Easy Carnitas: Slowcooker Shredded Pork
Harold and I have had a rather tumultuous relationship lately. I’ve been starting to worry about our future together. It just seems sometimes like we’re looking for different things and we don’t communicate as well as we used to. Back when we were still in the honeymoon stage, it didn’t matter what we did; as long as we did it together, everything would just be perfect. We knew exactly what we needed from one another, and we would give it effortlessly and enjoy that whatever we accomplished together was better than what we would have done on our own. He brought out the best in me, and I in him. I always knew how lucky I was to have him in my life.
Lately though, we haven’t been seeing eye to eye. I would volley an idea his way, expecting dry wit, and instead he’d be saucy and acerbic. There was something simmering between us but before I could try to figure out what it was he’d just give up with a watery smile and turn off. It felt like he had just stopped trying.
I suppose that I should explain to you that Harold is my slow-cooker. He has been a supportive part of our family for the last few years and I really don’t know where I’d be without him. When I’m tired after a long day of work, he makes sure that we still get a healthy dinner on the table. He has traveled around a world of flavors, treating us to sweet and spicy maple pulled chicken, Asian BBQ boneless beef ribs, quick and dirty turkey mole, and a Burgundy pot roast with enough leftover gravy to make mashed potatoes a staple in our house for the next week. Lately, however, I swing right and he parries left. I ask him for a smoky spiced Moroccan chickpea tagine and I get an insipid soup with gray legumes and unmarried flavors. We discussed our shared affection for cassoulet and I thought we had an understanding, but watery beans with soft and bloated sausage doth not a cassoulet make.
I suppose that it’s my own fault. Relationships take care and attention, and I had been neglecting him all winter in favor of long, slow braises in my Dutch ovens. Warming the house with savory scents as wine and stock would slowly reduce, I must have forgotten that a slow cooker and a Dutch oven are inherently different, and you can’t expect them to behave the same way. I wanted Harold to be something that, quite simply, he was not. Now that spring is here and the Dutch ovens are packed up at the back of a cupboard again, I’m feeling rather silly and apologetic. It wasn’t that Harold let me down, but rather that I let HIM down by forgetting that we all have limitations, regardless of how special and endearing we might be.
We had a little heart to heart, and Harold seemed to brighten up. His timer shone greener, his plug was tighter, and his cold stainless steel exterior started to warm to my touch just like in the old days. He finally understands that I just can’t stomach another watery stew or mushy vegetable curry. For my part, I’m willing to acknowledge that our relationship is like any other. What you put in is what you get out, true, but over time things dilute and even the boldest flavors get weak. We all screw up eventually, but rather than trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, we need to learn from our mistakes and move on. And sometimes, every now and then, you need to turn the page; show some creativity and to try something new that you’ve never done before.
For Harold and I, our ‘something new’ was a low and slow dry roast for tender shredded pork. We’ve done pulled pork together before, and I won’t say that it wasn’t delicious, but I wasn’t in the mood for tangy sauces that would dominate the delicately sweet flavor of the meat. I wanted to taste the pork and not just the BBQ sauce. The second choice then was obviously carnitas, or slow-cooked and well seasoned meat (pork, beef or lamb) to be used as a versatile filling for tacos, burritos, enchiladas…the list goes on. We chose pork because it is ridiculously cheap right now ($4.50 for half a pork shoulder? Seriously?) and…because I like pork.
There are many variations on how to make good “traditional” carnitas, and this certainly is not one. The best carnitas, in my humble opinion, have been slow cooked in lard and then finished in a cast iron skillet to get a lovely caramelized brown crust. However, if you know me at all, it won’t come as a surprise that I am utterly incapable of braising meat in lard. I mean, it’s LARD. That’s just not going to happen. This pork is lacking the crispy/soft texture of traditional Michoacan carnitas, but for a lazily delicious weeknight meal these carnitas have got it made.
Carnitas: Slowcooker Shredded Pork
Serves 6 in tortillas with assorted sides or salads
- 4.5 lb (2 kg) bone in pork shoulder roast *
- 2 bulbs roasted garlic **
- 2 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp orange zest (from about 3/4 of a navel orange)
- 1 tbsp chipotle chili powder
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp garlic powder (not garlic salt)
- 1 tbsp onion powder (not onion salt)
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1.5 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground black pepper, or to taste
- 2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
*Pork shoulder, or similar cuts, are sometimes also called picnic shoulder or pork butt. I used a half shoulder, which is only about 4-7 pounds rather than 10-15. If you can buy a half shoulder/butt roast, do so. If not, ask your butcher sweetly and s/he might be kind enough to cut the swine on your behalf.
