I love carnitas. I love making carnitas. Specifically, I love making the best carnitas in the entire world. Hayley loves it too.
Honestly, this doesn’t even compare to the pork you find in 95% of taquerias — even some of the best taquerias in the Mission manage to screw this up somehow, which is sad because its really not difficult. It just takes a couple of extra steps, and the resulting product is ENTIRELY worth the effort.
The basic idea is braising big chunks of pork shoulder (or pork butt, a misleading name for a part of the shoulder) in a mixture of spices and liquid, and then pulling apart the meat with a fork and crisping it under the broiler. Traditionally, you would braise the pork in lard, but this isn’t the 1950′s, so we’re going to skip the lard and use a braising liquid of our own creation.
The absolute key step that produces perfect little pieces of succulent, tender pork that are caramelized and crispy on the outside is the last step. Apparently, this is the step that many restaurants skip, which completely boggles my mind. After the pork has braised for a few hours, and most of the liquid has cooked off, we shred the chunks into bite-size pieces and return them to the oven in a roasting pan. Under the broiler, the tender pieces of meat will quickly brown on the outside, producing an incredible mouth-watering texture.
Since the meat is so amazingly good by itself, the presentation is simple. A classic combination would be a roasted tomatillo salsa, onions and carnitas on corn tortillas. Hayley and I are both big on guacamole (bonus recipe included!), so we do guacamole, hot salsa, tomatoes and cilantro on flour tortillas. Other possible toppings include sour cream and black beans.
(for 4 people, with plenty of leftovers)
4-5 lb pork shoulder or pork butt
spices (a lot of chili powder, paprika and cumin, and a little cayenne pepper, ground cinnamon, pepper flakes, bay leaf)
- note: “A lot” means a tablespoon or more, and “a little” means a teaspoon or less.
a few cups of orange juice
a few cups of chicken stock
- note: You can make the braising liquid to your own taste. Other options would include coca cola, beer, etc.)
6 ripe avocados
half a red onion
4-5 cloves garlic
half a bunch of cilantro
1. Season and Sear the Pork
Carve the pork shoulder into 3-4 inch chunks. Trim any big pieces of extra fat, if there are any. Don’t remove all the fat, because it will render in the pot and turn into pure awesomeness.
Combine the salt, pepper and spices in a bowl, and pour about half of the spice mix onto the pork. The remainder will go into the pot later. Rub the pork pieces to distribute the spices.
Get your pot nice and hot, coat the bottom with a few tablespoons of olive oil, and sear all the pork. Don’t crowd them in (do multiple batches), and don’t rush it — wait until each side is golden brown before turning.
2. Braise the Pork
After all the pork is nice and brown, take it out of the pot and deglaze the bottom of the pot by pouring in a little cold chicken stock or water and scraping up all the brown bits. Put the pork back in the pot and cover with the chicken stock, orange juice, or other braising liquid of your choice. The liquid should come up almost to the top of the meat, but not cover it entirely.
Stir the remainder of the spice mixture into the pot. Get it up to a boil on the stovetop, and then put the pot, uncovered, into the oven at 300 degrees. By leaving the cover off, you will allow the liquid to slowly evaporate during the braising process, leaving behind all the spices and flavor which will soak into the meat. Turn the meat over about once an hour.
After about 3-4 hours, the pork should be starting to fall apart and most of the liquid will be gone. Towards the end, if you want to speed up the evaporation, you can put it back on the stovetop over medium-low heat.
3. Finish the Carnitas
After most of the liquid is gone, transfer the pork from the pot to a roasting pan or baking sheet. Use two forks to shred the pork chunks into bite-sized pieces. The idea is to spread the pork out to increase the surface area, so it will caramelize properly.
Place the roasting pan under the broiler on high, and watch carefully. Allow the top to form a brown crust, stir the meat, and repeat once or twice, depending on your preference. As it broils, it will get crispy on the outside, but the inside of each piece will remain tender and juicy.
Assemble the tacos to your liking. The pork is so flavorful that you don’t need a lot of toppings — try to keep it simple.
Bonus Step 5. Guacamole
Slice each avocado in half and use a spoon to scoop each one into a bowl. As you do this, squeeze the lime juice into the bowl to prevent the avocado from turning brown. Mash up all the avocado with a fork. Dice the onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro and fold into the bowl. Salt and pepper to taste, cover, and put in the fridge for at least an hour for the flavors to combine. Don’t cheat!