Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Use this succulent meat in tacos or as a main course

Carnitas means “little meats.” In Mexico, you often find these served as “street food,” usually in freshly made corn tortillas. But you can also use the meat in tamales, burritos, sandwiches — or just piled up on a plate.

Carnitas are perfect for festive occasions (think Cinco de Mayo). So grab that party sombrero and get your Mexican on.


Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Recipe: Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Let us admit up front that our carnitas are not strictly authentic. Carnitas originated in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Traditionally, chefs there cook entire pork shoulders in large copper pots or vats. In lard. They cook the pork until it’s tender, but not falling apart — about 3 to 4 hours. This yields something like confit, and produces enough meat to feed a largish crowd.

For an example of "real" carnitas, see the Rick Bayless recipe for Michoacán-Style Pork Carnitas. This recipe calls for 18 pounds of bone-in pork shoulder, plus about 4 gallons of lard (yes, gallons). Now you know why some Mexican restaurants feature carnitas only on weekends; making carnitas the “authentic” way is a major production.

So no, we're not making "authentic" carnitas. Instead, we’re making our own home-cook friendly version, which is a hybrid recipe we’ve adapted from Diane Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico and Marilyn Tausend’s Williams-Sonoma Mexican.

Admittedly, our dish doesn't have the same depth of porky flavor as Michoacán-style carnitas (it can't, because we’re not cooking in lard). But it still tastes wonderful. Better, in fact, than the often prosaic carnitas you’ll find at many Mexican restaurants.

How you serve this dish is up to you. Traditionally, carnitas are wrapped in corn tortillas and served like soft tacos. And that's how we're presenting them today. Next week, we'll use this same recipe, but serve the carnitas in adobo sauce.

This recipe takes about 2 hours to prepare, much of that time unattended.

This recipe makes about 6 to 8 servings. Leftovers keep for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container.

Ingredients
  • 3 to 4 pounds pork shoulder/butt (boneless or not; should contain a fair amount of fat)
  • peeled zest of 1 orange (optional; see Notes)
  • juice of 1 orange (or substitute ½ cup store-bought orange juice)
  • enough water to barely cover the pork (may substitute chicken stock)
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon regular table salt; see Notes)
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • oil, lard, or bacon fat (if necessary for browning the cooked meat)
  • warm corn tortillas for serving, preferably homemade 
  • garnish for serving (such as salsa, jalapeño slices, cilantro, or onion; see Notes)
Procedure
  1. Cut the pork into pieces of about 2 inches by ¾ inch. Place the pieces in a wide cooking pot big enough to hold the meat in a single layer (a large frying pan is ideal).
  2. Add the orange zest and juice (if using), then add enough water to just barely cover the pork.
  3. Smash the garlic with the back of a heavy knife and add it to the cooking pan (we usually don’t peel the garlic, but you can). Add the salt and oregano. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pot with the lid askew (leaving a crack for steam to escape). Simmer for 1 hour.
  4. Check to see if the pork is tender (it should be). If not, cook a bit longer (but don’t overcook).
  5. When the pork is tender enough for your taste, remove the garlic cloves. Raise the stovetop heat and quickly boil off any remaining liquid. Once the water is gone, you’ll be left with rendered fat from the pork. Brown the pork pieces lightly on all sides in the fat (adding additional fat if necessary; you can use oil, lard, or bacon fat). Once the meat pieces are brown, drain them on paper towels for a few minutes.
  6. If you’re serving the meat in soft tacos, place a few pieces of pork on each tortilla (you may want to use two tortillas for each serving; see Notes). Add your garnish of choice and serve. Or you can just put all the garnishes on the table and let everyone choose their own.
Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Notes
  • We suggest using about half a pound of meat per serving. That sounds like a lot, but it cooks down. 
  • Use any garnish that tastes good to you in a taco. We always add jalapeño slices, chopped cilantro, and salsa. Onion slices are good too, as are greens. Cheese and avocado are also nice additions.
  • Commercially made tortillas are thinner and less sturdy than homemade ones. So if you’re using store-bought tortillas (as we did for the photos in this post), you may want to use double tortillas for each taco to make sure everything holds together.
  • You’ll want to warm the tortillas before serving them. Here’s the easiest way: Sprinkle a clean towel with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. Then wrap the tortillas in the towel and microwave them until the tortillas are soft (1 to 3 minutes, depending on the power of your microwave and how many tortillas you’re warming).
  • In Step 3 (simmering the carnitas), you can add some extra flavor if you’d like. Try adding a stick of cinnamon, a teaspoon or so of ground cumin, and/or ½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes to the simmering water.
  • You can substitute lime juice for the OJ if you wish. Or go half and half.
  • We generally zest the orange before squeezing it: Use a vegetable peeler to cut off the peel, removing as little of the white pith as possible (don’t grate the peel for this recipe). Then add the peeled zest to the cooking pan.
  • Pork butt (sometimes called Boston butt) is the top portion of the pork shoulder. It’s often sold as a boneless cut. The lower part of the shoulder is usually called the “picnic” (or picnic ham, or picnic shoulder). The whole shoulder is called, well, the shoulder.
  • We generally like to cook with bone-in meat (for added flavor). But we find that it doesn’t make much difference in this dish. So if using a bone-in cut for this recipe, we usually debone the meat when cutting it into pieces (Step 1).
  • Modern pork is much leaner than pork sold in the past. Too bad, because a pork shoulder with more fat is more flavorful. 
  • We use kosher salt in cooking, which is less salty by volume than regular table salt (its flakes are larger, so they don’t pack as densely in a measure). If using regular table salt, start with about half as much as we suggest, then adjust as necessary.
  • BTW, although carnitas usually are made from pork shoulder, they actually can come from any part of the pig (as in nose-to-tail cooking). The skin (cueritos) is especially prized. Or so we hear (we also hear it’s an acquired taste). We’ve read that pork stomach, kidney, and tail all make good carnitas. But we’re happy enough with the shoulder.
Mexican-Style Pork Carnitas

