The Go-To Cut Of Pork For Traditional Carnitas

When it comes to carnitas, the succulent Mexican slow-cooked pork dish, there is one undeniable truth: the shoulder reigns supreme. The robust, marbled meat of the pork shoulder, with its perfect balance of fat and tenderness, is the key to achieving the irresistible texture and flavor that makes them so beloved. This cut of pork offers a magnificent combination of marbling and connective tissue, ensuring the meat remains juicy and moist throughout the cooking process. The intramuscular fat renders beautifully, infusing the dish with incredible flavor and keeping the meat tender. Further, the higher fat content of pork shoulder makes it more forgiving during the cooking process, reducing the risk of dry, tough meat.

Carnitas, which translates to "little meats" in Spanish, are a traditional Mexican dish originating from the state of Michoacán. It involves slow-cooking seasoned pork — typically cuts from the whole animal — until it becomes meltingly tender, with crisp and caramelized edges. Traditionally, carnitas are prepared by slow-cooking pork in large copper vessels, known as cazos, which arefilled with fragrant pork lard. This laborious cooking method imparts a unique flavor and texture to the meat.

In Mexican cuisine, carnitas are considered a celebratory dish, often enjoyed during festivals and gatherings. The slow-cooking process allows the flavors to develop and intensify, resulting in tender, flavorful meat that is then shredded or chopped into bite-sized pieces. 

Making carnitas at home

Recreating the magic of carnitas at home is an achievable feat, thanks to the versatility of pork shoulder and modern cooking techniques. While the traditional copper vessel and lard method may not be feasible for every home cook, similar results can be achieved by braising the pork shoulder in the oven or using a slow cooker.

To begin, select a pork shoulder with a generous amount of fat marbling. Season the meat with a combination of traditional spices like cumin, oregano, chili powder, and garlic. For an authentic flavor, braise with chicken or pork stock along with a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice and a touch of lard or cooking oil to ensure a rich, moist final product.

Sear the pork shoulder in a heavy-walled cooking vessel or slow-cooker and add aromatic ingredients such as onions, garlic, and bay leaves. Braise the meat in the oven at a low temperature (around 300°F) or in a slow cooker on low heat for several hours until the meat is tender and easily shreds with a fork. Once the pork shoulder reaches the desired level of tenderness, transfer it to a baking sheet and broil or roast at a higher temperature to achieve those coveted crispy edges. 

Serve the carnitas simply with warm tortillas, fresh cilantro, diced onions, lime wedges, and a selection of salsas. Allow your guests to build their own tacos, savoring each bite of tender meat and crispy edges.