Carnitas (Little Bits of Meat)

Here’s a post that just crept up on me. There was mention of carnitas at a wedding in the Mexican countryside. I read yet one more cookbook published in America describing how to make carnitas by cooking chunks of leg of pork in water until it evaporated and then frying. And I returned from a shopping trip to the booming town of León forty miles away and stopped off as usual to pick up carnitas in Carnitas El Ricas. (Aside, if the grammar of this sign bothers you, it’s a joke. . . the owner’s name is Ricardo, carnitas are delicious, rica).

So what are carnitas? They’re little chunks of meat, meat meaning pork, cooked in its own fat, with salt and often orange. Commercial establishments are signaled by happy pigs, as above, but often pigs sitting in the copper cooking pot where they’re to be cooked.

So what place do carnitas have in Mexican life. They are happy food if often slightly guilty food now that Mexicans have had the same anti-fat lectures as the rest of the world. You pick them up for a late Sunday breakfast with the accompanying tortillas and salsas. You go for lunch with your buddies and enjoy a beer or two. They cross classes. When I stopped at El Ricas, I off in the corner were these four business men and that’s their Mercedes you can see parked in the foreground–well Silao, a cow town ten years ago–is, as I said, booming.

Above all they are the celebration food for rural weddings with pigs being specially killed and cooked. This snap that I took at a wedding a few years back gives you an idea of the size of the copper pots.

And of typical Mexican ingenuity with gas tanks.

If you want a good account of the slaughtering of the pig (for commercial use this time) and how you deal with it, here’s a link to Rolly Brook’s description. Check out the rest of his site too, it’s very informative on everyday Mexican life including cooking. Bear in mind though that in this part of Mexico, carnitas are much more than just ribs and shoulder and that chicharron (another topic) is different too.

So supposing you go to El Ricas. If you are not Mexican, you will immediately be asked “macizo?” Do you want solid meat, basically meat from the leg. You can answer yes and get tender and delicious chunks of leg of pork

But you’ll be missing the best bits. What you want is surtido, the mixture. Here’s a picture of a pound of surtido from El Ricas.

And here’s that surtido separated into meats from different bits of the pig. It’s actually missing the intestines and the ribs, but what’s in the surtido depends on who gets there first. You can see I am not a master of lighting, but let’s press on.

So you have five kinds of meat in that one pound of surtido, going round from bottom in a clockwise direction and ending in the center. Here are the cueritos, the bits of skin. Meltingly soft, a bit salty, a mind opening mixtures of texture and taste.

And here’s the buche, a tad on the chewy side from my point of view. It’s the stomach lining.

And here are a couple of slices of pork belly which I ask for as adillo. I don’t have a great ear and this works even though it bears no resemblance to any word in the dictionary.

And here’s the carne jugosa (the juicy meat), or codillo, elbow, shoulder, knuckle. Try to get lots of this, the crispy edges and juicy middles are mouthwatering.

And finally, the macizo, the leg, the white meat.

All these will be piled up and chopped up roughly so that you can roll them up in soft corn tortillas, which are what tacos are in Mexico. Add a few salsas and you are in heaven.

And as I munch away, the historian in me niggles. Where else are whole pigs, even if chopped into large chunks, cooked in fat? This habit clearly comes after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico because before there were no pigs and there was no pig fat. It’s so wildly extravagant in world terms. True it makes sure an entire pig can be used and shared in one day. What’s missing though is the careful drying and salting and smoking of the pig that preserved it for the winter in Europe. A bountiful land in the colonial period was Mexico.

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14 thoughts on “Carnitas (Little Bits of Meat)

  1. Adam Balic

    Plenty of cultures preserve bits of pig in fat, but the carnitas tradition you show here is quite different. I wonder if it evolved out of a more simple tradition of frying up a few scraps at the pig killing, which then ended up incorporating an entire pig once a market for the product was established.

  2. Diana Buja

    There is a somewhat similar dish here in Burundi, called ‘niyama-niyama’. Niyama is keswahili for ‘meat’; niyama-niyama are little pieces of meat – generally goat but sometimes cow – that a are a bit tough. They are put in a marinate of Knorr bullion with some pepper and other spices for a while, and then the bits of meat, together with the marinate liquid, are put in a pan in which there is hot palm oil. It is simmered until the liquid has been absorbed, and then the bits are eaten, as a little snack, with some banana or sorghum – or commercial – beer.

  3. Bob Mrotek

    I think for adillo you mean aldilla. My favorite parts of carnitas are the riñones which are the kidneys. There are only two in each pig so you really have to fight for them. They are usually about the size of a large mamey pit. Everyone has a favorite recipe for cooking carnitas. Many of them include orange juice, lime juice, and beer. If you don’t want to eat much fat you can always choose the lean pieces which are very tasty. This blog makes me very hungry. I think I’ll go out and have carnitas for lunch! This is a great blog by the way. Very well done!

  4. Rachel Laudan

    Bib, you’re right. I do mean aldilla. I’ve never been lucky enough to get the kidneys. Diana I love your Burundi examples. And is there anywhere in the world where Knorr stock powder or cubes has not penetrated? I don’t think so.

  5. Rachel Laudan

    Oh, and in response to Adam, even though there are examples such as the one Diana cites, I can’t think of a whole lot. What I say to myself about Mexico was that meat was abundant after the conquest and did not have to be carefully preserved for the whole winter or year. But at the same time for a family a whole dead pig is a lot to handle. Hence have a party. And boiled in fat is more appealing than boiled in water and most villages did not have bread ovens.

  6. Adam Balic

    Yes, for most cultures the idea of eating the whole pig like this would be completely insane.

