I will never forget the day chef Gonzalo Guzman from Nopalito casually strolled into San Francisco Cooking School with a bag full of lard the size of basketball. Without introduction, he turned to the class, and said, “Where’s your biggest pot?” Dumping in the fat with a slap, he got it going at the back of the stove before adding hunks of pork shoulder. The kitchen filled with the electric crackle of frizzled pig. It was a great day to fall in love with deep-fried pork in San Francisco.
It doesn’t actually take a pro to make face-meltingly delicious carnitas. Like so many favorite dishes, carnitas are easy to make and take only a couple of extra steps to make very well. But with everyone cooped up at home these days, there’s a golden opportunity to dig into meaty braising projects. For the spatter, the rewards are rich: Home cooks will be left with a big batch of shredded pork for folding into tortillas and piling on tortas, or stashing in the freezer for dinners next week.
Carnitas are the star menu item at Nopalito, known for being incredibly moist and rich, with golden crispy edges. Guzman cooks 200 pounds of pork a day at the restaurant, but he’s also down to make it at home for his wife and kids. “I like to cook carnitas at home on a Sunday, when the family is coming over, and it’s worth the mess,” he says. Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, Guzman can’t even remember who first showed him how to make carnitas. When they opened the restaurant, he tested at least ten different methods, from braising the meat in Coca-Cola to crisping it in the oven.
In the end, he kept it simple, starting with good ingredients. Guzman recommends going to a trusted butcher shop and making sure the pork shoulder isn’t too lean, but well marbled. Ask for lard, which shops often throw away — the more natural, the better the flavor. (You can save and reuse the lard two or three times, and then fold it into tamales, for a followup project.) His secret ingredient is piloncillo, a small cone of hard cane sugar, which is easy to find in bodegas or swap with brown sugar.
Many recipes start with braising, and finish with a final crisp in the oven, but Guzman flips the order. He fries the pork on high for half an hour, then waits to add the beer and milk at the end. The first blast gets it golden, and the milk seals in moisture. Sure, there are countless recipes on the internet for the slow cooker or Instant Pot, but is it really carnitas? “I would tell my son, don’t be a lazy ass,” says Guzman. “It could be good, but it’s just braised pork. You won’t get that rich taste and crispy texture, without the extra steps of frying and searing.”
Check out the full recipe below, courtesy of the Nopalito cookbook. Nopalito is still open for takeout and delivery, and offering its carnitas in taco kits. The restaurant is also supporting the immigrant community during this time by handing out nearly a hundred boxes of groceries a week to cooks and families in need.
Recipe: Carnitas from Nopalito
If you want more color and crispness when reheating your carnitas, spread the meat out on a pan and bake it at 450°F to caramelize the outside and render the edges shiny and brown.
5 pounds boneless pork shoulder (pork butt), cut into 3-inch cubes
1⁄2 white onion
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1⁄2 cinnamon stick
4 pounds lard
2 ounces piloncillo or 1⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄4 cup whole milk
1⁄4 cup dark Mexican beer, such as Negra Modelo
Ensalada de Repollo
12 to 18 warm soft corn tortillas
Season the pork generously with salt and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
In a square of cheesecloth, wrap the orange, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and cinnamon stick, and secure with kitchen twine to form a bundle.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, cook the lard over high heat until melted. Add the pork, the piloncillo, and the cheesecloth packet. Bring the lard to a boil, then lower the heat to medium and let cook, stirring every 10 minutes, until the meat turns light golden brown and is almost falling apart, about 90 minutes (lower the heat as needed to prevent the meat from overdarkening or burning, or crank it up for the last 10 minutes as needed to achieve browning). Reduce the heat to low and add the milk and beer (be careful, as the lard may splatter). Cook at a low simmer until the meat starts to break apart, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. (At this point, you can store the meat in the fat overnight if desired. Reheat over low heat to remelt the fat and warm the carnitas.)
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a large platter or 6 individual plates. Serve with the salsa cruda, cabbage salad, pickled jalapeños, and warm tortillas on the side.
Reprinted with permission from Nopalito copyright 2017 by Gonzalo Guzman with Stacy Adimando. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.