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Tender, Slow-Cooked Barbacoa Is the Ultimate Party Food

This iconic Mexican shredded meat is meant for wrapping in warm tortillas, serving with a chile-spiked broth, and sharing with loved ones.
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Published Apr. 3, 2023.

After hours of slow roasting over hot coals in an underground pit, the meat is pulled from the ground like a buried treasure. Its swaddling of maguey leaves, softened from hours of moist heat, is opened to reveal the feast inside: a whole animal basted in its own juices and infused with the leaves’ earthy minerality, rendered meltingly soft and shreddable.

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This is the magic of barbacoa, Mexico’s centuries-old method of slow-cooking meat. The dish is a long-standing staple of Sunday afternoon special occasions—birthdays, religious celebrations, or any other large gathering that demands a full-on feast. The tender shreds of meat are served with warm tortillas and a rainbow of garnishes such as salsas, chopped onion, radish, and cilantro. Rice and beans, corn, rajas, or other traditional side dishes made with the animal’s organs might round out the buffet. And for sipping, there’s a pot of pungent, piping hot consomé de barbacoa, a savory broth studded with garbanzo beans, rice, potatoes, and/or green beans that is flavored with the drippings of the roasted meat. “It’s a full meal that has a lot of tradition surrounding it in Mexico,” Iliana de la Vega, chef of Austin’s El Naranjo and the culinary expert behind the food tour company Mexican Culinary Traditions, explained. “It’s a party dish.”

The work makes the meat delicious, but at the same time, it’s the love that you put in.
Cristina Martinez, chef at South Philly Barbacoa

Traditionally, barbacoa is roasted over a low fire in a pib (a shallow pit oven), an ancient technique that dates back at least as early as the Mayans, who used earthen ovens lined with hot stones to cook maize, beans, and squash. Thousands of years later, barbacoa cooks employ a similar setup to make recipes that have been handed down and refined for generations: Lower a large, wide pan of water; vegetables; and aromatics into a pit oven to make the consomé. Then, add the leaf-wrapped meat on a rack on top of it so that the meat’s juices trickle down into the pan. Cover the whole assembly with a woven mat and a layer of dirt and wait 6 to 12 hours for the subterranean cooking to complete.

“The work makes the meat delicious,” explained Cristina Martinez, chef of South Philly Barbacoa, through her translator Elise O’Neill. “But at the same time, it’s the love that you put in.”

Prepping the Meat

For Lamb

1. Pound with meat pounder until thickest part is no more than 11/2 inches thick.

2. Cut crosswise into 3 pieces.

For Beef

Cut against grain into 1½-inch-thick slabs.

Cooking barbacoa successfully this way requires years of practice and a deep understanding of how pib cookery works, so the traditional method is best left to professionals. (Not to mention that preparing a whole animal and creating a pib in one’s backyard isn’t feasible for most home cooks.) But I wanted to capture some of the magic of barbacoa at home, so I set out to create an indoor version of this recipe that could be cooked in a pot.

Don’t Love Lamb? Try Beef Barbacoa

Barbacoa is not a specific recipe but a steamy, slow-roasting technique that can be applied to a number of different proteins. While goat and lamb are the most common and most traditional choices for barbacoa across Mexico, there are some regional versions that call for chicken or beef. Our recipe was developed using lamb, but an equivalent weight of boneless beef chuck-eye roast (or boneless leg of goat) works just as well.

Flavor Foundation

Across Mexico, but particularly in the states of Oaxaca and Hidalgo, there are countless versions of barbacoa, each varying slightly in seasoning, meat, and accompaniments. I was drawn to one of the Oaxacan variations, which involves coating the meat (typically goat or lamb) with a spicy, punchy adobo. I created my adobo by blending toasted and soaked guajillo chiles, their soaking liquid, garlic, oregano, pepper, cloves, cumin, and cider vinegar and then applied it to a boneless leg of lamb, cut into slabs (though beef can also be used). I found there was no need to marinate the meat overnight to encourage deep salt penetration, as its seasonings could be adjusted after cooking and shredding, and the long steaming time allowed the meat’s connective tissue to turn into gelatin, making the barbacoa plenty tender. 

For the consomé, I chose to include red-skinned potatoes, cut into chunks, and canned chickpeas. The precooked beans didn’t require an overnight soak, and the inclusion of their liquid gave the consomé a silkier consistency. I added half a small onion, two carrots, two bay leaves, and some salt to flavor the broth, leaving the vegetables in larger pieces so that they’d be easy to remove before serving. 

Bringing the Pit Indoors

The ingredients settled, it was on to the biggest challenge of the recipe: replicating the effects of the barbacoa pit indoors. Inside the pit, the meat essentially steams in its leaf wrapper, the moist heat slowly rendering it ultratender. I tested a few different setups that would allow for similarly slow steaming indoors. A V-rack set in a roasting pan and covered with a large sheet of foil did a great job of mimicking pit cookery, but covering the large pan tightly proved tricky, and the setup overall seemed too large for the 3 pounds of leg of lamb I was cooking.

TECHNIQUE: Replicating a Pit in a Pot

Barbacoa cooked in an earthen oven outdoors cannot be replicated in a kitchen—but we took cues from the traditional barbacoa setup when devising our indoor recipe. Here’s a closer look at how we approximated several important elements of the traditional cooking method.

AN ENCLOSED HEAT SOURCE: Both the enclosed pit, heated by coals and hot rocks, and the oven serve as fully enclosed, multidirectional heat sources. 

SUSPENDED MEAT: Barbacoa is not a braise—the meat should be suspended above the liquid consomé so it steams. In the traditional method, a mesh rack separates the meat from the consomé pot; in our method, a ramekin holds the plate of meat above the liquid.

CONSOMÉ COLLECTION: In the pit, the flavorful juices from the meat drip down into a separate wide pan of consomé below. By arranging the meat in a large Dutch oven, we can cook the meat and capture its juices in one vessel.

A similar, but more manageable, setup? I set the meat atop a plate and rested the plate atop a ramekin in a 7-quart Dutch oven. This way, the meat was still suspended, allowing it to steam from all sides, and the Dutch oven’s lid trapped the heat and moisture. This setup was not only simpler but also faster than the rack version: After I brought the liquid at the bottom of the pot to a simmer, covered it, and placed the pot in a 350 degree oven, the meat was tender and cooked through in about 3 hours.

Top It Off

A vibrant spread of accompaniments is a must for barbacoa, so I prepared some cilantro, lime wedges, diced white onion, and sliced radish to top the tacos. I also whipped up a bright, hot salsa roja: First, I lightly charred tomatillos, onion, tomato, and garlic in a skillet until their interiors were tender and then blended them with arbol chiles and toasted ancho chiles. After blending, I seasoned the mixture with salt, sugar, and vinegar, a critical step to account for tomatillos’ variable acidity and sweetness.

When the lamb was fork-tender, I pulled it from the oven to rest for 30 minutes, broke it into pieces, reheated the consomé, and warmed some corn tortillas. I enfolded a hearty portion of meat in a tortilla and then added the colorful garnishes to both the taco and my cup of consomé. Following de la Vega and Martinez’s advice, I alternated bites of the meaty taco—augmented by pungent onion, tart lime, fresh cilantro, and spicy salsa—with sips of the cozy, savory broth. Those flavorful first bites confirmed it: It was time to gather some hungry guests and start the party. 

Recipe

Lamb Barbacoa

Mexico's unctuously tender, slow-cooked meat is meant for wrapping in warm tortillas, serving with a chile-spiked broth, and sharing with loved ones.
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