Vaca Frita, aka Cuban Crispy Shredded Beef, is a traditional marinated, boiled, shredded and fried flank steak recipe served with rice and beans. Make it once and you can easily replicate it again and again. And while the process isn’t quick, it is easy and well worth the effort. 

I had Vaca Frita for the first time a couple years ago in Miami and I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since. From the start, I knew making vaca frita at home would require quite a bit of research. Nydia from Nydia’s Miami Kitchen was one of my favorite sources I found. She is an incredible teacher and resource for all things Cuban cuisine! My recipe is heavily influenced by Nydia’s process and flavors.  

What is Vaca Frita and What Does it Mean? 

Vaca Frita, which literally means “fried cow,” is a traditional Cuban dish made from flank steak that’s been marinated, boiled, shredded and fried. Vaca Frita is often referred to as the cousin of Ropa Vieja (which translates to “old clothes” and has an incredible origin story). 

While Ropa Vieja features a tomato-based sauce, Vaca Frita is less saucy, crispy shredded beef that’s often fried with onions and peppers. 

Flank steak, green peppers, chunks of onion, slices of onion, olive oil, garlic cloves, salt, pepper, dried oregano, white wine, and a lime set out on a counter.

Ingredients Needed to Make this Cuban Dish

  • Flank steak: you’ll need 1 ½ pounds of flank steak for this recipe. I also tested this recipe using Beef Sirloin Flap and it turned out OK—it needs to be simmered for closer to 2 hours to become adequately tender. America’s Test Kitchen uses beef chuck eye roast as a cheaper alternative to flank steak. 
  • Garlic: there is A LOT of garlic in this recipe, but surprisingly it doesn’t overpower the dish at all. You’ll need a head of garlic. 
  • Dried oregano: along with the garlic, oregano is a main player in the marinade. It adds a ton of flavor to the dish as a whole. Regular oregano, Mexican oregano or marjoram will all work. 
  • Salt and pepper
  • Green peppers: any mild green peppers will work. I use a combination of green bell peppers and Cubanelle peppers. 
  • Onions: you’ll need two small white or yellow onions. 
  • Dry white wine: I love the addition of white wine in this dish (learned this from Nydia). You can also skip the wine and use additional water instead and a tablespoon of white vinegar. 
  • Oil: use a few tablespoons of a neutral high-heat cooking oil such as avocado oil, vegetable oil or canola oil. 

How to Make Vaca Frita

  1. Marinate the Flank Steak
Flank steak coated in garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper set on a sheet pan.

Rub the steak with minced fresh garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper. Set on a baking sheet, cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight. 

  1. Simmer the Flank Steak and Vegetables
Marinated flank steak cut into slices on a cutting board.

Cut the flank steak into smaller pieces—first cut the steak in half crosswise then cut each half into 1½-inch thick strips along the grain. The goal is to have long shreds of meat. 

Strips of flank steak in a saute pan with chunks of pepper and onion, smashed garlic, water and dried oregano.

In a large sauté pan, add pepper and onion chunks, smashed garlic, wine, water and beef, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the beef is tender and can be pulled apart with two forks. This will take about an hour and a half. 

Strips of flank steak cooking in a saute pan with chunks of pepper and onion, smashed garlic, water and dried oregano.
  1. Shred the Flank Steak

Transfer the beef to a bowl or sheet pan and allow it to cool. Strain the vegetable mixture through a fine mesh sieve—reserve the solids and the liquid for later in the recipe. 

Shredded beef on a sheet pan with two forks.

Once the beef is cool enough to handle, shred into bite-sized pieces with your hands or two forks (I find hands are the easiest). 

  1. Fry the Beef, Peppers and Onions
Sliced peppers and onions cooking in a saute pan.

Wipe out the sauté pan and add a few tablespoons of oil to the pan. Heat over medium-high then add the sliced peppers and onion and chopped garlic. Season with salt and cook, stirring frequently, until starting to soften.

Add the shredded beef and cook until browned and crispy. The key is to avoid stirring the mixture too often to achieve that crisp sear.

It’s also key to have a large sauté pan. If you have a smaller pan, you may want to do this in batches to ensure the meat fries instead of steams (as this recipe recommends). 

  1. Combine Simmered Vegetables and Beans
Black beans, cooked peppers and cooked onions in a shallow white bowl.

Chop the reserved simmered peppers and onions then combine with the rinsed and drained black beans. Serve these alongside the vaca frita with some cooked rice.

How to Serve It 

My favorite way to serve this crispy shredded beef is alongside black beans and rice with chunks of tomato and avocado on the side. I’m not sure if it’s common (I haven’t seen any recipes that do this but that doesn’t mean it’s not done) but I like to utilize the simmered vegetables as a component of the dish instead of just tossing them.

Mince the simmered vegetables up and mix them in with canned beans. And just like that, the black beans are elevated to side dish status! 

I’ve also seen Vaca Frita served with tortillas, Fried Plantains, Coconut Rice, Tostones, and Yuca

Shredded crispy beef (vaca frita) in a shallow white bowl with rice and seasoned beans. Two lime wedges also set in the bowl along with a silver fork. Chunks of tomato and avocado in a bowl set to the top right.

