Ropa Vieja Vs Vaca Frita – History And Key Differences

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In Cuba, the cuisine is much more than just delicious food.

Ropa Vieja Vs Vaca Frita - History And Key Differences

There is often a history behind their most popular dishes that represents Cuban culture and the struggles of the Cuban people in the past.

Both vaca frita and ropa vieja have an extensive history in Cuba.

They are extremely similar dishes, but not completely the same.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about vaca frita and ropa vieja, including the history of both dishes, the differences, and how to make them.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa vieja is a filling, healthy, and delectable dish that is well-liked throughout Latin America.

It is the pride and joy of traditional Cuban cuisine and is often regarded as the island nation’s national dish.

The most popular type of ropa vieja is made with meat, specifically shredded beef.

In addition, onions, peppers, and tomato salsa are typically included.


Ropa vieja is a meal with a rich history.

This simple, homey dish chronicles the development of the nation’s cuisine and culture over the previous fifty years.

As with many other outstanding aspects of Cuban culture, ropa vieja has its roots in Spain.

Its name literally translates to “old clothes,” the legend claims that an elderly man who was poor once boiled and shredded his own clothes in order to provide sustenance for his family.

It is said that he prayed over the boiling mixture and a miracle happened, transforming it into a delicious, hearty meat stew.

The Sephardic Jews of the Iberian peninsula of Spain are credited with developing the more than 500-year-old ropa vieja recipe.

The Sephardi would slow-cook a hearty stew the night before since cooking was prohibited on the Sabbath.

The dish was later brought to the Americas by the Spanish, where it quickly became a favorite in the Caribbean and Cuba.

How To Make Ropa Vieja


  • 1 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • 2 lbs of flank steak
  • 1 cup of beef broth
  • 8 oz of tomato sauce
  • 6 oz of tomato paste
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp of ground cumin
  • 1 tsp of fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of white vinegar


  1. Using a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the vegetable oil.
  2. Add the flank steak and cook for 4 minutes on each side or until browned.
  3. Place the beef broth and tomato sauce in the slow cooker after adding the meat.
  4. Stir to combine tomato paste, bell peppers, onion, garlic, cumin, cilantro, olive oil, and vinegar.
  5. Cook with the lid on for up to 10 hours on low heat or 4 hours on high.
  6. Within the slow cooker, shred steak.

Vaca Frita

Vaca frita, which translates to “fried cow,” is a traditional Cuban dish made of shredded flank or skirt steak.

That is pan-fried and served with rice, black beans, sautéed white onions, and other ingredients.

It is also a favorite in the US for its flavorful ingredients and distinctive name, particularly in Miami and other southern towns with sizable Cuban populations.


This well-known dish has similar beginnings as Ropa Vieja and comes from the Canary Islands, located on the western coast of North Africa.

The toughest pieces of meat were served to slaves on plantations, where these beef dishes are thought to have originated.

It takes a lot of creativity to transform an unappealing cut of meat into something savory and tender.

Which is why the dish has such a meaning behind it in Cuba today.

How To Make Vaca Frita


  • 1 ½ lbs of flank steak
  • 3 cups of beef broth
  • ½ tsp of salt
  • ½ tsp of garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp of black pepper
  • 2 tbsp of lime juice (about 1 lime)
  • 2 tbsp of canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • Lime wedges to garnish


  1. To a large pot, add the steak and beef broth. If the piece is large, cut it in half so that it will fit within the pot without folding or overlapping.
  2. Heat the pot on high heat. Reduce the heat to medium once the broth has boiled for 15 minutes.
  3. About halfway through the cooking time, turn the steaks again.
  4. Place the flank steak on a chopping board or in a pan after turning off the heat in the cooker. When the steak is cooled enough to handle, shred it into thin strings.
  5. Reintroduce the meat to the broth. Add a generous amount of salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and lime juice. Then stir thoroughly to combine.
  6. In a big skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. The shredded beef should be added to the hot, nearly smoking oil and arranged in a single layer to fill the entire skillet.
  7. Without stirring, cook the meat for 3 to 5 minutes. Allow the liquid to evaporate while allowing the bottom to brown and crisp up.
  8. Get beneath a piece of the meat with a large spatula and flip it over, but don’t stir. Repeat the process with a different part of the steak until it is all browned side up.
  9. The beef needs another 1–2 minutes of cooking. Since the liquid has already been boiled out, this side will brown much more quickly. After one minute, check a section to make sure it isn’t burning.
  10. Any areas that require a bit of additional browning should be turned over. As soon as the beef’s outer layer turns brown and crispy, continue checking and flipping it.
  11. Once the vaca frita is cooked, turn off the heat and transfer the beef to a dish or pan.
  12. Place the skillet back over the hot burner and add the cut onions (with the heat off). Stir the onions regularly while they cook in the residual heat.
  13. Serve with the onions and lime wedges.

Key Difference

While all recipes can differ in some way with extra ingredients and side dishes, there is one main difference between ropa vieja and vaca frita.

Ropa Vieja Vs Vaca Frita - History And Key Differences (1)

Although they are extremely similar, vaca frita is actually cooked twice.

While ropa vieja is only cooked once, meaning the meat in a vaca frita dish is much crispier.

When making vaca frita, the meat is first stewed, and then cooked again when pan-frying.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Side Dishes Pair Well With Ropa Vieja And Vaca Frita?

As both dishes contain similar flavors and ingredients, they both pair well with the same side dishes.

Traditionally, in Cuba, these dishes would be paired with white rice, fried sweet plantains, tostones, mashed potatoes, mashed malanga, red beans, or a combination of them all!

What Wine Pairs Well With Ropa Vieja And Vaca Frita?

A red wine, like a Rioja or Shiraz, is always a great choice when eating red meat.

However, these dishes also pair well with dry white wines, such as Chardonnay.

Final Thoughts

While vaca frita and ropa vieja are two different dishes due to the cooking process, they both carry a history of struggle and hardship.

They are traditional in Cuba and for good reason!