Me and a pork shoulder get along real nice. It is one of my favorite cuts of meat to work with. Something about the whole process of marinating then slow roasting until the collagen breaks down into silky, savory, deliciously pull apart tenderness is thoroughly satisfying to me. I imagine similar to how a potter might feel when they mold a tough chunk of clay into a beautiful platter ...to serve carnitas in. It is a rewarding lesson in patience and understanding of the cut of meat that you are working with. You want the fat in the shoulder (or butt) but not too much. These are best purchased from a butcher. You say, "Hi, I'm making carnitas. I need a good solid four pound pork shoulder nicely trimmed please." Or you could even say, "Hi, I'm making carnitas for six people. How big of a pork shoulder should I get? Can you trim it if needed for me please?" These butchers are meat people. They like to talk about it. Don't be shy! I have learned so much from my butcher. Let them do their job. Who cares if you don't know what you are talking about? If you ask the butcher to trim the excess fat, you won't be paying for the fat you would be trimming later on at home. And while I'm going on about this, get the clean stuff if you can. Natural and sustainably raised pork is always a good idea for health reasons and the taste is so worth the extra few dollars. Hormone free meat is so much more appetizing!
The traditional way to make "little meats", as the word carnitas means in Spanish, is to fry them. This particular method gives you the result of the crispy browned and caramelized bits that you want but without the frying. The simple marinade is reduced into a syrupy glaze and mixed into the meat and broiled for the perfect sweet and crispy texture. If you want even less fat, you can place the pork on a cooling rack (the kind you rest hot cookies on) on top of a baking sheet so the fat drips down. Take it to it's limits but stop the broiling before it begins to char.
There are many ways you can enjoy carnitas. For our Southwestern cooking class, we served these on Navajo fry breads with New Mexico red chili sauce and all of the regular taco condiments like cilantro, radish, lettuce, cotija cheese. You can serve them with tortillas and your favorite salsa and guacamole. Whatever you decide, don't forget a squeeze of lime.
1 (3 ½ lb to 4 lb) boneless pork shoulder, fat cap trimmed to ⅛ inches thick, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 small yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
1 organic orange: the juice and the peel
1 organic lime: the juice and the peel
Combine all ingredients in dutch oven. Stir well to coat the pork. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees with the oven rack in the lower-middle position. Add 2 cups of water to the pork mixture or just enough to cover the meet and bring to a boil on the stovetop while stirring occasionally. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Cook until the pork is soft and fork tender, about 2 hours. Stir the pork and remove the lime peels about an hour into the cooking.
Remove the pot from the oven and turn the oven to broil. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a large bowl. Remove and discard the orange halves, the onion and bay leaves from the cooking liquid. Do not skim the fat. Place the pot over high heat and reduce the liquid down to a syrupy consistency. Should take about 15 minutes at a boil and reduce down to 1 ½ cups.
Using 2 forks, pull each piece of pork in half. Fold in the reduced liquid and taste. Add salt and pepper to taste if needed. Spread the pork out on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet on the lower-middle oven rack and broil until the top of the meat is well browned but not charred. Just until the edges are crisp, 5-8 minutes. Using a wide metal spatula, flip the pieces of meat and continue to broil until the top is well browned and the edges are slightly crisp, 5-8 minutes longer.