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
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.
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.