Some people may mistake carnitas as a Mexican version of pulled pork, but it’s so much more than that. This dish is packed with fat and spices, which results in an intense flavor profile. Carnitas has also adapted over the years in both the type of pork used and the cooking methods. Many families today continue to put their special twist on the recipe, using unique ingredients such as condensed milk or orange juice.

What Is Carnitas?

Carnitas is a dish of shredded, slowly cooked pork. The dish is typically cooked in lard or oil until tender with several spices for added flavor. As carnitas are a Mexican dish, they are typically used in tacos, salads and burritos.

The History of Carnitas

In Spanish, the word carnitas translates to “little meats.” According to history, it was the Spanish that introduced the Mexican people to pork dishes.

While carnitas is always (traditionally) made of pork, the type of pork meat used can differ. Traditionally, carnitas was made with the entire pig, including its liver, the belly skin and kidneys. This was presumably out of a desire of people avoiding waste. Today, it’s not as common or affordable to get your hands on an entire pig. So, most people make carnitas out of pork shoulder, picnic ham or boneless pork butt.

Carnitas may seem like simple slow-cooked pork, but it’s the spices that elevate and differentiate this dish. Carnitas spices include salt, pepper, smoked paprika, oregano, cumin and various spicy elements such as jalapenos or cayenne powder. Another difference between carnitas and pulled pork is the cooking process. Both dishes require hours of slow-cooking. While that’s the end for pulled pork, the finishing step for carnitas is oven-roasting until the tops become crispy.

How to Prepare Carnitas

Carnitas are a straight-forward and easy to prepare dish. Thanks to the wonderful invention of slow-cookers, carnitas can be a staple in any family’s dinner menu.

  1. Mix all of your spices in a bowl. The most common spices for carnitas are salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, garlic or onion powder and cayenne for a kick. You can change this spice mixture to fit your preferences.
  2. Coat your piece of pork with the spice mixture. You can use any cut of pork, but ensure it contains plenty of fat.
  3. Place a couple of bay leaves at the bottom of the slow cooker and then lower your piece of meat on top.
  4. Pour chicken stock around the bottom of the slow cooker. Carefully pour as to avoid rinsing the spices off of the pork. Some recipes will encourage a splash of orange juice as well.
  5. Cook until the meat is tender. For ideal tenderness, cook covered and on low. A fork should easily be able to pull the pork apart into shreds. Cooking time can take between 8-10 hours. Make sure to flip the pork over halfway through the cooking time.
  6. When the meat is done slow cooking, finish it off by roasting it in the oven until the tops are crispy and browned.

Check out this recipe from AllRecipes for a highly-reviewed and easy recipe for carnitas.

Carnitas Recipe Variations

Different regions of Mexico will have variations to their take on carnitas. BothCentral Mexico and the Bajio region are said to be home to the creation of carnitas. If you visit either of these regions, you may taste very different versions of carnitas. Like with any recipe, the traditional method is delicious, but variations can be fun and different.

Try this recipe which calls for condensed milk to sweeten the dish and balance out the spicy elements.

This recipe offers substitutions for the lard for anyone who wants to make carnitas but looking for a health-friendly option.

For anyone who isn’t willing to wait the ten hours for this recipe, this Instant Pot carnitas recipe is complete in one hour and five minutes!

Carnitas are an authentic, versatile Mexican dish. This recipe takes some time and commitment, but the effort is always worth it. You can cook carnitas in large batches to use in burritos, tacos, and salads for several days. It’s a perfect dish for meal prep or for large gatherings.

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