Smoked Lamb Barbacoa
It's a sad truth that cooking purely for myself and the wife has fallen the wayside in my life. Between increasing demand from my nine-to-five and developing and writing recipes regularly for two food blogs, a majority of my free time is spoken for. Those nights I'm not cooking for the blogs, I'm usually more keen on getting delivery or quickly grabbing something out in order to give me the most time for photo editing, writing, content entry, and/or sleep (I have remember to work that last one into my schedule too). So over the past couple years as I've been cooking less and less for myself, I've collected a growing number of recipes I've really wanted to try out, but never found the time for. One of those was this beef barbacoa.
Constantly in the back of my mind as something I must try, I finally decided the best way to give it a go would be to rework it into a recipe I could also use as a blog post. This manifested itself as smoked lamb barbacoa, which I contend is probably equally, if not more, delicious as the inspiration point.
For the purists, this recipe won't resemble true barbacoa at all. Barbacoa is a traditional dish in Mexico that involves pit-roasting a whole lamb or sheep that's been slathered in an adobo sauce and covered with avocado, banana, and/or maguey leaves. That 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 wasn't really what I was after—I wanted to achieve the fully flavor-infused, braised barbacoa that I lusted after in that original recipe.
To get that, I started with a lamb shoulder that was deboned and tied into a roast—a process that I was happy to let my butcher handle. The shoulder is an incredibly rich cut, being a muscle that sees a lot of work and develops a deep color. Along with that rich meat also comes the associated drawbacks like a lot of fat and connective tissue. Luckily both smoking low and slow and braising are great ways to break down both, making the cut tender and delicious.
To get the most out of this cut, I thought using both a smoke and braise would be a great method to pack it with flavor and achieve maximum tenderness. I probably could have thrown this roast on the smoker with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt, but my pitmaster blood 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.
Once the shoulder was rubbed liberally with the seasoning, I threw it on the smoker running at 225°F with a few chunks of hickory added to the fire—the rich lamb can handle the medium and heavier woods very well. My goal here wasn't to cook the roast until done, but only to give it enough time to become embedded with a smokiness that would hold up against all the other strong flavors still to come. From experience, I knew this would take around three hours.
As the lamb slowly smoked, I went back inside and turned my attention to building the complex sauce that would give this barbacoa a lot of its earthy and spicy flavor. I kept the sauce recipe very similar to the beef barbacoa that influenced me, which started with steeping toasted ancho and guajillo chilies in chicken stock until tender.
Next I sautéed onion and garlic in a dutch oven until they browned around the edges. Then I added in oregano, cumin, ground cloves, and cinnamon and cook until they all filled the kitchen their fragrance.
Chicken stock, vinegar, and chipotles were added next, and the whole mixture was set to simmer until reduced by half.
Finally, I poured that now concentrated sauce into a blender along with the softened chilies with their steeping liquid. This processed into an medium thick, earthy red sauce that had an incredibly deep earthiness from three different peppers and spices, a faint smokiness from the chipotles, and a light heat.
With the sauce complete, I turned my attention back to the smoker, where the lamb was now a beautiful mahogany that made it look good enough to eat. It was, however, still quite tough, which I could tell just by pressing on it with tongs and feeling its rigidity.
This was just fine though, because all along I was planning on bringing the lamb to total tender doneness by braising. So I transferred the shoulder to the now empty dutch oven, poured on the sauce, covered while leaving the lid slightly cracked to allow for evaporation, and then placed it into 250°F oven.
After an hour, I started testing the consistency of the roast every half hour by poking it with a metal skewer to see how tender the meat was. It took about three hours until I was able to insert the skewer with no resistance, at which point I remove the roast to let cool, while I brought the sauce a boil and then simmered it until it was reduced by half.
With a braised roast like this, texture and moisture is almost always improved after the meat has cooled in its braising liquid, then is reheated. It's actually easiest to keep the roast whole and then pull the meat before reheating, but I couldn't help myself and wanted a taste of the hours of work I had put in up to this point, so started shredding the tender lamb into stands using two forks.
Not everything was completely fork tender as I hoped, so I put my pulled lamb and a few of the still tougher large chunks into a large bowl and poured in the sauce. This was then covered and let sit in the fridge overnight.
The next day, I removed the lamb and pulled those larger chunks while it was still cold, discarding any overly large pieces of fat or sinew that still existed. When gently reheated in the sauce, all the meat became incredibly tender, with some pieces 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.
Smoked Lamb Barbacoa
- Yield 10 to 12 servings
- Prep 1 Hour
- Inactive 8 Hours
- Cook 5 Hours
- Total 14 Hours
- 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 chili 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
- 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.
- Fire up smoker or grill to 250°F, adding chunks of smoking wood chunks when at temperature. Place lamb in smoker and smoke for 3 hours.
- To make the sauce: While the lamb is in the smoker, toast chilies 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.
- 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.
- Transfer entire contents of dutch oven to the jar of a blender, along with soaked chilies and their soaking liquid. Puree until completely smooth, about 1 minutes. Set aside.
- 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 oven. Continue to cook until a metal skewer can be inserted into the lamb with little to no resistance, about 2 to 3 hours.
- 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.
- 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.
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Nick Is this the same recipe you put on Serious Eats? I made it a few months back, and it was AMAZING so if this is an improvement... let me know. Also, are the two blogs you mentioned this one and SE? Cos I don't want to be missing out on your recipes!
Josh @Nick Same recipe. I tend to post the same recipes, but there are improvements here and there to look out for, just not in this one.