Carnitas Confit


I'm about to tell you to go buy some tubs of lard, a very fatty cut of pork, and then to cook the latter in the former, and I don't want to get any guff.  Alight?  Because before you write this off as some sort of hyperbolically opulent, Paula Dean lard fest, I implore you to give me a second here.  Because this isn't Krispy Kreme burgers.  It isn't Epic Meal Time.  It's not a gimmick.  It's confit.  And it's important.  

Confit is a French term that means something in French.  I don't know exactly what.  I don't really care.  What I do know is that confit is an extremely old technique developed to preserve meat prior to the invention of refrigeration, and, lucky for us, like many old meat preservation techniques, confit turned out to be as tasty as it was useful.  

The basic premise behind confit is to keep bacteria from the meat.  Lots of bacteria (but not all) spoil meat, so keeping the two at a distance is a noble and quite practical goal.  Bacteria, being living organisms, need two things to stay living: water and air.  In order for meat to rapidly spoil, both need to be present.  Remove one, and you've got yourself a place these bacteria can't thrive (which is why those McDonalds hamburger patties you see on hippie websites don't mold over...they're cooked well done and basically dehydrated, therefore inhospitable to spoiling bacteria).  Most meat preservation works by using salt to pull the moisture out of meat so that it dries out enough to no longer be a suitable home to any tiny little meat ruiners.  Salami and proscuitto are cured this way.  Confit though, it takes the other route.  Salt is used to flavor it and firm up the texture a bit (it also kills stuff, but that stuff was going to die during the braise anyway), then the meat is cooked in fat, and then covered entirely by that same fat.  When it cools and solidifies, the fat blocks air from getting to the meat, thus, preserving it.  Now it doesn't preserve it indefinitely, but it does extend its edibility for a few months, making it incredibly useful if you are, A) a rural family in 17th century France that slaughtered a pig before the advent of refrigeration and needs to keep that meat around for months to come OR, B) a person who finds appealing the idea of cooking for one afternoon and then have delicious carnitas at the ready for the next month or so.

I'm am smack dab in the middle of group number B.  And, on the likely chance that you may be as well, here's how to make carnitas* confit.

*And yes, I'm aware that I keep calling this carnitas when it's basically just a recipe for pork confit, but my original goal here was to post a technique on making carnitas, and after trying a variety of different approaches, I settled on confit.  I think it tastes great and you have the added benefit of being able to preserve your food for a few months.  I kept the term carnitas around as a nod to this post's origins and because god knows that's primarily what I'll use it for.  


First thing you need to do is buy yourself some pork.  I went with about 4lbs of shoulder (aka, Boston Butt), but really any cut that holds up well to a long braise (i.e. an excess of fat and connective tissue) would do just fine.  Chop it into 2 to 3 inch chunks.  Drink a beer.  You're doing great so far.


The next step is to add salt and and other flavors you want.  According to the confit recipe in Charcuterie (a book everyone should own), the ratio of salt to meat is 8 grams per pound.  If using pork it's not a bad idea to throw a tiny dash of sodium nitrite in there (like a scant half teaspoon for 4lbs), just to keep the color nice and add a traditional cured flavor.  Nitrite is also used to prevent botulism spores from growing in anaerobic environments (i.e. under layers of fat or in curing salami), but from what I've read, because this meat will be braised for so long, all potential botulism spores should be good and dead.  You can buy a pound of nitrite (aka, pink salt or instacure #1) from Amazon for like $12.  So do that.  Also, yes, nitrites are not so great for you in larger quantities, but there's no proof from what I've read that it's bad in the tiny amounts used for cured meat.  Granted, this doesn't stop companies that market food to people inclined to buy anything with the world "natural" on it to say that they make bacon without nitrites, but really what they're doing is taking a ton of celery, which has nitrite naturally in it, grinding it up, and using it in the cure.  Scaring you, still adding nitrites, saying they aren't, taking your money.  So keep that in mind.

Now in traditional me fashion, I forgot to check with the authorities on the subject, didn't consult Charcuterie, and instead just dumped a bunch of salt on the meat like how I used to when making bacon.  Like ten times what is needed.  Guess what, it tasted salty.  BUT, not too salty.  In fact, I kinda liked it.  On my next batch I balanced the salt with equal parts sugar (1/3 cup each) and that almost helped too much.  So if you want a more salty but not too salty result, I say go with two parts salt to one part sugar.  Add enough to be able to spread it over all of the pork you bought.  Keep in mind that I use Mortan's Kosher salt, so if you use Diamond Chrystal, which has a bigger flake size, it may be a good idea to up the volume of salt.  Do the inverse with the much finer table salt.  

You can rub this salt/sugar combo all over the meat as is, or you can choose to add some flavor.  Traditional duck confit calls for garlic, bay leaves, juniper and a bunch of other stuff.  But I'm treating this like carnitas, and as carnitas I know that the end product will be served with a variety of really brightly flavored sauces, and it didn't seem all that necessary to add even more flavors to the mix.  Plus, I want to use this for the next month or longer in all sorts of things, so I didn't want to add any flavors that'd prevent it from being broadly used.  I kept it simple and added the grated zest of an orange, just to brighten it up.  I liked it. 


