Carnitas are generally my favorite taco filling–I usually order one at any new taqueria to see if I like their style (while ordering a 2nd, backup taco in case I’m disappointed in my favorite). To be clear, what I’m looking for are meat chunks that are crispy yet still moist and tender and very, very porky. This can be screwed up in many ways, most commonly a long stewed version, which ends up being liquidy yet still dry, with the occasional cardboard flavor thrown in.
In my quest to create my own carnitas I went through many, many recipes. Some call for a spice rub, others flavor the cooking liquid with things like citrus. Early in the quest I decided that the best technique was to just cover the chunks of meat in enough water to cover, simmer off, and let the remains fry in their own oil. I spent more recipes than I care to remember trying to perfect the seasoning mix, or mix ingredients from different recipes to get that perfect mix, but I often found that the spices were distracting, the citrus made it a bit less porky, and both had a tendency to start to burn during the frying stage, often foiling plans for perfect crispness. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that if it is pork flavor I am after I should eliminate all ingredients that don’t enhance the pork. What it came down to: pork, salt, bay leaf, and water. That is all. After making it this way once I realized I didn’t have to experiment further.
As an added bonus, the remaining fat, infused with bay leaves, can be made into a version of the bay leaf butter from the Momofuku cook book. Just strain, cool, and whip with an equal volume of butter. Add salt if needed. It is great on noodles, toast, or, as recommended in the cookbook, English muffins. Or just shove it in someone’s face if they try to tell you that bay leaves have no flavor or purpose.
As much pork shoulder as you care to eat (it freezes well, I recommend as much as your pan has room for)
~1 bay leaf per pound of pork
- Chop the pork shoulder into about 3/4 inch cubes. Don’t even think of cutting off the fat or collagen, these are what make it great later on.
- Salt the meat chunks as if they were a steak you are about to cook and place in large, sturdy, flat bottomed pan with the bay leaves. Add water to cover and bring to a simmer.
- Let simmer until water has completely evaporated, about and hour and a half. Test meat for tenderness with a knife and if not yet tender add additional water and simmer until tender.
- Once water has evaporated and meat is tender, allow meat to fry in its own rendered fat until desired crispness, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to check for even browning.
- When carnitas start frying prepare the taco toppings. I like my onions slightly pickled to add a little sweetness. Chop a medium red onion finely and place in a small serving bowl. Add the juice of 1 small lime, or 1/2 large lime and mix.
- Chop cilantro finely and mix in to onions. Cut at least 1 lime wedge per taco for serving.
- Toast tortillas individually in a skillet, or on a comal, and keep warm for serving in oven or tortilla warmer.
- Drain fried meat on paper bags or towels and serve as tacos with onion/cilantro topping and possibly some hot sauce. You can add roasted tomatillo salsa or guacamole if you want, but I like to keep it pure and simple, like street tacos. With a cerveza, of course.
Don’t forget your vegetables, kids!