There’s a seriousness and beauty to a food whose preparation begins with the need to dig a rather large hole. Though it might come as a surprise that throughout the global history of gastronomy, cooking has happened in stone-lined pits for precisely the same reasons slow cookers, multi-cookers, and air fryers have all had their moments: convenience, reliability, and ease of use.
That’s right, a convenient, reliable, and easy-to-use hole in the ground.
Once built, a stone-lined pit oven provides thermal regulation and moisture retention, just like that multi-cooker taking up countertop space.
The sealed environment of a cooking pit — layers of rock, followed by coals, then foods being cooked, sealed with branches and a loose layer of soil — retains heat and the moisture created while cooking. Add to that the convenience of not needing to tend to a cooking fire or worry about a pot running dry.
This traditional cooking vessel is large enough to contain a beast of any size, which means it’s easy to make a meal of enough tender succulent meat to feed a village. And in Mexico that meal is traditionally barbacoa.
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What kind of meat is used for barbacoa?
Barbacoa is both the dish and the method of cooking. The dish is found in various forms throughout Mexico.
In Sonora, beef is used and the banana leaves of Yucatán’s pork-based cochinita pibil are traded for spiky maguey (agave) leaves, which lend a darkly sweet, fibrous and spiky addition to the pit.
In the northern states, the sauce is simpler, not stained red with annatto, but more of a rich broth in which to dip the meat in.
When making barbacoa in a pit, one of the necessary layers is a dish for collecting the broth released during the slow cooking process. Clay would have traditionally been used, though now it is more likely to be a stainless steel stockpot.
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How to make barbacoa at home
Though pit roasting is the traditional way to make barbacoa, there is no need for a hole in the ground when we have modern conveniences like ovens and good cookware.
However, multi-cookers don’t do the job. Though they yield tender texture, they can’t offer the same depth of flavor, something which can only be achieved with low, slow cooking.
Most home ovens are fantastic at retaining their heat, but also function on an on and off cycle to regulate temperature, rather than pumping out consistent heat.
In order to simulate the low even heat of a pit oven, where a layer of rocks at the bottom radiate back the heat of the coals on them, the oven can be given more thermal radiant mass by stuffing it with things like a pizza stone, baking trays and a cast iron pan, both above and below the cooking beef.
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A cast-iron Dutch oven is a great medium for cooking, as it resembles that tightly sealed pit oven environment. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, a roasting pan can be used, but you will need to wrap it in several layers of aluminum foil to create a sealed vessel.
Vegetables added to the barbacoa meat are left large, as the slow cooking process will take care of softening them enough so they nearly vanish into the sauce, which is left simple with just oregano and garlic used as aromatics to accent the deep beef flavor.
Recipe: Sonoran-style oven-roasted barbacoa
If you can’t find maguey (agave) leaves, banana leaves can be substituted. The one aspect of making barbacoa that cannot be compromised is time. Good barbacoa is a day-long project. This recipe calls for an eight-hour roast, but if time allows, drop the cooking temperature to 250°F, and cook for approximately 12 hours.
2 or 3 maguey (agave) leaves or banana leaves
4 pounds beef chuck
2 pounds bone-in beef, such as short ribs or oxtail
1 ½ tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons dry Mexican oregano
1 pound white onion, peeled and cut in half
1 pound tomatoes, cut in half
1 head garlic, root removed, outer skin removed
6 dry chile colorado (Anaheim/California chiles), stems and seeds removed
2 bay leaves
Tortillas, sliced red onion, cilantro and fresh lime, for serving (optional)
Arrange your cooking rack on the lower third of the oven. Add a pizza stone to a rack below and additional heat-proof metal, like baking sheets or a cast iron pan, to the rack above. Preheat the oven to 300°F for at least 45 minutes.
To prepare the maguy leaves, trim away the sharp edges. Wash well and warm over a low flame or in the oven until pliable. If using banana leaves, follow the same heating procedure.
Cover the bottom and sides of a large Dutch oven or roasting pan with the leaves. Add just enough water cover.
Season the beef with kosher salt and dry Mexican oregano rubbed between the palms. Set the meat over the leaves, adding alternating pieces of onion, tomato, garlic and chiles until they are comfortably snug in the pot. Add bay leaves and cover with maguey or banana leaves, followed by the lid. If the Dutch oven or pot does not close tightly, wrap the entire thing in aluminum foil, alternating directions to cover seams in order to fully seal.
Place in the preheated oven, and cook at 300°F until the scent of tender beef permeates the room, approximately eight hours. Be aware when opening the sealed environment of the oven, steam and moisture will escape. It is best to resist the urge to check the pot unnecessarily.
After eight hours, remove the pot from heat and rest the barbacoa in the sealed pot for half an hour.
Remove meat from the pot and gently separate into thick shreds.
Strain any liquid, pressing vegetable pieces through a mesh strainer to release their liquid. Pour the broth over the shredded barbacoa beef and fold until well mixed. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
Barbacoa makes a wonderful taco. To serve, simply add to a tortilla and garnish with thinly sliced red onion, cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How to make Sonoran beef barbacoa without digging a pit