Traditional Cooking Method
Carnitas (Spanish for “little meats”) is a dish of Mexican cuisine (state of Michoacán). Traditional carnitas are made by slowly cooking heavily marbled pork shoulder or butt in fat. The same method in French cuisine is called confit. Traditional seasoning and aromatics are salt, chili, cumin, Mexican oregano, marjoram, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic. After 3-4 hours meat pieces become tender and juicy, and then they are caramelized on high heat. At the end, carnitas can be pulled apart by hand or fork and used in tamales, tacos, tortas, and burritos.
Fat to Meat Ratio
To cook 4 pounds of pork using traditional method, we need 4 pounds of fat. For people who count calories, it sounds really, really scary! Since so many people swear old school carnitas are the best and I call my kitchen a lab, I tried different cooking methods to see for myself. I slowly cooked larger and smaller pieces of pork in the oven, in croc pot, in a pot of lard, etc. Then I found Chef Roberto Santibañez’s recipe and that was the end of my search. I am a big fan of slow cooking and I am not afraid of fat, but for my taste these carnitas are the best. (See Recipe Notes below.)
At first, I followed the recipe exactly, but the part with skimming was sort of inconvenient: I was loosing some oregano and chopped onions being trapped in a foam. I changed the steps a little by taking care of skimming before the rest of ingredients are added to the pork. Skimming was still unpleasant because there is no much water above the pork. Precooking pork in oil or fat at a lower temperature, so that the meat stays white (like for fricassee) was the solution, because there was no much foam to skim after that step. I also reduced the amount of fat even more. If the pork is fatty, there is enough fat in it naturally.
If you care for good tasting carnitas, never buy pre-cut/pre-packaged and labeled “carnitas” pork. Choose whole butt or shoulder cut, with or without bone. HEB’s pork labeled “All Natural” is better tasting than less expensive brands.