Monday, April 30, 2012

Pork Carnitas

Carnitas is one of those special dishes in which a tough, humble cut of meat is transformed, through hours of slow heat, into something really wonderful. Each bite of  pork is full of flavor, incredibly tender, and pleasantly crisp around the edges. It makes a tasty filling for tacos or enchiladas or whatever else you can think of. 

I researched lots of recipes before working out an approach that I think is particularly easy and delicious. It takes a long time--you'll need to be home for a good half day-- but  it involves very little work. Big chunks of pork braise uncovered in the oven for several hours, then the meat is shredded and returned to the oven to essentially "fry" in a bit of the rendered fat. The end result is juicy and flavorful with crispy edges. 

I'll share a few quick lessons learned through trial and error:
  • No need to trim the fat from the meat. It's easier to cook the meat as it is and then discard any big pieces of fat at the end. The big chunks of cooked pork need to be pulled apart into bite-sized pieces, and the globs of fat are pretty easy to spot and remove while you're at it. Plus it's good to have the extra fat in the pan while the pork is braising (see next point).
  • Traditional carnitas recipes call for obtaining lard and cooking the pork in that, but I find that the meat itself renders enough fat during its long stay in the oven to more than get the job done. 
  • Some recipes call for browning the meat on all sides before putting it in the oven. However, the part of the meat that is above the surface of the braising liquid at any given time gets nice and brown from the dry heat of the oven. So even without browning the meat ahead of time, you wind up with a flavorful, nicely browned exterior.
  • Avoid shredding the meat while it's still hot. It's important to give the pork a quick rest to let the juices redistribute through the meat. I was in a hurry and shredded the meat right away once, and the pain of burnt fingers wasn't nearly as upsetting as the disappointment of dried-out carnitas.
Serves 6-10 hungry people.
  • 3-5 pounds pork shoulder, with or without the bone (Choose what sounds good for the number of people you're feeding and adjust the seasoning amounts accordingly. No matter how much I make, I never seem to be lucky enough to have leftovers, so you might want to overestimate a little on portion sizes). 
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground dried mild chiles (or chili powder if that's easier to find)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, sliced or roughly chopped
  • 1-2 bay leaves
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the meat into 3-5 squarish bricks and put it in a 9x13" glass pan (or any oven-proof dish) with some space around each piece to allow the meat to brown on the top and sides. Between the pieces of meat, sprinkle the kosher salt, chile powder, cumin, garlic, and bay leaves. Add enough water to come  about a third of the way up the meat and swish things around to evenly distribute the seasoning in the liquid (everything should be in the water, not on the meat). 

Put the pan in the hot oven, uncovered. After one hour, take the pan out and use tongs to turn each piece of meat. Return the pan to the oven and continue to turn the meat once every 30 minutes. The pork should develop a nice dark crust as it cooks. If it doesn't, the meat might be too crowded or you might want to turn up the temperature in the oven a bit. Cook for a total of about 3.5 hours, or until the meat falls apart when you poke it with a fork. There should be very little liquid (and plenty of fat) in the pan at the end. Don't let the liquid evaporate completely;if it does, add a little extra water to the pan.

Remove the pork from the oven and let it rest in the pan for about 15 minutes, then use your hands to pull it apart into bite-size pieces. Discard any large sections of solid fat. Pour off most of the rendered fat from the pan (keep a tablespoon or two in there), then return the meat to the pan and stir. Put the pan back in the oven for another 30 minutes to allow the carnitas to get crispy at the edges.

Serve the finished carnitas in whatever format you like (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, nachos, etc.). Black beans and any good green sauce makes great accompaniments (I like this sauce for tacos or this for enchiladas).