Storage Tips

Leftovers can be stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. For longer storage, place in the freezer for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight before reheating and serving. Leftovers can be used to make burritos, hashes and more. 

Make Ahead Instructions

Vaca Frita is a great dish to make ahead. Marinate and simmer the meat ahead of time so all you have to do for dinner is fry up the meat and serve! It’s ideal for weeknight meal prep or when you’re planning to have guests over (make it a party with Spicy Mezcal Margaritas!). 

Vaca Frita Recipe

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Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Marinating Time 4 hours
Total Time 6 hours 20 minutes
Yield 6 servings
Category Main Dish
Cuisine Cuban

Description

Vaca Frita, aka Cuban Crispy Shredded Beef, is a traditional marinated, boiled, shredded and fried flank steak recipe served with rice and beans.

Ingredients

Vaca Frita

  • 1 ½ pound flank steak
  • 12 –14 cloves garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 green peppers* divided
  • 2 small onions divided
  • 1 cup dry white wine*
  • 3 tablespoons avocado oil

To Serve

  • 1 cup dry jasmine rice
  • 1 14.5-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • Lime wedges
  • 1 avocado pitted, peel and cut into chunks
  • 1 large tomato cut into chunks

Instructions

  • Place steak on a quarter sheet pan. Mince 4–6 cloves of garlic to get 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Spread 1 ½ teaspoons garlic onto top side of steak; season with 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper.
  • Flip steak and rub remaining 1 ½ teaspoons garlic, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper on second side. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
  • When ready to cook, cut 1 pepper and 1 onion into large chunks. Smash 5 cloves of garlic.
  • Remove steak from refrigerator and cut in half cross wise, then cut halves into 1 ½-inch-thick strips along the grain.
  • Add pepper and onion chunks, smashed garlic, wine and 3 cups water to a large sauté pan over high heat. Nestle steak into vegetable mixture; bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer over medium heat and cook, partially covered, until beef is tender and can be pulled apart with forks, about 1 ½ hours. (Or 40 minutes in a pressure cooker on high.)
  • Using tongs, transfer steak to a bowl or sheet pan; allow to cool.
  • Pour vegetable mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a liquid measuring cup; reserve solids and liquid. Wipe out sauté pan.
  • Thinly slice remaining onion and peppers and chop 3 garlic cloves.
  • Heat 3 tablespoons avocado oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, add sliced peppers and sliced onion; season with salt and cook, stirring frequently, until starting to soften, about 5 minutes.
  • Using your hands, or two forks, shred cooled meat.
  • Add shredded beef and chopped garlic and fry, over medium-high heat, until browned and charred but still tender, 15–20 minutes, stirring every 3 minutes or so. After first 10 minutes, you may need to occasionally deglaze pan with reserved simmering liquid.
  • Meanwhile, bring 1¼ cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Add rice, bring to a simmer, cover and cook over low until rice is tender and water has been absorbed, 10–12 minutes. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, cover and let steam until ready to serve.
  • Chop reserved simmered pepper and onion mixture and add to a bowl with black beans; stir to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To Serve

  • Serve vaca frita in shallow bowls with rice, black bean mixture and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Optional, serve with chunks of avocado and tomato.

Notes

Peppers: any mild green peppers will work. I use a combination of green bell peppers and Cubanelle peppers.
Pressure Cooker: instead of simmering the beef on the stovetop for 1 ½ hours, you can cook it in an Instant Pot on high for 40 minutes. Naturally release the pressure then follow the instructions as written.
Wine substitute: Instead of white wine, you can use additional water and a tablespoon of white vinegar.
Cooking Rice: For the fluffiest rice, soak dry rice in water before straining and cooking according to package directions.
Make Ahead: to prep this ahead of time, simmer the beef as directed then store the beef and vegetables, separately, in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Storage: leftovers can be stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. For longer storage, place in the freezer for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight before reheating and serving. Leftovers can be used to make burritos, hashes and more.
Black beans: if you don’t plan on serving the vaca frita with black beans, you can discard the simmered pepper and onion mixture.
Deglazing the pan: only deglaze the pan with the reserved simmering liquid if you have to! Moisture is the antithesis of browning and charring. However, in my large sauté pan, I find I need to deglaze a bit to avoid scorching the fond on the bottom of the pan. Plus, but pulling that up with some liquid, you’re coating the meat in delicious, savory flavor!
Pan size: if you have a small sauté pan (less than 12-inches), I recommend browning the meat in batches. You want to avoid steaming the meat and a crowded pan will lead to steaming. 

Nutrition

Like this? Leave a comment below!I love hearing from you and I want to hear how it went with this recipe! Leave a comment and rating below, then share on social media @zestfulkitchen and #zestfulkitchen!
Shredded crispy beef (vaca frita) in a shallow white bowl with rice and seasoned beans. Two lime wedges also set in the bowl along with a silver fork. Chunks of tomato and avocado in a bowl set to the top right.

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This post is written and created in partnership with the Iowa Beef Council. As always the thoughts, opinions, recipe, photos and content are all my own.

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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine, EatingWell.com, AmericasTestKitchen.com, and more.

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