When it comes to cooking, if the end justifies the means, I am all for breaking the rules -- as long as no one gets hurt and the end result is not compromised. Carnitas is the Mexican version of American pulled pork. I love one as much as I do the other, and, while neither are hard to make, the process to do either authentically is cumbersome -- handling huge hunks of porky porcine is not my idea of hog heaven. I also have no desire to build a Southern barbecue pit to smoke a pig, or invest in a Mexican cauldron to boil pig parts in lard. I'll leave that to the experts.
A bit about carnitas (kahr-NEE-tahz): Mexican for "little meats", in Spanish "carne" means "meat" and "ita", added to the end of a word, implies "small". This dish is simply small shreds of rich, juicy, pork, with crispy brown bits strewn in throughout. It's made by braising (low and slow heat) a nicely-seasoned, well-marbled, inexpensive, 8-10 pound, cut of pork known as a "Boston butt", that has been cut into manageable thirds or quarters, in a pot of lard for several hours. When the desired tenderness is reached, after 3-4 hours, the heat is turned up so the outside begins to crisp. At this point, the collagen in the meat has broken down enough to allow the meat to be hand-pulled or chopped and used as the meat filling in tacos, tamales and burritos.
A bit about the butt: "Boston butt", is a bone-in cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the "pork shoulder" from the front leg of the hog. Smoked or barbecued, Boston butt is a southern tradition. This cut of meat got its name in pre-Revolutionary War New England:
Butchers in Boston left the blade bone in this inexpensive cut of pork shoulder then packed and stored the meat in casks called "butts". They sold the pork shoulders individually to their customers, and, when they got popular, they began shipping "the butts" Southward and throughout the Colonies. Simply stated: the way the hog shoulder was butchered, combined with "the butt" they arrived in, evolved into the name "Boston butt"!
Sometimes, in order to satisfy a hankering for something, a new approach is necessary.
When I decided to take a new approach to American pulled pork, I did use the pork butts. The change I made was to eliminate the BBQ pit and smoke 'em low & slow, 7-8 hours, in my oven. It was easy, effective, and my barky end result has only been applauded.
Read the Related Aricle link below: ~ My Carolina-Style Pulled Pork BBQ (Oven Method) ~.
When I decided to take a new approach to carnitas, I switched to pork tenderloins for 3 reasons: 1) They are naturally tender. 2) Experience taught me they can easily be braised to be brown and crispy on the outside, and, moist and shreddable on the inside. 3) No matter what anyone says, leftovers reheat without much compromise, but freezing is bad. Two pork tenderloins, yields a quantity suitable for the average family.
The most famous version hails from Central Mexico. They're flavored with a orange, onion and bay leaf, plus, aromatic dry spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and Mexican oregano. They are popularly served taco-style, in corn tortillas. You can top them with anything you like, but, in a taqueria, your choices will be green salsa, red salsa, or, a mix of onion, cilantro, salt and lime juice. Shredded lettuce might appear, but, never cabbage, and, you won't be offered any guacamole or crema (sour cream) either!
Once I came up with my Mexican carnitas spice blend...
4 tablespoons Mexican-style chili powder
2 tablespoons Mexican-style oregano
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
~ Step 1. Place all ingredients in a small bowl and stir together. If you have an empty spice jar, transfer mixture to it (it will make seasoning the carnitas much easier).
2 whole pork tenderloins, about 2 1/2-3 total pounds
2 cups water (total throughout recipe)
2 large yellow onions, cut into chunks, about 2 pounds
1 large orange, cut into quarters, about 12 ounces
4 whole bay leaves
3 tablespoons Mel's Carnitas Spice Blend (total throughout recipe), from above recipe
sea salt, only if necessary, for seasoning cooked and pulled carnitas
~Step 1. Add 1 1/2 cups of water to a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides. Add pork tenderloins followed by bay leaves. Add the chopped onions, dividing them equally on both sides of the tenderloins, then place the orange quarters on both sides of the tenderloins. Generously sprinkle the spice blend over all, using about 2 tablespoons. Cover pan and bring to a boil over high heat.
~ Step 2. Reduce heat to a steady simmer. Partially cover the pan (just allow a crack to allow steam to escape) and continue to cook for 60 minutes. When you uncover the pan, the bottom of the tenderloins should be browning nicely, but not overly browned, and, the pan will be getting very low on liquid. What it looks like is more important than the time it takes.
~ Step 5. Continue to simmer steadily, about 45 minutes, until tenderloins are nicely browned on the bottom, and the pan is very low on liquid. What it looks like is more important than the time this takes.
~ Step 6. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and, using a spatula, turn the meat to quickly crisp the exterior on all sides, about 2-3 minutes (do not scorch).
~Step 7. Remove from heat, cover and rest 30-45 minutes. Discard orange quarters and bay leaves. In the pan, using your fingers, pull the pork into large, long shreds. Next, pull the large shreds into thinner, long shreds. Now it's time to pull the long shreds into bits and pieces. Lastly, using a large spoon, give the mixture a thorough stir to combine the pork with the moist (almost pureed), flavorful onions.
Note: After the pork has been pulled and mixed, if you still want more crispy browned bits in your carnitas, you can return the pan to stovetop and brown it up even further. That said, placing small batches in a small skillet (with a small amount of oil), on the stovetop over medium-high heat, is also my preferred method for reheating/"crisping up" enough for 3-4 carnitas at a time.
~Step 8. Using a paper towel oil an 8" nonstick skillet with about 1/2 teaspoon of corn, peanut or vegetable oil and heat over medium high. Place 1 corn tortilla in the pan. Using a pair of tongs, flip it back and forth 3-4 times and allow it to cook until it just starts to bubble up in the center. Remove it to a paper towel lined plate and fold it in half. Repeat this process until 12-24 corn tortillas are fried until crispy but still soft (some folks prefer to use 2 tortillas per taco).
Special Equipment List: small bowl; spoon; empty spice jar w/shaker top (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; spatula; 8" nonstick skillet; tongs; paper towels
Cook's Note: For another "almost" authentic taco recipe (meaning I've made it possible to make at home), check out my recipe for ~ Tacos al Pastor: "Shepherd's-Style Pork Tacos ~, by clicking into Categories 2, 3, 13 or 19. I love pineapple!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)