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.
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.
- 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)
- 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).
- Add the orange zest and juice (if using), then add enough water to just barely cover the pork.
- 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.
- Check to see if the pork is tender (it should be). If not, cook a bit longer (but don’t overcook).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
“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:
Carnitas in Adobo Sauce
Shredded-Beef Soft Tacos
Tex-Mex Shredded-Beef Enchiladas
Mexican Charro Beans
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