Long Reads

Diana Kennedy's Carnitas

July  6, 2011

Every Wednesday, food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius. This week: the magic of pork + water + salt, from the great Diana Kennedy.


- Kristen

Shop the Story

Tell me there's anything more satisfying than this. Someone asks, around a mouthful of buttery shredded pork, "What did you put in this?" -- as if you might have jammed a stealth black truffle in there somewhere -- and you get to blithely tell them: "Salt." You clever dog.

"... That's it?"

"Oh! And water."

At this point, you might as well be a magician. That is, until your guests press for more details, when they will realize that you're just an informed and resourceful cook, piggybacking on the genius of Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy. And that's nearly as good.

Diana Kennedy  Pork

Carnitas is -- are you with me? -- the greatest taco filling in any taqueria. It was my de facto order the 25 years I spent growing up in California and, after moving to New York and seeing my taco stand options dry up, it was imperative that I learn to make them at home.

Most traditional recipes involve simmering in lard (in their home state of Michoacán, this is done in a big copper pot), but I've also seen dry brining, broiling on a rack after an oven-braise, deglazing with brandy, simmering in milk, even rigging up a turkey fryer. Without a doubt, all of these are delicious -- there aren't many situations where fatty pork will let you down.

But that's just it: in all of these recipes, the common denominator is fatty pork -- which is all you really need. And on those days when you're not up for tracking down several pounds of respectable lard, there is Kennedy's recipe, which is essentially: pork + water + salt. This happy threesome simmers away together until the water evaporates and the pork browns in its own rendered fat (a.k.a. lard. Now why, pray tell, would you go buy the stuff?).


Yes, this recipe requires some vigilance once the water has bubbled away and you're left with a shallow pool of burbling fat. You'll need to carefully turn the hunks of pork, and now the scent of slow-developing caramelization will be prodding you, belly-first, into a state of frenzy. Calm yourself and any hungry-eyed passersby with a cold Modelo Especial (or better yet, a michelada) and chips and guacamole. Nobody complains when there's guacamole.

The only thing to watch out for is this: As Kennedy points out, you do not want your pork chunks to fall apart. You might think you do, but you don't. So don't cut them too small, or boil them too vigorously, or otherwise fuss with them too much. If you do, they will stick to the bottom of your pot and eventually disintegrate into shards of pork confetti. Confetti which you will eat, but it will only make you long for the tender hunks you were going for.

The Cuisines of Mexico  Carnitas

How to serve these (where do I begin?): The taqueria standard, at least in California, is with minced white onion and cilantro, a variety of salsas, and the occasional hot pickled carrot. Kennedy suggests salsa cruda or guacamole. But my favorite is bundled into a toasted corn tortilla with shredded cabbage, slivers of ripe avocado, and a shower of lime juice.

Diana Kennedy's Carnitas

From The Cuisines of Mexico

Serves 4-6.

3 pounds pork shoulder, butt, or country-style spare ribs, skin and bone removed
Cold water to barely cover
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe you'd like to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

And check out last week's genius recipe: The River Cafe's Strawberry Sorbet (there's a whole lemon pulverized in there, pith and all).


Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jocelyn McAuley
    Jocelyn McAuley
  • Mara Belzer
    Mara Belzer
  • TheThinChef
  • lapadia
  • msitter
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Jocelyn M. February 4, 2016
this recipe has taken on cult status in our group of friends... such that we've renamed it Magic Pork.

