Ultimate Ropa Vieja

The 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!

If you’re looking for more exceptionally flavorful beef dishes from around the world try our Sega Wat, Guinness Stew, Hungarian Goulash, and Domoda!

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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 to Use?

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.

cuts of beef

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.

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.

cuts of beef

How to Make 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.

ropa vieja recipe best authentic traditional cuban beef peppers olives spanish


For our ultimate ropa vieja recipe we’re 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!

ropa vieja recipe best authentic traditional cuban beef peppers olives spanish

Can You Freeze It?

Yes, ropa vieja freezes well!

Freeze it in a freezer-safe container or freezer bag for up to 3 months.  Remove it from the freezer, let it thaw in the fridge overnight, and slowly reheat it on the stovetop, in the oven, the microwave, or slow cooker.

ropa vieja recipe best authentic traditional cuban beef peppers olives spanish

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.

I’m using my Le Creuset Dutch oven. I also have the Lodge Dutch oven that is a fraction of the price. I love both of them and use both on a regular basis.

Transfer the beef to a plate.  Do not discard the drippings and blackened bits in the pot, they are key to the flavor.

browning beef roast

Add the sliced vegetables to the pot and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until caramelized.

cooking peppers and onions

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).

adding spices and liquid

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.

adding tomatoes

Discard the celery, carrots and bay leaves.

Transfer the beef to a plate and shred it with two forks.

shredding beef

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.

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Your Ropa Vieja is ready to serve.

And its flavor only improves the next day if you can be patient enough to wait!

ropa vieja recipe best authentic traditional cuban beef peppers olives spanish

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!


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For more incredible beef stews from around the world be sure to try our:

Originally published on The Daring Gourmet June 27, 2016

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