Trader Joe’s carnitas are a popular pre-cooked pork option that many shoppers grab for quick and easy tacos or burritos at home. But how do they really stack up in terms of quality and taste? Here’s a comprehensive look at whether Trader Joe’s carnitas are worth buying.
What are carnitas?
Carnitas are a Mexican braised or roasted pork dish made with pork shoulder or pork butt. The pork is slowly cooked in its own fat until the meat becomes very soft and tender. Traditional carnitas are then fried again just before serving to get extra crispy bits of pork. The end result is flavorful, juicy and tender pork that pulls apart easily. It’s often served in tacos, burritos, nachos and more.
How are Trader Joe’s carnitas made?
Trader Joe’s carnitas are pre-cooked in the store. They use pork shoulder which they season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano and cumin. The pork shoulders are then slow-cooked until tender and shredded. To finish them, the shredded pork is fried to get crispy bits of pork throughout.
The ingredients are relatively simple and match what you would expect for traditional carnitas. However, since they are pre-cooked, you lose out on the aromas that come with slowly braising the pork yourself.
How do they taste?
The flavor of Trader Joe’s carnitas is pretty solid. The pork is well-seasoned, with notes of garlic, oregano and cumin coming through. It’s tender and pulls apart easily. There are also nice crispy bits from frying at the end that give you both soft and crispy textures.
The flavor is relatively mild though, especially compared to homemade or restaurant-style carnitas. Some people note that they are a bit on the salty side as well.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that the flavor is good but not amazing. The convenience factor makes up for the lack of rich homemade flavor.
Since the pork is pre-cooked, the texture can suffer a bit compared to freshly made carnitas. The meat still pulls apart easily, but some find it almost mushy in parts rather than tender.
You also don’t get the same level of crispy browned bits since it’s not fried fresh. However, there are still some crispy bits throughout from the final frying.
How convenient are they?
Trader Joe’s carnitas are about as convenient as you can get with this dish. Being fully cooked, all you need to do is heat them up in a pan, microwave, or oven before serving. It takes just 5-10 minutes to heat through.
The pre-cooked shredded pork saves a ton of hands-on time compared to braising pork shoulder yourself for hours. You also don’t have to meticulously shred the pork once cooked.
For weeknight tacos, quick nachos or simple burrito bowls, Trader Joe’s carnitas are an easy protein option to keep stocked. Their convenience makes them very beginner friendly as well.
A 16 oz package of Trader Joe’s carnitas costs $4.99. This is enough for about 4 servings.
Compared to buying a whole pork shoulder at around $1.50-$2/lb and slow cooking it yourself, the pre-cooked carnitas are pricier. However, you’re paying for the convenience of having the pork fully cooked, seasoned and shredded for you.
For a pre-made and pre-cooked meat, the price point is very reasonable compared to other grocery store options. It provides a solid middle ground of decent quality with major convenience.
How to use Trader Joe’s carnitas
Trader Joe’s carnitas are versatile enough to be used in any recipe calling for cooked, shredded pork:
– Tacos – Heat up the carnitas and serve in warm corn or flour tortillas with your favorite toppings like diced onion, cilantro, salsa, guacamole, etc.
– Burritos or burrito bowls – Fill tortillas or rice bowls with the carnitas, black beans, salsa, cheese, lettuce, etc.
– Nachos – Layer carnitas over tortilla chips with melted cheese, jalapenos, beans, salsa, etc.
– Quesadillas or quesadillas – Fill tortillas with the carnitas and cheese then grill until crispy.
– Salad topping – Warm up the carnitas and add to leafy green salads for a heartier meal.
– Breakfast tacos or burritos – Add scrambled eggs and the carnitas in a tortilla for a tasty breakfast.
– Soups or chilis – Warm up the carnitas and add to your favorite Mexican-style soup or chili.
– Sandwiches – Pile carnitas on rolls or buns with condiments for an easy sandwich.
Are Trader Joe’s carnitas gluten free?
Yes, Trader Joe’s carnitas are gluten free! They contain just pork, oil and basic seasonings. As long as you avoid flour tortillas and other gluten-containing ingredients, Trader Joe’s carnitas can be used to make gluten free Mexican recipes.
Can they be frozen?
Trader Joe’s carnitas can safely be frozen after opening if you aren’t able to use up the package. To freeze:
– Allow any excess liquid to drain off.
