Pork Carnitas are so versatile, everyone needs a staple recipe in their back pocket. This recipe is ridiculously easy, the ultimate “set and forget” slow cooker recipe and the best way to get perfect crunchy brown bits while keeping the inside super moist! Get it right every time – this recipe is no fail!
I am so obsessed with Pork Carnitas because they are incredibly versatile and ridiculously tasty. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos and enchiladas, to name a few of the obvious ones. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a handful of recipes using leftover Pork Carnitas – including some of these classics but I’ll throw in a few creative ones you may not have thought of!
My favourite way to eat Pork Carnitas is eating it straight – I picked at it constantly the whole time I was taking photos. I took a lot longer than usual to photograph this dish – I really struggled to make it look like pulled pork and to capture the juiciness of the pork.
The prolonged photo session was pure torture for Dozer, my adorable dog. Especially being a golden retriever, a breed that is well known for their love of food. We’re very similar :). He lay down next to the table I was photographing on and did not take his eyes off the plate the whole time I was faffing around with the photos. He doesn’t usually look this alert!
I went through ALOT of Pork Carnitas recipes before settling on this as The One. I’ve been loyal to it for years because it ticks all my boxes:
- Easy (of course, goes without saying);
- Has enough flavour such that it can be eaten plain;
- Subtle enough flavour so it can be used in any Mexican dish (over salting and over spicing is a common problem with many recipes);
- Has perfect caramelized brown bits while retaining the incredible juiciness from slow cooking; and
- Is still super juicy even after freezing and defrosting.
This Pork Carnitas recipe is super easy – it takes less than 5 minutes to throw the ingredients into a slow cooker. Perfect flavour balance with just the right amount of seasoning. As for the caramelized brown bits, these are the crowning glory of Pork Carnitas. Pork Carnitas without the brown bits is like sausage rolls without tomato sauce. And I firmly believe that the only way to caramelize pulled pork without compromising the incredible moisture that you get from slow cooked meats is to pan fry it. I’ve seen recipes that broil/grill or bake the pulled pork but doing it that way you lose some of the moisture in the pulled pork.
Key Tip for the BEST Pork Carnitas: Browning in a skillet
The other step that many recipes seem to omit (and I can’t figure out why because it’s throwing away free flavour!) is to pour the juices in the slow cooker over the pulled pork. It’s full of flavour and contains most of the seasoning too – without it, the pulled pork on it’s own isn’t salty enough. Just skim off the excess fat, and pour over the meat. I like to pour it over after browning it, but if I’m freezing the pork then I pour it straight onto the meat before browning it. Store the pork in the freezer BEFORE browning it. The whole point of browning it is to get a slightly crisp outside and if you freeze it the brown bits will go soggy when defrosting.
Every time I have made this, the amount of juices I have in the slow cooker (after skimming off the fat) is the perfect amount to pour over the meat (about 2 cups) but if your pork was extra juicy (or maybe you used gigantic oranges!) and you have a lot more than that, then it’s best to reduce the juice down to about 2 cups, otherwise you will have too much liquid for the meat and if you don’t use all the juices, it means you aren’t using all the flavour (i.e. the juice you do use has thinner flavour).
I hope you enjoy this recipe! It’s a staple in my repertoire. I make it often to have on standby in the freezer and it’s also fabulous for entertaining. Think Taco Bar!!
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- 5 lb / 2.5 kg pork shoulder (pork butt), skinless, bone-in (4lb/2kg without bone) (Note 3)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeno, deseeded, chopped
- 2½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 oranges, juice only (or sub with ¾ cup fresh orange juice)
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Rinse and dry the pork shoulder, rub in salt and pepper.
- Combine the rub ingredients then rub all over the pork.
- Place the pork in a slow cooker (fat cap up), top with the onion, jalapeño, minced garlic (don't worry about spreading it) and squeeze over the juice of the orange.
- Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 6 hours (or 1h 30 m in a pressure cooker on high).