We've recently started the trick of tossing in sliced onions after the water is reduced and the pork begins to fry itself... is simply an amazing preparation.
Mara B. January 1, 2015
No taco stands in NY?! Assuming you are referring to NYC, wrong wrong wrong!! There are many a delicious taqueria in Brooklyn. Get thee to Bushwick, pronto! Just don't go looking for an authentic San Diego burrito.
TheThinChef July 15, 2011
Simple + delicious = genius, if you ask me. Can't wait to try this method!
lapadia July 13, 2011
I LOVE this book, the revised edition was a gift to me. For those of you who have the book or are on a mission to buy it, you MUST check out, and try the Carne Claveteada - Pot roast studded with almonds and bacon, cooked in a chile sauce...page 183! Delicious...
msitter July 11, 2011
I am interested in your selection of "Cuisine of Mexico" as a DK better/best book, and would like to hear more about why. I have all the books, but never worked hard enough to find a first choice. The overload kind of froze me out from using any of them. I dug out the revised edition of Cuisines and like the feeling of the book. The photo after p 75 is the type of textured place that is both authentic and accessible. And, do I see menus? Upward bound.
AlohaHoya July 10, 2011
Carnitas with roasted greenonions, cilantro and lime. Heaven!!!
Saltlady1 July 10, 2011
Forgot to add that I'm going to Akumal near Can Cun the end of July and will definitely enjoy some wonderful REAL Mexican Cuisine- and Baja foods, too!
Saltlady1 July 10, 2011
I am just getting into Brine and I love it! Works Miracles! I use a wonderful Mexican Sea Salt from Salts of the 7 Seas- called Mayan Sun- its wonderful and also another sea salt called Viva Blanco ! I like that they are SEA salts not just just refined salts- sea salts have all of their minerals in tact and I think they are much better for flavor and with a bonus of minerals The salts are a little different from one another, but the results are tender, wonderful meat and flavor! I will enjoy trying this recipe, too! Thanks. Linda
mrslarkin July 8, 2011
Made this for dinner tonight. It was amazingly delicious! Thank you Kristen!
gluttonforlife July 8, 2011
There can be no doubt that Diana Kennedy has earned her genius status in the realm of Mexican cuisine with tireless field research and a dedication to authenticity. Whether these are the ne plus ultra of carnitas is arguable but this recipe is surely a classic. Her pozole is another great one.
msitter July 7, 2011
I agree with everybody. Picking out these recipes is a great concept and a real plus for Food52. Have long wanted to make carnitas. Very helpful to have the accompaniments also. And, the reference to the article on Diane Kennedy.
Kristen M. July 6, 2011
Thank you all for your comments and for sharing your own tips (on Kennedy, on taquerias, on carnitas, on the UK) -- this conversation and the sharing of genius insights from all of your collective experiences in the kitchen are a big part of what I hope this column will draw out. Keep them coming!
phyllis July 6, 2011
I love pork; I love carnitas and I will cook this soon. The Brits sure love sausage and bacon. That's pork. To each her own.
nogaga July 6, 2011
For anyone else fascinated by Kennedy, there was a great New Yorker profile by Alma Guillermoprieto published in 2002. Its firewalled but summarized here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/08/19/020819fa_fact_guillermoprieto
Thanks for providing this link nogaga! I enjoyed reading about her. If I were to buy one of her cookbooks, which one would you all recommend?
nogaga July 6, 2011
Cuisines of Mexico!
I'm on it! Thanks much!!
nogaga July 6, 2011
If I'm not mistaked you live in California, so all the ingredients will be easilly accessible. Lucky you! That book really opens up a new world of variety and clean, dramatic flavours. I think you'll love it!
Yes, I feel lucky to live where there is such a wealth of ingredients for so many different kinds of cuisine! I'm really looking forward to getting the cookbook and playing with it! Thanks for the recommendation, nogaga!
gilesG July 6, 2011
You know I sometimes wonder about the ligitimacy of those who write comments about stuff like this. Could they all be related in some way to Diana who, by all accounts, should soon be on her way to Rome for a papal blessing or, were she British, the bestowing of a damehood by H.M.Queen for services to gastronomy? Pork! Pork in the UK is about as low down the protein scale as you can go without resorting to dog or rat. The level of enthusiasm over Diana's dish makes me suspicious and the word "genius" should be used sparingly when it comes to the cooking profession where very few rise to that level. By the way "killer chicken soup" could be dangerous!
Wow! I had no idea there was so much disdain for pork in the UK. One of the interesting things about being on this site is learning about favored cuisines around the world. For myself, I love pork in all its forms from a BBQ pork sandwich to bacon / pancetta to roast pork loin. But I know there are some parts of the world who view pork as a "dirty meat" and won't go near it. My husband is Jewish, and while he eats pork, a lot of our Jewish friends don't and won't. And as for "genius", I agree it may be an overused term these days, but I think it's all in the eye of the beholder. I think there's genius in a spare use of ingredients in a way that the sum is far greater than the individual parts.
fiveandspice July 6, 2011
That is really interesting that pork is so low on the totem pole in Great Britain. It's so high on the totem pole in some other cultures! I bet in some places they know how to prepare rat (or at least something similar) pretty deliciously too, eh? I suppose cultural differences could play a similar role in a tendency to effuse about things you like (and perhaps a penchant for superlative use) versus remaining moderated and understated. What fun.
fiveandspice July 6, 2011
And, I suppose I should have used UK there rather than Great Britain. Don't know if Northern Island is really the driver of the pork dislike!
Kitchen B. July 6, 2011
Interestingly though, the Brits love their pork sausages......in the Great British Fry Up. And bacon, might I add. Though I'll confess I have heard of people who 'dislike' pork but won't and can't give up their bacon!!!!

