How many of you have had the pleasure of eating barbacoa, smoked long and slow, the old fashioned way, as eaten in the lower Rio Grande Valley from deep in the heart of Texas? I'm talking about smoking a whole beef head, and that's beef as in cow, and eating everything!
tools: Water smoker or pit barbecue
medium beef head, about 15 to 20 pounds, thawed
At least 4 days before you plan to start cooking, order the cabeza, as unless you live in Texas, a whole cow's head might be hard to find. In our home of Roseville, California, we found a jewel of a shop called "Carniceria Familia Lopez Market" that carries just about every cut of meat prized by our many Hispanic neighbors, and a very good assortment of Mexican groceries. Ask your butcher to saw the head in two, lengthwise, as it will be much easier to remove the meat when the cabeza is ready. You should also start the wood chunks soaking, as the more waterlogged they are, the more smoke they'll produce. I prefer hickory, but mesquite or oak will work just fine.
Left: I pose with the cabeza in our kitchen. Right: I never said that a frozen beef head is a pretty sight!
You'll need to thaw the head. We purchased a 16 pound head and it took three days to thaw. You might want to do this out of sight of family members, as a raw beef cabeza makes a rather gruesome sight.
Fire up your smoker or your barbecue pit. While pit is warming up, remove the tongue from the cabeza, as leaving it in will implant a weird taste. It will be cooked separately. Place chili peppers and onion halves into cavities in the cabeza, then wrap the cabeza in several layers of aluminum foil. Wrap tongue in foil. It doesn't matter how well you seal the aluminum foil, as the smoke will penetrate and implant the desired smoky flavor.
Place wrapped packages in smoker or barbecue pit and smoke over low heat, about 160 degrees for 8 to 10 hours, adding hickory chunks as needed. I smoked my 16-pound cabeza and the separate tongue package for 9 1/2 hours and went through 5 pounds of waterlogged hickory chunks. I just "guess" when the meat is done, but I improve my odds by making a small hole in the foil and looking at the meat and smelling it. It should be a dark brown in color and the marbling should be golden brown.
Left: The cabeza is almost ready to remove from the smoker. Note the little hole that I've made in the center of the head to check out the meat. Right: I've unwrapped the cabeza and I'm letting it rest before cutting it up. Note the rich colors; this head was done perfectly.
I prefer the "mixta" variety of barbacoa, so I just remove all of the meat from the cabeza, chop it up, and mix it all together. Chop up the tongue and mix it with the rest of the meat. Yes, my "mixta" includes the brain and the eyes, as they add to the flavor.
In the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and Mexico, barbacoa is breakfast food, traditionally served on Sunday morning, but since I didn't want to stay up all night, I started it early in the morning and ate it for dinner.
Left: I take a break from removing meat from the cabeza. I'm slicing it up and placing it in a large mixing bowl. Right: Our 16-pound head yielded about 8 pounds of meat.
Serve barbacoa with warmed corn tortillas, either on the side, or spooned into the tortilla to form a taco. Garnish with lime wedges, radish slices, jalapeno pepper, diced tomato slices, and fresh cilantro.
I know what you're thinking, "Why would anybody in their right mind want to smoke a cow's head, and then eat it?" Aside from the "Fear Factor" aspect and curiosity, the main reason was "Just because I want to see if I can do it, and then brag about it." I am interested in barbecue, not only as something to eat, but as a pastime and a hobby. In one of my many barbecue books, I read about a place in Brownsville, Texas, that cooks barbacoa, the old fashioned way, in a wood-fired pit. In September, 2003, we friends in the area, and managed to enjoy a Sunday morning breakfast of barbacoa, at Vera's Back Yard Barbecue. Click on the link to read about our dining experience at Vera's. Ever since then, I just "had" to make some barbacoa in my back yard smoker.
Photo: I like barbacoa on corn tortillas in the form of tacos, and these are garnished with tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and radished. I also like to squeeze a little lime juice on the meat for additional flavor.
In case you're interested in what barbacoa tastes like, its very rich, and has a texture and flavor very much like pot roast. Now I can say that I've smoked barbacoa in my back yard.
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