Traditionally barbacoa is a preparation of meat (usually sheep, goat or beef) that is steam cooked in an underground oven until very tender and succulent. Mexican barbacoa is perhaps the most well known variation and is traditionally prepared in a brick-lined oven usually about 2 feet across and 3 feet deep. The oven itself is dug right into the earth and wood is placed at the bottom and burned until the whole oven is red hot.
A large pot is prepared with a little liquid which is usually water or pulque (fermented sap from the maguey plant) with vegetables and herbs. There is a grill of some sort in the bottom of the pot or oven so that the meat does not touch the lower surface. The meat, usually lamb is wrapped in maguey leaves and placed inside the pot, it is then topped with the animal’s stomach, into which has been stuffed the other edible organs and a mixture of herbs, spices and of course chiles. The maguey leaves themselves are very rigid and thick and they need to be heated up first to become flexible enough to line the pot or oven and wrap around the meat.
The oven is covered with a metal sheet and a layer of fresh earth then left overnight for the meat to cook. When uncovered, the meat and organs are left cooked to perfection and the liquid has turned into a delicious soup. Traditional consumers of this ancient dish will often partake in all three parts, starting their meal with a bowl of consome (soup broth), followed by tacos made with the organs and then tacos with the meat itself.
Barbacoa is not traditionally an every day fare, it is often prepared for special occasions and events. It can also commonly be found at small family restaurants that serve it in the mornings on the weekends. Even though the ingredients and preparation method is simplistic, the dish itself is considered a mouth watering delicacy.
Across the country of Mexico there exist endless variations of this traditional dish. Different regions use alternative meats, condiments, material for wrapping the meat and/or the baking or steaming process itself. Barbacoa can also be steamed in a stove-top pot or roasted in a regular oven (in case you don’t have your own cooking pit in your backyard). What all these variations have in common is a long slow cooking process resulting in irresistibly tender meat!