Of all the recipes I cook on a regular basis, this is likely near the top for several reasons. Why? It’s cheap to prepare (pork shoulder is still – thankfully – inexpensive), very easy to cook, and can be done in a large batch for a party or portioned for the week. It’s also more about the cooking technique and less about the particular flavors, so if you want to take it in a different direction (Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, Indian) it’s very easy to tweak. Cooking pork shoulder until it’s tender and crispy can be a vehicle for any flavorings, spices and seasonings, so don’t feel pigeonholed by the particular ingredients listed here.
Traditionally carnitas in Mexico are cooked in giant cauldrons of lard, over several hours. At the end of the cooking process each particular cook will then season the lard itself with stuff like cinnamon, bay leaves, even condensed milk. Cooking in vast amounts of lard is not really necessary, but by all means if you have access to lard and would like to do it the authentic way, power to you! Lard is good for you after all…
If you have a big pot that can go in the oven, or a roasting tray, that’s usually the best thing to cook it in. The idea of cooking it in water as opposed to lard is that as the meat cooks, the fat from the pork will render and the water will evaporate, so at the end the meat will begin to fry on its own.
The salsa can be made a day ahead, and goes great on pretty much anything. I can’t take credit for the recipe, it’s from Contramar in Mexico City, one of the best and coolest restaurants in the world, from the legendary Gabriela Camara.
- Pork Shoulder (~2kg of raw pork will serve 4-6 people, so judge accordingly)
- Sea Salt
- 2-3 Cinnamon Sticks
- 4-5 Bay Leaves, ideally fresh
- 10 or so All Spice Berries (optional)
- 1 Orange, with the zest peeled off in strips
- 1 head of garlic, cut in half
- Corn Tortillas (or lettuce wraps)
- Lime Wedges
- Hot sauce
- Salsa Verde
- 7-8 Tomatillos
- 1 /2 White Onion
- 1 Garlic clove
- Serrano chiles (I like it hot and use 3-4)
- 1 bunch of cilantro with stalks
- Sea Salt
- 1/2 avocado
Cut the pork shoulder into large chunks the size of a clenched fist. Put the pork into your pot or roasting tray, then squeeze the juice of the orange over top, and season aggressively with sea salt. Add the garlic, orange zest, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and mix well, then ideally leave for several hours or overnight in the fridge to brine and cure the meat a bit.
When you’re ready to cook, set your oven to 400F.
Remove the pot or pan from the fridge and cover the pork with cold water, enough so that the pork is only just barely covered by water. Put the whole pan in the hot oven and cook for an hour.
After an hour, turn the temperature up to 450F and continue cooking. The goal is to evaporate all the water so that the pork is left to fry in the rendered fat. Be patient, the water will evaporate quicker than you think. If you want to turn the meat, be gentle as it is likely going to start falling apart.
Once done to the crispyness you like, take out of the oven, let it cool for a bit, and then shred the meat with tongs or forks and serve warm in the tortillas.
For the salsa, simply put all the ingredients into a blender and puree with salt. You will likely need more salt than you think, so taste it as you go (the word salsa comes from the root “sal” to salt…). The tomatillos are quite acidic so you likely don’t need lime or anything else sour to add.