I've said it before and I'll say it again: Carnitas are the 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. Traditionally, they're made by simmering chunks of juicy pork in rendered large 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
. It's a fantastic and easy method, but it's not as easy as using your Anova
. For one thing, you don't have to heat up the oven or worry about leaving it on all afternoon.
Why Sous Vide Carnitas?
With sous vide, there's also no real chance of overcooking. Pork shoulder is a slow-cooking, extra-forgiving cut. It's high in both connective tissue and fat, so even if you overshoot by half a day your end results are going to still 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 additional fat whatsoever. The fat rendering off the pork shoulder as it cooks gets distributed around the bag, essentially allowing the pork to tenderize in its own juices. The results? Extra-moist carnitas time after time.
Sous Vide Carnitas 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 more dry. 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. Take a look. The time and temperature photographs below were taken of pork marinated in a cochinita pibil-style marinade, which is why they are red on the exterior (don't worry, we'll provide that recipe as well!). The texture comes out the same regardless of the marinade in this case.
145ºF / 63ºC for 24 to 36 hours
At 145°F / 63°C, pork can take at least 24 hours and up to 36 hours to really become tender. Even so, it retains an almost steak-like resiliance 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 large-ish chunks or slabs and seared in a skillet or even cubed and threaded onto skewers and finished on the grill.
165°F / 74°C for 12 to 24 hours
At 165°F / 74°C pork will take a minimum of 12 and up to 24 hours to tenderize. Once it does so, it'll have a texture that is easily shreddable, but the individual shredded pieces remain moist and juicy. This is probably my favorite temperature for taco or torta fillings as it can be used just like traditional carnitas, but is even juicier.
185°F / 85°C for 8 to 16 hours
At 185°F / 85°C pork will take about 8 hours (or even a little less) to tenderize. The texture is very similar to 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 range for anyone who wants really traditional texture, but would like to make the process just a little more foolproof and streamlined.
Sous Vide Carnitas Temperature & Timing Chart
|145ºF / 63ºC
||24 to 36 hours
||Very tender and moist, not very shreddable. Better for cubing or searing as slabs.
|165°F / 74°C
||12 to 24 hours
||Shreddable with your hands or forks, and moist.
|185°F / 85°C
||8 to 16 hours
||Traditional texture with meat that shreds naturally.
How to Make Sous Vide Carnitas, Step-By-Step
Step 1: 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 4 pounds is enough to serve 8 to 12 people once the meat is cooked. You can easily make half a batch, but carnitas freeze extremely well, so think about making the full order!
Step 2: Toss with Aromatics
Next, toss the pork with some aromatics. I used a roughly chopped onion, a few cloves of garlic, a split orange (and its juice), a cinnamon stick, and some bay leaves. If you'd like, you could also add a couple whole cloves at this point. I prefer to omit them from my carnitas, they can get overpowering. It's also important to add a good amount of salt at this stage, which will help season the meet deeply, as well as help it retain more moisture as it cooks.
Step 3: Bag the Meat
Transfer the pork and aromatics to vacuum bags and seal them, pressing them into a single layer as much as possible. I do recommend using actual vacuum sealer bags if cooking for extended periods of time in a sous vide setup. There are many affordable vacuum sealing systems and starter kits
available, if you do want to go this route. 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 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 make sure that you don't have any leaks during your cook.
Step 4: Cook!
Preheat your Precision Cooker
to the desired temperature according to the chart above, then lower the meat into the water. If you're planning to cook a large batch of carnitas, Cambro
offer large capacity solutions that are perfect for this. Some even come with a lid that can be customized to fit your Anova for more insulation. If you didn't manage to get all the air out or 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 flip to secure a metal spoon or knife to the bottom of the bag. Let the meat cook for the desired time, 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 cooks.) Once the meat is cooked, you can proceed immediately to the next step, or you can let it cool and store it in the fridge or freezer directly in the bag until you're ready to serve. In the fridge it'll last at least five days (and more likely many weeks), while in the freezer it should last months to years, depending on the quality of the bag and seal you used.
Step 5: Shred
When ready to serve, open up the bag and empty the contents into a bowl, discarding all of the aromatics. If there is a ton of liquid (or jellied liquid if you chilled it), you can reserve it separately, reduce it, and blend it into your salsa. You can also 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 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 those shapes. It's very forgiving and will work however you decide to treat it at this point.
Step 6: Crisp It
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, crispy, and juicy 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 cooked at a lower temperature (145 or 165°F) and cut the meat into slabs or large cubes: sear them 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 use 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.
Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt Get the full recipe for sous vide carnitas
in the Anova Culinary App
or on the Anova Recipes Site