Carnitas are tender and juicy pieces of slow-cooked pork that are a staple in Mexican cuisine. They’re perfect for making tacos, burritos, gorditas, tostadas, sopes, nachos, and so much more! This foolproof recipe includes instructions for making carnitas in the slow cooker, oven, and Instant Pot.
If you’re a fan of Mexican cuisine, you’re likely familiar with carnitas!
They’re tender, juicy, and packed with flavor, making them a perfect option for a satisfying meal with minimal prep work. It’s a popular dish for Cinco de Mayo or any other party because it’s easy to make a large batch and reheats well! It’s perfect for making tacos, tostadas, salads, nachos, burritos, bowls, quesadillas, and so much more.
This recipe is extremely easy to make and always comes out perfect. It’s fail-proof!
What Are Carnitas?
Carnitas are the Mexican version of pulled pork. They’re traditionally made with pork shoulder because of the higher fat content, which helps the meat stay super tender and juicy while it’s cooked.
The word “carnitas” translates to “little meats” in Spanish, and that’s exactly what they are – small pieces of seasoned and slow-cooked pork that are juicy and flavorful.
Carnitas are often used as a filling in tacos, burritos, bowls, nachos, and more, but they can also be enjoyed on their own as a main dish.
- Pork shoulder: I prefer this cut of pork when making this dish. The higher fat content gives you juicy, tender, fall-apart carnitas every time.
- Orange and lime juice: For a touch of acidity. This not only helps tenderize the pork but also helps to balance the mix of spices.
- Seasonings: Cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, Mexican oregano, salt, and black pepper. These staple pantry spices add incredible flavor and make each bite finger-licking good!
How to make carnitas
Rub: Season all sides of the pork shoulder with a blend of spices made from salt, black pepper, ground cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, and onion powder.
Add liquid: Pour the orange and lime juice into the slow cooker, then place the seasoned pork shoulder on top.
Cook: Cover and slow cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.
Shred: Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat onto a large baking sheet and shred it with a fork. The meat should be fall-apart tender and shred easily.
Crisp up (optional): Move an oven rack directly under the broiler and turn the broiler on high. Pour about ½ to 1 cup of the carnitas cooking liquid onto the shredded pork. Toss it together to coat, and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring halfway through, until crispy.
Serve: Garnish with chopped cilantro and more freshly squeezed lime juice and serve in tacos, gorditas, tostadas, burritos, nachos, salads, and more.
The recipe card below includes instructions for making carnitas in the slow cooker, oven, and Instant Pot.
Do I have to crisp up the carnitas?
No, crisping them up is completely optional. You can serve them right out of the slow cooker!
Can I use a different cut of pork for carnitas?
While pork shoulder (or butt) is the traditional cut for carnitas, you can experiment with other cuts, such as pork loin or pork tenderloin. However, keep in mind that leaner cuts may not result in the same level of tenderness and juiciness as the fattier cuts. If you must use a leaner cut, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of fat – olive oil, coconut oil, or whatever you prefer. Also, add 1 cup of liquid – either broth or water.
Can I make carnitas ahead of time?
Absolutely! In fact, carnitas often taste even better when made ahead of time as the flavors have a chance to develop further.
Can I make carnitas in the Instant Pot or in the oven?
Yes! At the bottom of the recipe card under “Isabel’s Tips” are both Instant Pot and oven instructions.
Are you sure there’s enough liquid in this carnitas recipe?
Yes. If you’re making this recipe in the slow cooker, you don’t need any extra liquid because pork shoulder is a very marbled cut of meat. As the meat cooks, the fat starts to render and provides enough liquid (and flavor!) for the recipe. However, if you’re making this recipe in the Instant Pot or oven, you will need to add some extra liquid. See the notes below in the recipe card.
Ways to Serve Carnitas
Looking for ways to use your carnitas? Here are some of my favorite ways to eat it throughout the week:
- Tacos: Load up your favorite corn tortillas with a generous amount of carnitas, and top with your preferred taco toppings such as diced onions, chopped cilantro, crumbled queso fresco, and a squeeze of lime juice.
- Burritos: Wrap the carnitas in flour tortillas along with some cilantro lime rice, beans, cheese, and your favorite salsa for a hearty and satisfying burrito.
- Bowls: Create a delicious bowl by layering carnitas over cooked rice or quinoa, and top it with black beans, roasted vegetables, salsa verde, and guacamole for a wholesome and delicious meal.
- Mexican favorites: Stuff some carnitas in gorditas with shredded cheese or serve on sopes, huaraches, or homemade tostada shells.
Storing and Freezing
Carnitas should be stored in an airtight container with some of the cooking liquid. They will keep in the fridge for up to one week or in the freezer for 4-6 months.
To reheat, heat them in a skillet over medium heat until warmed through. You can also reheat them in the microwave, covered with a damp paper towel to prevent them from drying out. Another option is to crisp them up in a skillet or broil them in the oven for a few minutes to restore their crispy texture.
For the carnitas
- 4-5 pounds pork shoulder, cut into large 4-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 4 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican oregano preferred)
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons orange juice (about 1 large orange)
- 2 tablespoons lime juice (about 1 lime)
- Season all sides of the pork shoulder with the salt, ground cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, onion powder, and black pepper.
- Pour the orange juice and lime juice into the slow cooker, and place the pork shoulder on top.
- Cover and slow cook on low for 8 hours, or on high for 4-5 hours. (See notes for other cooking methods.)
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat onto a large baking sheet and shred it with a fork. The meat should be fall-apart tender and shred easily.
- To crisp, move an oven rack directly under the broiler and turn the broiler on high.
- Pour about ½ to 1 cup of the carnitas cooking liquid onto the shredded pork. Toss it together to coat, and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring halfway through, until crispy.
- Garnish chopped cilantro and more freshly squeezed lime juice and serve in tacos, gorditas, tostadas, burrito, nachos, salads, and more.
- Instant Pot Instructions: Same as above, except add everything to the Instant Pot as well as an additional 1 cup of broth (chicken, beef, or vegetable). Close the lid of the pressure cooker and move the valve to the sealing position. Press the Manual or Pressure Cook button to high pressure, and cook for 50 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally for 15 minutes, then release the remaining pressure using the vent valve.
- Oven Instructions: Same as above, except add everything to a large Dutch oven or oven-safe pot as well as an additional 1 cup of broth (chicken, beef, or vegetable). Braise everything in a 325°F oven for 4 hours until fall-apart tender.
- Pork Loin: To make this using a lean cut of meat like pork loin, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of fat – olive oil, coconut oil, or whatever you prefer. Also, add 1 cup of liquid – either broth or water. The meat won’t be as juicy as if you were using pork shoulder, but it’ll still taste great.
- Freezing: To freeze, cool the carnitas in the fridge, then transfer it to an air-tight freezer bag, leaving about 2 inches of room at the top to allow for expansion. Freeze for up to 6 months.