In Nigeria (my homeland), pork is generally considered unclean even though bacon and sausages are rife. Just like in the UK but then we were colonised by the British. I am flexible, after trying David Chang's pulled pork and roasted pork belly, I have become a hard convert. I need to try this recipe!
Burnt O. July 6, 2011
I get your point Giles, but I think it's fair to say that Diana is to Mexican cuisine in America, what Julia Childs was for French cuisine. She is not only an innovator, but a true scholar of her work, and revered every bit as much as Nigella or Delia Smith are in the UK. And as far as pork goes, you're not doing it right! Some of the best meat there is - experiment with it!
ChefJune July 7, 2011
GilesG: Diana Kennedy IS British!

And I'm curious where in US you live where pork is held in such low esteem. I've never heard of it -- certainly not in 2011.
ChefJune July 7, 2011
oops! I read your "UK" as "US." But still curious. I know no Brits (or Scots or Irish, for that matter) who disdain pork, unless for religious reasons.
Schnacks July 9, 2011
Sorry Giles but you must live in some corner of the UK where religion or ignorance prevents you from enjoying pork like the rest of the UK. bangers & mash, bacon sarnies, pork belly, sausages on the BBQ, pork roast with sage & onion stuffing, crispy pork rinds with a cold pint.... We Brits LOVE pork and have a thriving pork industry here with many heritage breeds. Don't lead these folks here astray.
Schnacks July 9, 2011
Sorry Giles but you must live in some corner of the UK where religion or ignorance prevents you from enjoying pork like the rest of the UK. bangers & mash, bacon sarnies, pork belly, sausages on the BBQ, pork roast with sage & onion stuffing, crispy pork rinds with a cold pint.... We Brits LOVE pork and have a thriving pork industry here with many heritage breeds. Don't lead these folks here astray.
fiveandspice July 6, 2011
I am with you! Carnitas = the ultimate meat experience (or at least in the taco context, I'm not sure I can say definitively for other contexts). Also, Kristen, you are a fabulously engaging writer, and I cannot wait to hear what you have to say next!
Genius indeed! I love the simplicity of this and really love your writing style: a shower of lime juice. So perfect. Definitely making this soon!!
Bijouxs July 6, 2011
This is great from Diana! I discovered the same technique to cook pork in New Mexico for Green Chile with Pork http://bijouxs.com/2010/09/18/green-chile-with-pork/. Never thought to simply continue to cooking process to create carnitas. Love it.
Bijouxs July 6, 2011
This is great from Diana! I discovered the sample simple formula in New Mexico for Green Chile with Pork http://bijouxs.com/2010/09/18/green-chile-with-pork/; the pork is cooked in the same manner, never thought about continuing the process to create carnitas. Love it.
nogaga July 6, 2011
This is brilliant! Obvious once you've read about it, but inaccessible till you do. And Diana Kennedy is a great chef to highlight! Many thanks!