Central Mexico’s Tlaxcala region contains arid land with agaves growing everywhere. Its people learned how to benefit from the leaves of this plant during pre-Hispanic times, wrapping armadillo, rabbit or venison meat in them and cooking it in underground ovens.
That was an early version of barbacoa. Today, recipes for the traditional Mexican dish call for goat, lamb, beef, chicken, venison or rabbit, depending on what the cooks can find.
“There are different ways of preparing barbacoa, depending on the region,” said Mariela Ramírez, a Mexican cook who has sold it on demand for five years.
Not only the meat may vary. Other ingredients can adapt to the region as well.
“In some places, cooks use agave leaves. But they may use banana leaves when they don’t find agave. This is the recipe that we follow here in the south,” said Ramírez.
Preparation methods can differ too. Today, the most widely used recipe is the one from Hidalgo, which involves a barbacoa pit. Despite the differences, cooks agree on one point: Its preparation requires about 12 hours.
To prepare barbacoa, one has to dig a five-foot hole in the ground with a pot in the bottom and a layer of stones heated a day in advance. The container will collect the meat juice.
The next step is to cover the stones and oven walls with agave leaves that will serve as insulators and give the meat a distinctive taste. Finally, one must cover the well with a soil layer and light a fire on top.
“The secret is definitely in the seasoning,” said Ramírez. “You can use the same ingredients, but if you do not follow the proper steps and take care of the preparation times, it will not turn out the same.”
Mexicans serve barbacoa with white rice, handmade corn tortillas and salsa. Diners may eat the broth that the meat releases before, during or after enjoying some barbacoa tacos, adding chopped onion and cilantro.
“Salsa counts a lot. It could be spicy salsa verde or the traditional ‘pico de gallo’ that cannot be left out of a true barbacoa,” said Ramírez.
People from Veracruz call the dish “chicken barbacoa tamale.” They cut the meat into pieces and reserve it. Then they seed guajillo peppers, boil them with tomatoes and blend them, adding water and salt. Next, they pour the mix on the meat and add bay and avocado leaves to taste. Finally, they add more water, cover the pot well, and cook the dish over medium heat.
Some families and restaurants prepare barbacoa in underground ovens. But in the rush of the contemporary world, not everybody can dig a barbacoa pit. Many people prepare it using a steamer, oven or slow cooker, which shortens the cooking time.
Often, cooks replace agave leaves with aluminum foil, which is easier to find, but the taste is not the same.
Slow cooker barbacoa
Preparation time: between 4 and 8 hours
2 pounds of meat of choice (it could be beef neck)
1 1/2 onion cut into 4 pieces
3 garlic cloves
3 small bay leaves
¾ cup of water
Salt and black pepper to taste
Cut the meat into pieces, cover it with water and cook with onion, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper to taste.
The meat will cook in about 4 hours at high temperature or 8 at low.
Once the meat is cooked, remove it from the pot and shred it.
Serve with tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro, lemon, salt and salsa.
Diners can eat the broth remaining in the pot.
Steam the meat with onion, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper wrapped with aluminum foil, agave or banana leaves. Cover it and cook at medium-high temperature for 2 to 3 hours.
Wrap the meat preparation with aluminum, agave or banana leaves. Put it in a glass container with water and cook for 6 to 8 hours at 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the meat to verify that it does not run out of water, since it runs the risk of drying out. When finished, unwrap the meat and serve.
(Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos. Edited by Carlin Becker)