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…..

  • http://foodhappens.blogspot.com lo

    Harold sounds like a sweetheart! And he’d certainly win a place in my heart if he made me that awesome looking carnitas! Love the hint of orange with that pork. *drool*

    • http://foodhappens.blogspot.com lo

      Of course, I also feel the need to mention that I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my slow cooker for years. For a long time after pulling a flavorless livery whole chicken out of the cooker, I SWORE I was never going to cook meat in there again. But, we’ve since kissed an made up. He makes a lovely slow cooked tomato sauce, and some pretty kick-arse tomatillo pork. So, we’re still friends. But, some things (sadly for those of us who work crazy jobs) are meant to be made in true slow food fashion — simmered for a few hours in the dutch oven.

  • Christina

    I make carnitas almost exactly the same way. But I have a little different method to create that crispiness that just means carnitas to me. When the pork is done, pull it apart into chunks – maybe 4-5 times larger than bite size shreds. Use the clear rendered fat and some of the juice from the slow cooker to saute the pork in a pan until crisp on the outside. Finally, shred the larger chunks into bite-size pieces. Each shred is a blend of crispy and tender pork.
    I also use this pork as the base for chile verde – saute some garlic and onion with fresh ground cumin, toss in the pork and a couple of bottles of good salsa verde. Stir in cilantro before serving.

    • http://marblewood.blogspot.com heatherkay

      I do this, too, although I usually throw them in the oven. Sometimes I throw in some bacon fat or fat I trimmed off the shoulder before I put it in the slow cooker.

    • Jason

      Any Taqueria I’ve ordered carnitas from will do the same ‘crisping’ process on their griddle right before serving.

  • Jason

    Tina, you seriously don’t have a tagine? Outside of the issue a young couple would have with storage space, please go check out http://www.tagines.com/cat_moroccan_cooking_tagine.cfm

    …and post your favorites. There really is a difference when using one and they’re almost as hands-free as the slow cooker. If you can work through the curing process for one of the unglazed tagines they become by themselves, over time, “almost all the spice you need for your dishes” as Moroccan chef Kitty Morse told me.

    While lard may sound icky by itself, it’s also one of the key ingredients in your pork sausages and it’s what puts the ummmm into any righteous tamale you’ll eat. Lard is also no more unhealthy than butter or duck fat, and who won’t save bacon drippings to cook with later? Embrace the lard, you’ll love it, it’s a way of life.

  • Roger A. Blizzard

    I just moved to Alaska from the lower 48 a while back. People thought I would hate it here and my employer was REALLY nervous about paying for me to relocate but so far, I really like it here.

    The weather doesn’t bother me–I like the cold. The 6 months of dark, 6 months of daylight is fine–yay for blackout curtains. The fact that the city is tiny is OK–it just means less traffic to deal with. The lack of stores and anemities is survivable–Amazon is your friend.

    But what really, really pisses me off is what passes for good food here. The fact that some schmuck can get a license, cook mediocre (at best) food and charge money for it enrages me beyond belief.

    At any rate, I digress. Ironically one of my favorite restaurants in Anchorage is an islander restaurant that serves Kalua pork. I’m from South GA and a BBQ fanatic but I had never eaten Kalua pork before. It’s rapidly become one of my favorites but it’s pricey to buy from the restaurant. I’ve been a slow cooker addict all my life and after some super-secret investigation into how the restaurant prepares theirs (i.e. I asked the server how they make it), here’s an easy recipe for a lazy summer day.

    1 pork butt roast
    1 1/2 tablespoons Hawaiian sea salt
    1 tablespoon liquid smoke flavoring

    Use a knife or fork to pierce the roast all over.
    Rub liquid smoke over the meat.
    Rub in the salt.
    Place roast in slow cooker.
    Cook on Low for 16 to 20 hours, turning once during cooking time.
    Remove meat from slow cooker
    Shred and add clear drippings to moisten.

    Serve with white rice and macaroni salad.

    For southern BBQ flavor, don’t add the drippings and instead put the meat on hamburger buns with pickles and homemade musard-vinegar sauce.

