Years ago, a friend walked into my office at lunchtime and promised to take me to the world’s best carnitas. “The best? Really?” (Now who could argue with that offer?)
So, off we went, to a tired neighborhood and a sad strip of store-fronts. You couldn’t help but notice the peeling paint and tattered signs, covered with dust from the hot dry summer. Never one to be dissuaded by packaging when it comes to food, I hopped out and made my way indoors.
The scent of smoke, roasting meats and chilis immediately enveloped me like a soft tortilla. A man slid a paper plate with carnitas across the counter as he chatted with my colleague in Spanish. Just a few bites and I knew the carnitas were as good as my friend claimed and I had hoped. Moist, tender chunks and shreds of pork fell apart in my mouth – with the occasional crunch of caramelized flavor. It is not surprising that this “Mexican” food memory stayed with me for decades – even though I was well north of the border near San Francisco.
Since then, I’ve had carnitas more times than I care to admit – with many return trips to the California store-front and a number of visits to Mexico. And perhaps the best I had in Mexico (in Oaxaca) were just as good, but I’m not convinced they were better. So, the store-front version is what I’ve strived for ever since – experimenting with different methods and always working toward that magical recipe. Years and many plates of carnitas later, I’m happy to report that the keys to success are a traditional two-step cooking method (slow moist heat followed by browning) and a trio of dried chilis.
- COOKING FUNDAMENTALS: MOIST-HEAT COOKING -WITH AND WITHOUT BROWNING
A slow moist-heat cooking method uses low temperatures and simmers (immersed) or braises (partial liquid) food. This means there is no browning, and, therefore, there is less flavor and color (Method #1 below). To fix this problem, you can use a two-step process, brown first and then use slow, moist-heat (Method #2 below). This works great for beef stew, where the meat is browned first at a high temperature and then slow-cooked with moisture for tenderness. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work for carnitas where you not only want flavor and color from browning but a mix of textures in the final product. To address this problem, simply reverse the two-step process – slow-cook first and brown second (Method #3 below). The slow moist-heat cooking tenderizes meat and saturates flavors, while the second step generates color, additional flavor and texture.
|1) Slow moist-heat cooking (no browning).||Slow cooking breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat.||Liquid retains moisture. Meat is very tender.||None of the color, texture and flavor from browning.|
|2) Two-step cooking: brown at high temperature first and then slow moist-heat.||Searing at high temperature browns meat surfaces (caramelizing and Maillard reactions). Slow cooking breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat.||Initial browning adds flavor and color. Liquid retains moisture. Meat is very tender.||No crispy texture from browning since the liquid in step two softens the meat.|
|3) Two-step cooking: slow-cook with moist heat and then fry/roast at high temperature.||Slow cooking in the first step breaks down muscle and collagen for very tender meat. Subsequent frying or oven roasting browns meat surfaces (caramelizing and Maillard reactions).||Liquid and low temperatures in step one retain moisture. Meat is very tender. Browning by roasting (where meat bastes in its own fat) or frying adds a unique mix of aromatic flavors and a mix of textures.||More work, but necessary for good carnitas and well worth the trouble!|
Now that we have the cooking method selected (Method #3 above), we just need to finalize ingredients. Nearly any carnitas recipe will include onion, garlic, orange (or lime) and a mix of cumin and coriander. I also like a bit of oregano and allspice. But most, important, is the choice of chilis.
Here is where I relied on a bit of help my Mexican-American friends – notably my friend Gloria, who could write an encyclopedia on what she knows about Mexican food. Her expert opinion said not one, not two, but a mix of three varieties of dried chills work best. Since I always use New Mexico to start, I took her advice and added her choices of pasilla and guajillo to the mix. Gloria was absolutely right. It was a perfect blend! If I didn’t know better, I might have been back in that tired little California storefront…
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
2 chilis, dried, New Mexico, split, seeds and stem removed
2 chilis, dried, Pasillo, split, seeds and stem removed
4 chilis, dried, Guajillo, split, seeds and stem removed
4-5 lbs. pork shoulder, with bone (AKA Boston butt, pork butt)
1 quart stock, chicken or pork
1 quart water (more if needed to cover meat)
1 onion, large, chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 orange, naval, quartered, unpeeled
1 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon allspice
lettuce , chopped
sour cream, to serve on the side
salsa, to serve on the side
1. Cut stems off the dried chilis. Carefully split the edges of the chilis and tear open. Tap to remove and discard the seeds. Toss chilis into a heavy dry fry pan and heat to medium. When you begin to smell the chili aromas, you will know they are heating. Cook until they darken and soften, turning with tongs to avoid scorching.
Remove from fry pan to a heat-proof bowl and cover chilis with boiling water. Soak for at least 45 minutes while you begin the pork preparation.
2. Trim excess fat off the pork exterior and cut meat into 2-inch chunks (they do not need to be perfect shapes). Reserve the bone.
Add pork chunks and bone to a stock pot containing 1 quart each stock and water. Add additional water if needed to cover the surface of the pork.
Bring to a boil. Skim and discard any of the foam that forms on the surface.
Add onion, garlic, orange quarters, salt and spices. Return to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
3. Remove your chili peppers from the soaking liquid with a slotted spoon (reserve liquid). Add chili’s to a blender with enough soaking liquid to get a smooth puree. Add to pork stockpot.
Taste the remaining chili soaking liquid. If it is not bitter/burnt (meaning you took your chili’s off the stove in plenty of time), add to the stockpot.
Now that your pork mixture is complete, cook at a simmer for about 1 and 1/2 hours while you enjoy the scent of the spices/orange.
4. Preheat oven to 375 deg F.
Remove pork from heat. Transfer to a large baking or roasting pan (such as a deep lasagna pan or shallow roasting pan). I transfer the large chunks of pork first with a slotted spoon and then pour the remaining liquid and ingredients over to avoid splattering. Pork chunks should be about 1/2 to 1/3 exposed above the liquid. If not, remove some liquid and set aside should you need it later.
Roast UNCOVERED for about 1 hour. Check every half hour to see if the pork above the surface of the liquid has started to brown. When it does, turn the meat. Do not let the pan evaporate to dryness. Add reserved liquid or water if sauce in the roasting pan is getting too thick and dry (I did not find this necessary).
After 1 hour, test pork for doneness by removing a chunk and pressing with a fork. The meat should collapse under the fork pressure. If not, return to the oven for another 1/2 hour (or more if necessary).
As an alternative to Step 4 (caramelizing by roasting), you may pan fry the meat in batches on the stovetop. This will produce an equally good result and a crispier texture.
5. Remove pan from oven and let cool until the pork can be handled safely. Either tear pork with your fingers or mash with a fork. You may find it easier to remove pork to a cutting board for this task and then return to the sauce.
Once pork is shredded, your caritas are ready to serve.
6. Toast corn tortillas on a grill or low gas burner. Using tongs, flip the tortillas as they soften and begin to char slightly. (A microwave will do, but, for full flavor, they are best heated over a low flame.)
Fill tortillas with warm carnitas. Garnish with chopped tomatoes and lettuce. Serve with sides of sour cream and salsa.
7. DO-AHEAD INSTRUCTIONS: Carnitas make a great do-ahead meal. Prepare carnitas through step #5. Refrigerate or freeze.
At service time, reheat, covered, in a conventional oven.
For an easy DO-AHEAD main course for a casual party, prepare and refrigerate bowls of toppings (salsa, sour cream, lettuce, pickled red onions, etc.). Before guests arrive, reheat carnitas and set out toppings. Then watch your guests have fun grilling/toasting the tortillas and creating their own carnitas tacos. Round the meal out with rice and beans.