Watching Christina Martinez making barbacoa in her South Philly Barbacoa restaurant (Chef’s Table, Se 5 Eps 1, Netflix) was, for me, the next best thing to being back in Mexico where food celebrates the very heart and soul of the country and its people.
Barbacoa originates from the central plains east of Mexico City where traditionally a lamb or a goat is slowly steamed in a deep pit lined with rocks preheated by a wood fire. The meat is marinated and wrapped in maguey (agave) leaves and steamed underground overnight. Cooking a barbacoa in Mexico is all about having a special meal for large family gatherings on weekends and for special holidays and fiestas.
A deeply flavored succulent Barbacoa is built around using a variety of locally grown sun dried chiles, traditional herbs and spices, and a seasoned cook’s attention to the nuances of slow cookery and taste. Most Ingredients can be found in Mexican shops and markets, in some super markets, or online. Once you have your sourcing resolved, you will find yourself making barbacoa on a regular basis. This is the kind of authentic Mexican food everyone loves to eat!
That said, home cooks can replicate a traditional barbacoa with a few adaptations in their own kitchen oven. No pit required.
I would suggest using beef or pork in lieu of lamb or goat unless you and your friends and family are seasoned regional Mexican food enthusiasts. Goat in particular is definitely an acquired taste and best cooked outside.
Making a barbacoa requires both time and effort, but you will will be abundantly rewarded with a truly authentic taste of Mexico. If time is a real issue you may want to speed up the cooking time using a pressure cooker or instant pot. Another tip, barbacoa freezes beautifully so you may want to double or triple the recipe and have barbacoa nearly ready on demand.
Beef Barbacoa serves 6
- 2.2 pounds/ 1 kilo beef brisket or chuck roast (or pork shoulder) cut into 3 equal size pieces, trimming off excess fat and skin
- juice of 1 orange
- juice of 2 limes
- 1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- ¼ cup cider or white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a non-reactive bowl just large enough to hold the meat. Stir the marinade and add the meat, pressing the meat firmly down into the marinade to cover.
Cover the bowl with cling film and marinate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- 8 dried New Mexico Red or Mexican Guajillo chiles
- 3 dried ancho chiles
- 2 dried smoked chipotle chiles
- 4 large garlic cloves, dry roasted and peeled
- 1 small onion, peeled, chopped
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, ground
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt or to taste
Heat a skillet over medium heat. When hot place some of the dried chiles in the skillet without crowding. Using a spatula, press the chiles against the bottom of the skillet and toast them for 30 to 45 seconds. Turn the chiles and repeat, remove them, and set aside. This dry toasting intensifies the flavor of the chiles.
When the dry toasted chiles are cool enough to handle remove the stems, slit them open lengthwise, remove all the seeds and discard. Then tear the chiles into pieces and place them in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover and bring the pot to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes and then set aside to cool. Drain the chiles, discard the cooking water, and set the chiles aside.
Using a blender, add the prepared softened dried chiles, sauteed onions, cumin, marjoram, black pepper, clove, sugar, cider vinegar, and salt. Blend all the ingredients together, scraping down the sides of the blender jar as needed, adding water as needed, until the sauce is very smooth. This may take several minutes.
Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and, using a silicon spatula, press the pureed sauce through the strainer until all the liquid has been extracted. Be sure to scrape off the residual sauce on the underside of the mesh strainer into the sauce. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed.
Transfer the adobo sauce to a container, cover, and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 275 F/ 135 C
- 1 small onion, peeled, quartered and separated
- 4 garlic cloves peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tomato blanched, skin removed and quartered, core removed
- 2 jalapeno or fresh red chiles, quartered and seeds removed
Select a Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid or a roasting pan. Place a shallow rack in the bottom of the pan of choice.
Remove the meat from the marinade and place it on the rack in the pan and add the marinade. Add just enough water to the pan to raise the level of liquid in the pan to about half way up the side of the meat.
Distribute the onions over the meat and tuck in garlic, bay leaves, and cloves. Season with salt and pepper, and top with tomatoes and jalapeno slices.
Cover the pan with a lid or tightly secured foil and transfer to the oven. Set the timer for 4 hours. Then check to see if there is sufficient liquid in the pan. If not replenish as needed. Repeat this every 2 hour until the beef is very tender and easily separated with a fork. Total cooking time will be between 7 and 9 hours. The longer the cooking time the more tender and flavorful the meat!
Once the meat is fully cooked set it aside covered until you are ready to serve.
Before serving you will want to remove the excess rendered fat gathered on top of the pan juices. Discard the fat or save for another purpose, like frying beans.
Before serving pull the beef apart using and reheat the reserved adobo sauce. The adobo should be the consistency of cream. If needed thin with pan juices. Spoon some adobo sauce over the pulled meat and serve the remaining adobo sauce in a bowl on the tables.
- corn and flour tortillas, warmed in a hot dry skillet (or comal, pictured)
- Salsa fresca
- salsa verde
- quesso fresca or mild feta
Place the Barbacoa in the cooking pan on the table along with corn and flour tortillas. Set out salsa and the quesso fresca for those who want to make barbacoa tacos.