Smoked Lamb Barbacoa Recipe

Smoking a lamb shoulder roast prior to braising adds another layer of flavor to earthy and spicy barbacoa.

Joshua Bousel

Why This Recipe Works

  • Opting for lamb instead of beef results in an assertively meaty flavor that is perfectly balanced by the smokiness and spice.
  • Smoking a lamb shoulder roast and then braising it in a Dutch oven replicates the best elements of pit cooking without an elaborate setup.

I had Kenji's beef barbacoa recipe on a running "must-make" list ever since he posted it. The reality of my limited time—between working my day job and developing grilling recipes for this column—means that non-grilled dishes often fall to the wayside. But my desire for a taste of that spicy and earthy stewed meat never ceased, so I devised a solution to have my barbacoa and eat it too—take the recipe outdoors. In doing so, I also made a big switch from beef to lamb, and the results were so delicious that I couldn't wait to share this modified recipe with all serious eaters.

Barbacoa? Where's the Pit

Barbacoa is a traditional dish in Mexico that involves pit-roasting a whole lamb or sheep slathered in an adobo sauce and covered with avocado, banana, and/or maguey leaves. That traditional execution can be adapted to a smaller, more suburban scale by wrapping an adobo-coated lamb shoulder in banana leaves and slow cooking it in a smoker. For a minute I pondered making my barbacoa in that fashion, but it's not really what I was after—I wanted to achieve the fully flavor-infused barbacoa that I lusted after.

On Lamb and Smoke

In that dash for an intensity of flavor, I thought of ways to possibly up the game. Lending a robust beefiness to barbacoa was the recipe's initial challenge and my source of inspiration. But, what if I were to forgo the beef and use an even more flavorful animal to begin with?

For cooking low and slow, the lamb shoulder roast was a no-brainer place to start. It's a cut that's laden with fat and sinew, with disparate muscles in between. This makes it a bad choice for high-heat roasting, which would leave it too tough, but perfect for low and slow cooking, which allows enough time to render the fat and break down connective tissue. The result is a meat so tender that it easily pulls apart.

Letting my barbecue background guide me, I started this off in the smoker over oak wood, figuring that a bit of smokiness would only heighten the flavor of the final product. My pitmaster blood also couldn't let me put that meat into the pit naked, so I came up with an earthy and spicy rub. This let me introduce some of the required barbacoa flavors—dried chiles, cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, and cloves—to the lamb right off the bat.

From Smoke to Sauce

I didn't want to only smoke the lamb, though: It was important to also let it braise in the complexly layered sauce for maximum flavor. For the sauce, I mainly followed Kenji's recipe, but I did scale back a few ingredient amounts, knowing that the rub on the lamb would provide some of what I left out. I also changed a couple things up, like using the guajillo chiles I had on hand instead of New Mexican chiles or chile negros.

I used the time that the lamb was smoking to put together the sauce. Then, after three hours in the smoker—meat doesn't pick up much smoke after that amount of time—I transferred the roast to a large Dutch oven, covered it with sauce, and stuck it into a 250°F (120°C) oven. If you don't to waste a good fire, though, you can also finish it up in the already running smoker.

After that, it was just a waiting game until the lamb became tender enough that my probe thermometer went into the center of the meat with no resistance. This required an additional three hours of cooking.

A Tender Rest

The finished chopped lamb barbacoa, piled on a cutting board.

Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

At this point, the lamb could be pulled, but not as easily as I had imagined. I know from previous experience that chilling the meat and then reheating it results in a more tender final product. I decided to transfer the shoulder to a large bowl and let it sit, fully immersed in the sauce, overnight.

The next day, I removed the lamb and pulled it into large chunks while it was still cold, discarding any overly large pieces of fat or sinew that still existed. When gently reheated in the sauce, those chunks became incredibly tender, with some breaking apart into smaller shreds while others retained their size and shape.

Barbecued Barbacoa

Closeup of the smoked lamb barbacoa served in a taco with cilantro and onion.

Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

A final taste called for a little more salt and a squirt of lime juice to freshen it up. Aside from that, I can't imagine changing a thing: The meat was rich and tender, with the distinctly heavy flavor of lamb flavor coming through the strongly earthy, spicy, and smoky sauce. The rub held up throughout the entire process, and the pieces still clinging to that blackened bark were insanely good.

