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my trip to crazytown

Recipe: sous vide carnitas

The end of last week was complete Crazytown. As the trial headed toward closing arguments, a winter storm warning materialized into a Big Ass Storm in the mountains. We were supposed to get 3 to 7 inches of snow overnight, which I thought would be fine for me to get down the canyon to report for jury duty. Instead, we woke to 10 inches of snow, and by the time I left the house, another 4 inches had fallen in two hours and was coming down heavily. I gave myself an extra hour, but it turned out that I probably should have stayed at home. Spring and fall snow storms can be particularly tricky because there is that added component of water due to moderate temperatures.

2 feet of snow in 19 hours

Once I reached the narrows (a narrow and steep section of the canyon, notoriously dangerous when conditions are slick) I passed two trucks that had spun out on their way up. Visibility and traction were poor so that no one was traveling faster than 15 mph. There was nowhere to turn around safely, so I continued. Then I passed another truck that had gotten stuck in the snow. That’s when my Subaru began to slide where the road is canted and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It was a slow, but unnerving lateral movement toward the guard rail which keeps drivers from plunging into the rushing creek below. Subie came to a gentle stop against the two feet of snow between the car and the rail, but I was stuck. The young woman in the stuck truck ran over to help dig me out and after thirty minutes of failed attempts, I was finally able to get unstuck thanks to her pushing the car out. [If that young woman ever reads this, I owe you a bottle of wine, a cake, a fancy home-cooked meal, and my deepest gratitude.] All the while it was nuking snow, cars were slip-sliding everywhere, and I knew it would be impossible to drive home in those conditions. Heading down to Boulder was my safest option as there is no cell reception in the canyon.

I was 20 minutes late getting to court, and I knew I was holding up the trial. I ran through security in tears – a little traumatized, a lot upset – but I made it and we got underway. We lost power a half dozen times in court while the storm wreaked havoc all around. At the end of closing arguments, I found out that I was one of the two alternate jurors and that I could go home. A big part of me felt great relief, but I also felt sad that I wasn’t going to finish this journey with my fellow jurors (it was a terrific group of people), and then I felt annoyance that I drove through that shit show in the canyon to find out that I didn’t have to be in court. By the time I left the courthouse, it was snowing lightly in Boulder and Jeremy texted that the snow had let up at home. Aha! A window in the storm! But the canyon was closed because of a jack-knifed semi in the narrows. So I waited with a handful of others for 30 minutes next to the police car at the closure point until the road was cleared for travel. Despite the additional 12-18 inches of snow that had fallen since I drove down that morning, the roads were in far better shape with plows actively working the canyon. Once I got home, I just wanted to lie still and let Neva lick my ears and hair.

the morning after the storm

jeremy clears the deck while neva is neva

We are now in Crested Butte, de-winterizing the house and cleaning up all of the broken branches and repairing drip system components that were hammered by this winter’s 325 inches of snow. It’s quiet here. That’s shoulder season in a resort town. Folks flock to the desert to mountain bike while the trails slowly thaw out around town. Restaurants are either closed or operating on reduced hours. I like the quiet. I like the quiet.

the view east from monarch pass

glacier lilies starting to bloom

neva being an extra good and sweet girl on her hike

After a stressful day or event like my ride down the canyon, most folks could use a drink. I certainly felt like I could have used a drink – except I don’t drink. But you know what relaxes and soothes me better than a glass of whiskey? Tacos. Specifically, carnitas tacos. Some of us seek comfort in food rather than drink, and I happen to be one of those who prefers savory over sweet comfort food. I always order the carnitas tacos at a taco joint as my litmus test. It’s not that I know anything about how carnitas ought to be, I just know what I like.

pork shoulder, onion, orange, bay leaves, garlic, cinnamon, kosher salt

slice the pork into 2-inch thick slabs

prepped ingredients

Imagine my excitement when I happened upon a reference to sous vide carnitas and followed the link to The Food Lab. You bet I wanted to try it. I wanted to see if sous vide could give me flavorful carnitas that were also tender and moist.

