Every tortilla dreams of being stuffed with Pork Carnitas. The best of the best of Mexican food, seasoned pork is slow cooked until tender before gently teasing apart with forks and pan frying to golden, crispy perfection. The elusive combination of juicy and crispy with perfect seasoning, this is a 5 minute prep job!
Is there anything better in this world than pork slowly cooked until it’s crazy juicy and fall apart tender, then crisped to golden perfection?
When it’s inside a taco. 😂
WHAT ARE PORK CARNITAS?
If you’re new to Pork Carnitas, let me be the first to welcome you to your new addiction.
Pork Carnitas are Mexico’s version of pulled pork. It’s the first thing you seek upon landing in Mexico. It’s why we trawled the back streets of Mexico City in torrential rains, hunting down a hole-in-the-wall carnitas joint that was popular with locals.
Made by slow cooking pork fully submerged in lard, this confit method of cooking yields pork that’s unbelievably rich and tender with loads of crispy golden bits.
Unfortunately for most home cooks, a huge cauldron of lard isn’t viable or practical.
But fortunately, it is possible to make carnitas that tastes very similar to authentic Pork Carnitas without gallons of lard. And it’s unbelievably simple.
THE ONE AND ONLY
I went through ALOT of Pork Carnitas recipes before settling on this as The One. I’ve been loyal to it for over a decade because it ticks all my boxes:
- Easy, and made with natural ingredients;
- 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);
- Has perfect caramelized brown bits while retaining the incredible juiciness from slow cooking;
- Is still super juicy even after freezing and defrosting; and
- Is easy to keep fresh even hours after cooking it (ideal for gatherings!).
HOW TO MAKE PORK CARNITAS
For ultimate juicy pulled pork full of flavour, you can’t beat pork shoulder, aka pork butt. Bone in or out, it needs to be skinless so it can be rubbed with a simple spice mix of oregano and cumin, plus the obligatory salt and pepper.
Top with onion, garlic and jalapeño, then pour over orange juice. It sounds so simple, but with hours of slow cooking, mingling with the pork juices, it transforms into the most incredible braising broth that more than makes up for the absence of gallons of lard.
THE BEST PORK CARNITAS ARE BROWNED IN A SKILLET
Don’t skip the step to brown the Pork Carnitas! This is the key that makes this the best Pork Carnitas you will have outside of Mexico.
Hand on heart, it is as good as the carnitas I had at a really authentic Mexican joint called Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego which is famous for its Pork Carnitas.
So if you think you’ve had great carnitas before, but you haven’t tried browning in a skillet, this is going to be a game changer!
WHAT TO SERVE WITH PORK CARNITAS
While I have a great fondness and tendency to favour Tacos de Carnitas, pork this juicy and full of flavour is highly versatile – plus it freezes 10000% perfectly.
I use Pork Carnitas to make Enchiladas, Burritos, Quesadillas, Sliders, Mexican pizzas. I toss them into my Mexican Fried Rice (don’t laugh, this is a firm favourite with many readers!), and I pile them over Mexican Red Rice with a side of Pico de Gallo or Guacamole, and steamed corn.
And of course, I eat it straight out of the skillet. 😂
And the best part?
You’re just 5 minutes away from getting this Pork Carnitas in your slow cooker, pressure cooker or oven.
It can be frozen without any loss of quality.
There are easy ways to pan fry to golden perfection and still be juicy and fresh hours later – even after refrigerating.
There’s a reason I am rarely without a stash of Carnitas in my freezer!!! – Nagi xx
Recipe VIDEO below. Spiciness: Not at all. Scale recipe using Servings slider.
These carnitas capture that elusive combination of flavourful, juicy AND crispiness. Pan frying to get the golden bits is not optional! Broiling/grilling will not produce the same results. Stuff them in tacos for an authentic Carnitas Tacos experience. Or see notes for an extensive list of other uses! See FAQ below recipe for extra information.
- 2 kg / 4 lb pork shoulder (pork butt), skinless, boneless (5lb/2.5kg bone in) (Note 1)
- 2 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeno, deseeded, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 oranges, juice only (or 3/4 cup juice)
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp olive oil
Rinse and dry the pork shoulder, rub all over with 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 oranges.
Slow Cook on low for 10 hours or on high for 6 hours. (Note 2 for other cook methods)
Pork should be tender enough to shred. Remove from slow cooker and let cool slightly. Then shred using two forks.
Optional: Skim off the fat from the juices remaining in the slow cooker and discard.