    1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
    1 cup yellow mustard
    1/2 cup ketchup
    1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
    2 cloves garlic, crushed
    1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

    Simmer in a saucepan over medium heat for about 10 minutes (or until the sugar dissolves).

    Sorry for the long post. I got hungry while typing and got carried away.

  • http://joanne-eatswellwithothers.blogspot.com Joanne

    I have a very similar relationship with my crockpot (named Steve). I think I might need to spice up our relationship with these carnitas…things are starting to get a little bit. Well. Old. If you know what I mean.

  • http://cafecampana.com Mark @ Cafe Campana

    Mmmmm that pulled pork looks delicious. There are so many different things I could serve it in. I would like it in a sandwich at work.

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Christina &Heatherkay – excellent suggestion! I don’t mind an extra step when it comes to crispy brown bits. Will definitely try that, thanks again!

    Lo – Tomatillo pork….mmmmm……I would make out, uh, I mean make *up* with that too!

    Jason – you know, you’re right! No tagine here. I keep meaning to buy one, and I see el cheapos down at Ikea, but then I think of the gorgeous hand painted beauties that we saw in the markets in France, and….sigh……yes, I do desperately want a tagine, but that’s still more appropriate to the weekend than weeknight fare, because I wouldn’t be able to leave it simmering on the stove while I’m at work any more than I could bring myself to braise in lard (sorry, I just can’t get past myself on that one).

    Roger – I ADORE kalua pork! So simple, but utterly divine. We have some banana leaf in the freezer too, but I don’t know how Mike would feel about my digging a hole in the backyard and setting up a fire. For that reason, your slow cooker option is a delight!!

    Joanne – i DO know what you mean. However, better old than malevolent which is how Harold and I were going before these carnitas.

    Mark – You speak Mike’s language. “This is delicious! Oooh…..I could totally eat it on a bun….”

  • Elisabeth

    Thanks for posting this recipe, it turned out absolutely delicious! I’m sure my neighbors must be jealous of the delicious smell still wafting out of my windows 🙂

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Elisabeth – we’re delighted that you enjoyed this recipe so much! That’s great that you gave it a shot, and thank you so much for leaving us a comment about how it went! I love comments, even the ones that go, “Bleeeeech”.

  • http://www.alluringinnovations.com Cassondra

    This looks super yummy. I will be trying it soon. I can already tell from the ingredients it will be infinitely better than the other carnitas recipes I’ve seen.

  • Fabien

    LARD is Awesome

  • Mimi

    I am so inspired by your wonderful recipe and pictures that I decided to make carnitas! The seasoned roast is in the fridge overnight and I will pop it into the new crock pot tomorrow before I go to work. (The old crock pot *unnamed alas* had a funny smell that I could not overcome). Not sure how to “crisp” the meat without panfrying it. If I bake it, how much liquid do I add and at what temp for how long? Will keep you posted on results.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Mimi,
      Thank you kindly for your comment, and how excited are we that you’re making crock pot carnitas?? If you want to the traditional meltingly tender meat with a caramelized and crispy balance, here is my recommendation:
      – Preheat your oven to 400F
      – Fork/shred the meat into your desired consistency
      – In addition to the 3tbsp of liquid mentioned, add another 3 and make sure that there is some fat in there (hey, it helps with the flavor AND the crispness, so just go with it)
      – Spread the shredded meat into an ungreased casserole dish of at least 8X12, but 9X13 is preferable to increase the surface area and thus the crisp factor
      – Tuck the pan in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until crispy and caramelized on top
      – Enjoy with a cold cerveza and plenty of toppings!

      Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

  • Erin

    Thanks for the recipe! My dry rubbed pork is in the crockpot as I type this!

    I took a bit of a shortcut and mixed the Gourmet Gardens “garlic in a tube” with the orange zest then rubbed it all over my pork, following up with a good thick layer of the dry rub. I also used a pork loin instead of a shoulder since I picked one up on sale earlier in the week (hence the search for a pulled pork recipe).