Months ago, I started getting shipments of meat through Butcher Box, an online service that delivers a selection of well cared for and curated meats to my door, on my schedule. One of the cuts that I have repeatedly selected for my shipment is the bone-in pork butt, a four or five pound cut of fatty shoulder meat that is best used for sausage, or cooked low and slow. Given a good pork butt, I’m usually inclined to fire up the weber and try to make a nice, smoked pulled pork. It’s hard to resist that smoky flavor, but when the onset of some colder weather prompted me to pull out the slow cooker, my mind went to carnitas.
Carnitas is literally translated to “little meats”. The dish is believed to have originated in southern Mexico, though it has become nearly ubiquitous in Mexican culinary tradition. Traditionally, carnitas is made by braising tough cuts of pork in lard until tender, and then roasting it until crispy. In this version, I use a slow cooker, a handful of spices and veggies, and some orange juice to turn half a pork butt into a delicious (and wonderfully simple) version of the original.
As with most braised or slow cooked meals, carnitas are easy to prepare, and delicious to eat. I really like this dish for a couple of reasons. Unlike pulled pork, which is smoky, and can be spicy and sweet (depending on seasonings and sauces), carnitas provides a rich, meaty base that can be spiced to taste. The reserved nature of the seasoning and spice allows for a rich, developed dish without any overpowering flavors. As such, carnitas can be used is just about anything. I used this last round to make tacos for my wife and I, burritos for my kids, and nachos for all of us to share (and there’s still about a pound and a half left over). Even if you’re already a fan of Mexican food (or at least the American version of it), carnitas could be a good gateway out of the world of ground beef tacos.
Do yourself a favor. Give these little meats a try.
- 5 lb pork butt (mine are bone-in, but it doesn’t need to be for the recipe to work)
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 white onion – diced
- 2 jalapeno peppers – seeded and diced
- 1 cup orange juice
- The night before you want to cook:
- prepare your pork butt by trimming off any large chunks of fat, and patting it dry with paper towels.
- Combine the cumin, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl. Wash and dice the onion and peppers.
- Cut a cross-hatch pattern all over the pork, and then coat it with the olive oil, and then coat the outside of it with the spice mixture.
- Wrap the seasoned pork butt in plastic wrap, and place it in the fridge. Store the chopped veggies in a covered bowl or ziploc bag in the fridge.
- When you’re ready to start cooking, unwrap the seasoned butt, and place it in the slow cooker. Cover it with the onions and peppers, and then pour the cup of orange juice over the top. Set the slow cooker for 10 hours on low
- Time your cook. My 5 lb. pork butt took about 10 hours on low, so I started it at 7:30 in the morning so I could pull it out at 5:30 in the afternoon. A larger cut will take more time, and smaller cut will take less.
- When it’s finished the pork will be tender, and easily pull apart with a fork. I recommend removing the pork from the cooking liquid with some tongs, and letting it cool for about 10 or 15 minutes before pulling it apart. SAVE THE LIQUID.
- As the pork is cooling, I recommend straining the remaining liquid, or using an immersion blender to liquify the floaty bits. Either way is effective, as long as you have a mixture of fatty drippings that you can use later on.
- Pull the pork apart, and figure out what you’re going to serve immediately, and what you’ll be saving for later. The stuff that you’ll be saving for later should be given a healthy pour of the drippings to make sure it stays moist, and comes back juicy (yes, even from the freezer).
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. Place whatever portion you want to serve in the skillet, and pour in some of the leftover juice – enough so it’s coated, but not enough so it’s swimming. If that’s too vague, start with a few tablespoons, and see how it goes. Just don’t let it dry out.
- Using tongs or a spatula, flip and fry the “little meats” in the skillet until they start getting crispy.
- You can serve them at this point in whatever way you see fit. I’d recommend a corn tortilla, some fresh salsa, and cilantro, but the toppings are really up to you
- BONUS: Having been inspired by restaurant in La Jolla, I tried pan frying some jack cheese, placing carnitas in the middle, and then wrapping the whole thing in a tortilla. Spoiler: it was delicious.