** Roasted garlic is easy to prepare in advance while something else is baking away in the oven. Once you have a few bulbs ready you can keep them on hand in the fridge for up to a week, ready to add loads of flavor to dishes just like this one. If you have never roasted garlic before, slice off just the top 1/4″ of the garlic bulb to expose the tops of the cloves. Drizzle the bulb with a wee bit of olive oil (1 tsp or less) and wrap it up tightly in aluminum foil. Put the foil wrapped bulb in a 350ºF oven for 50-60 minutes, or until the cloves are golden brown and soft enough that they’ll ooze out when you press the side of the bulb. And hey, if you’re oven is set at 300ºF because you’re doing a slow braise? No problem, leave the garlic in there for up to an hour and a half. Whoooah, you’re roasting vegetables and your oven is set to 400ºF? Cool, take the garlic out after about 45 minutes. Believe me, roasted garlic is NOT something to stress out about.
Mix together all of the spices, dried herbs, sugar, salt and pepper. Make sure that the orange zest gets incorporated well, as it has a tendency to clump. This will be your spice rub, which can now be put aside while we prep the pork.
This is entirely out of character for me, but I’m going to ask you NOT to trim the excess fat off of the pork. I know, right? The girl is MAD! Trust me on this one. The long slow cook will render out most of that fat, which will drip down sexily over the rest of the roast as it cooks, leaving you with flavorful and juicy meat. For a dry roast like this, you need the fat or you’ll end up with a tough, dry, Naugahyde style roast rather than one which falls apart and then melts in your mouth. More importantly, most of that fat will be discarded at the end so no harm no foul…..but there is some juicy, tender meat.
If your pork shoulder roast still has skin on it, you can cut and discard it if you wish. There is no harm in leaving it on though, as it will protect the meat to keep it moist as it cooks (looks like we have a theme here…) and is easy enough to peel off in a clump at the end. What you do want to do, however, is cut straight through the skin with a sharp knife to score the skin and fat cap in a cross-hatch pattern to allow the spice rub to permeate through to the meat.
Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the bulbs and mash them loosely with a fork. Spread the roasted garlic all over the pork, slathering it thickly on all sides.
Sprinkle the spice rub evenly on top of the roast and pat it gently to adhere. This will be sticky business, as the slick garlic smothered roast scoots around like…..well, like a greased pig. No matter, just persevere and try to make sure that the pork is as evenly covered in rub as you can muster.
Place the pork with the thickest layer of fat facing up and place it in your refrigerator overnight if you can.
When you’re ready to cook the pork, seal the slow-cooker tightly (I like to cover it with aluminum foil before putting on the lid, because I’m a worrier) and set it to slow roast on the low heat setting for 8 – 10 hours.
You will get home from work and find a house that smells almost unbearably delicious, and in front of you will be a piping hot crock pot full of this:
The meat is literally falling off the bones, which makes it ideal for shredding. Carefully life the tender pork out and put it on a cutting board. Pull out the bone and use tongs to peel back the skin and any remaining fat cap which didn’t render but it holding together. Discard both. As soon as the pork is cool enough to handle without losing your fingerprints, shred it into bite sized pieces with two forks or your hands. Discard any unappetizing fat or gristle that you come across.
Now then, we don’t want the meat to dry out and it surely will if we leave it as is. Stir around the juices that remain in the bottom of your slow cooker bowl and pour 3 tablespoons over top of the meat. You could be a fat-stickler, of course, and strain off all the grease first and then toss only the flavorful porky juices with the shredded meat. However, fat DOES have flavor, and the little bit that we’re adding back in is still much healthier than slow poaching the pork in lard. So, there’s that.
Soft flour tortillas are my favorite vehicle for carnitas. We (sadly) used mass produced tortillas from a chain grocery store, because our area isn’t exactly known for its Mexican cuisine, but it could be that I was browsing through a bakery the other day and saw them bagging up more traditional hand made tortillas that were still warm enough that the bags were pressing inwards with the gathered steam. This discovery alone means that there is another bout of carnitas coming up in our immediate future.
Carnitas are like a glowing canvas and you can feel free to experiment with sauces, vegetables and add-ons as you see fit. We topped ours with a fresh and chunky guacamole, bitter radicchio, a healthy crumble of fresh salty cheese, and of course the omnipresent fresh cilantro and squeeze of lime. If you still need a bit more inspiration, try diced onion, thinly sliced radish, salsas, refried beans (frijoles refritos) or grated cheese….which is actually the least traditional topping, but certainly delicious.
It goes without saying that the leftover shredded pork is delicious in sandwiches, stirred into a meaty ragu sauce for pasta, simmered with green chilis and tomatillo to make a rich stew over rice, or just about anywhere else that you would or could use leftover pork. That is, after you have already exhausted the tacos, burritos, enchiladas, posole and sopas……but that can take some time…..