The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab: How To Make Carne Adovada (Chili-Braised Pork)

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Does anyone else get goosebumps when thinking about the last bowl of really good chili they had? Chili season is something I look forward to every year. That time when even as a supposed-to-love-vegetables-and-really-does-but-sometimes-wants-huge-bowls-of-meat coastal-dweller you're finally allowed to hunker down in front of what's essentially a big bowl of spoon-tender meat and dig right in without anyone giving you a second glance, a reproachful look at your gluttony.

And while Texas-style Chile con carne—that is, real chili with big hunks of tender beef simmered in a tomato-and-bean-free sauce—may be the pope of Chili Town, carne adovada—its New Mexican pork-based cousin—is his right hand man.

I've never understood why it doesn't get as much recognition as chili con carne. Perhaps its just because beef is so in-your-face brash and bold, while pork requires a little more subtlety, a little more patience to get it right, to understand it. Kinda like George to beef's John. When you finally crack it; when you finally have a taste that makes you go oh..., I get it, it can be every bit as soul-satisfying and delicious.

Here's how it's done.

A Brief Word on Nomenclature

I know some folks are already chomping at the bit, ready to jump on me for spelling the dish adovada instead of adobada. Well allow myself to explain myself.

The New Mexican dish carne adovada is based off of a Mexican cooking process called adobada (or sometimes enchilada) which is a general term that means to cook something in an adobo sauce—a sauce made with chilies, flavored with a few aromatics and vinegar. Real Mexican carne adobada can come in all shapes in sizes from simmered chunks to shreds.

New Mexican-style carne adovada, on the other hand, is a defined dish consisting of chunks of pork simmered in a chili-based stew. Got it? Good. Let's get into the kitchen.*

*Similarly, you'll see me write our official style-guide's spelling of "chili" when I'm referring to the peppers used to flavor the dish, while I'll resort to "chile," when referring to the regional spelling of the dish itself. So New Mexican chile is flavored with chilies. Ok?

Browning Issues

The first step on our path to flavor country is the meat. I braised a few big pots of pork using a simple working recipe of pork stewed with powdered dried chili (I used a mix of ancho and pasilla), onions, garlic, and chicken stock, treating the meat in a number of different ways to determine what worked best.

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Now, traditional wisdom will tell you that you ought to brown your meat as deeply as possible. Browning, also known as the Maillard reaction is a complex series of chemical reactions that occur when meat (or other protein-containing foods such as bread) is subjected to high heat. As meat browns, molecules rapidly break down and recombine in a cascade of reactions that produce hundreds of end products, adding complexity and depth of flavor.

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But here's the thing: browning doesn't occur at any appreciable rate until well above the 300°F mark. Meanwhile, it's not possible to raise your meat past 212°F (the boiling point of water) until most of its surface moisture has been evaporated. Water is like a built-in temperature regulator that prevents browning.

How do you solve this problem?

The first step is to get rid of the surface moisture—the liquid clinging to the outside of the meat. This is easy enough, and is something you should do any time you sear meat:

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But this doesn't solve the problem of the moisture that resides just under the surface, which is only released once the meat hits the pan and its muscle fibers start contracting, expelling liquid.

Some recipes will have you brown the meat in batches, reheating the pot well in between each one. The idea is that this leaves plenty of space for liquid to evaporate, and without too much meat in the pan, it's able to retain and regain heat faster, leading to a deeper sear.

This is all true. What those recipes don't tell you is that there's an inverse relationship between quality of sear (that is, how brown a given surface on a piece of meat gets), and quality of texture (that is, how moist and tender the meat is after cooking). The browner it gets, the tougher and dryer it becomes.

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There's a misconception that moist cooking techniques—braising, simmering, etc—will lead to moist end results when in fact, a simmered or braised piece of meat will lose nearly as much moisture as one that is roasted in the dry heat of an oven. That's because as muscle fibers heat up&madsh;whether that heat is transmitted through the air or a liquid—they contract, squeezing out moisture. And, just like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube, once that liquid is squeezed out, it ain't easy to get it back in.

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So my two conflicting goals: develop flavor via browning and retain moisture by not browning.

I tried a number of solutions—browning meat less, browning it not at all, adding browned vegetables instead of meat, browning via roasting rather than searing—but the best turned out to be the simplest: just don't bother browning every surface.

Instead, I get some oil ripping hot in a Dutch oven (until it's lightly smoking), dump in all my meat, and just let it sit there until just the bottom side is deeply seared.

The temptation to move it around is great. Those little pieces of pork scream like feral cats as they hit the pot, begging for you to move them around, to expose them equally to the hot surface. Do not give in. Stirring will lead to excessive cooling, which leads to steamed meat instead of browned meat.

Once one side is well browned, that's all it takes—those water-soluble products of the Maillard reaction will dissolve in the cooking liquid, spreading their flavor throughout the stew. Meanwhile, the pork will stay nice and moist as it cooks. Win-win-win.

Size Matters

Next question: How big should I cut my meat?

You'd think that using smaller cuts of meat should help your stew cook faster, just like a thinner steak will cook faster than a thicker one.

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After braising meat cut in sizes all the way from one-pound hunks down to 1/2-inch square piece, I found that the difference in cooking time was actually marginal at best. Even the smallest piece still took on the order of 1 hour 45 minutes to fully tenderize, while the big chunks were soft in a little over 2 hours.

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Why's that? It's because braising is a slow-cooking process; That is, it's all about converting tough connective tissue (mainly collagen) into smooth, unctuous gelatin. This is a process that's not just temperature dependent, but also time dependent. That is, whether you've got a ton of collagen or just a couple ounces, as long as they're at the same temperature, they'll convert to gelatin at the same basic rate.

