So I have found out via Rick Bayless’ twitter (he’s one of my favorite people to follow!) that the way I make carnitas is not authentic. If you want authentic, go to his recipe.
Because this is slowly cooked in liquid, it might be helpful to think of my carnitas as more in the pulled pork family of swine goodness.
Instead, when I set about to find a recipe after I went to San Diego and decided that this was something I’d have to try more often (but this was before I was on Twitter), I searched recipe and found a huge variety – some cooking in stock, cola,orange juice, beer, milk, or even water… but none in lipids (not that I knew I should be looking for lipids back then).
So I picked a recipe (water (which I partially replaced with stock) and citrus zest with spices and peppers) and followed it and loved the result. If you want a strict recipe, that’s a really good one. Then I tried it again from memory. And I’ve slowly been paring it down to one of those dishes can just be made from whatever’s hanging out in my refrigerator.
I have a lot of trouble going through a quart of orange juice, so I usually pull this out when I start nearing the orange juice expiration and need to use it up.
Yeah, so you’d think that you’d want a nice fatty shoulder for ideal flavor. But I started with a cheap ass pork loin with no fat at all, and I loved the results. This will still get tender and juicy and lovely even if you buy the cheapest and leanest option out there (don’t you love when those two occur together?).
When I buy a whole pork loin, I usually cut it into three large roasts and freeze them. So I usually work with a 3-4 pound lump of meat.
Feel free to put it in the soup pot without even defrosting it.
Add some orange juice (1-4 cups)
Add some stock (I have quarts of vegetable stock right these days)
Add a splash of wine or beer or tequila – whatever makes you happy.
Feel free to squeeze in a lime
With this much flavorful liquid, you can add some water if the roast still isn’t covered.
You do not need to add any extra fat/oil
If you like onion, you can either half an onion and plan to remove it later, or cut up an onion decently finely so it won’t be stringier than the meat.
Mince up some garlic, if you like. Oddly, I usually skip it.
Feel free to grate in some citrus zest. My first recipe that was heavy on the zest ended up with a slightly too strong citrus flavor, but I still like some – whatever I have that’s easy.
pinch off the head of a couple cloves (the spice) and crush with your fingers into powder
Add some cinnamon, if you like it.
I like to add some ground oregano and some ground thyme. (If you have fresh cilantro, either wait until the dish is ready to serve or add just the stems, finely minced, this early in cooking)
And you can add some crushed pepper now, but I recommend waiting because it’s important to realize that just a little bit of pepper will accumulate a lot of heat the longer it cooks in wet heat.
So bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
An hour or so later, when the meat it thoroughly thawed, carefully pull out the roast (let it drip a bit) and move it to a cutting board. With a large knife, cut it into 1″ to 1.5″ slices – against the grain. This will keep it from getting too stringy as it disintegrates.
note: if you were starting from fresh meat, you could have done it at the beginning, but it’s fine to wait, too.
Return the meat to the pot. Check that you still have a pretty mild simmer going on.
And hour later, come by and start poking at it with a wooden spoon. See if you can just poke a hole through the slices – or break them into halves. Just start encouraging it to fall apart.
Check your water level – it’s probably still scarily high and you’re wondering if you’re going to have to drain the meat later. Be patient.
But about now I start checking at half hour intervals – but that’s because I like poking at my food.
Hey, now would be a good time to add a conservative amount of crushed pepper, if you want.
Cook, cook, cook.
Is it starting to fall apart? Pinch off a bit and taste it. If the flavors are good, but a bit mild, that’s perfect.
Cook, cook, cook.
Okay, start paying attention to the level of liquid when it starts being stew-ish, rather than soup-ish. Stir more frequently and make sure you’re in the same room so that you can tell when it starts to smell drier (I know this sounds odd, but watch the liquid and smell – the sound of the cooking will also change a bit).
Okay, once it’s mostly dry, it’s a fairly harrowing time. Well, if you have fancy enameled cookware, just keep going until you get a little burny crisp around the edges.
I, however, have cheap, thin nonstick cookware, so I don’t want to go that far. Sometimes I have the right combination of attentiveness/patience to get it just perfectly dry without burning. Sometimes I drain it a little at the end – with pulling out not more that a cup or so of liquid, you really do want all those flavors absorbed into the meat (and then I use the liquid of tasty joy to make rice).
You can put it into batches and freeze now. Or you can crisp it up some first.
This is the time to add salt, pepper, and lipids.
Get a big casserole dish and put an inch thick layer of pork (you might have to do more than one batch) – pour over some olive oil (or, you know, bacon fat) and salt and pepper it.
Roast in a 375F oven (Hella hot, but not so hot you have a fire, because that would be bad) until is starts to crisp up.
Take out of the oven. Stir. Put back in the oven. Crisp. Out. Stir. In. Crisp. Out. Taste. Moan.
ETA: I have since come across this recipe for cochinita pibil, which (with the addition of annatto) might be a more direct antececent of this dish