By Brandon Muhawi
Senior Food Writer at Pro Home Cooks
The term barbacoa in Mexican cuisine is used not to denote the type of meat being cooked, but rather, the specific technique of how it is cooked, much like Americans use the word barbecue. Barbacoa is meat that is slow-cooked over live embers, usually buried. The meat is usually wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves as it cooks, but sometimes banana or avocado leaves are used depending on the region of Mexico. The region is also a factor in what meat is most used: goat in Southern Mexico, lamb in Central Mexico, and beef in the northern areas.
These traditional cooking methods, while amazing, are a pipedream for apartment dwellers or anyone who has no desire to dig a hole for a live fire in their backyard. (We’re not judging.) While there’s no true substitute for the smokey, earthy flavors that come from cooking over live embers, a delicious barbacoa can be made in your home kitchen – no shovel required. This recipe does its best to mimic and supplement the smokey flavors that come from the traditional cooking method but with much more convenience.
It is important to discuss how the meat is seasoned in this recipe. In most, but not all, traditional barbacoa recipes, the meat is simply seasoned with just salt. It is the consommé that is made from the drippings and juices from the meat that receives the spices, dried chiles, and other seasonings. For the sake of convenience, this recipe uses an adobo paste to season the meat directly, thereby seasoning the resulting consommé in the cooking vessel. With the right setup, one could use a large roasting pan to collect the drippings and make the consommé in the more traditional way, though the juice might not be worth the squeeze from that extra effort.
This recipe uses a deboned lamb leg, but this could be substituted for any number of cuts of meat. You want a cut of meat that is good for slow cooking – one that won’t disintegrate after hours of cooking has lots of fat and connective tissues, and will shred for some delicious tacos. Other great options include lamb shoulder, chuck roast, pork shoulder, or even oxtail. Fitting the cut of meat easily into a cooking vessel is easier when it is deboned, but not required. Bone-in cuts would add a lot of flavor to the resulting consommé, so the choice is yours.
Relatively easy to prepare, this is a great dish for your next dinner party or even a Sunday meal prep. We recommend keeping it simple – the best corn or flour tortillas you can find and a vibrant, spicy salsa. Maybe some beans and rice - if you’re into that sort of thing.
Adobo Paste Ingredients:
- 2 dried ancho chiles
- 5 dried guajillo chiles
- 1, 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
- 3 cloves
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
- 5 cloves of garlic (unpeeled)
- 1-2 chipotle peppers
- 1/2 cup (4oz) apple cider vinegar
Lamb Barbacoa Ingredients:
- 2-4 large banana leaves
- 1 deboned lamb leg (~5lbs)
- 1/2 cup adobo paste
- 2-3 bay leaves
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bring about 2 cups of water to a boil. Cut open and de-seed the dried ancho and guajillo chiles, discarding the stems and seeds. Rip the chiles into large pieces and toast in a dry pan over medium-high heat until fragrant and beginning to char. Place toasted chiles into a bowl and pour the boiling water over them until fully submerged. Let the chiles rehydrate for 20-30 minutes.
- Place the cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cumin seeds, and cloves into the same pan. Toast the spices over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Combine the toasted spices with the dried oregano and grind to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
- Toast the unpeeled garlic cloves in the dry pan over medium heat until the skins are starting to char and the garlic softens. Set aside.
- Once rehydrated, drain the chiles. Combine chiles with ground spices, garlic cloves, 1-2 chipotle peppers straight from the can, apple cider vinegar, and a large pinch of salt. Blend to a smooth paste using a stick blender. This can also be done using a food processor or a molcajete.
- Trim any excessively wilted parts of the banana leaves, keeping them in as large of pieces as possible. Optional: If using a gas range, toast half of the banana leaves over the flame until the edges char and are fragrantly smokey. Line a large dutch oven or lidded roasting pan with the banana leaves, leaving excess trailing out of the pot. These will fold in to cover our lamb.
- Liberally season the entire lamb leg with salt. Take approximately 1/2 cup of the adobo paste and, one spoonful at a time, massage the paste into the surface of the lamb leg until completely covered. There will be excess adobo paste that can be saved in the fridge and used for future dishes.
- Place bay leaves in the bottom of the banana leaf-lined pot and the lamb leg on top. Fold in banana leaves to completely cover the meat, using extra banana leaf portions if necessary.
- Cover dutch oven with a lid and place it into the oven. Cook for at least 3 hours, no longer than 4. Remove dutch oven from the oven and let it cool on the counter, covered, for at least an hour as the meat rests before serving. Remove the lamb and shred the meat with your hands or two forks, discarding any large chunks of fat. Strain the remaining liquid from the pot through a mesh sieve to serve separately as a consommé or toss with the shredded meat.
- Optional: place large portions of shredded meat on a sheet pan and place under the broiler until caramelized.
- Make tacos and enjoy!
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