Anybody who has dinner at my house will eventually have carnitas.
There’s something kind of magical about carnitas. The sweet-savory aroma as they cook is irresistible, and guests smell it as soon as they walk in: salty, fatty pork; sweet cinnamon and orange; the smell of cumin and oregano from a pot of beans; corn tortillas frying on the stove top. It’s welcoming, but not overwhelming. They’re not too fancy, and each person gets to add what they want. It’s like a grown-up taco bar. (And I love a good taco bar, believe me.)
The thing that puts them solidly in the “Entertaining” column is that almost all of the prep is done ahead. The only thing you’re doing when your guests arrive is sliding them under the broiler, just above a stack of freshly-fried tortillas. Little bowls of cilantro, queso fresco, diced onion, and avocado are already on the table. You’ve got time to mix a couple of cocktails, pull a bowl of red cabbage slaw out of the fridge, and then dinner is served.
I had tried crockpot carnitas, but they were always a bit dried out and dusty by they time they made it onto our plates. At the same time, I refuse to fry 4 pounds of pork cubes in a vat of oil in my kitchen, and definitely NOT when I have people coming over. Then I stumbled on this article by Serious Eats’ The Food Lab, and things got real. Instead of cooking the pork in water-based liquid, you still cook the pork in fat- it’s own fat. By packing it tightly in the dish and cooking it slowly, the fat is rendered out of the pork, filling the dish and effectively frying the meat. It’s genius, simple, and deliciously fatty while being not at all messy. The best part is that the pork can be cooked ahead – days ahead! – and all it needs is a quick crisping-up under a hot broiler. Brilliance! I use the fattiest pork shoulder I can find, and although that means I have to buy a heavier cut and thus pay more, it’s worth every penny.
Adapted (barely) from Serious Eats
3.5-4 pounds pork butt roast (shoulder)
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into 3-4 small pieces (1 if you have new/pungent cinnamon; 2 if it’s older)
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup vegetable or peanut oil
2-4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2-3 teaspoons kosher salt
To serve: tortillas and any extra condiments you want. I serve queso fresco, cilantro, diced onion, avocado, tomato, salsa, lime wedges, and cabbage slaw.
Preheat oven to 275 F. Cube pork into 2-3 inches pieces, trimming away large hunks of excess fat, but not being too picky. Place in a 9×13 baking dish; the pieces should form fit in one layer, but should be touching. Quarter the onion and nestle the quarters into the baking dish. Juice and orange and lime over the pork, then nestle the pieces into the dish as well. Place the garlic, bay leaves, and cinnamon stick pieces throughout the dish. Drizzle the oil over the top of the pork, then sprinkle with cilantro and salt.
Cover the dish with foil and bake until the pork is fork tender, approximately 3.5 hours. Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit. Remove the onion, garlic, lime and orange pieces, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks. If serving later, place the pork in a covered container in the fridge. Dispose of the grease remaining in the dish.
Before serving, heat broiler on high. Break up pork slightly and place on a baking sheet. Broil for 5-6 minutes, until the edges are crispy. Shake or stir and broil for 1-2 minutes more. Serve with warm tortillas and accoutrements.