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3-ingredient carnitas mean taco night has never been easier

The Takeout logo The Takeout 9/11/2018 A.E. Dwyer

a plate of food © Photo:Kevin Pang

I’ve eaten my fair share of deliciousness in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, arguably home to the city’s best Mexican restaurants. The most satisfying meals have revolved around carnitas: pork cooked in roiling pots of lard, shredded, and plopped onto discs of just-made tortillas.When the line at my favorite carniceria was long on the weekends, the cooks handed out pieces of crunchy chicharron to waiting customers, thanking us for our patience. When you finally got your plate, it was laden with hot crispy pork, corn tortillas, a little onion and cilantro, and lime wedges.

The farther I moved away from Pilsen, the more I craved carnitas. It was a case of instincts kicking in, as I figured, “Well, I’ll just make them myself.” I read through a lot of recipes and they all had so much stuff in them, such as orange peels, cumin, oregano, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves, and sweetened condensed milk. If I wanted pork fat-flavored pork, I was going for it—no flavor interceptors to stand in my way.

I came upon a uniquely simple carnitas recipe online about seven years ago and then never saw it again. It seems lost to the dark recesses of the interweb. I looked and looked, determined that just the right combination of keywords would unlock the dusty cave entrance of the forgotten internet: Speak Carnitas And Enter. Nothing, nowhere. Luckily, I needn’t have fretted. The recipe was so simple it was stamped upon the taco lobe of my brain. Pork, water, salt, a bit of onions, chili powder, full stop.

You could go completely bare bones—just pork, water, and salt—and be perfectly happy with the results. I like the lift of chili powder, and the sassy onions. As the cooking water evaporates, you’ll be tempted to poke the pork cubes and think, “Geez, those are unappetizingly grey and rubbery!” Relax. Let time and water do their work. Eventually you’ll see that the water is gone, and just pure pork fat remains. A simmer gives way to sizzling. This is the magic point where you begin to fry your lovely pork chunks in their own fat and they transform into carnitas.

At the end of cooking, you’ll be left with crispy and succulent pork cubes. It’s just carnitas’ way of saying: “Thanks for your patience, here’s something delicious.”

a close up of a plate of food

3-ingredient carnitas

  • 3 1/2 lbs. pork shoulder, the fattier the better
  • 1/2 large onion, cut into a medium-fine dice
  • 1 1/2 tsp. chili powder (ancho or regular supermarket chili powder works)
  • Kosher salt

For serving:

  • Quick-pickled onions (thinly sliced red onions soaked in salt and lime juice)
  • Lime wedges
  • Cilantro
  • Corn tortillas

If your pork shoulder has a bone, carefully cut the meat off around it (it’s a perplexing U-shaped bone that would really like to make you cut yourself, but don’t give it that satisfaction). Cube meat into roughly 2-inch pieces and place in a deep heavy-bottomed pot. Pour in enough water to just cover the pork, and stir in 2 teaspoons of kosher salt.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a swift simmer. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours and check for tenderness. If it’s not tender, add another cup of water and continue the swift simmering until the pork is tender and water is gone and only clear fat is left in the pan. I let the pork cook for another 20-30 minutes in this fat, which creates a deep brown fond on the bottom of the pan and rends some of the pork into raggedy shreds.

Remove pork to a bowl, leaving the fat in the pan over medium heat. Add the onions, a pinch of salt,chili powder and stir, using the moisture from the onions to help loosen the pork bits in the pan.

When the onions are translucent, add the pork back and give it all a good stir. I let everything brown together, breaking up some of the pork chunks with my wooden spoon. I like the variety of textures—some soft chunks of pork against crispy shreds along with deeply browned onions. Take a small taste once cool enough, to check for salt balance.

Serve carnitas on warmed corn tortillas, topped with pickled onions and cilantro, and a big squeeze of lime juice.

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