You can think of Carnitas, which translates to “little meats,” as the Mexican version of pulled pork, with bonus bits of crispy edges that are pure pleasure to eat. Carnitas taste warmly spiced, juicy, and slightly citrusy—they are fabulous.
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Originating in the Mexican state of Michoacán, carnitas meat is most often eaten as tacos, with a few simple garnishes like chopped onions and cilantro (plus the Best Guacamole Recipe if you’re in the mood).
The meat itself is so succulent and flavorful, it needs little else.
You can also eat carnitas as a filling for enchiladas, tuck them into a quesadilla, turn them into a burrito bowl, make an epic grilled cheese—there’s pretty much no wrong way to enjoy them.
- Carnitas meat is made with pork shoulder or pork butt, a tough, marbled cut that needs low-and-slow cooking to render the fat and become meltingly tender.
- For this reason, carnitas are often made in the crockpot for its low-and-slow prowess (see my Slow Cooker Carnitas for a fantastic recipe) or a pressure cooker, which speeds things along (see Instant Pot Carnitas).
- My absolute favorite way to make carnitas, however, is on the stovetop.
Creating Authentic Carnitas at Home
This recipe is my best attempt to recreate the authentic street tacos I ate in Mexico.
They were one of the best bites of my life and have haunted my dreams.
Because authentic carnitas recipes call for simmering pieces of pork in lard, I found that making them on the stovetop allowed the meat to slowly cook down in its own fat and juices in a way that the crockpot and Instant Pot don’t replicate.
- On the stove, the juices cook down and concentrate, giving the meat unparalleled depth and richness.
- Think of it like stovetop chili vs. crockpot chili. Both are good, but what makes stovetop chili great is how complex and thick it gets. That complexity comes from stovetop simmering. We want the same for our carnitas.
- Once all the liquid cooks away, it’s easy to crisp the bits of the carnitas right in the pot (otherwise, you can crisp the carnitas in the oven, but the pot saves a dish).
How to Make Carnitas
Carnitas are as much about the meat’s texture as they are the flavor.
- The bites of meat need to be ultra-juicy (we’re talking, dripping out of your taco juicy), this is a given.
- What makes carnitas different than Slow Cooker Pulled Pork (in addition to the use of spices) is crispy meat that forms at the edges. It’s the best part!
With a handful of pantry spices, some citrus, and a little patience, you can create mouthwateringly tender, crispy-edged, and gloriously rich carnitas meat, right in your own kitchen.
- Pork. Pork shoulder is the perfect choice for carnitas. It has a higher fat content, meaning the meat will be ultra tender, flavorful, and juicy. Pork is also packed with protein, calcium, and iron.
Pork butt will also work well for this recipe. The two cuts are incredibly similar (the come from the same part of the animal) and work well when swapped for one another.
- Orange. Orange zest and juice add that must-have citrusy flavor and a hint of sweetness.
- Garlic + Onion. Two simple ingredients that help create big flavor.
- Spices. Chipotle chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and cloves come together to create the perfect carnitas spice blend. They make the carnitas taste smoky, earthy, and warm.
- Trim and cube the pork.
- Place the pork in a large pot, then add the orange zest and juice.
- Add the garlic, onion, and spices. Pour in enough water to just cover the pork.
- Bring the pot to a boil, then let the carnitas simmer over medium-low heat for 1 1/2 hours.
- Increase the heat to medium high, then cook the carnitas for another 20 to 30 minutes.
- Stir frequently, breaking the meat apart and allowing the edges to get crispy. Pile the carnitas meat into tortillas, add toppings, and ENJOY!
- To Store. Refrigerate leftover carnitas in an airtight storage container for up to 3 days.
- To Reheat. Rewarm carnitas on a baking sheet in the oven at 350 degrees F or in the microwave.
- To Freeze. Freeze leftovers in an airtight, freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
Meal Prep Tip
Trim and cut the pork up to 1 day in advance. Refrigerate it in an airtight storage container until you’re ready to finish the recipe.
Pile leftover carnitas onto a bed of lettuce for a filling salad. Add other toppings like avocado, beans, cheese, tomatoes, and green onion for extra flavor. Leftover carnitas also make a fantastic addition to an Air Fryer Grilled Cheese.
Ways to Eat Carnitas
- Tacos. The way we most often enjoy our carnitas.
- Bowl. Pile rice (or lettuce), carnitas, veggies, avocado, salsa, and other toppings into a bowl.
- Nachos. Swap the chicken in these Chicken Nachos for carnitas.