Pigs Fly

“Oink!” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “You can quote me on that.”

“Mmm-mmm,” I said, finishing off a taco. “This is as much fun as sniffing out truffles.”

“I’d call this dish tortilla fat,” said Mrs K R.

“Yup,” I said. “It’s some fine swine.”

Carnitas: Guaranteed to make you happy as a pig in . . . clover.

You may also enjoy reading about:
Corn Tortillas
Carnitas in Adobo Sauce
Homemade Salsa
Shredded-Beef Soft Tacos
Hard-Shell Tacos
Tex-Mex Shredded-Beef Enchiladas
Mexican Charro Beans
Taco Salad
Or check out the index for more

66 comments:

  1. Wouldn't it be nice to need 18 pounds of pork and gallons and gallons of lard! A real party. I love to imagine the quantities of peppers, salsa, etc. for that one.

    Thanks for scaling it down to family size.

    best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Hi Mae, I'm really tempted to try that whole-shoulder recipe! Gotta wait until we give a huge party, though -- otherwise we'd be eating leftovers for eons. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  2. My husband is a carnitas fan and always orders them in a restaurant. I will make him this healthier version. Thanks for the recipe John.

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    1. Hi Gerlinde, your husband will love these! You will too. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  3. I love carnitas! only made it once though and with a crock pot. Will have to try your way, it looks so good. I actually saw the real deal on a youtube video recently of street food in Mexico City.

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    1. Hi Evelyne, the slow cooker method is good -- we've made carnitas that way, too. But the texture is more like pulled pork -- I like a chunkier texture. But the flavor in both methods is excellent! Thanks for the comment.

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  4. I knew I shouldn't have looked at your blog so close to lunchtime, John. This looks delicious—and so easy to make.

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    1. Hi Terry, this is such a good dish! And you're right -- easy. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  5. I use the same recipe you do and tend to make about 10 pounds of the stuff in the slow cooker. We have enough for one meal them freeze the remaining in meal sized freezer bags. When I get down to one bag in the freezer it is time to make another batch.

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    1. Hi Anne, good idea to make this in quantity and freeze it! That way you can always satisfy that craving for Mexican. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  6. I love carnitas and this recipe looks delicious.

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    1. Hi Pam, carnitas are so good, aren't they? You'll like this recipe. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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    1. Hi Peach, they are! :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  8. There are so many carnitas recipes! Your version is so inviting! Where we live Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in a huge way. A great recipe for the celebration!

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    1. Hi Deb, there are a lot of different recipes, aren't there? I think this is our favorite, although any recipe is better than none. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  9. I'll start by saying thank you for a recipe that doesn't include four gallons of lard :). And I'll finish by saying that these look SO GOOD!

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    1. Hi Kelsie, I like lard, but 4 gallons is a bit much. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  10. In my Mexican-food excessive life, I've never made carnitas. And even though I'm not opposed to using lard, I'll take your version over Rick's. :)

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    1. Hi Lea Ann, you have to make your own carnitas! Really. Good. Stuff. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  11. One of my favorite things to order at a good Mexican restaurant! Love your version of the Rick Bayless original!

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    1. Hi Mimi, carnitas are one of my favorites at Mexican restaurants, too.:-) Thanks for the comment.

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  12. Mmmm ... I wish I was having carnitas for dinner!

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    1. Hi Laura, I wish that most nights. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  13. Nothing like good carnitas. I usually shred the chunks but Manservant loves them the way they are! Perfect for tacos or over rice. Now you have me thinking I better god find some pork!

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    1. Hi Abbe, I go back and forth on whether I prefer chunky or shredded carnitas. Both are really good, but at the moment the chunky ones get the nod. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  14. This is a lovely dish, it doesn't have to be authentic to be delicious!! I am ready for some carnitas

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    1. Hi Dahn, you NEED some carnitas! :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  15. Oh how I love carnitas!! I usually don't make it because my favorite New Mexican restaurant makes wonderful carnitas the traditional way in lard and it's crispy and oh so delicious. But because it's, like you said, a confit in lard, it's not something I eat a lot of. :) Love your method of reducing the fat by cooking first, then cooking it until crisp. I would definitely select bacon drippings. Great recipe John!

