Carnitas is a Mexican dish of ultra tender pork that is either pulled apart or chopped. Lightly crisp outside, very tender and moist inside, carnitas is a dish by itself. It is also a traditional filling for tacos and torta. Insanely simple yet amazingly delicious.
Some cooks make carnitas by braising the meat in salsa and frying it afterward. Others simply season and roast the pork. I’m not a fan of laborious recipes that punish the cook. I prefer simplified procedures but without cheating. This is a very easy carnitas recipe. No stirring, no frying. Just stick in the oven and shred the meat when done.
Traditionally, pork is braised in lard to make carnitas. Taking a baking dish full of melted fat and cooked pork out of the oven scares the hell out of me so I make my carnitas a little differently.
Instead of submerging pork in lard, I simply use fatty pork. The long and slow cooking in the oven melts some of that fat which mimics the process of actually braising the pork in melted lard.
When the pork is tender, I also have enough melted fat in the baking dish. All the excess fat attached to the meat can be discarded.
The meat is then pulled apart. Coarsely or finely, it’s your call. I prefer coarsely shredded meat which I shred again after browning.
Traditional cooks simply use their fingers to do this. If you’re the kind of cook who insists on using gloves, well, get a pair or use two forks to shred the meat. I don’t know what the big deal is about gloves or forks at this point if you know how to keep your hands clean when handling food. The pork will go into the oven again — at a much higher temperature — so if you’re thinking germs or bacteria that can be transferred from your hands to the meat, the heat will be sure to kill them all.
How brown and crisp you want your carnitas is totally up to you. Some people prefer the texture soggy meat; others prefer caramelization and crispiness. So, you can pull your carnitas out of the oven once they are lightly browned or you can leave the meat there a bit longer to allow the pulled pork to turn a little crisp.
Carnitas are lovely with rice, with crusty bread, as taco filling, as empanada filling (see also: Perfect Fried Empanadas), as enchilada filling and for cooking torta.
Updated from two earlier versions published in 2011 and 2016, respectively.
- 1 kilogram fatty pork (I like belly)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 6 cloves garlic lightly smashed
- 2 bay leaves
Start by cutting the pork. I suggest two- to three-inch cubes. Season liberally with salt and black pepper. Place in a covered container and allow to sit in the fridge overnight.
Preheat the oven to 300F.
Arrange the pork cubes in an oven-proof pan in a single layer. Add the crushed garlic and bay leaves. Cover the pan tightly with foil and cook the pork for an hour and a half to two hours.
Take the pork out of the oven.
Turn up the oven temperature to 450F.
Separate the meat from the fat. I suggest, however, that you do not dispense with all the fat. Discard the garlic cloves and bay leaves.
Take the meat (with a little fat) and transfer to a large tray. Using two forks or your CLEAN fingers, pull the meat apart to create shreds.
Return the pork to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes or until the meat is nicely browned and lightly crisp. Optionally, pull apart again for finer shreds.
Serve the carnitas as a main dish (great as rice topping) or a filling for tacos, burritos or enchiladas.