This slowly cooked lamb barbacao, thanks to the welcome heat of both mezcal and habanero, is so tender and flavorful, you may get a little lost choosing how you best like to serve it. Tucked into tortillas with pico de gallo and fresh lime? Crisped carnitas-style, served over rice? Thankfully, it makes plenty, so you don’t have to limit yourself to a single choice.–Angie Zoobkoff
For the marinade
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, preferably whole
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 6 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon sliced fresh habanero or pequinchile peppers
- 2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
- 1/4 cup mezcal
- 2 tablespoons avocado oil, pasture-raised lard, or mild vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons raw honey
For the lamb
- 4 pounds bone-in lamb pieces, preferably a mix of leg, shank, and neck
- 2 tablespoons avocado oil or pasture-raised lard or mild vegetable oil, plus more for browning
- 2 large white onions, sliced thin
- 1/2 cup mezcal
Make the marinade
- Add the garlic and sliced chiles and grind together with the spices until a chalky paste forms, about 1 minute more.
- Using a wooden spoon, scrape the paste into a large bowl. Add the mustard, mezcal, oil, and honey and whisk until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
☞ TESTER TIP: The fresh chiles in the marinade can be hard on your skin. We recommend donning a pair of disposable gloves before rubbing the lamb with the marinade.
Make the lamb
- Add the lamb to the marinade or, if your bowl isn’t big enough to accommodate the lamb, place it on a large rimmed baking sheet. Use your hands to rub the marinade all over the meat, including any cracks or folds it might have.
- Transfer the lamb to the fridge to rest, uncovered, for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. Bring the lamb to room temperature before cooking.
- Preheat the oven to 275°F (135°C).
- In a large ovenproof stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Working in batches, brown the marinated meat on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Once the meat has browned, transfer it to a large plate or baking sheet.
☞ TESTER TIP: Those chiles can also release some pesky particles during the browning process that can cause watery eyes and a few sneezes. Turn on your ventilation and consider opening a window (or two) to help clear the air.
- Reduce the heat to medium, toss in the onions, and cook them in the pan drippings until soft and caramelized, 7 to 11 minutes.
- Pour the mezcal into the onion mixture and use a wooden spoon to scrape any bits off the bottom of the pot—this is where the flavor is! Once you’ve deglazed the pot and the liquid has reduced slightly, remove the pot from the heat.
- Return the browned lamb to the pot along with the onions and mezcal. Add enough water so the pot is half full, probably 2 to 3 cups. Cover and place in the oven.
- Roast until the lamb is falling off the bone and fork-tender, 4 to 5 hours. Remove from the oven and rest the lamb until cool enough to handle, at least 30 minutes.
- Once the lamb has cooled, transfer it to a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet and pull the meat from the bones. Toss any gristle or chunks of fat. Skim any fat from the surface of the braising liquid, if desired.
- If serving the barbacoa as-is for tacos or to go with rice, you can return the meat to the pot with the onions and braising liquid and warm over low heat if needed. If serving the barbacoa as carnitas, slide the pan of meat beneath the broiler, turning the pieces as necessary, to create crisp edges.
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Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
This lamb barbacoa is a good cool weather plan ahead dish to start on one day and finish the next. You could make the spice marinade and rub the lamb in the day or evening before, then come back for a short active time the next day before popping it all in the oven to make your house smell like savory anticipation all afternoon. A good weekend project. The results are deliciously savory and spiced without too much heat (don’t be afraid of the habanero but DO wear gloves when handling).
My meat was a mixture of shanks and leg steaks, and in keeping the smokey theme, I chose a smoked paprika to reinforce the mezcal. My assistant tasted the marinade paste before I coated the meat and proclaimed it yummy enough to eat by the spoonful.
About 2 to 2 1/4 cups water brought the level to about half in my dutch oven (enameled cast iron).
I checked in on the meat at 3 ½ hours and since the meat was nicely separating from the bones, I turned the lid ajar for the last half hour to allow for some evaporation of liquid.
After removing the meat from the oven, it was still quite hot after 30 minutes, but with fresh gloves and tongs I was able to remove the meat from the bones. While it was out of the Dutch oven, now cooling more easily, I ran the cooking liquid in the pan (including onions that were falling apart) through a fat separator (removing maybe 1/3 cup of fat) and then returned it to the pan and mashing it a bit before adding back in the lamb and reheating it through.
We served this with tortillas and a finely shredded cabbage salad with tortillas on the side for DIY assembly at the table. Extra was saved for subsequent meals (and after refrigerating, you will have the option of removing more fat before reheating if you wish).
This lamb barbacoa recipe takes a long time to make but boy, is it worth it! The flavor on this lamb is fantastic and it would be equally at home spooned over rice as it would be served as tacos.
The dish marinated for just under 8 hours. My lamb consisted of 3 shanks and some boneless lamb leg. I added 3 cups of water to the pot. My lamb cooked for just shy of 5 hours.
I served this as tacos and it was magnificent! So so good!!!
I will say that the smoke put out during the searing is absolutely brutal due to the habanero being in the air. None of it was burning but the smoke alarm was going off (even with the hood on) and everyone on the first floor was coughing heavily from the spice. I had to open the front door and the kitchen porch door to get a cross draft going and the smoke alarm had to go outside until I was done. The dish was absolutely great and everyone I’ve fed it to has loved it but next time I’ll be chopping the habanero and adding it in with the onions. That’s all!