Rub the curing mixture all over the pork, put it in some sort of container you can cover (or a zip lock bag), and place it in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours.  The longer you leave it in, the firmer and saltier it'll get.  The next day rinse the cure off, pat it dry, and get out your lard.


This is Mexican style lard.  It's rendered pork fat, just like the white versions traditionally made in France, but it's cooked at a higher temperature which browns it and intensifies the flavor (which makes it great for tortillas, not so great for pie dough).  Both would work splendidly, but because my goal here is carnitas, I bought two quarts of lard at the Mexican market in town.  Whatever lard you buy, just make sure it's not hydrogenated, which is legitimately bad for you.  Stay away from that stuff.  Any good market with a carniceria should prepare its own lard and sell it on the cheap (like $2 per quart).  If you can't find any, go to your local butcher and order five pounds of backfat.  Cut that up into tiny pieces (it helps if you get it really cold first), put it in a pan with just a little water and cook gently on low for like 6 hours.  The fat will render, the water will evaporate.  Strain it.  Lard.  

For some reason every recipe I read called for first melting the lard down, adding the meat, bringing that to a simmer on the stovetop, then transferring that all to the oven.  That sounds like way too many steps, including one where you're carrying a hot pot full of scalding lard.  That has to happen once at the end of cooking, so how bout we cut that number in half, you know, for safety?  Here's what I did.  I put the pork in a Dutch oven (or whatever) and I scooped out a bunch of lard on top of that.  I took a photo on my phone to send to a vegetarian friend (I'm that friend).  I put that directly into an oven at 250 and left it uncovered.  I figure, the fat will melt in the oven and it'll eventually get hot, so why do the extra work?  You know?  


Fat is not water, it does not evaporate, and therefore, it can get a whole lot hotter than 212F.  This is great for frying, bad news for braising.  You want the fat to be in the 180-190 range when this cooks, any hotter and the high temp would squeeze the moisture out of the pork.  I know it seems like there's no better way to keep meat juicy than by submerging it in fat, but that's actually not how it works.  The fat molecules are too big to work their way into the meat, and high temps cause meat fibers to shrink dramatically, expelling their juice.  So even though it's covered in lard, cooked too hot, your confit will be dry and crappy.  So don't cook it too hot.  Leave the lid off the pan and check in on it from time to time.  Lower the temperature of the oven if you see anything like boiling going on in there.  Oh, and early on some impurities from the meat will cook out and form a sort of foam on top.  Carefully skim that off and discard it.  

 At about the two and a half to three hour mark, start checking the meat to see if it's done.  Very carefully remove a chunk with tongs and transfer it to a plate, then stick a fork in it and twist.  First off, does the fork slide right in?  It should.  If not, cook in longer.  When twisted there should be a little bit of resistance, but the meat should yield to the fork.  One thing I learned from a chef I used to work with was the importance of not overcooking braised meat.  There's this mentality that a lot of people have where a longer cook time viewed as superior.  I know this mentality well because it was mine too.  I once thought I was hot shit for roasting pork for 24 hours.  Why?  Because I could leave the oven on for a whole day?  Leaving the oven on doesn't make you a good cook.  Cooking well does.  With braised meat you don't want it to actually melt in your mouth, because well, that just tastes mushy and the individual meat fibers taste dry (because they are).  Good braised meat should be tender, should feel like it's melting in your mouth without literally doing so, but still have some integrity.  So check early and often, trying it as you go, and then turn the oven off right before you think it's perfect.  Then, if you have time, just leave it alone for an hour.  This isn't necessary, but it is a dangerous pot of molten fat, so maybe let it cool down a bit.  This will also let the meat gently finish cooking (which is why I turn the oven off before it's perfect).  


Pull the pot out of the oven and remove the meat.  When the fat has cooled down, strain it into another container to get any gunk out.  To store, I like tall, wide-mouth mason jars because they need less fat too cover the meat, can first be sterilized easily, fit in the fridge conveniently, and can be placed in simmering water when it's time to melt the fat back down and retrieve your dinner.  Whatever vessel you use, just make sure it's clean (sterilized if you plan on storing it a while), that every bit of meat is completely covered, and then jostle it around a bit to get any air pockets out.  Fat in the fridge will slowly go rancid, so cover it with a lid or plastic wrap.  A small amount of rancidity isn't so bad, and actually a lot of people prefer it for a traditional confit flavor, but my concern here is really just keeping the meat around for a while so I can use it when I want it.   When it's time to eat, you'll need to melt the fat to get access to the meat.  I do this by placing the jars in hot water for a half hour.  If you put the meat in an oven-proof container you can just plop it in a low oven, or, if in a metal bowl, just place that over a pot of boiling water.  Pull out however much you need, make sure everything else is covered up, and place it back in the fridge.  


To finish, sear it in a hot pan to get some of the bits nice and crispy.  Serve with practically anything.  Drink another beer.