Oaxacan-Style Lamb Pit Barbeque and the warmth of Taco Night

I’d not ever made an enormous hunk of meat until I made this.  A lamb shoulder, braised slow in the oven, tenderest-ever in a blood red sauce made of oil-singed guajillo chiles, roasted garlic, cloves and apple cider vinegar – Lamb Barbacoa à la Rick Bayless (because hey, why not?  I don’t own any authentic mexican cookbooks but I know he does it detailed and with the amount of flair I was looking for).  There was a(n exceeding fair) amount of triumph when…

…It turned out, perfectly.  Laying in a brick bath, fresh thyme floating and swathed surrounded with the softest sweetest chunks of carrot, potato and onion.  I even made a simultaneous and completely vegetarian version of this essential “soup” left over, and it was just as good (if a bit lighter, naturally).

There isn’t a lot that I’ll claim to understand fully, but there is this that I know – if you cook it, they will come.  I rounded the roast out with—

Here’s the recipe, c/o Rick Bayless:

Oaxacan-Style Lamb Pit Barbeque

Barbacoa de Borrego, Estilo Oaxaqueno

Serves 25 to 30, with about 6 quarts of consomme (*Liz’s note* I scaled this down by a third!  And you don’t have to dig a hole in the ground to make this.  Just use a very low oven and a very big tray for baking.  Have fun!)

Recipe from Season 6 of Mexico – One Plate at a Time


Adobo Marinade

1 1/2 heads of garlic, cloves broken apart but not peeled (divided use)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
6 ounces (about 24) dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, deveined (if you wish) and torn into large flat pieces
2/3 cups apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela
1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 cup salt
2 tablespoons sugar

1 small lamb (about 30 pounds dressed weight), separated into large (primal) cuts
3 pounds (6 large) white onions, chopped into1/2-inch pieces
3 pounds carrots, peeled (if you wish) and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
10 bay leaves
A handful of fresh thyme sprigs (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
A handful of fresh marjoram sprigs (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
About 4 ounces dried avocado leaves

4  2-foot lengths of banana leaf, if available
Coarse salt for serving


1.   Heat the pit.    It’s a good idea to build a fire in the pit the night before you’re going make the barbacoa to preheat the bricks and earth that surrounds them.  Build a rip-roaring fire – keep it going for about 3 hours – then let it burn out and cover the pit to trap residual heat.

Early on the morning of your party, uncover the pit and build another huge fire in it.  Keep adding wood so that the fire stays very hot (700 to 800 degrees) for at least 3 or 4 hours.

2.   Make the adobo.   Roast 6 cloves of the garlic in a large dry skillet over medium heat, turning regularly, until soft and blotchy black in spots, about 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, heat the oil in another large skillet over medium-high.  A few at a time, oil-toast the chiles for a few seconds on each side, until noticeably darker and toasty smelling –  certainly not smoking and blackened.  Remove the chiles to a large bowl, pour on 3 cups of hot tap water, weight with a plate to keep them submerged.  Soak 20 minutes.

Peel the roasted garlic and place in a blender along with the chiles (and their soaking liquid), vinegar, spices, salt and sugar. Blend to a smooth puree.  Press through a medium-mesh strainer (to catch strain seeds and unblended skin) set over a large bowl

3.   Marinate the lamb and set up the roasting pan.  Smear the red chile marinade over the lamb.  Set 4 3- to 5-inch heat-proof supports (empty tin cans, custard cups or ramekins) near the 4 corners of your huge braising pan.  Peel the remaining garlic, roughly chop it and scatter it over the bottom of pan, along with the onion, carrot and herbs. If you have the innards (heart, kidney and liver) add them to the pan as well. Set a rack on the supports (an oven rack, grill grate or large cooling rack are good choices).  Cover with 2 of the banana leaves and half of the avocado leaves.  Lay in the pieces of marinated lamb keeping them in as close to a single layer as possible.  Cover with the remaining avocado leaves and 2 pieces of banana leaves.  Carry to the pit.

4.   Cook the lamb.   The fire should be burning very, very hot just before you lower in the lamb. Use a shovel or fireplace tongs to remove all the burning logs (but not the coals)

from the pit. Pour 1/2 gallon water around the edges of the lamb. With the help of another (strong) person wearing oven mits, lower the braising pan of meat onto the coals in the very hot pit.  Immediately cover the pit.  Transfer the smoldering logs to the middle of the cover.  Shovel enough dirt around the edges of the cover to completely seal the pit (when complete, you should see no smoke or steam escaping).  Shovel more dirt (around the smoldering logs) over the cover to a depth of about 2 inches, to trap the heat.

Let the lamb cook for about 6 hours.  If everything gone right, after 6 hours, the temperature of the cover, once you’ve swept the dirt back with your hand, will be about 175 degrees – so hot that you can only touch it for a few seconds.

5.    Unearth the lamb and serve.   Shovel and sweep all the dirt off the cover (I shovel it into a garbage can that I cover and store until the next time I use the pit).  Uncover and lift out the braising pan.  Remove and discard the top set of leaves.  Transfer the meat to large serving platters or roasting pans, pulling off and discarding the bones (and the fat and skin, if you’re so inclined) as you go. Keep

warm in a low oven.

Discard the leaves that were below the meat.  Remove the rack and supports.  Ladle the soup into a large soup pot.  Fish out the garlic and herbs and discard.  (Fish out and cut up the pieces of innards if you used them, then return them to the soup.)  Let stand a few minutes for the fat to rise to the top, then skim it off.  Taste and season the soup with salt, usually about 1 1/2 tablespoons. Keep warm over low heat.

When you’re ready to serve, ladle the soup into small bowls for your guests to enjoy as a first course.  Then, sprinkle the meat with coarse salt and set it for everyone to enjoy with warm corn tortillas, salsa, guacamole and black beans.

Also, found time to make some Mexican Hot Chocolate Snickerdoodles from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, as a possible attempt at A) post-vegan retribution, B) karmic upkeep, and C) desire for delicious cookies with hot spices in them.  MMM!

Best when slightly underbaked.  Crispy, soft, cocoa-y, nuggets of yum.



Mexican Hot Chocolate Snickerdoodles

For the topping:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the cookies:

  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 3 tablespoons almond milk (Or your preferred non-dairy milk)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon chocolate extract (or more vanilla extract if you have no chocolate)
  • 1 2/3 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Mix the topping ingredients together on a flat plate. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, use a fork to vigorously mix together oil,  sugar, syrup, and milk. Mix in extracts.

Sift in remaining ingredients, stirring as you add them. Once all ingredients are added mix until you’ve got a pliable dough.

Roll dough into walnut sized balls. Pat into the sugar topping to flatten into roughly 2 inch discs. Transfer to baking sheet, sugar side up, at least 2 inches apart (they do spread). This should be easy as the the bottom of the cookies should just stick to your fingers so you can just flip them over onto the baking sheet.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, they should be a bit spread and crackly on top. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

2 thoughts on “Oaxacan-Style Lamb Pit Barbeque and the warmth of Taco Night

  1. M says:

    Pop would have loved to have shared in that meal. It sounds wonderful. Is that you kitchen/stove? It’s so vintage and funky. Do send me some pictures. Your house looks so warm, relaxing and inviting. M


  2. elizabethranger says:

    yes, that’s our 100-year old stove. it’s tricky to light but it has so much personality I don’t mind at all. And it’s gas! I wish you could come over for tea, I would make you something nice and we could sit on the porch with all the houseplants! I miss you!


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