I was introduced to the glory of carnitas years ago, when friends in Chicago invited us over for “Carnitas Night” and we stuffed ourselves with guacamole, black bean dip, tres leches, margaritas and the star of the show: tender, flavorful slow-roasted pork. I was hooked. (Thanks, Amy and Matt!)
But with so many recipes and preparation recommendations floating around, it took me a while to perfect my favorite version of the dish. After lots of searching and taste testing, David Lebovitz’s carnitas recipe stood head and shoulders above the rest. This version is adapted from his, with the spice factor kicked up a notch and as always, heavier on the garlic.
What I love about carnitas is its simplicity. The intensity of the flavor belies the fact that it’s so easy to prepare. And it feeds a crowd, just add some plantain chips and guacamole to round out the party. I like to serve the meat with corn tortillas and a simple avocado pico de gallo, but feel free to add whatever toppings you like: shredded cheese or queso fresco, sour cream, hot sauce, etc.
CARNITAS (adapted from recipe by David Lebovitz)
4-5-pounds boneless pork shoulder (bondiola) or pork butt, cut into 5-inch chunks and trimmed of excess fat
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon canola or neutral vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tablespoon chile powder
dried hot peppers, to taste
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly-sliced
Rub the pieces of pork shoulder all over with salt. Refrigerate overnight. (You can skip this step if you want. Just be sure to salt the pork before searing the meat.) Heat the oil in a roasting pan or oven-safe pot set on the stovetop. I use my Le Creuset French oven. Cook the pieces of pork in a single layer until very well-browned, turning them as little as possible so they get nice and dark before flipping them around.
Once all the pork is browned, remove it from the pot and blot away any excess fat with a paper towel, then pour in about a cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan with a flat-edged utensil to release all the tasty brown bits.
Heat the oven to 350F (180C) degrees. Add the pork back to the pan and add enough water so the pork pieces are 2/3rd’s submerged in liquid. Add the cinnamon stick and stir in the chile powder, dried chilies, bay leaves, cumin and garlic.
Braise in the oven uncovered for 3½ hours, turning the pork a few times during cooking, until much of the liquid is evaporated and the pork is falling apart. Remove the pan from the oven and lift the pork pieces out of the liquid and set them on a platter. Once the pork pieces are cool enough to handle, shred them into bite-sized pieces, about 2-inches (7 cm), discarding any obvious big chunks of fat if you wish (but I love them, mmmm). Return the pork pieces back to the roasting pan and cook in the oven, turning occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy and caramelized. It will depend on how much liquid the pork gave off, and how crackly you want them.