I actually worried that this intensity of flavor that made me love this so much might be a little overboard for my guests who gathered to help eat, but it was the best-received meat of the afternoon, beating out my all-time favorite skirt steak, and that's saying a lot.

We enjoyed the lamb piled into grill-toasted corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and tomatillo salsa, which added a tartness that provided great contrast to the warm and spicy lamb.

October 2013

Recipe Details

Smoked Lamb Barbacoa Recipe

Active 90 mins
Total 6 hrs
Serves 8 to 12 servings

Smoking a lamb shoulder roast prior to braising adds another layer of flavor to earthy and spicy barbacoa.


For the Rub

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

  • 1 tablespoon guajillo chile powder

  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

  • 2 teaspoons onion powder

  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 5 pounds boneless lamb shoulder roast, tied

  • 3 to 4 chunks of a medium smoking wood, such as oak or hickory

For the Sauce

  • 4 cups homemade or store-bought low sodium chicken stock, divided

  • 1 ancho chile, stemmed and seeded

  • 2 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion (about 1 small)

  • 4 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped chipotles in adobo plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice from 2 limes

  • Kosher salt, to taste

  • Corn tortillas, onion, cilantro, tomatillo salsa, and limes, for serving


  1. To make the rub: Mix together salt, ancho chile powder, guajillo chile powder, cumin, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, chipotle powder, and ground cloves. Season lamb shoulder roast liberally with rub all over.

    The lamb shoulder, tied and rubbed with seasonings.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

  2. Fire up smoker or grill to 250°F (120°C), adding chunks of smoking wood chunks when at temperature. Place lamb in smoker and smoke for 3 hours.

    The lamb shoulder resting on a grill grate after smoking for several hours.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

  3. To make the sauce: While the lamb is in the smoker, toast chiles in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until fragrant, turning with tongs occasionally. Transfer to a small saucepan and cover with 2 cups of chicken stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer and cook until chiles are completely softened, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

    Whole chiles simmering in a saucepan with chicken stock.
    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel.
  4. Heat oil in now empty Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add in onion and garlic and cook until well browned, about 10 minutes. Add in oregano, cumin, ground cloves, and cinnamon and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add in remaining 2 cups of chicken stock, vinegar, and chipotles and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced by half, about 20 minutes.

    The braising liquid is simmered and reduced in a Dutch oven.
    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel.
  5. Transfer entire contents of Dutch oven to the jar of a blender, along with soaked chiles and their soaking liquid. Puree until completely smooth, about 1 minutes. Set aside.

    The braising liquid is puréed in a blender.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

  6. Transfer lamb to now empty dutch oven. Pour sauce over lamb and add in bay leaves. Place lid on dutch oven slightly cracked, then transfer to smoker or a 250°F (120°C) oven. Continue to cook until a metal skewer can be inserted into the lamb with little to no resistance, about 2 to 3 hours.

    The finished smoked lamb barbacoa after braising, ready to be carved and served.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

  7. Transfer lamb to a plate and discard bay leaves. Return dutch oven to stovetop and cook sauce over medium-high heat until reduced by half, about 5 minutes, skimming off any excess fat from surface. Stir lime juice into sauce.

    The braising liquid is simmered and reduced.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

  8. Untie lamb roast. Meat can be pulled and returned to sauce for immediate serving, but for best flavor and tenderness, place lamb in a large bowl and cover with reduced sauce. Refrigerate overnight or up to five days. When ready to serve, remove lamb from liquid and pull into large chunks with hands or two forks. Place sauce and shredded lamb into dutch oven a bring to a simmer over medium heat. Gently fold lamb until warmed all the way through and thoroughly coated with sauce. Season with salt to taste. Serve on toasted corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, tomatillo salsa, and lime.

    Closeup of the chopped lamb and reduced braising liquid after mixing.

    Serious Eats / Joshua Bousel

Special Equipment

Smoker or grill, Dutch oven, blender

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
489 Calories
34g Fat
8g Carbs
37g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8 to 12
Amount per serving
Calories 489
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 34g 43%
Saturated Fat 13g 64%
Cholesterol 138mg 46%
Sodium 964mg 42%
Total Carbohydrate 8g 3%
Dietary Fiber 2g 7%
Total Sugars 1g
Protein 37g
Vitamin C 17mg 84%
Calcium 62mg 5%
Iron 4mg 23%
Potassium 695mg 15%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)