Summer's answer to comfort food, authentic carnitas are easy to prepare and easier to eat. Carnitas have a citrus-kissed savoriness that plays nicely with heat and bright herbs. Adapted from Cook's Illustrated.
Carnitas are on a pretty regular rotation around here. Maybe it's because they present so many options. And it's good to have options. Rolled into soft pillowy tortillas, dressed up in a bowl, spread onto homemade chips, topped with authentic guacamole and made into nachos. Carnitas should be renamed. What do you think about changing their name to flex-itas? Opt-itas? YUM-itas? Ok, carnitas it is and they is good.
Bad grammar aside, I love making dishes like carnitas because they are so easy to put together. Carnitas are essentially a braised dish and actually translates to "little meat". A big cut of meat gets cubed into big pieces and is simmered on the stove with a sundry of spices, dried herbs and in this case, citrus, before finishing slowly in the oven on low heat. It's the kind of meal that in the winter you make on a Sunday; in spring, you make them in the afternoon and in the summer (when you're organized), you make them in the morning because turning on the oven sometimes feels—well—wrong.
Trust me, there's nothing wrong about carnitas.
In fact, there's everything right about them. Because they are just plain hard to mess up.
How to make carnitas
Carnitas start with a pork shoulder roast. To make extra authentic carnitas, you should start with a bone-in pork shoulder. Boneless works just as well and still can be called authentic because, let's be honest, you didn't go to a certain fast-casual restaurant and pick up your carnitas, did you? You're making them homemade which equates to authenticity in my book.
Back to how to make carnitas. I get so off-track.
- Put your cubed meat into a dutch oven (for reference, the one pictured here is a well-loved 5 ½ qt. That means the stains on it have been hard-earned like the wrinkles on my face.
- Add the dried spices- the oregano, cumin and bay leaves.
- Zest up an orange and then juice it. While you've got your juicer out, juice a lime too for some extra tartness.
- Toss in a little H2O and you're on your way to dinner.
the key to perfect carnitas...It's all about the sauce, baby!
Once your pork has had its way in the oven, you'll take it out and remove it and the bay leaves from the braising liquid. This is the magic part. You'll fire up the stove and reduce that liquid down to this syrupy thick sauce. It takes a few minutes but it truly makes the dish.
Because you're going to broil that pork until it's all crisp and perfect. When it comes out of the broiler, just try and resist a bite. I bet you can't.
Now here's where the flexibility comes in! Check out some options:
For a few:
✓bowl - great for meal prep or to munch on all week
✓salad - a lightened up version
✓tacos - makes the whole family happy
✓omelet filling - carnitas for breakfast? Yessss!
For a crowd:
✓nachos - make a big pan for a last-minute gathering!
✓pizza topping - another crowd-pleaser
- medium sized Dutch oven
- wire rack
- 1 3 ½-4 lb. boneless pork shoulder roast
- 1 orange
- 1 lime
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. cumin
- 1 tsp. oregano
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp ground pepper
- 2 cups water
- guacamole or sliced avocado, see below
- roasted or sauteed peppers and onions
- black beans
- brown or white rice
- lime wedges
Cooking the Pork
- Preheat oven to 300˚.
- Trim fat cap on pork (the thick white part that is on the bottom of the roast.) You want to trim it so that ⅛" remains. Don't remove too much or you risk the pork being dry.
- Cube pork into 2" cubes. Place in Dutch oven or large pot that has a lid.
- Zest orange and then cut in half. Juice orange. You should have ⅓ cup of juice.
- Juice lime. You want about 2 tsp-1 tablespoon of lime juice. (FYI... 3 tsp= 1 TBSP)
- Add juices to pork in pot.
- Add spices and dried herbs to pot along with water.
- Cover pot and place on stove at medium high heat. Once the pork comes to a simmer, remove the pot and place in the oven. Cook pork for 2 hours.
Broiling the Pork
- Preheat broiler to 500˚ or low if you don't have a temperature setting.
- Once the 2 hours is up, remove the pot from the oven and place on the stove. Using tongs, a slotted spoon or skimmer, carefully remove the pork and place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Also fish out the bay leaves and discard.
- Leaving the lid off, boil the remaining braising liquid for about 7-10 minutes until it reaches a syrupy consistency and a spatula dragged through the sauce leaves a trail.
- Add the meat to the syrupy sauce and lightly toss to coat.
- Remove the meat back to the wire rack/baking sheet combo.
- Broil the pork about 4-5" below the heating element until it is nice and crispy. Keep an eye on it as it could go from perfect to burnt pretty quickly!
- Need a guac recipe? I've got one for you!