Weird Crap I Cook: Hogs Head Barbacoa

After hearing stories of cows head barbacoa and seeing the process on various food shows, I was completely hooked on the idea of giving it a try.  I wanted to find out why, despite everyone raving about the flavor, the idea of it repulsed so many people.  When the opportunity to bury and cook something for 24 hours emerged with an upcoming (then) camping trip, the only obstacle I faced was finding a cow’s head.  As it turned out, fears about prions from the brain contaminating the meat made it impossible to purchase a cow’s head in and around Boston.

Just as I was giving up, a friend saw a sign in the window of the butcher shop in our neighborhood of Jamaica Plain advertising hogs heads for $.89 a pound.  I assumed this would be a straightforward substitute and moved forward with purchase.  However, I couldn’t find any documentation online about ways to cook a whole hogs head aside from boiling it, and certainly not info on burying it to make barbacoa.

So I decided to wing it based on various techniques for other meat, and here is the story.

The head arrived frozen and came to a grand total of $13. After thawing for 48 hours I put the head in the sink to begin the preparation process.

I am not a sadist, but I do smile instinctively when pictures are taken of me

The first step was to remove the tongue since it made the head tougher to handle and I was concerned it would give the meat an odd flavor if cooked altogether.  I reserved in the plastic bag you see to the right.  Afterwards I rinsed the skin thoroughly, rubbed salt into the skin and then rinsed again.  During the process, I noticed that the butcher had missed some hairs on the face of the pig…

Mach 3 Turbo, only the best for this guy

…which led to the awkward experience of shaving the pig.  Afterwards, I rinsed again, patted dry with paper towels, and removed the ears.  I then generously seasoned all surfaces of the head with salt, black pepper, cayenne, and garlic.  The tongue got the same exact treatment; rinsed thoroughly and seasoned.

Once head and tongue were ready to go I wrapped them fully in banana leaves I purchased from the local grocery store and secured the leaves with kitchen twine.

This is about as old school as cooking methods get

Then heavy duty foil

Slightly more new school

Based on shows I had seen on other meats cooked in ground, I needed to find a way to attach a chain to the meat so that they could be easily placed in the cooking pit and removed later. I did this with picture frame wire, two hooks, and a chain purchased at a hardware store for $7.  The whole shebang then went back in the cooler and headed for the campsite.

Charcoal and Meat having a cordial interaction before their inevitable confrontation

At the site, we dug a 2’ deep by 2’ in diameter hole and made a fire at the base of the hole.

That’s a well dug hole, courtesy of the Mooman

Once the coals had burned down, the meat was lowered into the hole and positioned.

This is admittedly a posed photograph, multiple shots were taken during the lowering

Ater some deliberation, we decided to position the head neck down

We quickly covered the meat with dirt to trap the heat of the embers.

The top of the head was 10-12 inches below ground level

And built a fire on top that we would need to keep going for the next 24 hours.

The first thing you learn in business school is using the teepee method to get a fire going; works every time. Also, note the chain in the back for easy meat removal later.

After 24 hours of Maine microbrews, little sleep, and lots of angst over whether this would work, it was time to start digging this thing up.

The roasting site cleared of embers and logs. The ground was still very hot, though.

After a couple shovel loads of dirt a puff of steam shot up from the dirt and the ground appeared to be bubbling.  As I started to pull the chain, more steam and smoke shot out from the small opening in the ground.

The steam carried the ash and dirt from the pit. Pretty cool and a little scary for some reason.

The tongue emerges with the head not far behind. At this point I touched the foil and it felt lukewarm. I was crushed, but tried to hold out some hope.

Close up of the head and me taking the wire frame off. Still couldn’t feel any heat coming off the head.

I knew this part would be messy so I put on the same shirt from the day before. OK, I never changed because I was camping. Mooman didn’t mind

When I finally got the foil off was when I realized for the first time that the head had definitely cooked.  It was a huge relief.

Much more deflated than previously and soaked with rendered fat

Very thankful that it smelled amazing since we all had to pretend it didn’t look a little gross

The second I attempted to move the head after it was unwrapped, medallions of cheek and jaw meat fell out onto the banana leaves.  It was the richest and most tender pork I have ever eaten in my life.

Scraping a knife along the skin caused large chunks of meat to separate from the remaining fat and fall off. I will spare you the rest of the photos of mining for meat inside the head.

The fat had rendered almost completely and the meat separated easily from the remaining fat and skin.  After picking for a bit, we had about 2-3 pounds of meat that we served with corn tortillas toasted on a comal, lime, and fresh cilantro.

Seriously delicious, like slow roasted pork shoulder but richer and more tender

The tongue had also cooked well in its separate wrappings.  The usually tough skin was tender as can be and we simply sliced the tongue and made tacos de lengua.

The contrast in flavors and textures was amazing when mixed though both were great on their own

And that was it.  The tacos with fresh cilantro and lime were a perfect vehicle for the rich meat and an incredible payoff for the effort we put in.  It was a reminder of how great food doesn’t have to be expensive, it just takes time and effort.

Update: A coworkers take on the original picture on this site

Update: A coworkers take on the original picture on this site