Why It Works
- Using a sous vide immersion circulator keeps the pork extra moist and offers complete control over the final texture of the carnitas.
- Crisping the carnitas under the broiler or in a skillet is easier than deep-frying, and it produces excellent results.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Carnitas are the undisputed king of the taco cart. The Mexican answer to American pulled pork, at their best they're moist, juicy, and ultra porky, with the rich, tender texture of a French confit, riddled with plenty of well-browned, crisp edges. Traditionally, they're made by simmering chunks of juicy pork in rendered lard inside a large copper vat (a cazo) until tender and crisp.
At home, I've been making them for years using my oven-based recipe, in which you pack cubes of pork into a baking dish, add just enough fat to cover, then slow-cook it in a low oven before shredding and crisping the meat in a pan under the broiler or on the stovetop. It's a fantastic and easy method, but I'd venture to say carnitas are even easier when cooked using a sous vide immersion circulator. For one thing, you don't have to heat up the oven, or worry about leaving it on all afternoon.
Using sous vide, there's also no real chance of overcooking. With a slow-cooking, extra-forgiving cut like pork shoulder, which is high in both connective tissue and fat, even if you overshoot by half a day, your results are still going to be incredible. I know; I tested it to find out!
The other great thing about cooking sous vide is that, because the pork is sealed inside a bag, there's no need to add any extra fat whatsoever. The fat that renders from the pork shoulder as it cooks gets distributed around the bag, essentially allowing the pork to tenderize in its own juices. The result is extra-moist carnitas, time after time.
Temperature and Timing
Just as with American-style barbecue pork cooked sous vide, the temperature at which you cook the meat can have an effect on both the finished texture and the overall cooking time. The goal is to break down tough connective tissue—mainly collagen—into rich, velvety gelatin. This takes both time and heat, and the hotter you cook, the less time it takes.
On the flip side, the hotter you cook, the more moisture the pork will expel. Sure, that moisture gets trapped in the bag, but as soon as the bag is opened and the pork removed, it'll drain away. Pork cooked at higher temperatures will come out drier, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: Cooking sous vide at a higher temperature still produces pork that is plenty moist, and it will have a more traditional texture.
These photographs were taken of pork treated with a cochinita pibil–style marinade, which is why it's red on the exterior. In this case, the texture comes out the same regardless of the marinade. Take a look.
At 145°F (63°C), pork will take at least 24 hours and up to 36 hours to really become tender. Even so, it retains an almost steak-like resilience and juiciness. Rather than shredding apart, like pulled pork, it comes apart in large, juicy chunks. I really enjoy this texture, especially if the pork is left in largish chunks or slabs and seared in a skillet, or even cubed and threaded onto skewers and finished on the grill.
At 165°F (74°C), pork will take a minimum of 12 and up to 24 hours to tenderize. Once it does, it'll have an easily shreddable texture, but the individual shredded pieces will remain moist and juicy. This is probably my favorite temperature for making taco or torta fillings, as the meat can be used just like traditional carnitas but is even juicier.
At 185°F (85°C), pork will take about eight hours, or even a little less, to tenderize. The texture will be very similar to that of traditional carnitas—easily shreddable and reasonably moist. (I used to think standard carnitas were incredibly moist, until I tried sous vide carnitas.) This is a good temperature for anyone who wants a really traditional texture, but would like to make the process just a little more foolproof and streamlined.
|Cooking Temperatures for Sous Vide Carnitas|
|145°F (63°C) for 24 to 36 hours||Very tender and moist; not very shreddable. Better for cubing or searing as slabs.|
|165°F (74°C) for 12 to 24 hours||Moist and easy to shred with your hands or forks|
|185°F (85°C) for 8 to 16 hours||Traditional texture that shreds naturally|
Tips For Making Sous Vide Carnitas
Slice the Pork
I like to start with boneless pork shoulder. I tried using whole shoulders, which works reasonably well, but you get better flavor penetration if you first cut the pork into thick slabs. About four pounds is enough to serve eight to 12 people once the meat is cooked. You can easily make a half batch, but carnitas freeze extremely well, so think about making the full order!
Bagging the Meat
I recommend using actual vacuum sealer bags if you'll be cooking with a sous vide setup for extended periods of time, but you can also use heavy-duty zipper-lock bags by double-bagging the meat and using the water displacement method to remove air. If you do use this method, make sure that the top part of the outer bag (the part that seals) stays above the water line in order to avoid any leaks during cooking.
Maintain Full Immersion
If you didn't manage to get all the air out of the bag, or if your pork is particularly fatty, the bag might have a tendency to float a little. You can easily keep it submerged by placing a wet kitchen towel on top of the bag, or by using a large binder clip to secure a metal spoon or knife to the bottom of the bag as a weight.
