Food Gold: Hell Braisin’ Carnitas (Gringo Edition)

Posted on Nov 3rd, 2009 in Food Gold by Elliot Aronow


Art by Gila Mosaics

The mercury has dipped, the sun now sets at 5PM and some people are sad. What do these things mean? It’s BRAISING SEASON folks and this week we are going in with one of my all time fall/winter favorites, Carnitas!

Now, as the token Grizzly Bear-loving, APC jeans-wearing gringo here I will say that this is not by any means an authentic recipe for Carnitas. To achieve that, you would need 2 pounds of lard and a lot more time. But who cares? This is a delicious, traditional-enough recipe perfect for a day spent smoking spliffs and catching up on Mad Men.

Before we get into things, I want to drop a quick bit of science on braising. Braising is a “low and slow” method of cooking tough, cheap pieces of meat using both dry and wet heat. Typically the food is first seared (dry heat) at a high temperature and then finished in a pot with a variable amount of liquid (wet heat), resulting in a moist, tender and luxurious final product.

This is a VERY forgiving method for new cooks, as it is almost impossible to overcook the meat. Take my word, if you pay attention to seasoning and texture here, you will be amazed at how far the 18 or so bucks you spent on ingredients can go. I got four meals out of this when I made it last weekend!

The Special Equipment:

1 Dutch Oven (like this one) or any large ***oven-proof*** cooking device/pot that can also go on your stovetop, like a heavy stock pot if that’s all you gots

1 pair tongs

The Ingredients:

4 lbs boneless pork shoulder (also known as Boston Butt, just ask your butcher)
3 or more tablespoons grape seed oil
2 limes juiced and divided, second lime is for garnish/topping
2 teaspoons white vinegar
several cups chicken stock *you can also use water but I don’t recommend it
2 teaspoons (or more) ground cayenne pepper
2 teaspoon (or more) ground ancho chile
1 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1 teaspoon (or more) cumin
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
sea salt, to coat meat, plus more to taste

*Do ahead bonus beat condiment: slice red onion into thin vertical strips and let them soak in red wine vinegar for the duration of the cooking time (3.5-4.5 hours). These ‘lil zingers are an amazing compliment to the fatty pork, trust!

1. Cut the pork shoulder into 3″ chunks. Remove any big blobs of excessive fat, but leave at least a (mad) decent layer. You don’t want overly lean pieces here. Sprinkle the chunks VERY generously with sea salt.

2. Heat the grape seed oil in a Dutch Oven over medium heat. Add a pinch of salt to the oil to make sure it is hot enough, it should sizzle upon contact. Saute the pork shoulder chunks until they are well browned on each side. All you are going for here is a nice crispy exterior, the inside should DEFINITELY still be raw. You will probably need to do this in 2-3 batches. Throw the “done” pieces in a big mixing bowl as the next batch cooks.

3. After all yo pork is browned, deglaze the Dutch Oven with at least a cup of chicken stock and the two teaspoons of white vinegar. You want to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the dish as you add the liquid.

4. Add all your spices (you can really use any combo you like so long as you have a mix of spicy and smokey) and the juice of one lime (don’t drop the lime yar har!) and mix that up.

5. Add ALL of your browned pork chunks and enough stock/water to make them 2/3 submerged in the braising liquid. Don’t cover them completely, you want the tops to be poking out. Oh, and don’t forget to add the juices that accumulated in the mixing bowl too!

6. Bring the liquid/spice braising mixture with the pork in it to a boil over medium-high heat.

7. Once boiling, drastically reduce heat to a bare simmer (just a few bubbles breaking the surface) and braise the pork chunks UNCOVERED for at least three and a half hours, stirring once every 30 minutes or so to make sure each piece has a chance to swim in the liquid for a bit.

8. After two hours, taste the braising liquid for salt/spices and see how much of it has evaporated. If the liquid is reduced by at least a half, you may need to add a bit more stock/water during the last hour and a half if the liquid level gets below that point. This is to ensure that there is enough liquid left to properly tenderize the meat.

9. BE VERY PATIENT and know that after three and a half to four hours, you will have melt in your mouth, fork tender pork. This is a LOW and SLOW recipe, baby.

10. Once super tender, and literally falling apart with a gentle prod from your fork, remove the chunks in batches with metal tongs and place on a cutting board. You’ll want to eat a few pieces here pulled from various places in the dutch oven and make sure they are all delicious. Leave ALL the cooking liquid in the dutch oven.

11. Using two forks, shred the meat until it looks stringy, discarding any large globs of fat if you want to be “healthy” about it. As you are doing this, preheat your real (not Dutch) oven to 425 degreez.

12. Once you have shredded/pulled all the pork, add it back to the cooking liquid, give it a good stir and place the Dutch Oven in your real oven for about 10 minutes. Be sure to taste, taste, taste for seasoning. You may need more salt here. But maybe not.

13. After 10 minutes, check on the color/texture and pay attention, you want to brown and caramelize the meat so it gets nice and slightly crispy, but not overcook under that high heat to heat to the point where it is dry. You may need anywhere from 5-15 extra minutes here depending on how much liquid you had left, oven temp, etc. BUT remember the FOOD GOLD golden rule: cook according to desired result, NOT time.

14. Once pork is at desired texture, remove from oven, stir a few times and let stand for 10 minutes.

15. Serve with shredded cabbage, Mexican crema (check your local hood bodega), a little bit of fresh squeezed lime juice and those yummy vinegar-soaked red onions you made at the beginning of the recipe.

16. Blast this joint and ENJOY!

Fork The World,

Elliot

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