So the difference in time it takes a small piece of meat to cook and a large piece of meat to cook is identical, once they've both achieved the same internal temperature. In a simmering stew, that temperature is about 180°F. A small piece of meat will be there within a matter of moments—collagen starts transforming nearly instantly—a larger hunk can take a little while, hence the 20-minute increase in cooking time.

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Texture and flavorwise, I found that pieces in the middle range—cut to about 2-inches per side—had the best contrast between juicy tender center and sauce-coated exterior.

Before we go on, I'd like to make an important note: DO NOT OVERCOOK YOUR PORK. There's a certain romance associated with saying "I cooked this for 12 hours!" and of course, ow and slow is good, but there's a limit to how much meat should stew.You want to cook it just until it's done so that it retains maximum juiciness. Longer is NOT always better.

With that out of my system, let's move on.

Chasing Chili

Now we get to the real meat of the dish, which, ironically, is not the meat at all. It's the chilies.

To start with, I already knew from my previous adventures in chili that the best way to incorporate dried chilies into a dish is to toast them in a saucepot, then simmer them in liquid before pureeing them in a blender or with an immersion blender.

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This ensures that they are fully developed in flavor, completely fresh (it's hard to tell how fresh chili powder is), and can be transformed into a smooth sauce.

The most traditional New Mexican recipes for the dish are simple: Get yourself some freshly dried New Mexican chilies (or chiles, if that's your preferred spelling), toast and grind (or in this case simmer) them, brown some pork then brown some onions and garlic...

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...season with a few spices if desired (some cumin and Mexican oregano are nice) before adding your chili and liquid...

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...return the pork to the pot and add a couple bay leaves...

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...simmer, simmer, simmer...

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...and simmer some more, until...

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...your pork is fall-apart tender a couple hours later.

And that's precisely what I did. The results were... fine. The meat was tender and moist, but the sauce lacked real brightness and depth.

A good deal of that has to do with the fact that frankly, the dried chilies you find around here are not all that spectacular. A great dried chili should actually not be too dry. It should have the texture of fruit leather, with a supple, bendable skin. Most of the chilies I find around here are dried to the point of being crisp, breaking when you bend them.

A great dried chili should have a depth of flavor that doesn't just encompass heat, but also has brigher, fruity notes. A touch of acidity, a raisin-like richness. The chilies I find around here are a little dry and dusty tasting. They've got some flavor, but not excessive amounts.

Mixing and matching various types of chilies can add depth—I usually go for a mix of two or more, mixing rich deep chilies like ancho with brighter chilies like pasilla—and this flavor may be good enough for a really hearty beef-based chili like my Texas Chile Con Carne, but fatty pork meat demands a brighter, sweeter flavor to bring out the best in it, something that can't be accomplished with my crummy New York supermarket chilies alone.

Flavor Fix

So if a rich fruitiness and hint raisin-like sweetness is what I'm after, I figured, why not take the logical step? Just add some damn raisins.

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I added some to the simmering chilies along with a couple of canned chipotle peppers (another good source of that rich chili flavor, along with a hint of smoke) before blending them all together. It worked like a charm, creating a sauce that tasted only of extra-flavorful chilies; he raisins added depth, but not even the super-est of supertasters would be able to say that they were in there. I wish more of life's problems could be solved with raisins.

I had the rich depth I was looking for; Now I just needed to add some acidity and sweetness. Oranges are a natural pair with chilies—they contain many of the same flavor compounds—so I tried adding them in a variety of forms. Orange juice (both fresh squeezed and bottled). Whole orange halves simmered with the stew (both regular navel oranges and sour Valencia oranges). They all improved the dish, but the real winner was a shocker:

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Frozen orange juice concentrate. Yes, really. Even when I added an equivalent amount of real orange juice, the versions made with concentrate simply had a better flavor. Perhaps it was because the fresh orange juice version tasted too much like orange, whereas with a few spoon full of concentrate added to the braising liquid, the final sauce had a hint of sweet brightness, but no overtly orange-y flavor.

This may be the one time that you actually don't want your orange juice to taste strongly of orange.

With my flavor nearly there, all it took was a dash of vinegar and a couple tablespoons of Vietnamese fish sauce to tie the whole dish together.

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Fish sauce may seem like an odd pairing for Mexican-based flavors, but it's not as odd as you might think. Fish sauce is a powerful source of both glutamates and inosinates, two classes of natural chemical compounds that greatly enhance our perception of savoriness. A dash of it in pretty much any meat-based stew will make your stew taste more meaty, without adding any fishiness to give up its presence.

Don't believe me? There's just one way to find out...

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And there you've got it. Rich, bright, flavorful, hot, and meaty, with perfectly juicy, spoon-tender hunks of pork just waiting to fall apart under your teeth or to be shredded. The real question is, what do you do once you've got all that meat?

Well real carnivores will say JUST EAT IT. Forget the fork, just plow right in. But the beauty of the dish is its adaptability to various forms. Traditionalists might also want to stuff it into a big fat burrito.

Personally, I prefer daintier corn-tortilla tacos, homemade of course.

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Some slivers of white onion for crunch and a sprinkle of queso fresco, cilantro, and lime juice are all it needs to whoop the pants off of any Texas who may or may not try to claim their chile to be superior.

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That don't suit 'ya? Try shoving it in a sandwich instead. If you are disappointed, I hereby officially withdraw any and all street cred I may have developed in the chile arena in the past.

Get The Recipe!

Carne Adovada (Chili-Braised Pork) »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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