If you have a lot more than 2 cups of juice, then reduce it down to about 2 cups. The liquid will be salty, it is the seasoning for the pork. Set liquid aside - don't bother straining onion etc, it's super soft.
Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large non stick pan or well seasoned skillet over high heat. Spread pork in the pan, drizzle over some juices. Wait until the juices evaporate and the bottom side is golden brown and crusty. Turn and just briefly sear the other side - you don't want to make it brown all over because then it's too crispy, need tender juicy bits.
Remove pork from skillet. Repeat in batches (takes me 4 batches) - don't crowd the pan.
Just before serving, drizzle over more juices and serve hot, stuffed in tacos (see notes for sides, other serving suggestion and storage/make ahead).
1. The Pork: Use pork with the skin removed but leaving some of the fat cap on. The fat adds juiciness to the carnitas - and excess fat can be skimmed off later.
Different sizes: Recipe fine as is for 1.7 - 2.5kg / 3.5 - 5 lb pork. If larger / smaller, scale recipe using recipe scaler (hover/click on servings and slide) and the other ingredients will change. These are boneless pork weights (add 0.5kg/1lb for bone):
1 - 1.5 kg / 2 - 3 lb: 8 hours on low.
1.5 - 3 kg / 3 - 6 lb: Cook time per recipe.
3 - 4 kg / 6 - 8 lb: Use large oval slow cooker, 12 hours on low.
2. Other cooking methods:
Electric pressure cooker or Instant Pot: 1 h 30 minutes on high. Let pressure release naturally. Proceed with Step 5 of recipe.
Stove pressure cooker: use a rack or balls of scrunched up foil to elevate it from the base OR add 3/4 cup of water. Cook 1 h 30 minutes. Proceed with Step 5 of recipe.
Oven: Follow recipe but put pork in roasting pan. Add 2 cups water around pork. Cover tightly with foil, roast in 325F/160C oven for 2 hours, 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 1 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid when it finishes cooking, and you can skip the pan frying step because you will get a nice brown crust on your pork. Shred pork then drizzled with juices.
3. Taco Fixings: 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! Also see this Carnitas Tacos dinner spread.
4. Other Ways to use Carnitas: Burritos (switch for the beef), Quesadillas (baked version here), Enchiladas, Sliders, with Mexican Red Rice, in Taco Soup or Enchilada Soup.
5. Storing / Make Ahead: Crispiness is retained very well, main thing is loss of moisture as meat cools (happens with all meat, shredded meat cools faster).
a) Best way to store: Shred pork but don't pan fry. Keep pork and juice separate, refrigerate up to 3 days or freeze up to 3 months (for freezer, I put pork in containers/ bags and put juice in ziplock bags in the same container).
Gently reheat juice to make it pourable (congeals when cold). Pan fry per recipe, drizzling with juice.
b) Storing leftovers after pan frying: Keeps extremely well, but tends to lose juiciness when it cools down. Just drizzle with juice, cover with cling wrap and reheat - the crispy bits hold up very well. It's not quite as crispy as when cooked fresh, but still seriously tasty.
c) Brown pork a few hours ahead / keep warm: Works extremely well. Brown pork per recipe, then transfer to slow cooker on warm setting or food warmer and drizzle generously with juices to keep it moist. Cover loosely. As long as the pork is warm when served, it's really juicy. The crispiness holds up extremely well.
6. Source: This is a recipe I've been making for over a decade now, with minor tweaks over time so I can't remember the exact source. I want to say Rick Bayless but I can't find the recipe, however, I did find this one from Food Network which is almost identical. However, I'm not sure when it was published.
7. Nutrition per serving, pork only, assuming 12 servings. This is overstated because it does not take into account the fat that is discarded. Also most pork shoulders purchased from the supermarket and butchers have been trimmed i.e. they don't have a super thick layer of fat on the surface.
Originally published July 2014, updated with some new photos, new words in post, cleaned up my writing and added more practical tips for making ahead (in particular, pan frying then serving hours later).
WATCH HOW TO MAKE IT
Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas recipe video! NOTE: My Slow Cooker (Breville Fast-Slow Cooker) is multi-functional and is also a pressure cooker, hence why it looks like a pressure cooker with the twisting top. The slow cooking function is no different to any standard slow cooker.
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.
Will it taste of oranges?? ??? Nope, not at all! It magically turns into the most incredible broth that is then poured over the shredded pork.
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! It’s basically an Instant Pot – but without one touch cook functions (like rice etc).
LIFE OF DOZER
I first published this recipe back in 2014, when I was new to blogging. I took sooooo long with the photos – prolonged torture for Dozer!