This Mexican pulled pork carnitas recipe is insanely good, and it’s perfect for taco lovers. Pork shoulder is slow cooked with aromatics including oranges, garlic, onions, and cinnamon for a subtle yet complex flavor. The meat is then pan-fried until crispy and shredded before serving. While tacos are a traditional way to enjoy carnitas, you can also serve the pulled pork in bowls with your favorite toppings.
I used to think I knew good Mexican food. Then, when I began taking trips to Tucson, AZ with Jeff to visit his family, I realized I had no idea how incredible it truly can be. Authentic Mexican is now one of my favorite cuisines, and it’s really hard to come by in DC. I’m pretty sure I could eat tacos and guacamole every day. Carne asada, chorizo and carnitas are my favorite tacos.
The recipes we enjoy in Tucson have often been in families for generations, prepared by cooks who have a palate specifically catered to the nuances of Mexican cuisine. I don’t expect I could ever master that since I create such a wide variety of recipes.
However, I know what good Mexican food tastes like, and I’m extremely happy with how these turned out. Jeff loved them as well, and that’s all the confirmation I need. Make these carnitas for an incredibly satisfying taco dinner at home.
For this carnitas recipe, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- Pork shoulder
- Kosher salt
- Lard (don’t panic; more on this below)
- Yellow onion
- Cinnamon stick
How to Make Pork Carnitas
While this recipe takes a few hours to tenderize the meat, it’s a very straight forward process. Here’s what you do:
Step 1: Trim Fat From The Pork.
Pork shoulder (also known as pork butt or Boston butt), is a tough cut of meat that needs to be cooked for a long time at a low heat in order to tenderize it. Because it’s a tougher cut, it’s very economical for the amount of food you get. This is the same cut I use in my slow cooker kalua pig, which lasts us for days.
While this cut is perfect for carnitas, it does need some prep work. There’s some tough fat that you want to trim away before cutting the meat into smaller pieces. This can take 10 minutes or longer, so be patient. I find that a sharp boning knife makes this process go much faster, but a regular chef’s knife will also work.
You want to cut the meat into 3 to 4-inch cubes before cooking. This is why:
- Smaller pieces of food cook faster (this applies to anything you’re cooking, FYI)
- You’ll have more surface area to crisp up in the pan. That crispy, caramelized skin is part of what makes carnitas so incredible.
Step 2: Melt The Lard in a Large Saucepan.
I’ll go into more details about lard below, since I’m sure many of you are already wondering “what else can I use?” For now, the short version is that lard is pig fat, and it will result in the best flavor. Ever tried duck confit? That’s duck cooked in duck fat. Think of carnitas as pork confit.
Step 3: Cook The Carnitas.
This is a two step process. First, you slowly simmer the pork shoulder and other ingredients for a couple hours until the meat is very tender. Then, you turn up the heat and fry the pork until the surface is crispy and caramelized, with or without some charred bits here and there. You don’t want the entire exterior charred, but a little bit adds smokiness.
Step 4: Drain the Meat.
Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to paper towels so some of the excess fat has a chance to drain off as it cools.
Step 5: Shred and Serve.
Once the meat it cool enough to handle, shred it into smaller pieces. You can now make tacos or serve the meat however you like!
What are Carnitas?
Carnitas are a Mexican dish that originated in the state of Michoacán, near Mexico City. Carnitas are prepared by slowly cooking pork in lard until tender, then frying until the exterior is crispy.
What is Lard and Can I Substitute Something Else?
Lard is pork fat, and it’s what’s traditionally used in pork carnitas. If you’re not liking the idea of using lard, keep in mind that it’s not any worse for your health or more fattening than butter and oil. Also, I’m a big believer in using the entire animal, so why not use the pig fat if you’re already eating pork? I purchased lard on Amazon, since not every grocery store carries it.
If you’re determined to make a substitution, I recommend using clarified butter or ghee for the best flavor. Technically, you can also use a neutral-flavored, high heat oil, but the results won’t be quite as decadent.
Can You Make Carnitas in a Slow Cooker?
You can make carnitas in a slow cooker, and you’ll find a ton of recipes online for slow cooker carnitas. My recipe can be also converted. However, I don’t understand the point, unless you want to get the simmering step out of the way while you’re at work.
This stovetop version is essentially a one-pot meal. You simmer and fry in the same pot. If you use the slow cooker, you still have to transfer the pork to a pan to fry it, unless you have something like the Ninja Cooker or an Instant Pot, both of which allow you to sauté in addition to slow cooking.
If I have the option, I always choose less dishes.
What to Serve with Carnitas
See my list of topping suggestions in the recipe for how to build an incredible carnitas taco. You can pick and choose whatever you like. If you’re looking for a good side dish to serve alongside dinner, I recommend a simple salad topped with my cilantro lime dressing. My corn salad would also work well. I also love this Mexican street corn recipe from Foolproof Living.
More Tex-Mex Recipes
- 4 pounds boneless pork shoulder
- Kosher salt as needed
- 1 orange, halved
- 2 pounds lard (see notes)
- 1/4 cup water, or more if needed
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
- 4-5 medium garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 cinnamon stick
For serving (pick your favorites):
- Warm corn tortillas
- Pico de Gallo or salsa
- Guacamole or sliced avocados
- Diced red onion
- Lime wedges
- Fresh cilantro
- Sour cream
- Cut pork into 3 or 4-inch cubes, trimming away any thick fat (I was left with 3 1/2 pounds after trimming). Sprinkle lightly with salt on all sides.
- Juice the orange, saving halves. Discard any seeds, reserve 1/3 cup juice.
- In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the lard over medium-low heat. Once it’s melted, add the pork, orange juice, orange halves, water, onion, garlic, and cinnamon stick. The liquid and fat should cover the pork completely. If it doesn’t, add a bit more water or leftover orange juice.
- Gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, around 2 hours. If the water evaporates during the cooking process, add more as needed to keep the pork submerged (don't add too much; you want the liquid to be evaporated by the end).
- Once the meat is tender, turn the heat up to medium-high and evaporate any remaining water. You'll know the water has evaporated when the bubbles become smaller, meaning only the lard is simmering.
- Cook for an additional 10-30 minutes (mine took 10), stirring occasionally, until the meat is caramelized and crispy. If the bottom of the pot develops a brown glaze at any point that looks like it might burn, deglaze with a couple tablespoons of water, scraping up the brown bits and stirring them into the meat.
- Line a cutting board or large plate with paper towels. Using kitchen tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to drain on the paper towels. Once the meat is cool enough to handle, shred with two forks or clean fingers (I found it easier to do with my hands since the exterior is firm). Add more salt to taste if needed (I added 1/2 teaspoon).
- Serve in warm corn tortillas with toppings of your choice. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. You can also freeze the leftovers; use within 3 months.
Please read my full post for additional recipe notes, tips, and serving suggestions!
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