How to make Sonoran beef barbacoa without digging a pit

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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Agave leaves can be used for making barbacoa.

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 chochinita 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

Barbacoa should be topped with softened agave leaves or banana leaves.

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.

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