Carnitas are absolutely irresistible: juicy, flavor-bursting, pull-apart chunks of pork, slow-cooked over hours with lard or oil and aromatic spices. Unfortunately for gluten-free diners, carnitas also often includes beer. Not this recipe: oil and orange juice, which helps tenderize the meat and add flavor, are all you need to kick off awesome carnitas.
In my hometown of San Francisco, I grew up on the blue-chip carnitas of a small, still thriving local chain called Gordo Taqueria. Their carnitas “plato” features glistening chunks of pull-apart pork, chopped before your eyes into bite-size bits of crispy, caramelized ends and tender, interior pieces. The pork is bolstered by generous helpings of savory pinto beans, perfectly seasoned Mexican rice, and guacamole dolloped on top of the meat before the final blessing of fantastically spicy green hot sauce. Warmed tortillas are optional.
Even with epic, ready-to-devour options all around me, as a child, I learned how to make the Mexican pork specialty at a cooking class in the Mission District. I saved the recipe and adjusted it over time, serving it with Sunset Margaritas and discovering three wonderful things about homemade carnitas along the way.
First, this dish is hard to ruin. Almost any carnitas recipe will be delicious as long as you include the star — pork shoulder, or pork butt — salt, and some cooking liquid.
Second, though it’s common to cook carnitas in a tightly sealed pot over a low open flame, it works just as well in the oven, as the carnitas recipe below shows (and it can even be done in an Instant Pot).
Third, when you cook carnitas yourself, you can make as much as you want with the same amount of effort. There’s no such thing as too much carnitas, and the pork freezes beautifully. Store in a tight-sealing container with the cooking juices and fat, then thaw and heat under the broiler to warm and crisp the meat.
Pork Carnitas Tacos
This recipe leads you to an epic taco feast featuring quick pickled red onions, avocado slices, cilantro, and lime — a kiss of acid to contrast the meat’s richness. Don’t be afraid to add your own favorite toppings, like hot sauce, pico de gallo, cabbage slaw, guacamole, cheese, jalapeños, and sliced white onions. Tacos aside, the flavorful pork is just as good in a burrito or burrito bowl, as a topping for nachos, in a salad, or straight from the cooking container. Store extras in the cooking liquid to keep the carnitas juicy and moist.
Serves 4 to 6
For the carnitas:
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder (pork butt), cut into 3-inch cubes
4 tsp kosher salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
Zest and juice of 1 orange
5 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
1 bay leaf
2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp cumin
12 corn tortillas, warmed in a dry skillet or on a grill
2 ripe avocados, sliced or cubed
1 recipe Quick Pickled Red Onions (below)
1 lime, sliced into wedges
Season the pork all over with the salt. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 275ºF. In an 8-inch square baking dish, combine the oil, orange zest and juice, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, and cumin. Add the pork and toss to coat.
Tightly cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and slow-roast until a fork easily pulls apart the meat, about 3 hours, turning over the pieces halfway through cooking. Remove from the oven and let rest for 20 minutes.
Preheat the broiler on high. Remove the pork from its cooking liquid and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Break each piece of pork into smaller, thick pieces, removing and discarding the all-fat pieces. Spread the pork out in one layer, baste with some of the cooking liquid, and broil about 4 inches from the heat source until browned and caramelized. Season generously with salt and serve with the tortillas, avocado, pickled red onions, lime, and cilantro.
Quick Pickled Red Onions
This pretty pink condiment adds vibrant acidity to any dish. It’s great with carnitas, but also complements sandwiches, burgers, and anything with barbecue sauce, or chop them up and add them to a salad. Cover and refrigerate extras for up to three weeks.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 small red onion, sliced thin
½ cup water
½ cup distilled white vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Place the onion slices in a small heatproof bowl or jar, set aside.
In a small pot, combine the water, vinegar, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the boiling vinegar water into the jar with the onions. Push the vegetables down to fully submerge and let sit for at least 30 minutes.
PHOTO CREDIT: Erin Ng