onion thinly sliced
- 1 of each large green red and yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 16 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 6 ounce can tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large carrot cut in half
- 1 large stalk celery cut in half
- 1 cup green olives , rinsed and drained (you can slice them if you prefer)
- 1/2 cup roasted red peppers drained
- 1/4 cup pimientos drained
- 2 tablespoons capers rinsed and drained
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Pat the beef dry and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Heat a little oil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Once very hot add the beef and brown generously on all sides. Transfer the beef to a plate. (Do not discard the drippings and blackened bits in the pot, they are key to the flavor.)
- Add the sliced vegetables to the pot and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until caramelized. Add the garlic and spices and cook for another minute. Add the white wine and bring it to a rapid boil, deglazing the bottom of the pan (scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan).
- Add the broth, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Return the roast to the pot along with the pieces of carrots and celery. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 3-4 hours or until the beef is fork tender and falls apart easily. Discard the celery, carrots and bay leaves.
- Transfer the beef to a plate and shred it. Return the shredded beef to the pot.
- Stir in the olives, roasted red peppers, capers and pimientos. Simmer uncovered to thicken the sauce for 30 minutes. Stir in the parsley and add salt and pepper to taste.
Originally published on The Daring Gourmet June 27, 2016