squeeze the orange quarters over the pork

sprinkle with kosher salt

toss it all together

If you read Kenji’s guide to sous vide carnitas, he offers a range of temperatures and times for cooking that will yield slightly different textures in the meat. I usually opt for the shortest time (and thus, the highest temperature) because I don’t have a lot of patience, but in this case, it also results in a texture like that of traditional carnitas. I managed to fit everything in a single gallon-size ziploc bag, but in hindsight, it is probably best to divide that evenly among two of those bags. This makes it easier to situate the bags in the sous vide bath and to release air as it builds up in the bag over the cooking time. The bags tend to float, so I found it helpful to clamp a long metal spoon to the side of the vessel with the bag between the spoon and the vessel wall to hold it in place. Check on the sous vide periodically to make sure the water level remains above the pork. To minimize evaporation, you can cover the vessel with aluminum foil.

stuff it into a ziploc bag or two (or use vacuum sealed bags)

lower the bag into the bath to displace the air (and seal it)

clamp the bag down and let the bath come to temperature

The reason I recommend using two bags instead of one is because I kept having to open the bag and squeeze out the additional air that was building up inside the bag. When the bag is nearly full, it’s hard to seal it shut without burning your fingers in the water bath. A little extra headspace between the ingredients and the zipper seal makes the task far easier and less painful.

Once the pork is cooked, you can remove it from the bag and discard everything else. The pork should be tender enough to shred with a couple of forks. Once shredded, the pork can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to use it. To finish the carnitas, you can broil the meat or brown it in a skillet until the edges are crisped.

shred the pork

store it in the refrigerator or freezer or finish cooking it

browning the carnitas in a skillet

So how did this sous vide carnitas compare to every other carnitas I’ve tried? I think it ranks up there with the best of them and it is far tastier than most carnitas I’ve had (in Colorado). It’s tender and moist even though I cooked it at the highest temperature. The browned bits are my favorite and the flavor is spot on. And if you don’t have a sous vide, but want to make carnitas, Kenji links to his oven method. But the sous vide method is so easy, I think it’s safe to say I will always have a bag of carnitas at the ready in my freezer for parties, for quick dinners, or for that occasional much-needed comfort food.

carnitas tacos

don’t forget the pickled onions

and a sprinkle of cilantro with a wedge of avocado

my idea of comfort food

Sous Vide Carnitas
[print recipe]
from Serious Eats The Food Lab

4 lbs. boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch thick slabs
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
6 medium cloves garlic
1 stick cinnamon, broken into 3-4 pieces
2 bay leaves
1 medium orange with peel, cut into quarters
kosher salt

Set the sous vide to 185°F (or you can shoot for lower temperatures and longer cook times that result in different textures – please refer to Kenji’s guide for more information).

Place the pork, onion, garlic, cinnamon, and bay leaves in a large bowl. Squeeze the juice of each orange quarter over the pork. Toss the squeezed orange quarters into the bowl. Season liberally with kosher salt. Place all of the contents in a vacuum seal bag or plastic ziploc bag. If using a vacuum seal bag, vacuum seal the contents. If using a ziploc, I found it much easier to divvy the ingredients up between two one-gallon ziploc bags and pushing the air out using the displacement method (submerge the bag in a deep volume of water until most of the air is out of the bag, but the zipper part is still above water, then seal the zipper). Otherwise the bag becomes increasingly unwieldy to deal with as the pork cooks in the sous vide bath.

Set the bag or bags in the sous vide bath, clipping the tops of any ziploc bags to the side of your vessel (to ensure you don’t get any leaks), but making certain that the pork is submerged. If it floats to the top, you can keep it down by clipping a metal spoon to the base of the bag or clipping the end of a long metal spoon to the side of the vessel, allowing the spoon to act as a clamp on the bag. Cover the vessel with ping pong balls or aluminum foil to reduce evaporation, but you will need to periodically check on the water level of the sous vide bath and replenish it from time to time so it doesn’t fall below the level of the meat. Cook for 8 hours.

