Real Deal Carnitas

So, I got this message from old friend and alert blog follower, Nancy ‘Nurk’ Swenson, about real deal Carnitas.

I’m looking for a recipe for pork carnitas. I made it about 3 years ago, but can’t find the recipe again. It started with melting lard, adding great spices (lots of orangey/yellowy ones, cumin etc). Then when it cooled enough to handle, you rubbed the pork roast/shoulder/piece of meat with the lard goo and double wrapped it in tin foil. It stayed overnight in the fridge. Then into a low oven in a dutch oven for like 8 hours. When you took it out there was a bunch of juice. You removed the tin foil, shredded the meat and over a 1/2 hour of occasional stirring, the juices sucked back into the meat. Lastly you threw it under the broiler to crisp up the edges. It was wonderful. Do you know this recipe or have a great one? We are having 10 people over for dinner and I want to make this again. Thanks. Love to you and Monica.

Well, first and foremost, love back to you and Steve! Naturally, I assumed that I sure do have a carnitas recipe onboard, and then I looked and… yeah, no. Hard to believe, but true, so it’s very much time to rectify that omission. So, Nurk? I got this, Pal.

Carnitas de Urban
Carnitas de Urban

First off, a bit of clarification – the literal translation of Carnitas is ‘little meats.’ This slice of heaven hails from the State of Michoacán, which lies due west of Mexico City, on the pacific side. A lot of folks seem to believe that carnitas are a specific vehicle, like a taco, burrito, tostada, etc – and that just ain’t the case – It’s the meat, the filling, the heart and soul of any and all such accoutrements. The typical cuts used to make carnitas are not unexpected – Here in El Norte, you’ll want a Boston Butt or similar heavily marbled shoulder cut, (and bone in, whenever you can get that). Mexican butchers call this cut the Espaldilla, and down there, it’s also used for stew meat and for making chorizo.

What you do with that cut to make carnitas is essentially confit – cooking pork in fat until the meat is meltingly tender and juicy. Confit is alive and well all around the world, especially since ‘experts’ stoped castigating animal fats for so many human ills. Confit began as a preservation method, sealing meat away from air and bacteria in a thick layer of fat. French versions are far and away the most widely known these days. There, the meat is salted, seasoned, and dried, then cooked low and slow to perfection. A second salting is followed by very careful removal of all meat remnants and juices from the fat, which is then poured back over the meat. Confit done this way will stay good for months, as it was intended to do – Tiding a family over from slaughter to the next.

What’s been lost over time is that fundamental use of confit for preserving food, rather than just flavoring it, along with the subtle depth and breadth of flavor that long, slow process of preparation, cooking, and preservation imparts, and that’s kind of too bad, frankly.

In Mexico, many cooks prepare carnitas by adding a shit ton of lard to a heavy, copper pan. When the lard is melted, the pork is immersed therein, along with seasoning – Usually some variation of chiles, garlic, and cumin. The meat is cooked low and slow until it’s fall apart tender, then the heat is turned up until the pork starts to crisp – At this juncture, it’ll shred easily, and can then be loaded into whatever – tacos, burritos, tortas, and what have you. Now that said, some folks sear the pork on high heat first, then do the low and slow, so really, there’s poetic license all over this dish. For my mind, searing or crisping can always be done right before service, and leaving that out leads to less loss of fat, more flavor, and a juicier, moister finished product – More on this below.

This kind of thing is wholly in keeping with our tradition of cooking something big at the beginning of the week. That makes for easy, fast meals in the ensuing days, as well as the opportunity to portion and freeze stuff for later inspiration. As such, when approaching carnitas, we’ll go for a truly big chunk of bone in, Boston Butt roast with lost of marbling.

Secondly, while I love fat, I really and truly don’t think it’s necessary to either get the cooking job done, or to impart adequate flavor when it comes down to it. The one we’re going to do up today is five and a half pounds, and as you can see, plenty fatty without being ridiculous. Believe me when I tell you, if you do a roast like this up low and slow, you’ll have all the fat you could possibly want or need, and then some – No additional lard needed, and you will get to use that in the end run. I’ll show you a brilliant cheat with this recipe that will recreate that elusive cooked in fat carnita taste, too.

Bone in Boston Butt pork roast
Bone in Boston Butt pork roast

And so on to cooking method. You don’t need a big, heavy copper pan, (although if you’ve got one, go wild). For stuff this big, we’ve got several options, depending on how you want to do it, so method goes before vessel. My preference is stand alone slow cooker, but you can certainly do this in your oven with a dutch oven or a braiser – Something with a nice, thick, heavy bottom that will store and slowly release heat over time. Whatever vessel you choose, you want your pork and aromatics to pretty much fill the thing up, with a few inches of head space to spare. That will assure that the melting fat from the pork surrounds the meat, and does its thing during the cooking process.

