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ATK/CI Disapointment - Shredded Pork Tostadas

I recently watched the episode of America's Test Kitchen featuring spicy shredded pork tostadas which was published in the March 2010 issue of Cook's Illustrated. Christopher Kimball says it's one of the top 5 recipes in 11 years of doing the show. After following the recipe exactly last night, I was greatly disappointed. The pork was bland. The meal was by no means inedible, but I certainly wouldn't put it in the top 5 of ATK/CI recipes.

Anyone else been disapointed by this recipe? I wouldn't make a big deal of it if Chris hadn't made such a bold statement.

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  1. Is it this rendition?

    ---------- VVVVV

    < Why this recipe works: True Mexican shredded pork, or tinga, is a far cry from the bland burrito-joint version often found languishing on steam tables. We set out to perfect the methods that give tinga its characteristic crisp texture and smoky tomato flavor. We wanted tender, full-flavored Mexican shredded pork that we could serve atop crisp corn tortillas or spoon into taco shells.

    We trimmed and cubed a Boston butt (chosen for its good marbling and little sinew), then simmered the pieces in water that we flavored with garlic, thyme, and onion. Once the pork was tender, we drained the meat (reserving some of the cooking liquid for the sauce) and returned it to the pot to shred. The meat was so tender, it fell apart with nothing more than the pressure of a potato masher. We then sautéed the meat in a hot frying pan along with the requisite additions of finely chopped onion and oregano. Minutes later, the pork had developed crackling edges crisp enough to survive the final step of simmering in tomato sauce. Unlike American barbecue with its sweet and tangy barbecue sauce, tinga relies on a complex smoke-flavored tomato sauce. For our version, we diluted canned tomato sauce with the reserved flavorful cooking liquid from the pork and added bay leaves for herbal complexity. And for tinga’s all-important smokiness, we turned to ground chipotle powder, which is a little harder to find than the other option of canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, but is has a deeper, more complex flavor.>

    If so, I could see how just poaching the pork in water laced with nothing butt (sic-- LOL) onion garlic and thyme would give you a bland pork base to start with. Especailly with no salt or strong flavors.

    The flat top griddle with teh herbs and the red sauce simmering at the end of the process (the longer he better for pork) may yield a great final flavor, but with no salt or reduced fat flavor in the pork (actually, the poaching removes the fat and that porky flavoring) I can understand the pitfalls of that process.

    My parents use to boil in plain water baby back ribs til done, then slather on homemade BBQ sauce, and always wonder why I liked the sauce more than the $4.99 lb waterlogged flavorless ribs. :-)


    5 Replies
    1. re: jjjrfoodie

      If the poaching removes fat and porky flavor, then that liquid, after some reduction should have an intense pork flavor, right? One approach to carnitas is to completely reduce the poaching liquid while the meat is still in it, and letting the meat crisp in its own rendered fat.

      But it isn't clear that dry roasting, how ever slow, retains more fat or pork flavor. If the final product weighs less than the initial roast, it has lost fat and meat juices. Some of those juices have evaporated at the surface, leaving some proteins to caramelize and add flavor. But for some reason BBQ cooks still insist on applying a heavily seasoned dry rub, and some even inject their meat with a flavored liquid.

      In any case, the most of the flavor in the ATK recipe comes from the sauce that is added at the end. If the final product is still bland, I suspect that the sauce was not adequately seasoned, esp. with salt.

      1. re: paulj

        <<<<If the poaching removes fat and porky flavor, then that liquid, after some reduction should have an intense pork flavor, right? One approach to carnitas is to completely reduce the poaching liquid while the meat is still in it, and letting the meat crisp in its own rendered fat.

        But it isn't clear that dry roasting, how ever slow, retains more fat or pork flavor. If the final product weighs less than the initial roast, it has lost fat and meat juices. Some of those juices have evaporated at the surface, leaving some proteins to caramelize and add flavor. But for some reason BBQ cooks still insist on applying a heavily seasoned dry rub, and some even inject their meat with a flavored liquid>>>

        No. Reducing the poaching liquid would intensify the flavor, but not until reduced to the point of the BRAISED style carnitas you mention.

        Poaching is generally a means by which to ensure doneness, and is not necessrialy the best way to impart flavor to what is being poached (assuming in a water based liquid) unless that liquid is concentrated or heavily flavored.

