How to Build a Barbacoa Pit

Have you ever heard of a barbacoa taco? This style of taco is named after the way the taco was cooked – in a barbacoa pit! Traditionally, barbacoa tacos that are made from animals who were slow roasted over an open fire, usually in a pit dug into the ground. After cooking for hours, the meat was tender and easy to shred for taco meat. The barbacoa method of cooking was originally invented in the Caribbean, and then found its way to Mexico. Eventually the cooking method found its way to Texas, and the word barbacoa morphed into barbecue. Texans took up this traditional form of cooking and evolved it into the American tradition of barbecue!

Cooking in a barbacoa pit is a fun way to get back to barbecue’s roots. It helps take tougher, less desirable cuts of meat and make them delicious. This method is also perfect when you don’t want to have a fire above ground, like when you are camping. It’s super easy to make a barbacoa pit, and if you make it right, about an hour of work will yield you many delicious cooks. Here’s our step by step guide on how to build your own barbacoa pit:

  • Barbacoa Pit Tools
    This is everything you need for digging a barbacoa pit! Some open land, a shovel, sand and pea gravel. The sand and pea gravel are optional.
  • Barbacoa Pit
    Dig you pit to your desired dimensions. My pit is about a 3 foot square that is 4 feet deep. I feel this is a good size for brisket, ribs, and other meats. If you want to cook full animals, make it bigger and deeper.
  • Barbacoa Pit with Sand
    I put a small (.25" deep) layer of sand on the bottom of my pit to help keep it dry and level. This is optional.
  • I then put another small layer of pea gravel on top of the sand. This will also help with drainage and retain heat in the pit. If you're making a long term pit, you can line the edges with brick. It'll help the pit retain shape, as well as heat.
  • Once your pit is dug, it's time to light a fire. I used charcoal to quickly get the fire going. This worked well for a shorter cooking time. Using real wood will create a longer lasting and hotter fire. Make sure you use enough wood for your situation and replenish as necessary to keep the pit hot.
  • Barbacoa Pit Charcoal Fire
    Light your fire and let it burn down to embers. You'll notice that the flames aren't reaching over the top of the pit. This is great for situations where you need to be careful with open flames.
  • Once your fire has burned to embers, put your foil wrapped food on top and you're ready to cook.
  • Put your piece of wood on top of the pit. Make sure the wood that you have is big enough to cover the entire hole. Traditionally, maguey or agave leaves are used to cover the pit, but those are fairly uncommon in Wisconsin, so I'm using plywood!
  • Barbacoa Pit Covered with Dirt
    Cover the edges of the plywood cover with the dirt that you dug out from the hole. This will help keep heat in the pit and control the flow of oxygen to keep the fire at a low burn, not blazing.

As you can see, making your own barbacoa pit is very simple! It really just takes a shovel, a piece of wood and empty land. You can make a fancier or more permanent pit with sand, pea gravel, field stones (they also retain heat), grates for placing food on, and even brick to line the sides. Now that you have a barbacoa pit, here are our suggestions on how to cook on your pit.

  1. Choose cuts of meat that you would normally slow cook and shred anyway. Think about less cuts of meat like brisket, roasts, pork shoulders, and even ribs. These will naturally do well in the low heat of the pit. You can see our Barbacoa Beef Cheek Meat Taco recipe.
  2. Season your meat generously and then double wrap it in aluminum foil, or leaves if they’re available to you. Place the packet directly on the hot coals.
  3. Let the meat cook for 8-12 hours. The heat in my pit lasts for about 8 hours, which is long enough to cook most meats through. Monitor the pit to make sure it keeps heat.
  4. Do not let your food sit in the danger zone of temperature below 140ºF. If your fire goes out and heat in the pit is lost, make sure that your food has reached and stayed at 140ºF. You can learn more about the danger zone on the USDA’s website.
  5. Once your meat is done, pull it from the fire and shred or slice it as appropriate. The packet will be hot, so use heat gloves, and you will have juices in the packet when you open it up, so be careful not to spill the juices on yourself. They could burn you and you’ll also lose lots of delicious flavor!

There’s our guide, we hope it helps you make your own barbacoa pit to enjoy some old school barbecue cooking! Do you have any questions or tips for others looking to make a barbacoa pit? We’d love to hear from you, just leave us a comment and we’ll get back to you.