A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking
A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking

Now, an aside in honor of my Friend, Gloria Goodwin Raheja, who guest cheffed here the other week. Her enthusiasm for the instant pot, (along with that of damn near everybody on the Vietnamese cooking group I’m a member of), lead me to buy one for my birthday. They are pretty dang amazing, and as a Gloria noted, meats done in this manner come out divinely, so there ya go – No, it’s not low and slow, but if you’ve got an hour and a half to work with rather than six to eight, there’s nothing wrong with doing up your carnitas in one.

Now, on to seasoning. The dominant veggie notes here need to be chiles, peppers, tomato, and garlic. Whether you use a slow cooker or the oven, this is going to be the bed you cook your carnitas on. What we’re doing is more of a sofrito than anything, (more or less the Spanish base mix, as opposed to the Italian soffritto – See our bit on aromatic bases here, if you’ve not already.) For my mind, additional seasoning should be pretty minimal. What I use is our signature seasoning salt, a notably smoky blend with major chile, paprika, garlic and onion notes, and a hint of sage. To me, it’s perfect for stuff like this – You can find that recipe right here, but I’ll list an alternative for the recipe as well.

mis en place for carnitas
mis en place for carnitas

Notes:
1. Again, if you do a large roast as we suggest, you’re going to have a lot more than one night’s meal – That’s the whole idea, really. You want to do the cooking in one day, cool and then refrigerate your roast overnight, then do your first meal the next day. Plan ahead for portioning and freezing the meat.
2. Remember that a recipe is a guideline, not gospel – Do what you like in terms of heat level, etc. just don’t go too wild first time out if you’re not quite sure of what a given ratio will do to the whole – The big picture idea of carnitas is a delicate balance.

Carnitas de Urban

4-6 Pound Bone In, Boston Butt Pork Roast
3-6 Chiles, (whatever you like – Our go to are Jalapeño or Serrano)
6-8 small Sweet Peppers
1/2 medium sweet Onion
8-10 whole cloves Garlic
1 15 ounce can diced Tomatoes
6-8 sprigs fresh Cilantro
Urban Seasoning Salt, or
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon alderwood smoked Salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1 teaspoon smoked Paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground red Chile
1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage

Fresh corn or flour Street Taco Tortillas

For Garnish –
Lime wedges
Salsa or Pico de Gallo
Sour Cream
Avocado wedges
Shredded Lettuce and Cabbage
Pickled Onions or Radishes
Tomatoes
Sweet Peppers
More Chiles

Prepare a slow cooker, Dutch oven, etc for use. If you’re using the oven, set a rack in a middle slot and preheat to 250° F.

Rinse and trim chiles, peppers, and onion. Trim and peel garlic cloves.

Rough chop chiles, peppers, and onion, leave garlic cloves whole.

Arrange veggies evenly around the base of the cooking vessel.

Rinse and pat roast dry.

Combine seasonings in a small mixing bowl.

Rub roast lightly with vegetable oil and cover every surface evenly with the seasoning blend.

Place roast in cooker, add tomatoes evenly over the top, then sprigs of cilantro.

Cook low and slow for 6-8 hours until the roast is fork tender and reads an internal temperature of 145 – 150° F.

Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow
Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow

Remove roast from cooker or oven and allow to cool in the cooking vessel, (You should plan for several hours of cooling – Never put hot food in the fridge or freezer.)

Once the pork has cooled, refrigerate it overnight, (or, if it’s done in the cold season and conditions allow, put it out on your porch overnight.)

Next day, skim the fat from the top of the cooking vessel and reserve – This is gold, don’t waste it.

Remove the pork and set that on a cutting board.

Pour off the cooking liquid through a colander or strainer – transfer to a clean mason jar and freeze for future soup or stew making. Discard the cooking veggies – They’re done like dinner after that long slow cook.

Portion the pork into meal sized chunks. Vacuum sealing is best, but if you don’t have one, you can place portions in an airtight container or jar and freeze, or wrap them tightly in a layer or two of metal foil. Make sure you mark what it is and when it hit the freezer, for future reference.

For dinner one, wrap however many tortillas you need in metal foil and set into a 150° F oven, on a middle rack.

Place a heavy, cast iron skillet on a burner over low heat, and add a tablespoon of the reserved pork fat.

Shred the pork, either by hand, or with two forks.

Prepare all your fixin’s as you see fit.

Carnitas, ready to load
Carnitas, ready to load

Increase the heat under the skillet to high, until the fat is sizzling.

Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat
Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat

Add the shredded pork to the hot pan and sear it, turning steadily with two forks, until it’s evenly and lightly browned.

Seared carnitas, good as it gets
Seared carnitas, good as it gets

Transfer to a serving bowl, and go wild – There won’t be any leftovers, guaranteed.