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TT Culinary Institute: Carnitas

Learn the ins and outs of carnitas, the classic Mexican braise
Carnitas
Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table

“It’s celebration food,” Rick Bayless, TV personality and chef/owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, says as he explains why carnitas are so comforting. “You’re surrounded by friends and family, feasting on lusciously tender and juicy carnitas tacos. What in this world could be better?”

We couldn’t agree more. The tender, citrusy chunks of pork shredded over fresh corn tortillas make for a rich taco, brightened by a spoon of tomatillo salsa (see the recipe). The best part is that it’s perfect for a crowd. “The first time you make carnitas has to be big time,”  Enrique Olvera, chef of Cosme in NYC, tells us. “Since it’s a laborious dish, it’s better to make a sizable amount to share with tortillas on the side, family style.”

We consulted some of our favorite Mexican chefs and carnitas experts to learn the ins and outs of this traditional Mexican braise, and we’ve compiled some highlights to ensure you never have to utter the words, “Dude, where’s my carnitas?”

Swine and dine. Originating from the Michoacán region of Mexico, carnitas traditionally entail simmering large chunks of fatty pork in lard until crisp and tender. Bayless explains that to go truly traditional Michoacán-style, “I’m using four gallons of lard and bone-in pork shoulder, cut into two-pound chunks.” But we don’t expect you to do this. Using three-inch pieces of boneless pork shoulder allows you to make great carnitas in a large Dutch oven at home.

Also, don’t feel like you’re bound to pork. Olvera serves tender duck carnitas to switch up tradition. “We are always creating new memories, and I love to see how this dish is building up the idea that it’s possible to talk about Mexican identity using local produce anywhere you are,” he explains.

Braise the bar. Think of carnitas as a form of confit, or cooking chunks of meat in lard. Other than lard, the main flavor is orange juice, lending a bright sweetness that caramelizes as the pork simmers. In fact, Gabriela Cámara, chef of Contramar in Mexico City and Cala in San Francisco, says her only carnitas ingredients ares fatty pieces of pork, salt and orange juice.

Olvera, on the other hand, adds unique ingredients common in Mexico City. “When researching for our duck carnitas dish, we realized that some street stalls were adding Coca-Cola® and Carnation® evaporated milk to burn and caramelize the fat, and the taste was undeniably better, so we introduced this method into Cosme,” he says.

While we don’t add soda, we do use milk in our braise to caramelize, thus adding richness and sweetness. However, the truly “secret” ingredient in our carnitas is pickle juice. We add pickled jalapeños for a hit of spice, as well as some of the pickling liquid. This adds bright acidity to the braise, which rounds out the flavor profile.

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Put your love on top. We want balance with our toppings to spoon over fatty braised pork. Some raw chopped onions, sliced radishes, cilantro leaves and a spoon of roasted tomatillo salsa cuts through the fattiness of the meat.

However, when talking to chefs about their topping preferences, the only real agreement they had was for tons of fresh, warm tortillas. While Cámara and Olvera opt for a raw salsa verde, Bayless uses a roasted salsa and a spoon of guacamole.

When it comes down to it, top your tacos however you like. With a base of this braised pork and roasted salsa, you can’t go wrong. And who are we to forbid you to add guac and beans?

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