Every year around the fourth of July, we head North for a good bit of time and every year I bring a prize cut of meat along with. This year I brought a huge cow’s head hoping to make barbacoa the old way, in a pit. Once I got there, I dug a big pit, lined it with stones and started a huge fire in the hole. After the fire was down to embers, I lowered a chile-slathered, banana-leaf wrapped cow’s head into the hole and pushed a load of dirt around it. Eighteen hours later, I unearthed it and it was merely warm. I tried to cook it in on a grill then in an oven. In the end, I was not convinced the head was safe to eat, so I scrapped it.
That failure has stuck in my craw since then, so on basically the first weekend I had free since the fourth, I reserved another cow’s head and stopped with the pit-roasting fantasy and got back to a cooking device where I am more comfortable – my smoker.
On Friday night, I started with six different dried chilis, rehydrated them, and pureed them with cumin and salt. Then I slathered the head with this chili mixture and wrapped the enormous head in banana leaves. Adding the banana leaves has two purposes. First, by wrapping the head in these leaves, the head is essential steam-smoked. Second, the banana leaves add an earthy, almost grassy, flavor.
After getting the smoker lit, I removed the top grate and stood the head on an angle and shoved the lid in place. The head was so big it barely fit in a smoker that fits 5 hams in it. After smoking the head for a few minutes shy of 24 hours, I rested it for another 2 hours and then removed the banana leaves.
The appearance of the head had changed dramatically and I was not prepared for how easy it was to pull the meat from the skull. Both cheeks were pulled from the bone by hand and came off in single pieces. The remaining meat was found primary under the jawbone and next to the eye sockets. This sounds paltry, but it was nearly four pounds of spicy, smokey meat ended up in the fridge and an enormous skull hitting the freezer for stock.
We took half of a cheek immediately for tacos. Staying simple with pickled smoked red onions, cilantro and lime, the tacos were fantastic. The beef had a nice bark, but was still far more tender than I typically like in beefy situations. The chili flavors were there in their spicy and deep raisiny goodness, but were matched by the beefy, smoke flavor and a touch of the banana leaf flavor. This was not the ho-hum Chipotle barbacoa, but a far more complex, far beefier version of it.
After such a failure as was the pit roasting experiment, I was quite happy with the results. Given the dramatic look of the giant cow’s head, there is value in trying this from a barbecue perspective. However that same feature is a good reason not to try this. It is unwieldy. If you have the space to try this, you may never look at that Chipotle burrito the same way.