“CARNITAS: Fried and seasoned meats in tacos and snacks that are commonly sold in streetside fry stands, and that constitute a true menace to health, though they are absolutely delicious.” – Diccionario de Mejicanismos as found in Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless.
I always think of this quote when making carnitas because it perfectly sums up the awesomeness that is braised, then fried, pork. Recently, Anna and I ordered carnitas at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants in Des Moines. To be honest, while the texture was spot on, the flavor was underwhelming. Too much pork, no other notes of flavor. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. After all, I don’t eat bacon to enjoy the flavors of peppercorns or maple – sometimes its all about the pig, and with good reason.
I’ve found that with a lot of Mexican/Latin American cooking a good variety of citrus and herbs is essential for maximizing flavor, particularly with fattier cuts of meat. In a way, this recipe reminds me of the flavors you find not only in Mexico, but maybe in Jamaica while eating jerk chicken. The orange, lime, and lemon combination, coupled with oregano, brown sugar, bay leaf, cinnamon and hot pepper flakes really bring out a unique, savory flavor. Admittedly, cinnamon is the odd ingredient in the bundle here, but give it a chance, as it makes its way into plenty of Mexican/Caribbean recipes.
Like most recipes using pork shoulder, low and slow heat is your friend. Braise this in a dutch oven or other large pot in the oven while you catch up on some episodes of Better Call Saul (note: you could use a slow cooker, but I would recommend the extra step of searing the meat if you do to trap in moisture and flavor). Pair this with pickled red onions, some cojita, and a tomatillo-based salsa, and you have an instant winner at your next fiesta.
- 3lbs of pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes
- 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- Juice of 1 orange
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Juice of 2 limes
- ½ cup of vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon of oregano
- 1 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon of brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons of grapeseed or canola oil
- The key to this recipe is marinating the meat and letting the flavors marinade for at least 24 hours. It's this easy: in a 5½ quart dutch oven, mix all the ingredients together, cover with the lid, and refrigerate for 24 hours. That's it.
- Heat a oven to 325 degrees. About an hour before you want to put the meat in the oven, take the dutch oven out of the refrigerator so it comes back to room temperature. Put the dutch oven in the oven and cook for about 2½ - 3 hours, or until the meat breaks apart easily with a fork. Take the dutch oven out the oven, let it cool for about 30 minutes, and then shred the meat.
- Drain the pork and clean out the dutch oven- there is a lot of grease and other liquids, which makes carnitas amazing. There is a point though, as you are embarking on the next step - frying the pork. In a large saute pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of oil (I use grapeseed here, but use what you have on hand) until the pan is hot. Add the carnitas to the pan in batches, frying until golden brown and crisped up. Transfer the fried pork back to the cleaned dutch oven, and repeat in batches until all of your carnitas are crisp. You can put the dutch oven back in the oven at 200 degrees until you are ready to eat.
- Serve - I really like carnitas on a very warm flour tortilla topped with pickled red onions, cojita, and salsa verde.