Barbacoa: Ancient Magic with Wood and Smoke
Barbacoa! The very name promises secret delights from an ancient cooking technique, the perfect blending of rich meat, exotic spices, served with special salsas de barbacoa infused with beer or tequila. And when properly prepared barbacoa delivers on all those possibilities!
In the United States we often associate the name barbacoa with barbecue, which here can mean both grilling and smoking. As we shall see, authentic Mexican barbacoa is traditionally made with a combination of pit-smoking and steaming. In his seminal Diccionario, Enciclopédia de Gastronomía Mexicana, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita says the name barbacoa originated in the West Indies, where it refers to the grill used to cook meat, poultry, and seafood over wood or charcoal. But he goes on to explain that in Mexico it deals with a completely different style of cooking, originally developed by American Indians. This ancient cooking method was used in parts of the United States and all over Mexico to cook fish and game. It later proved ideal for foods introduced by the Spanish, such as sheep, goats, and cattle.
It was probably common sense that impelled those early Americans to build cooking fires in pits that made it difficult for the flames to spread. If pressed to describe the average barbacoa pit, I would say that it is about 2 feet in diameter by a little over 3 feet deep, although some are in the shape of a rectangle, and long enough for an entire pig. Often the interiors are lined with brick. Before the cooking begins, wood is added and burned to coals until the heat is judged ideal and the broth and meats are added and the pit sealed.
Remember that the heat from the coals is just one part of the cooking process; for the best results it must be combined with steam. To provide the necessary moisture, a large pot of water is placed directly over the coals. Often, garbanzo beans, chiles, carrots, and onions are added to make what Ricardo Muñoz calls a consomé de barbacoa. A grill is placed on top of the pot and the meat on top of it.
The meat for barbacoa is most often wrapped, either in banana leaves or pencas de maguey (agave leaves) and topped with the stomach of whatever animal is being cooked, filled with its innards or, more politely: variety meats. The pit is then sealed, often with a piece of sheet metal like metal roofing material or a clay lid made to fit the pit. The top is then covered with earth that is dampened and packed to make an airtight seal.
A common tradition in parts of Mexico, such as Oaxaca, and one that fits the Mexican tendency to indulge in black humor, involves burying a bottle of mezcal or tequila in the pit above the meat with a rope or wire around it that it connected to a cross on the other end. The cross is then stuck into the earth covering the pit, making it appear to be a grave. When the pit is opened, the bottle is pulled up and the contents are poured into cups held by the assembled guests, who then toast the feast, which soon follows!
There are many regional barbacoa variations that use different marinades and meats, poultry or fish, including beef, cow’s heads, goat or kid, (including the heads), lamb, turkey and, of course, the pork and chicken inYucatan’s famous pollo and cochinita pibils. One of the most interesting varieties is the zacahuil found in the Huastec area of Veracruz state. There, large cuts of pork, chickens, and rabbits are mixed with masa (dough) wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked in pits directly on the coals for up to 16 hours. The result is an immense smoked tamale with a delicious golden crust.
And there is the barbacoa made of goat or lamb in Jalisco, called birria that is used to fill tacos or served in the broth as a sort of soup-stew combination. (The word birria is slang for a “mess” as in something “frightful,” which some say the finished product resembles). The meat is marinated in a chile sauce, wrapped in pencas de maguey then put into a clay pot with the marinade. The pot’s lid is then sealed with masa to keep the juices from evaporating and cooked. When it is done, the liquids are mixed with cooked, pureed tomato, simmered and then combined with the meat, which has been removed from the bones. It is then served in bowls, accompanied by chopped onion, oregano, and fiery salsas.
In some places, such as parts of Chihuahua and Guererro, barbacoa is steamed rather than cooked in a pit. Unfortunately, that and oven cooking barbacoa are becoming much more prevalent in Mexico. Just as, unfortunately, that is the way most of the barbacoa in South Texas is prepared. While it has the proper, falling-apart texture, it lacks the all important kiss of smoke, not to mention the satisfying ambiance of tradition!
Making barbacoa at home
So, how can you experience something very close to authentic barbacoa in the average American home? Of course, you can make your own barbacoa pit as described above. All it takes is a bit of digging. If you do so, I suggest you line it with mortared firebrick, which any mason can do in an hour or two.
But if you don’t want to dedicate a nearly grave-size hole in your backyard to barbacoa. there is a simple solution that is explained in the following excerpt from the introduction to the Tex-Mex-style Barbacoa recipe in my fourth book, Jim Peyton’s The Very Best Of Tex-Mex, Plus Barbecue and Texas Chile. With appropriate adjustment of the cooking times the process works well to imitate most types of barbacoa.
“Fortunately, for those who may not live near a barbacoa outlet, or who want that extra kiss of smoke, there is a safe and easy method of producing Tex-Mex (or any other style) barbacoa at home with familiar supermarket cuts. A significant advantage of the technique, which uses a relatively inexpensive water smoker, is that it can be used to make other types of regional barbeque, including Texas-style beef brisket, ribs, and Carolina pulled-pork, and do so much more easily than with traditional methods.
“Water smokers can be purchased at many hardware, building product, and barbecue stores for between $50 and $180, and they come in different models that rely alternately on charcoal, electricity and propane gas to provide the heat. Electric models are the easiest to use. The reason for this is that charcoal models require careful measuring of the fuel, and the addition of coals during cooking to maintain the proper temperature. Gas smokers require the use of propane, which can run out during cooking. Electric models need only be plugged into an outdoor electrical outlet.
“The cooking process for an electric water smoker is one I found originally in an article in Cook’s Illustrated magazine on southern pulled pork barbecue, and it goes as follows: A few chunks, or a handful of chips of soaked hardwood, such as mesquite or hickory, is placed in the bottom of the smoker, on or near the heating element, according to the manufacturers’ instructions; the water dish is filled with water; the meat is placed on the grill; the top put on the smoker; and its cord plugged into an ordinary household outlet. About four hours later, the meat is removed, sealed in a foil baking dish, and placed in a medium oven for one-hour and forty-five minutes. The foil package is then removed from the oven and enclosed in a paper grocery bag for an additional forty-five minutes. The result is a magical transformation that produces meat that literally falls off the bone, and mimics traditional barbacoa in that it combines smoke and steam heat. While the cooking time is about six hours, active preparation is only about thirty minutes.”
(Please note that the technique can also be used with a kettle-style grill that is set up for indirect cooking—with the coals arranged on two sides of the grill, instead of under the meat—and with a large dish of water placed in the center under the meat).
To make your barbacoa preparation even more authentic, when appropriate wrap the meat in banana leaves, which are usually available, frozen if not fresh, in Latin American groceries. Or, to imitate agave leaves, wrap the meat in parchment paper.