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Years ago, I lived in San Francisco and the Napa Valley. No need to tell you that both places have amazing food, including loads of authentic Mexican restaurants. In San Francisco, I lived in the upper Haight area and had three top-notch burrito joints within a two-block radius. Sometimes we’d head down to the Mission district and get a burrito mojado, which is a burrito the size of small football smothered with three sauces to represent the Mexican flag (green avocado sauce, white sour-cream sauce, and red enchilada sauce). Burrito heaven.
When I moved to Napa, I became a huge fan of truck called “Tacos La Playita” that was usually parked across the street from the movie theater. Their al pastor (which is a spicy pork) was the best I’ve eaten to date. They’d serve their tacos (soft tacos made with homemade corn tortillas, of course) alongside grilled whole scallions and fresh radishes. We always ate right there standing next to the truck.
And at the time, I took it for granted that I could eat this stuff whenever the mood struck. Then I moved to Boston…
By comparison, Boston’s Mexican food might as well come from McDonald’s. OK, that might be a little harsh, but there is no denying that even the best burrito joint in this town wouldn’t last a day in San Francisco. (Yes, this is an all-out invitation to prove me wrong. I will happily eat any taco from any place in Boston if you think it’s got the stuff.)
Which brings me to why I am a HUGE fan of making carnitas at home. I simply have no other way to quell the craving. No lie—I do really crave this stuff. Even as I write this post, I’ve begun to write out a supermarket shopping list on the side so I can whip up a batch this weekend. OK, enough chatter—let’s go.
Buy a Pork Shoulder
To make carnitas, you need pork shoulder. I’ve seen recipes that use tenderloin and boneless chops, but they’re imposters. The real deal is made by braising pork shoulder for hours until it begins to shred apart, and the only cut that can do this is the shoulder. To make it easy for the pork to cook through evenly, we cut it into 2-inch chunks and get rid of any large knobs of fat. Don’t trim all the fat off, though. You need at least ⅛-inch layer of fat for flavor and to help keep the meat moist.
In Napa, I first learned how to make carnitas from a group of Mexican women I worked with. The three key ingredients they added to the braising pot were an orange, a bottle of Coca-Cola, and several gallons of fresh pork lard. Over the years, I‘ve learned that you can take out the lard and the Coke. The lard is a nuisance and unnecessary in terms of flavor as long as you don’t over trim the meat, and the Coke just adds a sweetness that I don’t care for. In the Test Kitchen, we tested lots of flavorings for the braise and came around to a streamlined ingredient list very similar to what I learned on my own: yes orange, no lard, no Coke. Instead of lard, we simply use a little water for the braising liquid. The trick here is to simmer the meat gently until it’s tender and nearly falling apart. Doing this in the oven is easier than on the stovetop, because it cooks more evenly and you can walk away.
Now, this is where our recipe really gets untraditional. Usually the lard-braised meat is drained and fried on a griddle until crisp, thus ignoring the flavorful braising liquid left in the pot. This makes sense if the liquid left in the pot is straight lard. It is downright criminal, however, to ignore this deeply flavored pork braising liquid when it is not made with lard. Our solution is to reduce this liquid until it’s very thick and syrupy, and then toss it over the tender pieces of pork. The meat just soaks up all that amazing flavor.
Using a griddle (or skillet) to fry the meat until it is crispy around the edges is traditional, but it’s messy and requires several batches. Plus, the sticky reduced braising liquid that now coats the meat makes the frying even messier. So, we use the broiler. Spread the meat out over a large wire rack (for maximum surface area) and broil until the edges are crisp, slightly charred. Be sure to flip the meat over halfway through broiling so that all the edges get crisp. Depending on your broiler, this can take 10 to 15 minutes or so.
If you’re like me, you’ll wind up eating some of the meat right off the broiler pan (preferable the super crispy pieces around the edge). I call these bites “kitchen snacks,” as in the snacks you get to have when you’re the only person in the kitchen—like the oysters from a roast chicken, or the crumbled-off edges from slicing brownies. And as for the rest of this gorgeous meat that does find its way to a tortilla (try to find good local ones, or even make them yourself), be sure to sprinkle fresh cilantro leaves and minced onion on top, along with a squirt of fresh lime. Ahh—good stuff.