Chef Roberto Santibañez Says This Is The Key To Restaurant-Worthy Carnitas At Home

Carnitas is one of the best things you can wrap a tortilla around, and it doesn't take much to make a great version at home. The Mexican classic, the ultimate form of pulled pork, is almost meltingly tender, yet crispy, fatty, and so tasty that it doesn't need any accompaniments. It's a mainstay of taco stands and sit-down spots alike, as it perfectly straddles the line between affordable, filling comfort food and restaurant-worthy intensity of flavor. It's so good that, for some people, it may seem like the kind of dish you shouldn't even bother with at home. Who else but professionals could make something so special? But behind all that deliciousness hides an ingenious and relatively simple cooking process of braising pork in lard. We reached out to Chef Roberto Santibañez, a cookbook author and the chef owner of Mi Vida and Fonda restaurants, for his tips on how to make that process work best in a home kitchen.

Santibañez told us that making carnitas at home should be a much simpler process compared to a professional kitchen, where the dish is often made by butchering a whole pig. He says the key is to "start by using pork shoulder that's cut into small pieces instead of the whole pig, and render its fat in a wet braise first." The chef added that this can be done by either oven or stovetop, and that in his opinion it's an easier and more effective process.

Cut pork shoulder into small chunks for easy at-home carnitas

The magic of carnitas comes from the slow-cooking, which allows in plenty of pork fat and is part of how it gets both its tender texture and incredible flavor. Some recipes call for braising pork in extra lard to fry it at the beginning, but according to Santibañez, this isn't really necessary. With the smaller chunks of pork and smaller pot, the braising liquid will draw out plenty of fat. "Once the liquid has evaporated," he says, "you will see the pieces of pork deliciously browning in their own fat." It's an amazing process that makes use of the natural characteristics of the meat with a bare minimum of extra ingredients, and you get a result every bit as good as what you would in a restaurant.

What else do you need to create great carnitas at home? Not much at all. Carnitas' braising liquid is usually flavored with some halved oranges, onion, and a few warm spices like cumin. You don't need a ton of additions for carnitas because the oils in these ingredients are fat soluble, so the rendered lard they cook in brings out tons of extra flavor molecules. As Santibañez told us, the pork shoulder already has almost everything you need to make great carnitas inside it already, it's just a matter of getting that fat out in the most effective way possible.