This post may contain affiliate links.
Succulent, fall apart tender Lamb Barbacoa is easy to make in your slow cooker. With just 15 minutes of prep, a boneless lamb shoulder and a handful of everyday ingredients, this is a set-it-and-forget it recipe for the iconic Mexican dish.
But forgetting it won't be easy. Warmly spiced with cumin, cinnamon and coriander, with hints of citrus from fresh orange juice and smoky chipotle, the aroma in your kitchen will have you watching the clock for dinner time.
Lamb Barbacoa Ingredients
- Boneless Lamb Shoulder: or boneless leg of lamb
- Beef Broth: or beef stock
- Apple Cider Vinegar: white vinegar or white or red wine vinegar will also work
- Orange Juice: ideally freshly squeezed
- Chipotle Hot Sauce: or chipotle peppers in adobo sauce to taste for a spicier barbacoa
- Garlic: fresh garlic
- Ground Cumin
- Ground Cinnamon
- Ground Coriander
- Dried Oregano: ideally Mexican oregano
- Chipotle Chile Powder: Not standard chili powder which is a blend of spices. Chipotle chile powder is made only with dried and smoked chipotle peppers.
- Dried Bay Leaves: or fresh
- Kosher Salt
- Ground Black Pepper
The word 'barbacoa' is really a form of cooking meat. It began with the Taíno people of the Caribbean and is the origin of the term 'barbecue'. In modern Mexico it often refers to whole sheep or goats cooked slowly over an open fire or, more traditionally, in a pit oven, meaning a hole dug three feet into the ground that's filled with embers and covered with agave leaves.
Where you are in Mexico determines what kind of meat you're likely find. In northern Mexico: goat meat or beef head; in the Yukatan, pork; and in central Mexico, lamb.
There is a Mexican dish that's reminiscent of barbacoa called birria. This specialty from the state of Jalisco (like Mariachi and Tequila) is quite distinct, and although on paper looks similar to barbacoa, it really isn’t. Birria is a meaty broth rather than pure pulled lamb meat like barbacoa. It's a traditional soup or stew that's typically made with goat meat, but may also be sheep, beef, or mutton.
How to Serve
- Pile lamb barbacoa into warm corn tortillas in place of ground lamb in this Lamb Tacos recipe and top with finely diced white onion, chopped fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime and chipotle lime crema.
- Mound it into flour tortillas along with Jack or Oaxaca cheese to make quesadillas.
- Enjoy as a succulent burrito filling (along with Homemade Refried Beans and Mexican Cauliflower Rice) or heaped onto taco salads.
Lamb Barbacoa is a wonderful way to share a meal with friends and family, turning an ordinary meal into a fiesta!
How to Make Lamb Barbacoa
Combine broth, vinegar, juice and spices, except for bay leaves and blend until smooth.
Place trimmed lamb shoulder, cut into 3-inch chunks into the bowl of a slow cooker. Pour broth and spice mixture over lamb and stir to coat. Add bay leaves; cover and cook on low for 5-6 hours, until lamb shreds easily.
Transfer lamb to a large bowl or clean cutting board and shred the meat with two forks. Discard bay leaves and skim fat off of the juices and add ½ cup or more to the shredded lamb and toss to coat. Serve as desired.
More Easy Mexican Recipes
- 3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder
- ½ cup beef broth
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup fresh orange juice from about 1 orange
- 1 tablespoon chipotle hot sauce or more, such as Tabasco or Cholula brands
- 4 cloves garlic smashed and peeled
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano ideally Mexican oregano
- ½ teaspoon chipotle chile powder (recipe note #1)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Trim off any large or hard pieces of fat from the lamb shoulder and cut into 3-inch chunks. Transfer to the bowl of a slow cooker.
- In a blender combine all remaining ingredients except for bay leaves and blend until smooth (about 1 minute). Pour over lamb and stir to coat. Add bay leaves and cover. Cook on low for 5-6 hours, or until lamb shreds easily with a fork.
- When it has cooled slightly, transfer lamb from the cooking juices to a large bowl. Using two forks, shred the meat.
- Skim fat off of the juices in the slow cooker; remove and discard bay leaves. Add ½ cup or more of the juices to the shredded lamb and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate remaining juices for reheating (see note #2) or freeze for another use (see note #3).
- Serve with warm tortillas and your choice of toppings or on tostadas, in burritos, on taco salads.
- Chipotle chile powder is a smoky spice made with only smoked and dried chipotle peppers, not a standard chili powder that is a blend of spices.
- My favorite way to reheat lamb barbacoa is in a slick of hot oil in a non-stick or cast iron skillet until the meat is heated through and the edges are crisp, adding a little bit of the cooking liquid for flavor and moisture.
- Don't throw the cooking liquid away! If you have some left over, freeze it for a great start for chili or a savory soup.