What is Barbacoa?

Most of us are aware of the traditional way of cooking meat via a barbecue. All you need is some coal, a grill, and the fire to get it all cooked. Alternatively, many people use propane gas to fire their grills. However, if you are up to trying something new, you should learn more about Barbacoa, a cooking technique. Being quite different from a grill-based barbecue setup, it is surely a great way to enjoy a barbecue party. 

What is Barbacoa?

In simplest terms, Barbacoa is the art of cooking meat underground with the help of open fire. It is a way in which meat is cooked slowly to give it a perfect taste and not keep any part uncooked. Unlike the regular barbecue, this technique does not involve meat cut into smaller pieces before it is cooked. Generally, a whole sheep or whole goat is slow-cooked with this technique. It may sound odd but trust us, it surely is one of the most delicious items you would ever eat. 

The technique of Barbacoa is quite famous in the Middle East, Turkey, and other such countries. The prepared goat or sheep is usually eaten with some rice.  In the USA, things seem to work a little different as barbacoa is prepared with parts of the heads of animals such as their cheeks. Being one of the most popular dishes of Mexico, the meat used here is lamb. In other parts such as Texas, the cuisine is considered a very special one. Therefore, it is sold on weekends or special occasions. Barbacoa got its popularity in the state of Florida right after the immigrant Mexicans introduced the dish to the state.

Other parts of the world such as Saudia Arab, Qatar, and Dubai have a common practice of eating this delicacy. In fact, if we talk about the best barbacoa, it would be in the Middle Eastern countries. In some cases, the Arabs have also tried to roast a complete camel and made its platter. Surely it sounds weird but it’s definitely one great way to enjoy your meal with the barbacoa technique. 

Maguey Leaves are used for the floor of the barbacoa oven.

How to Prepare a Barbacoa Oven?

One of the main questions many people tend to ask is how they can conveniently prepare a barbacoa oven at their place. Before we proceed further, you should know that it is not an easy task to dig up the field as it may take time and excessive physical effort to get the ditch ready. We recommend that you have at least 2 to 3 people with you to assist you. Also, start preparing the barbacoa oven early in the morning so that you are able to get it fired up by the afternoon. It may take a few hours before the meat is fully cooked. 

All you need to do is to dig a deep hole. Some people prefer vertical walls and a cube-shaped oven while others are fine with it being a circular one as well. The hole dug in the ground should be 2 to 3 feet deep. To make a vertical wall oven, you would have to put in extra effort and use some fine digging techniques. In either case, the hole should be covered with agave leaves. The hole needs to be covered with mud. You may use a mesh wire or steel net to put the mud intact.  You would have to add wood in this cooking pit now while keeping a section specifically for having the goat cooked. 

Preparing a barbacoa oven is not very easy but on the other hand, it isn’t very difficult either. If there are 4 – 5 people to help you out on the job, it can be easily done as the job isn’t for one person alone. Once you prepare your barbacoa oven, we recommend that you keep it that way and don’t fill up the underground oven. This will help you later on when you would want to retry making the meat as you won’t have to dig up everything again.

A traditional barbacoa oven in Mexico.

History of Barbacoa

Historians believe that the traditional barbacoa technique was introduced in Barbados centuries ago. However, the more acceptable belief is that the West Indies use fire-resistant fig branches for cooking. They used to marinate the meat with a series of spices and herbs. Afterward, the meat was cooked on slow heat using fire. According to the locals of the time, it was the “sacred pit” in which the meat was added. 

Nonetheless, the modern barbacoa technique which involves a specially prepared underground oven emerged from Mexico. Mexicans improved the technique and used the century plant also known as the maguey plant in a pit where the fire was initiated. One great thing Mexicans introduced to the meats was that they introduced a series of barbecue sauces as well as salsas which made the dish more popular. People were more interested because of the sauces. 

The more important aspect to consider was the Mole Sauce. The mole sauce has a rich and thick texture which is used along with barbecue or barbacoa meats. This sauce is preferred by many because it has a unique sweetish spicy flavor. The ingredients for this sauce include chilies, onion, garlic, cinnamon, sesame seeds, chocolate, cumin, and coriander as well. A few nuts can also be added so as to make the sauce tastier. 

Read more about the history of barbecue here – The History of Barbecue

Besides this, barbacoa meat has become so popular in Mexico that the nearby areas have stands and stalls of vendors who are selling the barbacoa meat to the customers. A rural community in the outskirts of Mexico known as Texcoco is considered the “home of barbacoa” as people residing in this area consider it as their favorite food. 

Meat prepared with the barbacoa technique.

Difference Between Barbecue and Barbacoa

Besides the major difference of the whole lamb vs chopped-up pieces in barbacoa vs barbecue respectively, there are certainly other differences as well. A barbecue party can be done even if there are 3 – 4 people at maximum. You only need a limited quantity of meat and a small grill to get the meat cooked at the appropriate temperatures. In addition to that, a barbecue grill would use charcoal or propane. The barbecue is prepared in a maximum of 15 minutes. Setting up the entire thing would take you about 30 minutes to 45 minutes depending upon the number of people. Barbecues are quite popular in almost every part of the world. 

In contrast, Barbacoa is not that popular and one of the main reasons for this is that it isn’t easy to prepare. If you are a family of 3 – 5 people, barbacoa wouldn’t be suitable for you because the whole goat or lamb is too much for just a few people. This is one reason why it is considered as a possible option at special occasions such as weddings, home parties, or any other event that requires catering to a large number of people. 

Barbecues are perfect for a small party.

Furthermore, you need about 5 people fully working because you have to marinate the meat as well as prepare the oven, both of which take a lot of time. Meat prepared using the barbacoa technique is tender, juicy, and very well-cooked mainly because there is even and slow heat on every part. 

Our suggestion is that you can have a barbacoa party once every 6 months while inviting many friends and family members. Depending upon the size of the goat, availability of meat, and the side dish you are preparing, you can choose how many people you are comfortable in having over. Keep in mind that the bigger parties leave a bigger mess too which you would have to clean up later. 

Suggested Reading – The perfect Mexican-Style Beef Chorizo Recipe


We can conclude by saying that barbacoa is one of the latest trends of the era and we expect it to flourish in other parts of the world too. Instead of going for a simple barbecue, try having a barbacoa party. Just make sure that you have enough people that you are able to eat a whole lamb or goat. It seems like a good business idea too since it has become widely popular in the Middle East while the USA still has a great potential for this.