Vaca frita is a very popular Cuban dish that’s made from marinated flank steak that’s been braised until tender, shredded, and fried, with onions scattered on top. Carlos Leo takes the traditional recipe and transforms it into an easy Instant Pot version that cuts effort and time in half.
Leo was raised in the Dominican Republic, and in his food blog, Spoonabilities, he shares recipes that reflect his heritage and influences. A self-taught chef, Leo also reimagines recipes that he and his husband have enjoyed in restaurants. "I love this recipe because I order it when I go to Cuban restaurants here in Miami," Leo told us. "I always wanted to make [vaca frita] but never had the chance. Creating this recipe was a lot of fun and brought great memories."
Vaca frita is usually just cooked and served with lime juice, but Leo adds zing to his recipe by adding another classic of Cuban cuisine, mojo (pronounced "moe-hoe"), a citrus sauce that’s chock full of garlic (via Saveur). Mojo can be drizzled over any grilled meat, chicken, or fish, so you’ll want to add it to your repertoire.
Gather together the ingredients for the Instant Pot vaca frita
Flank steak is cut from the cow’s abdominal muscles, which get plenty of exercise, meaning this cut has lots of muscle fibers that need to be tenderized. Although the flank steak has big beefy flavor, it can be tough, so whether it’s grilled or broiled, it usually needs to be cut very thinly against the grain. Not so in Leo’s recipe. The Instant Pot softens the muscle fibers so they shred easily.
The vegetables, herbs, and aromatic ingredients are staples you’ll find in Cuban and other recipes: green bell pepper, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, and salt and pepper.
Cut up the flank steak and add the ingredients to the Instant Pot
The flank steak’s muscle fibers run the entire length of the meat, so lay the flank horizontally on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife (and here’s how you know if your knife is sharp enough), make several vertical cuts against the grain. Then, cut each piece in half, again against the grain. Peel and cut the large white onion into quarters. Cut the green bell pepper in half and remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Cut each green pepper into four slices. (Alternatively, you could chop or dice the green pepper.)
You’ll need 10 garlic cloves in total for this recipe: four for the beef, four for the onions, and two for the mojo sauce. Set aside the two cloves for the mojo and peel the other eight garlic cloves. Using the flat side of your knife, press down on four of the garlic cloves until they’re smashed. Add the quartered onion, sliced green bell pepper, and four smashed garlic cloves to the Instant Pot, along with two bay leaves, 1 teaspoon of ground cumin, 1 teaspoon of ground oregano, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and 1 teaspoon of sea salt. Pour in 2 cups of water or more so the beef is submerged.
Cook the flank steak, then shred it with two forks
Seal the Instant Pot, then program it to pressure cook on high for 15 minutes. To ensure absolute tenderness of the flank steak, Leo opts for a natural release, which, similar to having the meat rest, gives the meat a chance to absorb back its juices released during cooking (via Paint the Kitchen Red). When the beef is cooked and the natural release is complete, carefully open the lid of the Instant Pot. Transfer the flank steak chunks to a cutting board. Using two forks, pull the beef apart into shreds, and transfer them to a baking dish. Leo told us that the leftover broth in the Instant Pot can be used later for making a delicious soup.
Make the Cuban mojo sauce and marinate the beef
To make the mojo sauce, peel and grate the two garlic cloves you set aside earlier into a small bowl. Leo likes using a mortar and pestle to mash the garlic. Combine the grated or mashed garlic cloves in a bowl with ⅓ cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, ⅓ cup of freshly squeezed lime juice, ⅓ cup of olive oil, ½ teaspoon of ground cumin, ½ teaspoon of ground oregano, ¼ of freshly ground black pepper, and 1 teaspoon of sea salt. Whisk the ingredients together, until the liquid has the consistency of a salad dressing. Pour ¾ cup of the mojo sauce over the shredded beef and stir to combine. Let the beef marinate for 30 minutes, and move on to preparing the onions.
Sauté the onion and marinate with the mojo sauce
Smash the remaining four garlic cloves as you did earlier using the flat side of a kitchen knife. Cut the yellow or Spanish onion into quarters, and then thinly slice them. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, and add the onions. Sauté the onions until they’re translucent, then add the smashed garlic. Keep stirring the onion and garlic for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Measure out 2 tablespoons of the mojo sauce, and stir it into the onions. Transfer the onions to a plate or bowl, and cover them to keep them warm.
Fry the beef, garnish with the onions, and serve the vaca frita
In the same skillet you used to sauté the onions and garlic, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Spread half of the marinated shredded beef in a single layer in the bottom of the skillet. Fry the beef for 3 minutes, but don’t stir it as it fries. This will give you nice, crispy meat. Turn the beef over, and fry 3 more minutes, again without moving the meat. Transfer the fried beef to a platter. Add 2 more tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet and fry the second batch of shredded beef. Transfer the beef to the platter, and scatter the sautéed onions on top with lime wedges and more mojo.
Leo likes to serve vaca frita with traditional side dishes, like rice, beans, and boiled yuca. This recipe serves eight hungry diners, but if there are leftovers, Leo recommends using the vaca frita for tacos. Thanks to the Instant Pot and Leo’s ingenuity, you can make this iconic Cuban dish in a little over 30 minutes.
- 2 pounds flank steak
- 2 cups water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large white onion, quartered
- 8 cloves garlic, smashed, divided
- 2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
- 1 green bell pepper, sliced
- 1-½ teaspoons ground cumin, divided
- 1-½ teaspoons ground oregano, divided
- 1-¼ teaspoons black pepper, divided
- 1 yellow or Spanish onion, quartered and thinly sliced
- ½ teaspoon sea salt (to sauté onions)
- ⅓ cup plus 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- ⅓ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- ⅓ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 cloves garlic, grated or mashed with a mortar and pestle
- 2 limes, cut into wedges
- Cooked white rice
- Black beans
- Boiled yuca
- Cut the flank steak into long vertical pieces and then cut each piece in a half.
- In the Instant Pot, add 2 cups of water, 2 bay leaves, the quartered onion, 4 smashed garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, sliced or diced green bell pepper, spices (cumin, oregano, pepper), and the flank steak pieces. Add more water if needed to cover the meat.
- Seal the lid and set the Instant Pot to the pressure cooker setting. Cook at high pressure for 15 minutes, plus natural release.
- When the beef is done, transfer to a cutting board, and shred with two forks. Transfer the shredded beef to a baking dish.
- Make the mojo sauce: In a small bowl whisk the orange juice, lime juice, olive oil, ground cumin, oregano, black pepper, and 2 grated garlic cloves until well blended.
- Pour ¾ cup of the mojo over the shredded beef and mix to combine. Let the beef marinate for 30 minutes.
- In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, and add the onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent.
- Add the remaining 4 smashed garlic cloves and sauté for a minute until fragrant. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the mojo sauce, transfer the onions to a plate, and set aside.
- In the same frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Spread half of the marinated shredded beef mixture in a single layer. Fry for about 3 minutes per side without stirring until crispy. Transfer to a platter.
- Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, and fry the second batch of beef. Transfer the crispy beef to the platter.
- Scatter the sautéed onions over the top of the beef, and serve with rice, beans, boiled yuca, mojo sauce, and lime wedges on the side.