- Breakfast. Top scrambled eggs with carnitas, black beans, avocado, salsa, Greek yogurt (or sour cream), and any other toppings you love for a hearty breakfast. These carnitas would also be a tasty addition to Breakfast Tacos.
- Fries. No one can resist a plate of Homemade Fries (or Air Fryer French Fries) topped with carnitas. Add cheese, sour cream, and other toppings as desired.
- Quesadilla. Carnitas make a delicious quesadilla filling.
Recommended Tools to Make this Recipe
- Large Pot. Over-crowded carnitas will not be crispy carnitas. A large pot like this one is essential. A large enameled cast iron skillet for braising will also work.
- Zester. Perfect for zesting the orange.
- Measuring Spoons. These are magnetic, meaning they’ll stay neatly stored in your drawer.
Stainless Steel Saute Pan
With high sides and high-quality, durable stainless steel, this saute pan will be one you reach for constantly.
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Today’s recipe is the closest I’ve come to recreating that moment of carnitas taco bliss in Mexico. I can’t wait for you to experience them too!
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes! You can make carnitas in a slow cooker instead of on the stove top. See the “Notes” section below for directions or check out my Slow Cooker Carnitas recipe instead.
Carnitas are different than pork tacos because the goal is to get the meat crispy. While pork for tacos is typically marinated and grilled (or cooked in a skillet), carnitas cook in their own drippings and then are crisped on the stovetop or in the oven under the broiler. Of course, you can use carnitas meat to make a pork taco—so think of it as not all pork tacos are carnitas tacos.
While these carnitas are packed with deep, smoky flavors and do have a bit of a kick, they aren’t burn-your-mouth-out spicy. The chipotle chile powder adds a kick, but it’s not overwhelming. If you are sensitive to spice, reduce the amount.
For the Carnitas:
- 3 1/2 to 4 pounds pork shoulder or pork butt
- 1 large orange zest and juice
- 6 cloves garlic minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 large onion cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 2 teaspoons chipotle chile powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- Corn tortillas
- Pickled onions
Trim the pork of excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes.
TO MAKE ON THE STOVE (see Notes section for alternative methods): Place the pork in a large pot. Zest the orange directly into the pot, then squeeze in the juice.
Add the garlic, onion, chipotle chile powder, cumin, oregano, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. Pour in enough water so that the pork is barely submerged.
Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, maintaining a steady simmer. With a spoon, skim off and discard any foamy scum that rises to the surface.
Let simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours, adding a little more water as needed to keep the pork lightly submerged (it's OK if a few small areas poke through the surface of the liquid; you may not need to add any.
Increase the heat to medium high. Continue cooking 20 to 30 minutes more. All of the liquid will cook away (it looks like a ton of liquid, but it will!). Stir often, until the meat breaks apart in places and has crispy pieces throughout. If at any point the meat threatens to really burn, splash in a little water and scrape the bottom of the pot. To serve, pile meat into tortillas and add toppings of choice.
- TO MAKE IN A SLOW COOKER: Trim the meat as directed. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the spices, garlic, orange juice, and orange zest. Scatter the onion in the bottom of a slow cooker, then add the pork cubes on top. Pour the juice mixture over the pork, tossing to coat. Cover and cook on LOW for 5 to 6 hours or HIGH for 4 to 5 hours, until the pork is tender. Turn your oven to broil. Shred the pork in the slow cooker using two forks, then stir the shredded pork into the sauce. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Broil for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the pork and toss it with more of the sauce. Broil for 3 to 5 minutes more.
- TO MAKE IN AN INSTANT POT: Trim the pork as directed and season it with 2 teaspoons salt. Let sit for 30 minutes. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the spices, garlic, orange juice, and orange zest. Add the onion and 1 tablespoon oil to the Instant Pot. Saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Turn off the Instant Pot. Pour in about half of a 14-ounce can of low-sodium chicken broth, stirring with a wooden spoon to remove any stuck-on pieces of food. Add the pork, then pour in the remaining broth and the juice mixture. Stir. Close and seal the Instant Pot lid. Cook on HIGH pressure for 45 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally for 15 minutes. Turn your oven to broil. Shred the pork in the Instant Pot, then stir the shredded pork into the sauce. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Broil for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir the pork and toss it with more of the sauce. Broil for 3 to 5 minutes more.
- TO STORE: Refrigerate leftover carnitas in an airtight storage container for up to 3 days.
- TO REHEAT: Rewarm carnitas on a baking sheet in the oven at 350 degrees F or in the microwave.
- TO FREEZE: Freeze carnitas in an airtight, freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.