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    1. Hi MJ, carnitas made the real deal way are sublime. These are merely excellent. :-) This is one of those dishes I usually order in restaurants, too, but sometimes you just gotta make your own. Thanks for the comment.

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  16. OMG the thought of Rick Bayless's recipe just made me a tad nauseated LOL!!!

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    1. Hi GiGi, someday I'll make that Rick Bayless recipe -- sounds like fun! In the meantime, I'll enjoy these. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  17. I don't think I have ever had carnitas...looks so darn delicious on the corn tortilla.

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    1. Hi Angie, carnitas are definitely worth seeking out one of these days -- so good! Or, you could just make this recipe. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  18. A very inviting recipe! Love the use of orange!!

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    1. Hi Ansh, the orange gives it some nice, subtle flavor. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  19. I always order the carnitas when I'm at a Mexican restaurant. This looks like it could be my new favorite version of them!

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    1. Hi Ashley, had to pass up carnitas when you see them on a menu, isn't it? :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  20. Had no idea that authentic carnitas were so labor intensive and had so much lard... oh my word. Love your abbreviated and delicious recipe, perfect for any day needing a little spice and deliciousness.

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    1. Hi Bobbi, "real" carnitas do take some effort to prepare -- but they're SO good. But then, these are, too. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  21. I love carnitas and have driven to Mexico more than once just to get the good stuff. I love this version, but I have to admit you've inspired me to try cooking a lard version. I think lard is magical! GREG

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    1. Hi Greg, lard IS magic! I haven't made "authentic" carnitas, but I really should -- love 'em. Although these are excellent, too. Thanks for the comment.

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  22. John, this looks soooo good! I love good carnitas, and I'm in a pork mood this week, so this might hit the menu soon.

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    1. Hi Jean, aren't carnitas good? We always seem to be in a pork mood! :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  23. Oh, my! You know this dish would be perfect for Fiesta, which started yesterday here in San Antonio, TX. Would love to eat mine with warm tortillas.

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    1. Hi Denise, this would be perfect for San Antonio's Fiesta! That's such a fun celebration. Or so I hear -- been to San Antonio many times, but never to Fiesta. :-( Thanks for the comment.

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  24. This looks absolutely delicious, I have heard a lot about carnitas... Thanks for sharing the information and the recipe.

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    1. Hi Amira, carnitas are wonderful! If you haven't had them, you definitely should try them sometime. Really good stuff. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  25. I've still got masa to use up from my last taco night, so thanks for the recipe!

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    1. Hi Jeff, you're welcome. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  26. well i don't eat pork but apart from that, these look tasty. perhaps i could use chicken in them?

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    1. Hi Sherry, I haven't tried these with chicken, but big chunks of chicken thighs should work. You'll have to add fat at the end to brown them, of course, since chicken doesn't have that much fat. Thanks for the ocmment.

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  27. Nice! Nothing like carnitas in a taco. I love the original but I do like this lighter take as well. Will give it a try. And I agree about modern pork—the lean stuff they sell these days has so much less flavor than the pork I ate as a kid!

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    1. Hi Frank, modern pork really isn't that good, is it? Although I can get some good stuff at a few butcher shops. Just not at the supermarket. :-( Thanks for the comment.

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  28. Oinky-oink-oink...bring on the lard. (No, not really!) I do a version in the slowcooker which is more pulled pork with spices than true carnitas. Will splurge on the lardy authentic portions when dining out, though. :)

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    1. Hi Debra, we do a pulled-pork type of dish too -- loaded with spices. Both are nice! Thanks for the comment.

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  29. Love carnitas-did not realize it meant "little meats" This is lovely. Using pork meat in a taco with the fixings is fabulous. Love doing dishes like this one.

    Velva

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    1. Hi Velva, I think carnitas makes one of the best tacos going. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  30. I often try to erase it from my mind, but it truly is the lard that makes carnitas so sumptuous. Wrapped in warm corn tortillas with some spicy salsa, they are such a treat.

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    1. Hi Carolyn, lard is pretty tasty, isn't it? And carnitas in corn tortillas are one of my favorite meals. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  31. This looks like a perfect dinner to me, John!! These flavors are right up my alley. :)

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    1. Hi Marcelle, this is really good stuff, isn't it? :-) Thanks for the comment.

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  32. This is my kind of recipe John - it looks and sounds perfect in my book. Great flavors!

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    1. Hi Tricia, it IS perfect! :D Thanks for the comment.

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  33. I love Mexican food and this would be the perfect dish to persuade my fella to eat more Mexican.

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    1. Hi Emma, Mexican food is wonderful! One of our favorite cuisines. :-) Thanks for the comment.

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