        As for cooking meat, dry roasting is VERY clearly a process of loosing moisture and melting fats (some of which are lost, others not) to gain a more concentrated (and if done well still moist) final product and flavor. While partially correct, I'd suggest you do a little more reading on how the process works and the science behind it .

      2. re: jjjrfoodie

        That is the recipe I followed. There was a bit of salt in the initial cooking liquid and it needed more in the final product, but it was still bland. I think it needs more spices as well. There's a bunch of it left over so I'm going to doctor it up a bit tonight with a bit of chili powder and cumin perhaps. Any other ideas?

        1. re: AbbyWis

          In Mexico the meat served on tacos is not necessarily highly spiced. Fresh hot salsas can be added to taste. One simple sauce is to puree a can of chipotle en adobo.

      3. Glad to know, I saw that episode too. But I saw this one on Everyday Foods a few years ago and have made it many times. It is braised in a tomato, chipotle, onion, etc sauce and is very good. I actually use country style ribs cut up because they're on sale a lot.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ChrisKC

          Without knowing where the final ingredients stand, I guess we have a fork in the road.

          If the meat is still separate from the sauce, I'd carmelize til brown a half or whole onion cut into slices in a little oil and add to the meat to add depth. Then prolly some cumin, chile powder and salt to taste. Bump of the heat if you feel the need. Then doctor the sauce to make it acceptable and then do the fry and combine process. Fresh cilantro added to the end product would add some brightness along with fresh lemon.

          If everything is combined in one pot with both meat and sauce, then I'd do the same process but maybe add in small increments a small can of hatch red enchilada sauce as an easy fix or start adding depth of flavor ingredients like recaito cactus based base, coffee(espresso powder or strong brewed coffe) or canned chipotles in adobo. There's always dark beer, allspice, oregano and cinnamon as well,

          Without tasting it it's hard to tell where it needs to be but slowly but surely I;m sure you can get it tasty.

          I;ve been to the Momocho Restaurant in Cleveland OH and have been making their ancho coffee brisket tacos for some time at home. I've substituted both pork and even a chuck roast with fabulous results. I've got a lb. of it in my freezer right now. Just something to think about to keep ya cooking.

          Momocho menu:

          Momocho Ancho Coffee Beef Brisket Tacos

          Great beef taco recipe which makes 12-15 tacos

          * 2 1⁄2 lb beef brisket, quartered and trimmed of fat
          * 1⁄8 c ancho chile powder or 1-2 dried peppers
          * 1⁄2 t ground cinnamon
          * 3 T kosher salt
          * 1⁄2 c red wine vinegar
          * 3 c tomato juice, unseasoned
          * 1⁄8 c lime juice (about 2 limes
          ) * 1 c red wine
          * 2 T freshly ground guatemalan coffee
          * 1⁄2 T black pepper
          * 1 bay leaf
          * 1⁄2 spanish or yellow onion, quartered
          * corn tortillas


          1. In a small bowl, mix the ancho powder, cinnamon, coffee, and 2 tablespoons salt together. On a large plate or baking sheet, rub the seasoning all over the surface of the brisket pieces. On a grill, or in a large cast iron pan over medium heat, place the seasoned brisket to sear and caramelize the spices, 6 to 8 minutes per side. It should smell toasty, not burned.

          2. In a braising pan or heavy bottom Dutch oven or other heavy pot, add the quartered brisket, red wine vinegar, tomato juice, lime juice, red wine, 1 tablespoon salt, black pepper, bay leaves, and the onion.

          3. Add water to cover the brisket, then cover the braising pan with the lid or foil and place it on the stove top. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, simmering covered for 3 hours or until the brisket is tender. Remove the bay leaf and onion. Remove the meat and shred. Use the reserved liquid to reheat. (I remove fat and reduce to sauce consistancy and often add a touch of honey to sweeten)

          4. To serve, put about 2 to 3 ounces of meat on a warm corn tortilla, topped with Tomatillo Salsa, avocado or guacamole, crumbled queso fresco, and lime wedges.

          Suggested toppings:
          - Tomatillo salsa
          - Guacamole
          - Lime wedges

          This was also featured in a segment of FoodTV a while back.


