Carnitas, or “little meats” in Spanish, are those crispy, juicy, sizzled bits of meat that crown tacos, rice and beans, and polenta.
Traditional recipes involve simmering chunks of pork shoulder in lard for hours so that the meat eventually caramelizes to become richly tender and silky.
Carnitas originated in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where the meat is cooked in a big copper pot. Trying to replicate this at home is a tough proposition. But take heart, there is a very simple technique I stumbled upon when faced with a hunk of leftover lamb. While not authentic, it will create a close approximation of carnitas without the lard or hours of time.
All you need is a leftover roast — pork, beef, lamb, duck, dark meat chicken or turkey work beautifully. Simply rip the meat into fine shreds, simmer it in several tablespoons of oil with seasoning until it becomes wonderfully succulent and begins to darken and caramelize. If you happen to have any leftover fat from cooking the roast (especially pork, chicken or duck), all the better. Be sure to season the meat as it cooks, tasting it along the way.
A nonstick skillet is the best pan for this because you want those sticky bits of browned meat to cling to each other, not to the pan. Otherwise, plan on using additional fat, turning the meat while it browns. You’ll end up cooking the meat longer than you might think is necessary, but you want it to become nubby and crusty. As the bits start to darken, fold them over gently and stir them back into the rest of the meat. Continue doing this as the meat caramelizes until you’re satisfied with the flavor and texture. Timing will vary.
While pork is traditional, beef and lamb, as well as the dark meat of poultry, all work well. Save the white meat for soup or a salad as it becomes too dry when cooked this way.
Carnitas can be made well in advance and will keep for several days in the refrigerator, then heated up before serving. Roll them into a warm corn or flour tortilla and top with minced white onion, cilantro, salsa and guacamole; pile them onto nachos or over rice with black beans. Try lamb carnitas over polenta and season with fresh lemon and a scatter of fresh chopped herbs.
Incredibly versatile, reliable and fingerpicking delicious, carnitas re-imagine the Sunday roast.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.