I Can Tell That We Are Going to be Friends

The Story of Lamb Barbacoa

This last week or so has been filled with friends – new and old – and thus has been a highlight of the summer. An old friend from my grade school days in Houston was in town for work…and needed a few party platters – what are the odds on that? I caught up with some of my favorite girlfriends. I met a new friend in a pursuit of local lamb shoulder…through a mutual friend. And then, we had some friends over to try out the lamb barbacoa. A perfect way to welcome August!

So first, I’m totally jazzed about my new friend Ben Slayton at Farmer’s Gate Market in Wales. You may have heard a bit about his market and his “Meat-Ups” on a recent segment on Maine Things Considered. I did, was intrigued and then noted that we had a mutual friend (ah, the power of Facebook). So, I took a trip out to Wales to check out the market and meet the folks there. Ben and his team operate a butcher shop that specializes in local, pasture-raised beef, pork, lamb and poultry. In practice, this means that Ben is sourcing superior meats from a network of farms in Maine that meet certain criteria and then butchering that quality product at the market.  He and his team know A LOT about where their product comes from and how it’s been raised.

For me, this meant that Farmers’ Gate has some cuts that I’ve had trouble sourcing locally. I love to use my smoker in the summer and I’d wanted to try out something different. I found a great recipe for Lamb Barbacoa in Saveur but had trouble finding a lamb shoulder from a local farm. Issue solved at Farmers’ Gate! I picked up a shoulder expertly cut from lamb from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham.

The smoking process may seem as though it would overwhelm the lamb’s taste. But, in fact, the shoulder cut is fatty enough to withstand hours of low temperature cooking. And, by using a lighter tasting wood, like applewood or alder wood, the smoky flavor is a perfect complement to the lamb. The results were delicious.
michelada beer cocktail

Since we were having friends over, this dish worked perfectly to start way ahead of time and just keep warm in the oven until I was ready to serve it. Given the Mexican theme with the barbacoa, I opted to serve/drink while I cooked a beer cocktail called a Michelada – Mexican (or light) beer, the juice of a lime, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a few dashes of Tabasco and some salt & pepper. Delicious and refreshing.
lamb shoulder with chile rub

I made the chile rub from the recipe, as is, and thought it was great. As in any smoked meat, I would recommend rubbing the meat, double wrapping it in plastic and letting it think overnight in the fridge.  About an hour before smoking, I took the lamb out and let it come to room temperature while I soaked the wood and got my smoker ready. I’ve got a bullet smoker and opted to use green apples, a few cinnamon sticks and a few dried chilies in the smoking/steam water. 

The recipe calls for a bone-in lamb shoulder so I modified it for my boneless lamb shoulder and finished off cooking in the oven. My smoker (sucks) is hard to keep going for hours on end so the oven seemed to be a safe bet and was much more practical for entertaining. I kept the lamb in the smoker for 3 hours and then moved it to a 250 oven for another hour-and-a-half. The key is to get the meat so tender that you can pull it apart with a fork. From there, I wrapped the lamb and baking dish in a paper bag and let it rest for another hour (a little trick from Cook’s Illustrated).
lamb barbacoa

I served the lamb in a sort of Lamb Barbacoa Two Ways presentation. On one side was a Barbacoa taco on a corn tortilla with lamb, the tomatillo sauce and a bit of Mexican crema (or just use sour cream). The other side featured a crispy fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans, lamb and the tomatillo sauce. It’s hard to say which dish was better – they were both so good. But even better was the company of great friends after a great week.

lamb barbacoa tacosHappy Eating!

Lamb Barbacoa

Adapted from Saveur

Serves 8

Prep Time: One hour plus overnight.
Cook Time: About 5 hours plus 1 hour of resting.


1/4 cup white vinegar

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp Mexican oregano (or regular, if that’s what you have)

1/2 tsp cinnamon

6 dried chipotle peppers, stemmed and seeded

5 garlic cloves, chopped

2 whole cloves

2 allspice berries

1/4 yellow onion, chopped


  1. Combine all ingredients and puree in a blender or food processor.



3 -4 pound lamb shoulder (ideally, locally raised and pasture-raised from Farmers’ Gate Market)

Applewood or Alder Wood (you can use mesquite if you like a stronger smoky flavor)

Green apples, cinnamon sticks, a few dried peppers for the smoking/steam water (optional)


  1. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and then slather with the rub. Wrap in plastic and place in the fridge overnight.
  2. An hour before you begin smoking, take the lamb out and let it come to room temperature. Meanwhile, soak your wood and get the charcoal going in your smoker.
  3. When your smoker is ready, place the lamb on the grate and smoke about 3 hours, keeping a temperature inside the smoker of about 225 – 250.
  4. Move the lamb onto a baking pan, cover with foil and place in a 250 oven. Cook another 1-2 hours, until the lamb is fork tender.
  5. Place the entire baking pan and lamb inside of a paper bag, close and secure, and let rest for 1 hour.
  6. Pull the lamb and serve.

2 Responses to I Can Tell That We Are Going to be Friends

  1. I have been unsure to cook lamb. One because I sometimes think it is a bit "strong/gamy" and second, because can't find good cuts in the local supermarket. I think if I smoke it like you explained and buy my meat it from a local butcher, it may work. Thanks for the recipe.

    • Steph says:

      Give it a try, some great herbs will make a big difference with lamb…Farmers’ Gate also sells their meat at Bathras Market in South Portland.

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