        2. The meat needs to be seasoned first. 3/4 tsp kosher salt per pound.

          1. Compare the ATK recipe with various pork recipes on RIck Bayless's site

            1. I think poaching any meat does absolutely nothing for it's flavor, especially meat for a Mexican dish such as this.

              Do yourself a favor, and rub down the pork roast with liberal amounts of kosher salt, garlic powder, black pepper, cumin, oregano, and smoked paprika. Let it sit in your fridge ( I do it uncovered to dry it out a bit since it helps immensely in browning) but you can cover it in plastic wrap too, if you're paranoid or don't have enough space in your fridge to let air circulate around it, for a day or three, and then roast it uncovered on medium low heat, like 300 or 325 until done, and crispy brown on the outside.

              Make your sauce, shred your meat and VOILA! Awesome carnitas for tacos, tostadas, burritos or anything else your little heart desires. You certainly won't be complaining it was bland after trying it this way.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Phurstluv

                Apart from the cumin what makes this recipe 'mexican'?

                1. re: paulj

                  It's the treatment of the meat afterwards that makes it Mexican, as in carnitas. Also, the slight description above in jjjrfoodie's post of the sauce that accompanies it suggests it's a Mexican version of a roast pork shoulder.

              2. I think what we have here is another example of what my favorite foodletter guy Dan Goldberg referred to as "Chris Kimball's Reality Problem". It's a completely wrongheaded take on a very simple and straightforward dish, whose very wonderfulness depends on MEAT COOKED IN ITS OWN FAT. The water cooks the meat at the outset, then boils away, leaving nothing but the fat to finish the job.

                The simple answer to most of the questions asked about this recipe is that CK missed the point. The flavor comes from the cooking, water boiled off and meat fried in residual fat, rather than any sauce applied after the fact. I can in fact make a statement about this: if tomatoes have anything much to do with the taste of the final dish, you simply have not been paying attention.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Will Owen

                  I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Never listen to what a New Englander has to say about Mexican food.

                2. Did you mean "Carnitas" rather than "tostadas?"

                  I was motivated to make this dish, after CK's GUSHING ENDORSEMENT of this recipe as being one of the "Top 5 Recipes"...

                  I was extremely UNDERWHELMED by the results. very bland... the family shared my sentiments. I had really prepared them for an awesome dinner based upon the hype of this dish... and then we were all just very disappointed in the results. It just didn't pop at all-- like you said, just bland pork.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: EdBakesBread

                    Can you summarize the sauce part of the recipe?

                    1. re: paulj

                      Here ya go paulj with full recipe, process and more glowing comments <screwy>:


                      I read two different blogs that gloat about how good it was, but the first blog mentioned something about making homemade chorizo with part of the butt that you buy and use and then add that later so that may perk things up, but I'm still a little confused re: this recipe.

                      I guess I need to dig a little deeper to find some authentic south-of-the-boarder tinga renditions.

                      I trust the hounders re: the bland final product, but to find a few glowing reports gets my spidey-senses tingling tho. LOL.
                      All is not right in foodville so it seems.


                      1. re: jjjrfoodie

                        The Rick Bayless link that I gave has a tinga recipe, but it is more of a pork and potato stew.

                        1. re: jjjrfoodie

                          1 tsp of salt in 6c of water is indeed light, but not unusual for Mexican cooking. Think, for example, of the classic turkey mole - the bird is cooked till tender (a long time if old or wild), and then served with an elaborate sauce.

                          The sauce has 'add salt to taste.' When ever people complain about bland soup, the first thing that comes to my mind is 'salt'. If you want flavors to 'pop' there has to be enough salt. The tomato sauce adds some salt, maybe enough for some tastes, but you still should taste and salt (multiple times if needed). And this blog adds more chile, which again is a matter of taste.

                          My gut sense is that 6c of water is too much for 2lb of cut up meat. I'd put the meat in a 3qt dutch oven, and add just enough water to barely cover the meat and onions. More water will make it easier to skim, but will dilute its flavor. The meat itself will give off juices, leaving you with more than enough liquid at the end. I would also save any left over cooking broth.

                      1. re: paulj

                        I just roasted a 4lb pork shoulder in a close fitting clay pot (300 for 3hrs), and ended up with 2c of juice and fat. The only thing I added was a wet rub made with a small onion, some chiles and salt. Since very little steam escapes from this pot, I'd say this gives a good idea of how much liquid is expelled from the meat, regardless of cooking method (this way, dry, or with lots of water). The meat was fork tender, easily pulled off the bone (about 190F).

                      2. I haven't tried this recipe, but I too have had some CI disappointments. And doesn't ChrisKim always say stuff like this? Every recipe is "phenomenal." Every time Bridget has "outdone" herself. How can that be?

