Barbacoa is not just a meal – it’s an event, a celebration. An ancient method perfected by the Mayan: meat, wrapped in agave leaves, cooked over coals, sealed in a pit oven holding all the flavours and sealing them in, imparting the unmistakable, primal flavour of earth and time. With influences from the old world, this method adapted over the years to include lamb, cooked to the original method still in use to this day.
Our version of this dish has been a signature and crowd favourite at The Butler for many years, served as the main event of our set menu. We have modified the dish so we are able to execute it the best we can in a commercial kitchen half a world away from its origin. This adaptation is a cook-at-home version that uses a slow cooker or a low oven in lieu of an earth oven to pay homage to the original creators.
With the rising popularity of Mexican cuisine in Australia, some Mexican produce has become more accessible. Fireworks Foods in North Rocks (NSW) supplies us with all our chilli and spice needs; the shop is open to the public, and you can also order online. Rosa Cienfuegos and Essential Ingredient (both in Sydney) are also great suppliers. Harris Farm is a wonderful source of tortillas, salsas and other Mexican pantry staples.
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The Butler’s lamb barbacoa tacos
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 7–8 hours
Resting time: 30 minutes
1.5kg lamb shoulder, bone in, oyster cut
Cooking oil, to baste
Banana leaves, enough to line and cover your roasting vessel (optional, but an amazing addition; most Asian grocers sell frozen if you can’t find fresh)
1L broth or stock (beef, vegetable or chicken will all work well)
Tortillas, heated, to serve
Your choice of garnishes: white onion, diced; cucumber, sliced; coriander and mint leaves, picked; red radish, shaved; salsa verde; fresh jalapeno slices
1 cinnamon quill
2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp Mexican oregano
½ tsp cumin seeds
10 Guajillo chillies, seeds removed
8 Pasilla chillies, seeds removed
100g garlic cloves, skin on
250ml cider vinegar
Note: makes approximately 500 grams marinade; you will only need 200 to 220 grams for this recipe. Keep in an airtight container in your fridge – it will keep for a couple of months. Use to marinade chicken, beef or pork for grilling, or brush on some cauliflower and roast with olive oil to make a vegetarian version.
Start by making the adobo. Toast spices in pan over a medium heat, for 20–30 seconds until aromatic. Transfer to a spice grinder or blender and grind to a powder. Return pan to the heat.
In the same pan, heat the chillies, turning occasionally until fragrant and well toasted (1–2 minutes). Place chillies in a bowl and cover with hot water (from the tap is fine). Submerge chillies in water with a plate or something to hold them under the surface. Allow to soak for at least 15 minutes.
While the chillies are soaking, keep the pan on the heat and add the garlic cloves, turning occasionally for 6–7 minutes or until the garlic is a little tender and the skin can be removed. Remove from heat, allow to cool until they can be handled, remove all skins and place in the base of a blender.
Remove chillies from bowl and add them to the blender, reserving half of the water to help blend and achieve the correct consistency. Add spice powder and vinegar and blend on high until smooth, adding water, if needed, to achieve a paste with a coating consistency. Place in an airtight container, label and refrigerate.
For the barbacoa, prepare your lamb shoulder by dabbing away any excess liquid with a paper towel. Start by scoring the flesh by running a knife gently on the skin side in a criss-cross pattern, then rub with some cooking oil and season well on all sides with sea salt.
Heat a skillet or large pan (or even your barbeque) until hot, and place banana leaves over the heat briefly to soften and release the oils. Use the leaves to line the base of a slow cooker or deep roasting dish the width and length of your lamb shoulder. Reserve a leaf to cover your lamb when it’s ready to cook. If using an oven, preheat to 155°C.
Sear your lamb skin-side down for 5 minutes, or until the fat begins to render and skin is well charred, then turn and sear the underside for an additional 4–5 minutes. Place into your roasting dish and allow to cool slightly.
Brush a generous amount of adobo (around 200g, depending on the size of your shoulder) on all sides of the shoulder, coating it evenly, then season again with sea salt. Add stock to the cooking vessel, cover entirely with the reserved banana leaf and further cover tightly with 2 layers of aluminium foil.
Place in a preheated oven for 6 hours, or in your slow cooker on high for around 5 hours or low for 7 hours; exact time depends on size of shoulder. A prime indicator for doneness is when you can remove a bone with no resistance; if there is still resistance, cover and return to cooker, testing every 30 minutes until done.
When lamb is cooked, allow it to rest, covered, for 30 minutes. Use this time to prepare your salsas and fresh condiments. Warm your tortillas in a hot pan, quickly on both sides until soft and supple, then stack them in a folded cloth napkin or tea towel to keep warm.
Remove the lid of the lamb cooking vessel and pull out your bones; the meat should break away with zero resistance. If you wish, gently transfer your shoulder to a serving dish, ladle over some of the cooking consomme (or pour into cups, separately) and either dress the lamb with salsa and your fresh garnishes, or serve everything on the side for a make-your-own-taco situation. Reserve any additional cooking liquid for use later, or consume as you would any broth.