How to Make Great Carnitas

How to Make Great Carnitas

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  1. Let me preface this article by stating unequivocally that I am as “white bread” as they come. Sitting too close to the TV gives me a sunburn, I freckle at the mere mention of a sunny day, I have to slather myself in a half inch coating of SPF 5 million sunscreen just to take out the garbage and I gleefully respond to the word “gringo” whenever I hear it spoken. Therefore, I cannot say with any measure of confidence that the following recipe is authentically Mexican, but I can say that it’s damn good. Anyone as pale as I am who loves good Mexican food will find this carnitas to their liking.

    I have striven for years to emulate the carnitas recipe of my favorite Mexican restaurant, Puebla Tacos in Pasadena, and I admit that even this recipe is a mere reflection of the wonderful carnitas served in that little hole-in-the-wall. However, after countless trials and errors, I finally figured out the secret to great carnitas: cook the pork ahead of time. Initially, I followed recipes from several supposedly reputable cookbooks that said that I should cut the roast into cubes, brown the cubes and stew them with the spices. WRONG! Doing this always resulted in dry, flavorless carnitas because I washed out not only the flavor of the pork in stewing it, but the flavor of the spices as well.  Now I know better: add the spices at the very end. So take my word on this and don’t search Mexican cookbooks for carnitas recipes (those written in English and meant for white people have recipes designed to make us look silly in the kitchen; you can’t blame them for wanting to protect a long-guarded recipe, after all). This is the only one you’ll ever need.


    For this, you will need:

    • 1 Pork Shoulder Picnic Roast (7-10 lbs, bone-in with skin; check Latino markets)
    • 3 Tbs. Bacon fat (*optional*)


    • 4 Tbs Ground Cumin
    • 3 Tbs Mexican Oregano (whole, dry, crumbled or ground on spot)
    • 3 tsp Garlic Powder
    • 3 tsp Ground Coriander (or 2 tsp dried ground cilantro)
    • 2 tsp Onion Powder
    • 2 tsp Chili Powder
    • ½ to 1 tsp Dried, Ground Chipotle (depending on how spicy you want it; *optional*)
    • Salt to taste (*optional*)


    The procedure:

    1. Brush pork roast with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with salt (the salt will cause the outer layer to dry and harden, locking the juices in the meat).
    2. Place pork roast—skin on and facing UP—onto a rack in a roasting pan; roast at 300 degrees for 5-7 hours, depending on size, until an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part (near the bone) reads at least 190 degrees (overcooking until it reads over 200 degrees is fine). Remove from oven; allow to cool. Remove the skin (it should peel right off with ease) and pull the meat from the bone, shredding it in the process (known as “pulled pork”).
    3. In a medium bowl, add all the spices. Be sure to crumble the oregano in your palms thoroughly before measuring it; or you can use a spice grinder to powder the oregano and use only 2 Tbs.
    4. Stir thoroughly and store in an old large spice shaker bottle previously washed and dried (preferably one that had contained one of the ingredients in the seasoning).


    Turning Pork into Carnitas:

    1. Heat a skillet over high heat (the size depends on how much carnitas you want to make at that time; it’s best to make fresh batches whenever you want it) and melt bacon fat (3 Tbs. for a big batch; or you may substitute olive oil if you’re one of those “Oh, I can’t eat that—it has fat in it” types, but you won’t like it as much). If the roast has high fat content, you can get away with “dry” frying it and adding no oil or bacon fat.
    2. Once skillet is very hot, drop as much pork as you want into it. Sprinkle the carnitas generously with the seasoning and fry for about a minute. Flip the pork and sprinkle again with the seasoning. Use the edge of the spatula to shed the pork into smaller pieces; this hurries the cooking process and makes it easier to serve.
    3. Stir-fry until most of the fluids have cooked off and the meat becomes slightly crisp, and then remove to a plate lined with paper towels. If you used oil or bacon fat for frying, press more towels down on top of the meat to remove excess fat.

    Serve with Spanish or Mexican rice, refried beans and salsa of choice (I prefer a pureed red salsa with some heat). If you have taco shells handy, they make a perfect vehicle for conveying the carnitas (and the side dishes) from the plate to your mouth. If you are more adventurous, roll all of these items into a large flour or corn tortilla to make a burrito (I also add a little sour cream if only to make it even more fattening).

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