As if slow-cooked, tender, succulent pork wasn’t tempting enough, carnitas takes it one step further by caramelizing the pork in its own fat until the outside is perfectly browned and crisp. The crispy, tender morsels of pork that come out of the oven are hard to resist; it’s not unusual to eat so much meat right out of the pan that you’re full before the carnitas make it to the table.
Cooking meat that is both tender and crispy might sound tricky but the only trick to making carnitas is getting out of the way so the meat can cook itself. The less you intervene, the better. Seasoned pork is braised in a pot of water until the meat is tender and the water is gone. Then the pork fat takes over, essentially frying the meat into a crispy, fatty, salty masterpiece.
Carnitas is a great dish to cook ahead of time for quick weeknight dinners or large parties. Served with avocado, salsa or sautéed peppers it’s a meal that satisfies every time.
Time in the Kitchen: 20 minutes active cooking time, 3 to 4 hours in the oven
3 to 4 pounds boneless pork shoulder/butt cut into five pieces. You can trim off a little bit of the fat or leave it all on. (1.4 to 1.8 kg)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (7 ml)
1 teaspoon cumin (5 ml)
1 teaspoon chili powder (5 ml)
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped or thinly sliced
Water, for braising
Preheat the oven to 350 ºF (177 ºC).
Mix together the salt, cumin and chili powder and rub all over the meat.
Place the meat in a large, heavy pot with the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, garlic and onion. Ideally, the pot is large enough so that the meat is in a single layer. Add enough water to almost, but not entirely, cover the meat.
Put the pot in the oven, uncovered, and braise for 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Stir the meat just a few times while it cooks. You’ll know the pork is done when it’s really tender, slightly browned and most of the liquid is gone.
Remove the pork from the oven. Put the meat on a cutting board and cut or shred it with your hands into thin strips.
Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf from the pot. Add the shredded meat back to the pot and return it to the oven.
Roast the meat, mixing occasionally, until the meat is as dark and crispy as you like it. (This process will go even faster if the meat is spread out on a roasting pan or baking sheet with any remaining liquid that was left in the pot. If time is tight, you can also put the meat under a broiler).
If you’re making carnitas ahead of time, cook the meat for 3 hours until tender. The final crisping up in the oven can be done right before serving the meat.
The entire cooking process for carnitas can also be done on a stovetop but the oven is a little easier. A slow cooker can also be used to cook the meat until tender (add only about 1/2 cup of water). The meat can then be transferred to the oven to brown.