A Very Old Cooking Technique

Here at the ranch, and on all the ranchitos throughout Central and South America, people traditionally make barbacoa. In fact, this is one of the main recipes that made me take a second look at what we consider our “unique” traditional Texas ranch way of cooking, and connect it to the rest of our continent. Peru has its pachamanca, southern Mexico has its birria and Argentina has its Asado al Pozo which are all similar ways of cooking meat in the earth. Heck, since we are talking about the Americas, let’s throw in U.S. East Coast beach front clam and lobster bakes too. All of these cooking events are earth oriented barbecues.

I had read anecdotes about cooking in earthen holes was an originally an African tradition brought to the Americas, and that African natives used this technique to cook elephant legs, so that they were tender and succulent. (okay…) But just like the discovery of fire for cooking was worldwide, I believe using the earth as a cooking vessel was a technique used by tribes around the world. If you think about it, a hole in the ground is just a massive clay cooking pot. And even though you can’t pick up a hole and take it with you (although I do remember this gag from a Bugs Bunny cartoon) you can certainly dig a new hole anyplace. Voila! Instant catering kitchen.

The Earth as Your Cooking Vessel

Goat, lamb, pork, game and vegetables can all be cooked in an earthen pit, and the locally available ingredients determine what is the signature menu. Our traditional meat for barbacoa here in ranch country is beef, specifically the head of the cow. Hot coals are placed in the bottom of the hole. Wrapped in foil and encased in burlap sacks, the head is lowered into the pit on top of the coals, the hole is covered, and the head slow roasts all night. In the morning, the hole is uncovered, and the entire family digs into the Best. Tacos. Ever.

These days most home owners associations would have a conniption fit if you dug a cooking hole in the back yard (oh sure…hot tubs, panic rooms, compost pits and now chickens are fine, but not a barbacoa pit. The outrage!) But you can certainly make delicious barbacoa using your stove or oven.


Barbacoa Tacos (Stove Top Method)

Tacos de Barbacoa


  • 2-3 lbs beef cheek meat (1kg-1.5kg)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt to taste


  1. Place the beef cheeks in a 3 qt (3lt) lidded saucepan or Dutch oven.
  2. Add the cloves of garlic, plus 1/4 cup of water (60ml). Season with salt. Cover, and bring to a simmer over high heat.
  3. Lower the heat, and allow the barbacoa to cook for 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is fully cooked and tender. This also works well with a slow cooker.
  4. Serve hot with tortillas, garnishes and your favorite salsa.


Oven Method: Heat your oven to 400°F (204°C). Place the beef cheek meat on a sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Place the cloves of garlic on top, and season with salt. Wrap the beef cheek meat in the foil, and place in a baking pan. Bake the meat for 2 ½ hours, until the meat is fully cooked and tender.



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