- The meat should be tender and falling off the bone. Remove from the slow cooker and let cool slightly. Then shred the pork using two forks.
- Skim off the fat from the juices remaining in the slow cooker and discard the fat. Then if you are left with a lot more than 1½ to 2 cups of juice, then reduce it (either in the slow cooker on the sauté setting with the lid off, or in a saucepan). The liquid will be SALTY, it is the seasoning for the pork. Set aside.
- Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large non stick pan over high heat. Place shredded pork into the pan and press down and cook until the bottom side is golden brown and crusty.
- Drizzle over the juices and serve immediately (if you are using defrosted carnitas, this is not applicable as the juices are already on the meat - see Note 4c).
- If you are reheating the carnitas (Note 4), then flip and cook the other side briefly just to warm through. I really recommend only making one side crusty and leaving the other side juicy and moist.
2. To make this in the oven, add 1 cup of water to the braising liquid. Place in 325F/160C oven for 2 hours, covered, then roast for a further 1 to 1.5 hours uncovered. Add more water if the liquid dries out too much. You should end up with 1½ to 2 cups of liquid when it finishes cooking.
If you make this recipe in the oven, you could skip the pan frying step because you will get a nice brown crust on your pork.
3. Use pork with the skin removed but leaving some of the fat cap on. The fat adds juiciness to the carnitas!
4. Taco Fixing suggestions: Diced avocado or make a real proper Guacamole, Pico de Gallo or Restaurant Style Salsa or even just sliced tomato, grated cheese, sour cream. Sliced lettuce or pickled cabbage / red onions would also be great, but unlike other tacos, you don't need it for the texture because the carnitas have the crispy bits!
5. MAKE AHEAD:
a) For overnight or up to 3 days, the best option is to shred the meat without pan frying, keep the juices separate, refrigerate, then pan fry to make it golden and reheat the meat, pouring juices over while it is browning per recipe.
b) To brown the meat ahead, the meat actually holds up pretty well in terms of staying crispy. It's even pretty good refrigerated overnight - but a) is definitely better. Keep the juices separate and pour it over just before reheating the pork. You can reheat in the microwave, quickly reheat in the pan or if you have loads, in a foil covered roasting pan in the oven at 180C/350F for around 8 - 10 minutes.
c) To FREEZE: This holds up great in the freezer. Pour the juices over the pulled pork (pre browning) and store in ziplock bags or airtight containers. Freeze in small batches for convenience. To use, defrost completely before following the recipe to brown the pork.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use pork tenderloin? Sorry to say it’s not suitable for this recipe. Tenderloin is too lean so the long cook time will dry it out. Also, it does not shred into strands well.
Just to confirm – no liquid other than the juice from the oranges?? Really? YES, really. The small amount of liquid from the oranges is all you need to keep it from drying out while it comes to temperature, then while it cooks the pork will drop juices. When this finishes cooking you will have more liquid than you started with.
Can I cook a frozen pork? Please don’t! This will mess with the cook time a lot because it will take sooooo long for the middle of the pork to cook, by which time the outside will be overcooked and when you shred it, it will almost look like mush! The pork must be defrosted!
After I skim off the fat, do I include the onions garlic and jalapeños when topping the meat, or do I discard these and only use the juices? It is up to you! Because it’s been slow cooked, the onion etc is really soft and it just melds into the pulled pork. I don’t bother straining it, but you can if you want to.
Will this work with pork stew chunks? It will definitely work and still be tasty but won’t be quite the same because smaller pieces of pork will cook faster so you won’t get quite the same amount of flavour.
Just to confirm – no pan frying to brown the pork before putting it in the slow cooker? That’s right! You brown the pork AFTER it is cooked and shredded.
What size slow cooker do you use? Mine is 6 quarts / 6 litres. I use this Breville Fast / Slow Cooker (I’m in Australia) which I love because it’s a pressure cooker and slow cooker in one, plus it has a saute setting!