– Portion the carnitas into freezer bags or airtight containers. Remove as much air as possible.
– Freeze for up to 2-3 months.
To use frozen carnitas, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Then heat up gently in a pan, microwave or oven.
Freezing allows you to stock up on multiple packages when they are available to have frozen carnitas ready anytime.
One serving of Trader Joe’s carnitas (about 85g) contains:
– Calories: 180
– Fat: 14g
– Carbs: 0g
– Protein: 13g
The carnitas are higher in fat and calories compared to leaner cuts of pork, since pork shoulder contains more fat. However, they are still a good source of protein. Limiting portion sizes is recommended when eating the richer carnitas.
Compared to very greasy restaurant carnitas, the Trader Joe’s version provides a slightly more balanced nutritional option.
– Very convenient, just heat and eat
– Pork is well-seasoned
– Good flavor balance of spices
– Tender, shreds easily
– Crispy bits from frying provide texture
– Easy to incorporate into Mexican dishes
– Versatile to use in many recipes
– Reasonable price point for pre-made option
– Flavor is good but not amazing
– Can be a bit salty
– Texture is not as tender as homemade
– Loses some richness from slow braising
– Still relatively high in fat and calories
Trader Joe’s carnitas provide an easy shortcut to delicious Mexican pulled pork recipes during busy weeks. While the flavor and texture are not as incredible as slower homemade versions, they are still tasty and very convenient. The seasonings are balanced and the pork shreds apart nicely.
For an accessible pre-made option, Trader Joe’s carnitas are definitely recommended. They can be your secret weapon for lightning fast tacos, burritos, nachos and more that still have homemade flavor. The convenience outweighs the minor drawbacks in flavor complexity. Give them a try for bringing simple yet satisfying Mexican cuisine into your weeknight dinner rotation.
Frequently Asked Questions
What cut of pork is used in Trader Joe’s carnitas?
Trader Joe’s uses pork shoulder or pork butt for their carnitas. This is the traditional cut used to make tender, flavorful carnitas.
Are there any preservatives in Trader Joe’s carnitas?
Trader Joe’s states that their carnitas contain no preservatives or artificial flavors. The ingredient list includes: pork, canola oil, salt, black pepper, oregano, garlic powder, and cumin.
Do the carnitas need to be refrigerated?
Yes, Trader Joe’s carnitas are perishable and must be kept refrigerated. The packaging states to use within 4 days of opening. For longer storage, you can safely freeze the carnitas in airtight bags or containers.
Are the carnitas spicy?
No, Trader Joe’s carnitas do not contain any spice or heat. They are seasoned with salt, pepper and Mexican spices but do not have chilies or hot sauce that would make them spicy. Feel free to add your own hot sauce or salsa on top.
Can I use the carnitas in the slow cooker or Instant Pot?
Absolutely! The pre-cooked carnitas can be gently heated up and kept warm in a slow cooker or pressure cooker. This is a great way to have them ready for serving at a party.
What is the best way to reheat the carnitas?
Some recommended ways to reheat Trader Joe’s carnitas include: sautéing in a skillet, baking in the oven at 350°F covered, or microwaving in 30 second increments, stirring between. Avoid boiling or overcooking.
How long will thawed frozen carnitas last in the fridge?
Thawed frozen carnitas should be used within 3-4 days. Make sure you thaw them safely in the refrigerator rather than at room temperature. Never refreeze carnitas after thawing.
Can I freeze the carnitas in the original packaging?
It’s best to portion frozen carnitas into airtight bags or containers rather than freezing in the original packaging. This prevents freezer burn. Remove as much air as possible before sealing.
Do you need to add oil when heating up the carnitas?
No added oil is necessary when reheating Trader Joe’s carnitas. There is already plenty of pork fat infused in the meat that will keep it moist when heated through. If reheating in a skillet, use a non-stick pan to prevent sticking.
Trader Joe’s pre-cooked carnitas offer an unbeatable convenience option for making quick and tasty Mexican dishes at home. While homemade flavors can’t be replicated fully, the well-seasoned, tender pork still delivers on satisfaction. For an easy, budget-friendly protein to stock in your freezer, Trader Joe’s carnitas are a smart choice when you don’t have hours to braise pork yourself.