This recipe foregoes the traditional method of making carnitas, which is basically confit (to cook in a vat of pork fat) and instead braises low with just a 1/4 cup of lard to lubricate the meat and keep it moist.
I also cut a corner and rendered some of the pork shoulder's own fat to get the lard I needed for the recipe. You can use your own homemade lard of course, but I'd steer away from store bought lard as it has a lot of nasty extras added to it for shelf stability.
(adapted from serious eats here)
For the Carnitas:
3-ish pounds boneless pork butt (shoulder), cut into 2-inch cubes
1 red onion, quartered
1 medium orange, quartered
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
1/2 cinnamon stick (about 1 inch)
Kosher salt and pepper
1/2 cup homemade lard (can sub any neutral oil, canola, vegetable, etc. but lard is the difference maker here) DIVIDED
Quick Onion Relish:
1 small white onion, diced
1 serrano chile, diced
1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juice of
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Quick onion relish
1-2 avocados, sliced
1 bunch of radishes, sliced
2-3 limes, cut into wedges
1 cup crumbled queso fresco
12-24 corn tortillas (depending on if you like to double up the tortillas per taco or not)
Begin by trimming up your pork shoulder. This is much easier if it is slightly frozen, by the way.
I got most of the thick layer of fat from one side of it to use for my lard.
Save the fat for later.
Cut the pork into 2 inch chunks.
They don't have to be perfect.
If your shoulder came "bone-in" then the scapula will be in there. It's really tough to get all the meat trimmed off of it at this stage, so just do the best you can.
All the meat will come right off it after it's been cooked.
Toss the meat and shoulder blade into a large baking dish. I used a 9x13".
Season liberally with salt and pepper. Don't skimp here. Cover it.
Quarter the red onion
Nestle the orange and onion into the dish. Try to keep the onion quarters together as we'll be removing them after the braise.
Add the 4 cloves of smashed garlic, 2 bay leaves and 1/2 cinnamon stick.
I actually started my lard at this point, but you can do it first. I just like letting the pork get a dry brine from the salt for the 20 minutes or so it takes to render the lard.
For the lard:
Gather your fat trimmings.
Mince the fat as best you can.
Toss into a COLD cast iron pan or another non-stick pan that heats evenly.
Add a splash of water, maybe a tablespoon. This helps distribute the heat in the beginning of the cooking process.
Put over medium heat and give it a stir.
This takes as long as pan frying bacon, so 10-20 minutes depending on how hot you're cooking it at. You want to be gentle on the heat so it'll hopefully take more like 20 minutes to fully render.
When the cracklins are golden brown, drain and reserve the lard.
I had nearly a 1/2 cup from this small amount of pork fat!
Drain and salt your cracklins and eat them now, save for another use later or add them to the carnitas later. Your choice!
Anyway, after you have your lard rendered, you are ready for the braise.
Preheat the oven to 275F.
Drizzle 1/4 cup of your freshly rendered lard over the pork.
Cover tightly with heavy duty foil.
Cook for about 3.5 hours or until fork tender and the meat easily pulls off the shoulder blade.
Carefully remove the onions, oranges, bay leaves, garlic and cinnamon stick.
Nice clean bone:
Drain the pork to remove the excess liquid.
If you didn't get enough fat for another 1/4 cup from rendering the pork fat, you can skim the fat here and use it to add back into the pork in a second.
Discard the rest.
Lay out the pork chunks on a pan lined with foil.
(I started with parchment because I was having a brain fart. We're going to be broiling the pork next, so the parchment will likely burn. Foil is a much smarter choice for this and I realized it after taking the picture.)
Anyway, shred it.
You can add the cracklins back to the pork at this point too if you feel like it.
I also tasted for salt and re-seasoned here.
Also add the remaining 1/4 cup of lard.
Give everything a good stir. Re-check for salt. It should be just this side of too salty in my opinion.
Quick Onion Relish
You can make this relish while the pork is braising in the beginning of the day and let it sit. It's actually better by the afternoon, I've found.
Gather your white onion, serrano, lime and cilantro.
You'll need some salt and pepper to season it.
I've made this a bunch of times and I've found that the heat from a serrano is really subdued in this application. I used to seed it but I've come to use the whole thing, seeds and all. I really like the heat of a serrano and for some reason find the heat cleaner than a jalapeño.
Regardless, dice it fairly finely.
Add all of the ingredients to a container that seals well.
Give it a good shake to combine and taste for salt and pepper. It'll need 1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp (Kosher) depending on your taste.
Shake again and toss this in the fridge until service.
A few minutes before dinner, you can prep your tortillas.
I've detailed this before, but you just want to lightly spray all sides of 12 tortillas with oil or cooking spray and stack them thusly on a sheet pan and bake for about 3 minutes at 350F to help get them pliable.
Stack them up.
Then cover with a clean towel to keep warm before dinner.
They'll be MUCH easier to work with this way and you avoid frying 12 tortillas before dinner, which I find intolerable.
Broil for about 4 minutes or until you get some nice color on spots. Don't go much longer than 5 minutes or it may dry out on you. We want to keep it moist.
I rotate my pan every minute or so because my broiler heats really unevenly.
Dress your tacos any way you'd like! I like mine with some queso fresco, avocado, radish and the onion relish. Serve with some limes on the side and maybe some nice hot sauce for the chili-heads in the family.
I thought this recipe turned out great. I've made carnitas many times in the past but the seasoning from the orange, garlic, bay leaves and cinnamon really gave it a depth of flavor that I hadn't had before. Nothing is overpowering and you can't pick out "cinnamon" or "orange" as a flavor. It just blends well with the natural porkiness of the slow cooked pork and added lard to give a really pleasant tasting flavor.
Broiling the pork gives you the crispy bits that are important in traditional carnitas and allows the meat to remain moist.
Give it a try this Cinco - you'll have a hard time not eating all of it!