Keep an eye on the water bath as the pork cooks, making sure that the water level doesn't drop below the minimum line on your device. Covering the opening with aluminum foil or covering the surface of the water with Ping-Pong balls can help prevent water loss during long cooking periods.
Making the Carnitas Ahead
Once the meat is cooked, you can proceed immediately to the crisping step, or let it cool and store it in the fridge or freezer, directly in the bag, until you’re ready to serve. The cooked pork will keep for at least five days in the fridge, and up to a couple of months in the freezer.
When you're ready to serve, open up the bag and empty the contents into a bowl, discarding all of the aromatics. If there's a ton of liquid (or jellied liquid, if you've chilled the meat), you can reserve it separately, reduce it, and blend it into your salsa; use it as a base for a pan sauce for another dish; or add it to a pot of soup for a shot of flavor. Or, just discard it if you don't feel like fiddling with a half cup of flavorful, gelatin-packed pork liquid. (Then make sure to scold yourself for pouring flavor down the drain.)
Shred the pork by hand or with forks if you want it shredded, or cut it into chunks, slabs, or cubes if you'd prefer one of those shapes. The meat will be very forgiving and will work however you decide to treat it at this point.
Crisping the Meat
The final step is to crisp the pork. There are a few ways you can do this. The easiest is to spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet and place it a few inches under a preheated broiler. Keep an eye on it, and flip the pieces once they start to get brown and crisp.
Repeat this step until they're browned and crispy all over, and you're ready to serve. Alternatively, you can heat the carnitas directly in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, giving them a toss, a flip, and a stir every now and then, until they're crisp all over.
The final method works only if you've cooked the meat at a lower temperature (145 or 165°F) and cut it into slabs or large cubes: Sear the carnitas in a cast iron skillet or on a hot grill, flipping them once or twice to brown them on all surfaces. This is a fun and unique way to serve carnitas, if only because it only works if you've used the sous vide method.
However you serve your carnitas, you're going to want to provide plenty of napkins, because this is the kind of stuff best eaten straight from your fingertips.
4 pounds (1.8kg) boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch-thick slabs
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
6 medium cloves garlic
1 stick cinnamon, broken into 3 to 4 pieces
2 bay leaves
1 medium orange, peel intact
Warm corn tortillas
Chopped white onion and fresh cilantro leaves
Charred Salsa Verde or other salsa
Combine pork, onion, garlic, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves in a large bowl. Split orange into quarters and squeeze juice into bowl before adding rest of orange. Season generously with kosher salt and toss to combine.
Transfer contents to a vacuum bag and seal (see note).
When ready to cook, use a sous vide immersion circulator to preheat a water bath to the desired temperature according to the chart above.
Add bag to water bath and cook for recommended time according to chart above. Make sure to top water up occasionally as it evaporates, and keep bag completely submerged. If bag floats, weigh it down by placing a wet kitchen towel on top of it. Alternatively, use a heavy-duty binder clip to attach a metal spoon or knife to bottom of bag as a weight.
When meat is cooked, remove from water bath. If you are cooking the pork in advance and don’t plan to serve it the same day, cool pork to room temperature directly in the bag or chill in an ice bath, then transfer bag to refrigerator or freezer (pork can be refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 2 months). If finishing the carnitas the same day, transfer contents of bag to a large bowl. Pick out chunks of meat with a set of tongs and transfer them to a rimmed baking sheet. (Discard aromatics and excess liquid, or reserve liquid and blend it in with your salsa.) When it is cool enough to handle, shred meat roughly using 2 forks or your fingers. Spread evenly over baking sheet.
When ready to serve, adjust an oven rack to 3 inches below the broiler element and preheat broiler to high. Place pork under broiler and cook, using a spoon to flip pieces occasionally, until meat is browned and crisp on most sides, about 10 minutes total. Alternatively, working in batches, heat carnitas in a cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until crisp, about 10 minutes.
Serve carnitas with warm tortillas, lime wedges, chopped onion and cilantro, and salsa.
I recommend sealing the pork in a vacuum seal bag for this recipe, but you can also use heavy-duty zipper-lock bags by double-bagging the meat and using the water displacement method to remove air.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Pork can be cooked in advance. Follow recipe through step 4, and once pork has finished cooking, remove from water bath and cool to room temperature directly in the bag or chill in an ice bath. Once completely cooled, transfer bag to refrigerator or freezer. Cooked pork can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 2 months. Rewarm by returning bag to a water bath set to 165°F (74°C) for 1 hour and then proceed with step 5.