                        1. I have cooked mexican dishes for years, since moving from SoCal to West Virginia (nobody knows how to cook mexican food here), and never once have I seen the use of bay leaves or thyme in such a recipe. When I make shredded pork (carnitas) tacos, burritos, etc.. key ingredients are cumin, cilantro, onion, garlic, lime, salt, and chipotle or habanero pepper (I don't use black pepper for this)

                          4-5 lb boston butt chunked into 1-2 inch pieces, boiled in a pot of water (enough to cover the meat) with 1 tablespoon of fresh coarse ground cumin, 1 tablespoon salt, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, a couple chipotle peppers, or 1 habanero (keep it whole and remove from broth before reducing, or for kick, blend it up and leave it in) and the juice of 1 large lime. Boil until the pork seems somewhat flaky, and remove it from the broth. I put the pork on my broiler plate, and squash it with a fork until it's kind of fluffy, flaky looking, and spread evenly. When broiling, check it repeatedly to make sure the meat isn't burning, but carmelizing slowly, all the while reducing the broth on the stovetop. When the pork seems drying and golden brown, start adding broth (enough to keep the pork hydrated, and not swimming) and stirring the pork, again spreading it evenly and broiling more. The pork will achieve a golden brown color and shredded consistency, soft but also crunchy. By now, all the broth has been added back and you can put the carnitas in a bowl.
                          Grab another bowl, then finely chop 1 bundle of cilantro, a red onion, squeeze another large lime, and add a teaspoon of ground cumin, 3 minced fresh garlic cloves and salt to suit your taste buds. A pinch or two of sugar goes well with it too.

                          Dice up an avocado or two and splash with lime to keep it from browning. Now you have 3 bowls of stuff to toss on tortillas, tortas, tostadas, etc. This is my own recipe, and isn't always exact, but always comes out tasting like carnitas I've had in Tijuana and Rosarito. This goes well with tamarind or horchata as iced drinks on the side, for the final authentic touch.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Crazycraig5150

                            I happen to have D Kennedy's Techniques and Ingredients picture book checked out from the library.

                            She writes that Mexican bay leaf or laurel is from a different laurel than the usual European cooking one. The dried leaves are olive green and have slightly fluted edges. "This laurel is most commonly sold along with marjoram and thyme (tomillo),... in small bunches as 'hierbas de olor'. I've bought in the common cello packages.

                            Mexican cooking has both Indigenous and Spanish roots, so its use of herbs can be a blend, including using similar native herbs in European ways.

                            Use of herbs like this would not work in traditional simmer-in-lard version of carnitas.

                          2. I made this recipe and it turned out great. Everyone loved it, and we're all experienced food folks. We aren't connoisseurs of Mexican food, but we've all had plenty of good Mexican food in our time. I found this thread because I was Googling for the recipe to make it again, and I don't know why the original poster's batch didn't turn out well. I felt like the meat itself had great flavor, especially after the frying part. I agree that this rendition of the dish kind of "misses the point" of the original, but I really think it still works.

                            I made the sangria that is in their cookbook, and that was truly delicious. When in doubt, just skip the pork and drink your dinner!

                            1. I read this post earlier today - after I had already purchased ingredients for this dish. Needless to say I was wary after the reports of blandness. Fortunately it turned out fantastic!

                              I am an experienced cook, an avid Mexican food eater, and although living in Portland now, I spent many years living in LA. Mexican food is very familiar to me.

                              I'm not sure how this could be described as bland -- even the pork that came directly out of the poaching liquid was pretty dang good. Yes, I did make the chorizo as well, but the pork was great on its own.

                              Also surprisingly - making chorizo is so easy! I'm feeling motivated to make other sausages at home now.

                              I served this as tacos with warmed white corn tortillas, queso fresco, avocado and cilantro. They were a huge hit. I only wish I would have had a margarita to wash them down.

                              I'm wondering if cooks who found this bland used canned chipotle peppers as opposed to the dried and powdered chipotles? That could probably make a big difference in flavor complexity. Also, it seems many people responding to the original post were giving suggestions for carnitas rather than tinga -- two fairly different dishes as far as I have experienced.

                              Anyway - I am, by nature, not much of an internet commenter - I rarely feel compelled to bother. I just wanted to add my two cents to this thread so that anyone who is considering making this dish does not get discouraged to try. I found it easy and super delicious. Just don't make the mistake I did - have the margaritas ready!