Barbacoa Beef + A Barbecue with a Big Reveal

July 15, 2014

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: Scale down a traditional barbecue feast without sacrificing flavor or flair. 

Beef Barbacoa

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There is something about big hunks of meat cooked over long periods at low heat that appeals to us at a very basic level. Pit-cooking traditions like hog roastsbarbacoa, and luaus aren’t just barbecues -- they're celebrations. They conjure up visions of earthen pits and long buffet tables with folding chairs, all set up for a multitude of guests.

More: Slow roast your next pork butt overnight

This kind of cooking takes judgement and practice, though, so unless you host these kinds of events on a regular basis, you're more than likely cooking blind. After all, you probably aren't buying a whole lamb or calf more than a couple times a year. It could take you a few years to get it right.

Beef Barbacoa

But the guaranteed excitement of guests at the big reveal make it worth the effort. Wafts of rich, beefy steam escape from cracks in the ground-level sarcophagus as you pull back its earthen covering; the process is as impressive as the anticipation of beef itself.

More: All for barbecue, barbecue for all -- cater to eaters of all types with these vegetarian cookout dishes

The question then becomes one of scale. Not often do we throw celebrations with a hundred or more people, and even if we did, it isn’t all that easy to get access to whole animals. On a smaller scale, we've all done something similar in our crockpots with great results. But it seems like less of a celebration when there is no reveal.

Beef Barbacoa

An easy way to replicate the air-tight barbecue pit and to have a great moment of reveal is to caulk your Dutch oven with dough. Whether you have a coal-fired, American-style cast iron pot on legs (like the one pictured above) or an enameled French Dutch oven that goes into the oven, you'll still get the same result. The best part of the whole process is that you simply crack the seal and shred the meat tableside in tandem with your guests' oohs and ahhs.

Beef Barbacoa

Barbacoa-Style Beef for a Small-ish Gathering 

Serves 8 to 10

4 1/2 pounds chuck roast (look for one with good marbling)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coffee
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon Ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup flour
1/3 cup water, plus more if needed
5 rosemary sprigs, each about 3 inches long
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ariette Coleman
    Ariette Coleman
  • hardlikearmour
  • fiveandspice
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Ariette C. July 30, 2014
Huh, but whats the use of sealing it with dough then?
hardlikearmour July 15, 2014
This is great! I've never heard of sealing a Dutch oven with dough, but I'm definitely going to try it.
fiveandspice July 15, 2014
I've always wanted to seal my Dutch oven with dough, but haven't actually ever tried it. This looks like a worthy way to give it a shot for the first time. I'm trying it for my next gathering!