The first time I had carnitas was my freshman year of high school. I’m pretty sure, but it’s only a hazy memory. My friend Courtney and I walked over to the hole-in-the-wall Mexican place a few blocks from school. I remember it being in the afternoon, so it was probably before leaving for a water polo game. She ordered two carnitas tacos and I followed her lead. I remember the salsa was really spicy. I probably started sweating a little, as I tend to with food that’s out of my comfort zone. After that, I knew to ask for the thin, chile-flecked sauce on the side at that particular establishment. But I got to work trying plenty of others, too.
Carnitas remain my go-to taco order. I like the simplest version — with onions, cilantro, and salsa — but a little guacamole is more than welcome. I’ve tried a few fancified renditions in D.C., which I enjoyed, but they weren’t really what I wanted. I don’t need to say too much about it, but as any Californian would tell you, a good taco can be hard to find over here.
Luckily, I found this version on Serious Eats that convinced me to finally try to recreate my crispy, porky true love. I was skeptical of most of the recipes I’d seen online. Real carnitas are simmered in huge pots of lard, until the meat is incredibly tender. A little deep frying gets the outside crisp and they’re on their way to
my mouth a taco near you. The most common adaptation for the home cook, who isn’t ready to invest in a cauldron of lard, is to brown the outside of a big hunk of pork shoulder and braise it until all the liquid evaporates. Full disclosure: I never tried to make them that way. But I was plagued with doubt.
Then I discovered that beautiful bit of test-kitchen tinkering, which convinced me that that maybe I could have good carnitas whenever I wanted. A year ago, I put it to the test and was so absolutely thrilled with the results that…I waited a year to make them again. I just can’t finish a party-size pile of carnitas in any reasonable amount of time on my own, no matter how delicious. So a party is what I threw them. Both times. I think we can call it a tradition.
I wasn’t sure about the orange and cinnamon the first time around, but those particular doubts were unnecessary. The delicate, warm flavors only highlight the richness of the pork. After braising for a few hours in a puddle of its own rendered fat – pork confit! – the meat falls apart in chunks at the lightest prodding. A quick bronzing under the broiler is all it needs to get the requisite crispy edges.
Adapted from Serious Eats.
- 4 pounds boneless pork butt (shoulder), rind removed, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 medium orange, quartered
- 6 cloves garlic, lightly crushed and cut in half
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- ¼ cup vegetable oil (I used grapeseed)
- Kosher salt
- 24 corn Tortillas
- Suggested toppings: chopped raw onion, cilantro, salsa, hot sauce, queso fresco, guacamole
- Preheat oven to 275 degrees.
- Season the 2-inch chunks of pork with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and arrange in an even layer in a 9-by-13 inch pan. Squeeze orange juice over the pork and nestle the orange pieces into the pork. Push the onion, garlic, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick into the meat. Push everything down to make it as even as possible. Drizzle the oil on top and cover tightly with foil. Cook until pork is extremely tender, about 3 ½ hours.
- Discard the orange, onion, garlic, cinnamon, and bay leaves. Pour the pork and its liquid into a large mesh strainer set over a bowl. Drain for 10 minutes. Transfer the meat back to the casserole and pull apart with your fingers or forks. You want bite-sized chunks, but some will shred in the process.
- Use a shallow spoon or fat separator to drizzle the fat that’s risen to the top of the liquid onto the pork. At this point you can refrigerate the pork to finish before serving.
- Arrange oven rack 4 inches from your broiler and turn the broiler on high. Broil pork until brown and crisp, about 6 minutes. Stir and broil for another 6 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat tortillas and arrange toppings. Serve shortly after the carnitas come out of the oven. (Broiling can be repeated once to reheat and recrisp leftovers, but watch closely to prevent burning.)