    On the other-hand for special occassions a whole pig is often the centre piece of a feast. More often then not it is roasted whole, on a spit or in a pit. Visually this is more impressive I guess. The fact that the whole pig is chopped up and put into a pot for carnitas really does say that killing a pig very common place.

  7. Bob Mrotek

    Around Christmastime, when people in the market sell the various little plaster figures that make up the “nacimientos” or “manger scenes” the figure of a man standing with a knife over a dead pig that is laying next to a big pot is a very common item. I have one in my house and people always ask me why I have it out when it isn’t even Christmas. The fact is that up until about the 1960’s carnitas was a Christmas thing. People would buy a little piglet in the spring and feed it scraps all year and then butcher it for carnitas to be eaten on Nochebuena which is Christmas Eve. The majority of people didn’t have much meat in their diets and many still don’t, especially here in Central Mexico outside of the big cities. Anyone who can afford carnitas on a regular basis would be considered a “rico”. At the plant where I work the boss gives a fiesta for the workers several times a year and we usually kill a pig and have carnitas which the people really appreciate. Another thing…generally the pig is cooked in a liquid like orange juice and beer until its own fat starts to render and so it ends up being cooked in its own fat.

  8. Steve Sando

    Bob, that’s a great bit of info. Here in Northern California at many of the wineries, it’s not uncommon to make carnitas at the end of the grape harvest and have a party. A lot of the milpero tomatillos that have naturalized in the vineyards are used for a salsa.

  9. Rachel Laudan

    This comment is from Holly Chase but I’m posting it for tedious reasons you don’t want to know about.

    Think of confit and using rendered fat to seal a vessel of cooked meat.

    In Turkey, where much of the country has a long cold season, this is called “kavurma” and has been done with lamb and mutton. As required, the preserved meat is removed from the fat-covered container to be fried in a shallow “sac, a thin iron pan like a very shallow wok. It is served with bread, and perhaps a bulgur pilav.

    Although the preservation technique is no longer so common, the idea of “sac kavurma”persists, and it is a dish to be found in many humble eateries: little bits of fresh lamb fried are sauteed in oil, seasoned with onion, green pepper (hot or not) and perhaps with a little tomato paste– rather like the citrus addition to carnitas.

    It is often made over a campfire, and is unusual for an outdoor dish in that it is soupy not a grilled. Sac Kavurma is associated with an outdoor cooking culture, and thus is romantically linked to the Turks’ nomadic past. Indeed, the cooking vessel, the lightweight and versatile sac, is a good example of a dual-purpose element of a migrant’s battery de cuisine. When inverted over coals the same sac is used as a griddle on which breads are cooked.

    But I digress…

    Because lamb and pig fat can be remain solid at relatively high room temperatures, I suspect that carnitas may well have evolved from the Old World technique of preservation. A thick layer of fat– even if not very hard — will retard spoilage of cooked meat for some time if the vessel is kept dark and cool.

    It is the resulting taste and everything nostalgically associated with the dish that keeps kavurma current in Turkey. I would suggest the same may be true for carnitas in Mexico. The big difference now is that there is not even the pretense of preservation because all the meat of one animal can be consumed in a short time.

  10. Rachel Laudan

    Holly, I love your comment because it links so directly to traditions in other parts of the world. I’m mulling over its implications and will include comments in future posts.

  11. Pingback: The Piggery! » Blog Archive » Carnitas are coming! And confit.

  12. David Sterling

    This is a fascinating subject. While I have no historical backup regarding how this tradition may have begun, I can tell you that here in Yucatán we have something almost identical to carnitas, which is known as “chicharra.” The proposition of chicharra is first and foremost the rendering of lard. Of course, lard had many uses, not least of which was in the wheat breads that arrived with the Spanish; it was also eventually incorporated into tamales and other indigenous maize breads to add flavor. In making chicharra, the processor puts huge slabs of fat into an enormous vat over a wood (later gas) fire. Whole pigs are NOT used, rather, it is only the offal (including buche – stuffed stomach – and blood sausages) and a couple of more decent pieces such as ribs and castacán (pork belly). The skin is also used (chicharrón) – even faces (rostros) and ears (orejas). In short, chicharra evolved (if my suppositions are correct) as a method of rendering lard and putting scraps from the slaughter to good use. Since it soon became a popular street snack, better pieces were eventually incorporated, but that was not the original proposition. And even today, here in Yucatán, you will not find leg, shoulder, rump or any such “fine” cuts in chicharra (unlike carnitas), just those scraps I mentioned. People line up outside our chicharronerías first thing in the morning to purchase fresh lard; an hour later or so people come for the crispy scraps. My story makes me wonder if the same were not true for carnitas – that the whole thing evolved as a method of lard rendering. If that is the case, then I wouldn’t assume it was done only infrequently. Any time a pig was butchered (which may have been more frequently than just for parties) all that fat (and the rest of it) was likely dumped into those huge, roiling vats. While people may not have “needed” carnitas, they had an almost daily need for lard. And while lard can go rancid rather quickly, I’m guessing it was rendered on a more or less regular basis. Granted, this may have occurred more in urban settings that in the campesino rural areas.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi David,

      The selling of lard is associated with carnitas too. I guess the question of how regularly pig fat was rendered into lard depends on whether it was a commercial, urban operation or not. Lard lasts a long time. I have pictures of hacienda kitchens with large ceramic jars full of lard. In towns, on the other hand, people would have tended to buy lard. There is also the question of whether it is white lard or the brown lard cooked at a higher temperature.

      It’s amazing how little we know about the history of food processing.


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