Slow-Cooked Carnitas with Minted Tomatillo Salsa
Who Doesn't Love Carnitas?
Who doesn't love a platter of tender, but crispy carnitas? Traditional carnitas are deep-fried in lard and are not only difficult for the home cook to make, but also a bit suspect from the health perspective.
Is There a Healthier Home-Cooked Method?
In planning for the upcoming Cinco De Mayo, I realized SNFD was missing a good recipe for carnitas. So I did some research to learn how home cooks can make carnitas, without succumbing to the slow-cooked in Coca Cola method and without deep frying them in lard. I wanted to create healthy, flavorful, home-cooked carnitas. I read a dozen methods and then I stumbled on an article by Kenji Lopez, of the Food Lab and Serious Eats: The Best Way To Make Carnitas (Without a Bucket of Lard). I should have started with Kenji. When I want to understand the science behind a cooking method, Kenji is my go-to authority. He hasn't let me down yet. I highly recommend Kenji's book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. Kenji challenges traditional cooking methods, tests different techniques and boils it down to what is most effective. In a world filled with millions of recipe books, this book will teach you the "Why's" of cooking.
Kenji's Carnita Method and My Variation
Kenji cooks the carnitas pork slow and low in its own fat by reducing the pan space and keeping the addition of other fluids to a minimum. The key is to crowd the pork in the smallest baking pan that will still hold the ingredients. The cooked pork is shredded and then briefly run under the broiler to achieve the coveted crispy edges in good carnitas. My recipe is a variation on Kenji's recipe. I coat the pork in a spice rub that includes kosher salt, Spanish paprika, chile powder, cumin and oregano. I also add limes to the pan. I finish the recipe with a three-ingredient, minted tomatillo sauce that really brightens the carnitas and serve with chopped onion, cilantro, avocado slices and crumbled feta cheese.
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30 Minutes of Prep and Can Be Made in Advance
While these carnitas need several hours in the oven, they are quick and easy to prepare. The beauty of this recipe is the tomatillo sauce and the carnitas can be prepared a day or two in advance and refrigerated until you are ready to serve. The carnitas can also be frozen. When you are ready to serve, bring them to room temperature, place in a broiling pan and run under the broiler to achieve the crisp edges. Make them on the weekend and serve for a quick weeknight meal.
My Carnitas Fan Club
My husband is a big fan of these carnitas, but he is not the only one. Chubby, my French Bulldog, is tortured for the 3 1/2 hours the carnitas are in the oven. Chubby is quite theatrical, cries something fierce and parks herself as near as she can get to the stove.
- 1 T kosher salt
- 1 T chile powder
- 1 T Spanish smoked paprika
- 1 t dried oregano
- 1 t ground cumin
- 4 pound pork shoulder (also called pork butt - don't ask me why!)
- 1½ onions
- 1 orange
- 2 limes
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- 3 bay leaves
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 pounds tomatillos, skins removed
- 1 - 2 jalapeno peppers (to taste)
- 1 large handful mint
- 1 large handful cilantro
- 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
- 1 avocado, sliced for garnish (optional)
- 12 large tortillas (your choice of corn or flour)
- 3 limes, cut into wedges and halved
- Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Mix the salt and the first four spices together in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Remove any layer of fat on the outside of your pork shoulder as well as any silver skin that is coating the shoulder. Depending on where you purchase your shoulder, your butcher may have already done this for you. Cut the shoulder into 2" pieces. Coat the pieces with the spice rub and lay out in a 13 x 9 x 2" baking pan.
- Cut the oranges and limes in half and squeeze the juice over the meat. Burrow the squeezed orange and lime rinds in between the chunks of pork. Peel and quarter one onion and place it between the pieces of pork. Scatter the garlic cloves, pieces of cinnamon stick and the bay leaves around the pieces of pork. Pour the olive oil over the meat. Cover tightly with tin foil and slow cook until the meat is tender and can be easily separated with a fork, about 3½ hours.
- While the carnitas are cooking make the minted tomatillo sauce. Place the tomatillos and jalapenos in a broiling pan and broil until the tops begin to blacken. Remove from the broiler, turn over and broil the other side. Some tomatillos may blacken sooner than others. Remove them from the heat as they blacken and set aside to cool, saving any juice the tomatillos have released during the broiling process.
- Remove the hard stem from each tomatillo and transfer to a food processor or blender. Remove the skin from the jalapeno, slice it in half and remove the seeds. Add some of the jalapeno to the blender according to your preference for heat. I start with half a jalapeno, taste and adjust. Season with kosher salt and pepper and process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Refrigerate salsa until ready to serve.
- Finely chop the remaining half onion and a handful of cilantro together. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- When the carnitas are fork tender, remove from the oven and shred into bite-size chunks with two forks. At this point the carnitas can be refrigerated until ready to serve.
- When ready to serve, turn on the oven broiler and spread the shredded carnitas over the pan. Place 4" under the broiler and cook to crisp the edges, about 3 minutes. Remove from the broiler, turn and return to the broiler for about 3 more minutes.
- Serve carnitas with warm tortillas and garnish with minted tomatillo sauce, chopped onions and cilantro, avocado slices and crumbled feta cheese.