Carnitas are originally from Michoacán, Mexico. Pork shoulder or butt is cut into smaller bite-sized pieces, hence the charming name: “little meats.” It’s then cooked submerged in hot lard, a confit-like cooking process that yields pork that is deliciously tender on the inside and beautifully crisp on the outside.
Carnitas are usually served with warm corn tortillas to make one of the most iconic and classic tacos in Mexico. You get the succulent taste of pure pork—salty, crispy, and perfect in every way.
The Secret to Homemade Carnitas
Homemade carnitas with crisp edges can be achieved without special equipment or even a large amount of fat. It’s true that pulled pork works well in the slow cooker, but it leaves the meat sitting in lots of delicious cooking liquid. When using this method, the liquid is typically discarded and the pork is then crisped in the oven.
After testing various methods, I found that cooking the pork in the oven in a simple baking dish gives great results. There’s no need to use two different cooking vessels and you can utilize the flavorful cooking liquid to finish up the carnitas.
One key to success when making carnitas at home is to leave some of the fat on the pork shoulder. This not only adds flavor but also helps to keep your carnitas moist while they are in the oven.
How to Crisp Carnitas
After first cooking slowly in liquid (beer, orange juice, and aromatics), the pork is taken out of the oven and the temperature is increased.
With the help of two forks, shred the meat slightly and return the carnitas to the hot oven, stirring halfway. The pork will crisp up and absorb much of the cooking liquid, giving the carnitas the crisp-juicy texture it's known for.
The Essential Ingredients
- Pork: Shoulder or butt both work well in this recipe since they both contain a good amount of fat and are good for slow cooking. Pork shoulder sometimes comes with a rind—remove it before cooking or you can ask your butcher to do it for you.
- Spices and herbs: Ground cumin is my favorite spice for carnitas and the most commonly used. Coriander seeds and fennel work great as well, just make sure to use one or the other to avoid overwhelming the pork flavor. I also like using fresh cilantro (leaves and stems) and bay leaves. Cilantro haters can substitute with dried Mexican oregano.
- Cooking liquid: Beer is used as a cooking and flavoring agent. A Mexican dark beer is my first choice but a lager will also work well. I include orange juice which adds flavor and helps to caramelize the pork edges.
How to Serve Carnitas
To keep the carnitas as the star, I serve the juicy, crispy pork simply on warm corn tortillas topped with cilantro, onion, and a squeeze of lime. Add a tomatillo or arbol chile salsa for extra oomph.
Carnitas can also be served as a main dish alongside rice and beans, added to burritos or nachos, or stuffed into enchiladas.
How to Store and Reheat
Any leftovers can be stored in a closed container and kept in the fridge for up to 3 days. Alternatively, you can keep carnitas in the freezer for up to a month. Before serving, move the frozen carnitas from the freezer to the fridge and let defrost completely overnight.
To reheat, warm the carnitas up in a hot pan with a drizzle of olive oil, or place in a baking dish covered with tin foil and heat in a 350°F for approximately 20 minutes, or until warmed through.
1 (3 1/2-pound/1.6kg) boneless pork shoulder or butt, without the rind
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 large white onions, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup dark beer
1 bay leaf
3 cups fresh cilantro, leaves and stems, roughly chopped, divided
4 limes, for serving
20 corn tortillas, for serving
2 cups salsa, for serving
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
Prepare the pork:
With a sharp knife, trim some of the excess fat away from the pork and discard, leaving some behind to flavor the carnitas while cooking.
Cut the meat into roughly 1-inch cubes. Place the pork into a 9x13 or similarly sized large baking dish and season with the salt, pepper, and cumin.
Add the onions, liquids, and aromatics:
Peel and slice one of the onions in half, then slice into half moons. Scatter the slices of onion on the meat and drizzle the olive oil on top.
Pour in the orange juice and beer. Add a bay leaf and 1 cup of the chopped cilantro. Stir the ingredients together and cover the dish tightly with a few layers of foil.
Bake the carnitas:
Place the baking dish in the oven and cook until the pork is fork-tender, 2 1/2 hours. Remove the baking dish from the oven and remove the foil.
Use 2 forks to lightly shred the carnitas. You should still have small chunks of pork that are characteristic of carnitas.
Crisp the carnitas:
Turn the oven temperature up to 400°F/200°F. Once preheated, place the uncovered baking dish back into the oven. Bake until most of the liquid has absorbed and the edges are crisp, stirring halfway through, about 40 minutes.
If you like your carnitas extra crispy, pour off most of the liquid (leaving a little in the bottom to keep the pork moist) before placing the pan in the oven at 400°F.
Prepare the tortillas and toppings:
While the carnitas finish cooking, finely dice the remaining onion and cilantro and place them in separate bowls. Cut the limes into wedges and add to another small bowl.
Warm up the corn tortillas in a hot pan for a couple of minutes on each side. Place them into a tortillero or bread basket or wrap them in a tea towel to keep them warm.
Assemble the tacos and serve:
Once the pork is ready, transfer it to a platter. Bring the carnitas to the table with the diced onion, cilantro, limes, warm corn tortillas, and salsa. Let your family or guests prepare their own tacos using the carnitas, tortillas, and toppings.
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 27g||35%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||34%|
|Total Carbohydrate 13g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||9%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 29mg||147%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|