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 roasts, barbacoa, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 below) 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 table side in tandem with your guests’ oohs and ahhs.
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
1. Season the beef with salt. Let the salt absorb into the meat; this will take about 20 minutes. Combine the coffee, cocoa powder, cinnamon, Ancho, garlic powder, and brown sugar. Rub the spice mix all over the meat.
2. Combine the flour and water. Make a dough that is elastic, but not sticky. You may need to add water one tablespoon at a time to get the right consistency. Roll the dough out into a long worm. Place the dough around the lip of the pot.
3. Place the roast into the pot along with the sprigs of rosemary. Place the lid onto the dough ring, pushing down firmly to create an air-tight seal. Don’t push too hard, though, or you might end up cutting the dough instead of sealing the pot.
4. Place the pot into a 325° F oven, or, for those using an American Dutch oven with legs and a exterior lip on the lid, set up a 13/8 coal spread: 13 coals on top and 8 on the bottom. If you are working with coals, you will need to replace the spread about 5 times.
5. Roast the chuck roast around 4 to 5 hours in the oven (if you cook this over the coals it went for 8 hours, lots of temperature fluctuation). Remove it from the oven and place it on a sturdy trivet at the table. Crack the dough and lift the lid. Shred the beef and serve; I like to put wrap it up as tacos.