Yucatán-style Carnitas with Achiote

I don’t think that I’ve mentioned it before, but I absolutely adore Andy’s parents. They’re loving, supportive and solid as a rock, all while being the life of literally any party. So when Andy said they were coming over last weekend, I was super excited! He was talking to them on the phone, and I asked if they wanted to go out for dinner or if they wanted me to make something and then go out after… and I heard his dad yell in the background – “Tell him to make carnitas!!”

Keep in mind that his parents have never had my carnitas, so its reputation is purely word of mouth. I graciously obliged (because I’m not ever known to say no to pork) and went out the next day to buy all of the ingredients. I may have gone a little crazy at Costco with the 9lb loin I bought, but I have no regrets – the rest of that meat will end up as blog recipes anyway!

I also had to make a run to my favorite little supermercado too, and I love any excuse to go there. I snatched up my banana leaves, achiote, citrus, and peppers I needed, with a few guilty pleasures with them. (Chicharrones are my weakness)

The day that they came over, they opened the door and were welcomed with the smell of Yucatán cooking – earthy, citrusy, and slightly smoky. It still had about an hour to cook before frying it, so we all took different jobs in prepping for tacos while having some drinks. My favorite thing about Latin recipes isn’t actually the food though, as mouth-wateringly delicious it is. It’s actually the tradition of having family gathering together to all make a meal. Someone doing the meat, someone heating the tortillas, someone making fresh salsa… it’s an amazing sense of togetherness.

It’s also how I was introduced into food – always helping my mom mix dough, make pasta sauce, prep veggies and everything in between. It forged an incredibly deep connection between myself and food, but also between me and my mother.

So gather up the family and fry up some carnitas for your next fiesta! You won’t regret it!

Yucatán-style Carnitas with Achiote

  • 3-4 lbs pork loin, tenderloin, or shoulder
  • 1 package achiote verde (or rojo) paste
  • 1 jalapeño, with or without seeds; sliced in half moons
  • 4 chilis de árbol, optional
  • Juice from 1 1/2 lemons
  • Juice from 1 1/2 limes
  • Juice from 4 navel oranges, and zest from 1 orange
  • 1 beer, preferably Mexican
  • Banana leaves*
  • Canola oil, for frying carnitas
  1. Remove pork from packaging and remove any large chunks of fat and silver skin with a paring or utility knife. For the silver skin, take the point of the knife and slice just below the silver skin through to the other side and make a lateral cut. Lift the silver skin with your other hand to keep it taut while you cut to remove the strips.
  2. Pat pork dry with paper towels, and rub with 2/3 of the Achiote paste. Make sure to get it into all of the little folds and crevices. Cover and let season in fridge for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
  3. Roughly 30 minutes before you’re ready to cook the pork, remove banana leaves from the freezer and let them defrost. If you try to use them too early, they can crack and won’t keep in moisture as well. Juice citrus and zest orange into a medium bowl, and mix in remaining achiote. Add jalapeño, chilis and beer into the bowl and let rest while leaves thaw.
  4. Preheat oven to 300°, and layer banana leaves in a Dutch oven to create a pouch for the pork. Alternating horizontal and vertical leaves will help retain moisture and braise the pork while it cooks. Place pork in the leaves, cover with juice mixture and chilis, and fold the leaves over the top. It doesn’t need to be wrapped super tight since you will have a heavy lid to seal the Dutch oven, but you don’t want it to be loose.
  5. Place in the oven, and cook at 300° for two hours, and then increase heat to 325° for another hour to an hour-and-a-half . Meat should register 165° when tested with a thermometer, and should fall apart when pinched with tongs or a fork. Once the meat is done, carefully remove leaves from the pot, leaving the pork inside; shred and mix pork with juices.
  6. If using carnitas right away, heat 2 Tbsp oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium high heat – oil should be just about to smoke. Add carnitas in batches, with 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid, and fry until desired crispiness (Andy prefers less crispy, while I like them nice and crunchy but tender). Take fried carnitas and add to tacos, burritos, enchiladas, or whatever your heart desires!
  7. If saving for another meal or eating later, placed un-fried carnitas in a container in the fridge. I’ve found that the carnitas are the best if they are fried right before you’re ready to eat them, otherwise they can lose some of their crunch in the fridge.

Notes and Variations

Even though this recipe might seem a little daunting because it’s so long, the Dutch oven really does all of the work.

While traditional carnitas aren’t spicy at all, you can add more or less chilis, jalapeños, or other sources of heat to customize it to exactly what you want. And it’s the same thing with the citrus – just make sure that you still have roughly the same amount of total juice. You can even use grapefruit if you want! It mimics the flavor of the traditional sour oranges that are used in Yucatán cuisine, and adds a new flavor.

*Banana leaves are fairly easy to find at most Latin or Asian markets. However, you can omit them if you would like, and could add something else in lieu to get some of that grassy, earthy flavor.

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