Barbacoa is a both a type of cooking in Mexican and Caribbean cuisine and a reference to a specific type of dish cooked in that particular style. There is sometimes a misconception that barbacoa is actually just another word for barbecue, but this is not the case. An authentic barbacoa preparation involves cooking meat in a pit in the ground along with a container of water, causing the heat that is roasting the meat to be very damp and making the meat moist. The most cooked dish that is truly barbacoa is the head of a cow, lightly spiced and cooked whole — with the eyes, cheeks and tongue — for hours until it is tender and the fat has just started to render. In some areas, instead of a cow’s head, the meat used is more traditional, such as a pork or beef cut.
The cooking method used when making barbacoa begins with a pit that has been dug several feet deep into the ground. Hot coals are placed in the bottom, sometimes along with soaked wood chips to add a smoky flavor. The coals are allowed to burn for several hours, until they have started to smolder. A very large pot of water is placed on top of the coals, and then a rack is fixed over or beside the pot.
Whatever meat is being cooked is then prepared. Traditionally, the meat is not marinated and is not left to sit with a dry rub, but instead is seasoned just before being placed in the pit. Basic seasonings such as salt and pepper are commonly used, although rosemary, thyme or garlic powder also can be seen. The meat is then wrapped in banana leaves, if available, although foil can be used as a substitute.
The wrapped meat is placed on the grill and the pit is covered. The entire process, especially for an entire cow’s head, can take anywhere from 12 to 20 hours or more. Depending on how the pit has been arranged, it can be checked every few hours to ensure that the liquid in the pot has not dried up completely, with more added as necessary.
Finished barbacoa is taken off the grill, unwrapped and pulled off the bone into shredded pieces. The meat is most often eaten wrapped in tortillas like a taco or served over rice. Sauces such as chili sauce or salsa also are usually served with the meat. The cooking method can be emulated on standard grills by including a pan full of water when cooking and keeping the lid closed through the entire process.