Carnitas are the proper measure of any taco truck. At their best, they are pulled pork plus divinity — a tender, greasy, crispy miracle unrivaled among meats. When they get messed up, they are the most dry and boring meat on the menu.
When my friend decided to have taco night at his house, I saw an opportunity to try my hand at Mexican cuisine’s most thrilling and enigmatic protein. As imagined it, I would be Rumpelstiltskin, spinning carnitas forth from a slab of pork like gold from straw. Only in this version, no one would owe me their firstborn.
I could delight you with references to fairy tales all day, but my track record as a man of substance is well established. Let’s get to the meat of my story:
As always, I found a carnitas recipe by skimming through google until I had a sense of what the average recipe looks like.
This food network recipe is very similar to what I ended up doing, but I fiddled with it slightly — adding 2 limes, foregoing the jalapeño, and roughly chopping the garlic (nothing kills taco night like too much garlic).
I planned on buying 6 pounds of boneless pork shoulder (tripling the Food Network recipe), but when I went to Winco, I saw a stack of something called “carnitas” in the deli case. It was ostensibly pork shoulder, but cut this meat was cut into smaller pieces. I decided to grab that instead.
It cost twelve dollars to buy six pounds of pork — I’m not kidding. The meat used in carnitas is so cheap you start to worry that it’s going to be disgusting or expired, but that’s the whole point of carnitas. You cook them so slowly that they have to be delicious.
Thus it was that I rinsed six pounds of pork, massaged it with olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and cumin, and tossed it in a slow cooker. At this point, my kitchen already smelled pleasantly aromatic. I threw in the garlic and the onion, roughly chopped. I then juiced two limes and two oranges over the meat and tossed the rinds in with the meat. I set the whole affair on low and walked out the door.
Eight hours later, my carnitas were cooked and smelled delicious. I removed the meat from the slow cooker and pulled it with two forks. I discarded the citrus rinds and fished out most of the onions, but the cooking juices stayed put.
It was taco time. I heated a generous amount of canola oil in a frying pan. When it was hot enough to make sizzling sounds, I put in my meat — just enough to cover the bottom because you want every piece to be sufficiently browned and greasy. I poured two ladles of the slow cooker liquid over the pork while it fried, which provided essential salt and flavor. I wish I had photos of this part, but frying something in one had with a DSLR the other is a level of douchebaggery to which I cannot succumb.
I opted for a traditional taco bar — guac, pico, jalapeños, sour cream, cilantro, and small corn tortillas. I also included some of my pickled red onions and cotija cheese for extra flair.
The carnitas were delicious — salty and crispy just as I had envisioned. Moments after the meat came out of the pan, I built my tacos: Tortilla, carnitas, slab of guac, pickled onions, cotija, cilantro, sour cream.
I rarely delight in my own cooking, but was pleased with the way I visualized, and then executed, my flavor combinations. You can call me Guy Fieri, because these tacos were a quick trip to Flavortown (population: one dude with frosted tips).
Carnitas take a long time, but they aren’t labor intensive. Get out there and spend a shockingly small amount of money on meat. Your taco/enchilada/burrito/tostada awaits.