When the pork is cooked, remove the bag(s) from the bath. Empty everything into a large bowl and pick out the pork. Let the pork cool enough so you can work with it, then shred it with two forks. You can refrigerate the pork at this point and use it within 5 days or forge ahead with deliciousness.

To crisp the carnitas: If using a broiler, set the broiler to high with the oven rack at the very top level to the broiler. Spread the pork over a baking sheet and broil, flipping pieces over a few times until the meat is browned and crisp (about 10 minutes). If using a skillet, cook the carnitas in batches over medium heat, turning every few minutes until crisp (about 10 minutes).

Serve hot. Serves 8-12.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

sous vide pork chops sous vide ribs carnitas sous vide lemon cheesecake with raspberry sauce

11 nibbles at “my trip to crazytown”

  1. Veronica says:

    I am just happy to hear that you are safe !

    Thanks for sharing all the wonderful recipes.

  2. debbie says:

    Glad you made the trip back safely. Love all the pictures of Neva!

  3. Jill Hyde says:

    Oh my goodness…jury duty that is life threatening! Will we read about the outcome of your trial? Glad you are safe!

    These tacos look amazing!

    xo, jill

  4. Melissa says:

    What an exhausting day that must have been! I too am glad you’re safe. And glad you are enjoying the sweet, sweet quiet in Crested Butte.

  5. Lisa says:

    I am so glad that you made the drive safely.

  6. Kristin says:

    What a lousy day! I’m so glad you are ok. The carnitas sound soooo good. We just had some yummy ones last weekend at a Mexican restaurant where one bite of the delicious refried beans screams that they are made with lard. Yum. I love your idea of keeping them in the freezer for emergency situations where carnitas are called for.

  7. colleen lawler says:

    What a day! What nerves of steel you have to even attempt the drive to get to jury duty in that storm. Thank God, you survived that harrowing car journey. Like you, I will pick food over drink any day and you have finally convinced me to purchase a sous vide appliance. There is nothing worse than undercooking or overcooking a piece of meat. By the time I serve it to you, the meat is cut into many pieces from my many attempts at checking for doneness.
    I so enjoy your photography and food inspiration. I second the shout out to the many Good Samaritans helping out fellow citizens in need.

  8. jenyu says:

    Veronica – Thank you, I so appreciate that! :) xo

    debbie – Thanks!

    Jill – I don’t know if the trial will be reported in the media – perhaps? Medical malpractice (I can also tell you about it when I see you next!)

    Melissa – Thank you, friend. Sometimes it’s good to be still :) xo

    Lisa – Thank you! xo

    Kristin – I really like the idea of the make-ahead carnitas, too! I mean, they’re great, but who wants to do all that cooking each time you want carnitas (which is almost all the time for me)? :)

    colleen lawler – Oh yay! I hope you feel the sous vide is worth it. I keep finding more and more great ways to use it and it makes me really happy (although I will probably have to invest in a sous vide tub at some point). Thanks!! xoxo

  9. Eva says:

    Making this now! Excited for Carnitas Tacos with Grilled Pineapple Salsa on Tuesday- Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Linda Hail says:

    I just received a Nano for Christmas & I can’t wait to try you recipe here. I noticed your clamps. May I ask where you bought. I’m eager to try my new Nano but wondered how I can keep items immersed. Plz & Thx Linda

  11. jenyu says:

    Linda – I picked the clamps up at the hardware store. You should be able to find them (they’re quite common)! Kenji Lopez-Alt also recommends clamping the handle of a large spoon to the lip of your vessel with the bag of food under the bowl of the spoon (this helps to keep everything submerged).

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