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The Food Lab: Make Crisp, Juicy Carnitas—Without a Bucket of Lard

The Food Lab: Make Crisp, Juicy CarnitasâWithout a Bucket of Lard | Serious Eats

Carnitas. The undisputed king of the taco cart. The Mexican answer to American pulled pork, at their best they should be moist, juicy, and ultra-porky with the rich, tender texture of a French confit, and riddled with plenty of well-browned crisp edges. The most famous version of the dish comes from Michoacán, in central Mexico. Delicately flavored with a hint of orange, onion, and occasionally some warm herbs or spices like cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, or oregano, all it needs is a squeeze of lime, some chopped onion and cilantro, and simple hot salsa to form a snack of unrivaled deliciousness.

There are pretty much two things that happen when you cook a fatty, connective tissue-laden cut of meat like a pork shoulder in low temperature fat (which I define as under 250°F):

  • Connective tissue breaks down. Beginning at around 176°F*, the proteins that make up the connective tissue (mostly collagen) will slowly break down and convert to gelatin. Unlike collagen, which forms tough, fibrous strands, gelatin will not coagulate at serving temperature, instead acting to thicken liquids, allowing them to lubricate muscle fibers, and giving food a luscious mouthfeel. But the breakdown process takes time. At 176°, it can take upwards of 8 to 12 hours, whereas at 200° or so, this time can be reduced to closer to 2 hours.
  • Muscle proteins contract, expelling moisture. Muscle fibers begin to contract at around 120°, squeezing liquid out of their ends. They contract tighter and tighter as the temperature gets higher, until eventually the liquid is almost completely expelled. Unlike collagen breakdown—which is time dependent—the amount of liquid expelled from muscle fibers is related pretty much only to the temperature they are heated to.

Rather than have my pork pieces swimming in a lot of fat, why not just cook them in a much small container, fitting them together tightly enough that they'll cook in their own fat as it renders out? As long as I'm careful with the temperature, it should have enough fat in it naturally to cook plenty slow, right?

I seasoned up another batch of pork and rather than placing it in a Dutch oven on the stove top to heat, I placed it directly in a casserole dish—the smallest one I could find that I could squeeze the pork into and added just enough oil to cover the top surface and prevent it from drying out—about a quarter cup. After tightly covering it with foil, I placed it directly into a 275° oven to slowly heat up. It reached 208° after about an hour, and held there until I pulled it out two hours later (a total of three hours).

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Gammy, thanks for this. Pretty amazing attention to detail.

This seems much more delicious than lard versions. 

Credit where credit is due... @Troutgirl found it first. :) Nevertheless, that's test kitchen cooking, happy to capitalize on the learnings