Carnitas is a delicious Mexican pork dish that is made by braising pork in oil or lard until it becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender. The pork is then shredded and often served in tacos, burritos, nachos, or on its own with tortillas and various toppings. When making carnitas, choosing the right cut and type of pork is crucial for getting the best texture and flavor.
Cuts of Pork for Carnitas
The most common and traditional cuts of pork used for carnitas are:
- Pork shoulder – This is the most popular and classic choice. Pork shoulder has a good balance of fat and meat that braises down into tender, shredded carnitas.
- Pork butt – Very similar to pork shoulder, this is also a great option. Pork butt is often more marbled with fat, resulting in more crispy bits.
- Pork loin – While not as common, pork loin can also be used. It is leaner so won’t have quite as much crispy fat.
- Pork belly – This very fatty cut results in carnitas with a ton of crispy bits. It’s a rich choice.
- Pork ribs – Meaty ribs, country-style ribs, or baby back ribs braised down make tasty carnitas.
In general, choose a cut that has a decent amount of fat, such as shoulder or butt. This helps the pork shred easily after cooking and provides delicious crispy, caramelized bits. Super lean cuts like pork tenderloin are not recommended, as they will end up dry and tough when braised.
Types of Pork
In addition to the cut, the type of pork also matters when making carnitas:
- Conventional Pork – Most grocery stores carry conventional pork from pigs that have been raised on a standard commercial diet. This pork works fine, but won’t be quite as richly flavored.
- Heritage Breed Pork – Heirloom breeds like Berkshire, Red Wattle, or Mangalitsa generally produce pork with more intramuscular fat. This results in more tender, juicy, and flavorful carnitas.
- Iberico Pork – The highest quality option, acorn-fed Iberico pigs from Spain provide very marbled, nutty flavored pork that makes stellar carnitas.
While any type of pork can be used, seeking out high quality heritage breed or Iberico pork will provide the tastiest carnitas if you want to go the extra mile. Look for these options at specialty butcher shops or markets.
The Best Cuts and Types for Carnitas
Taking into account all the options, here are the best cuts and types of pork to use to make perfect carnitas:
Pork shoulder, also called Boston butt or Boston shoulder, is the most classic and foolproof cut to use. It has the ideal mix of fat, connective tissue, and meat. Pork shoulder braises down into fall-apart tender, juicy shreds of carnitas over low, slow cooking.
Very similar to shoulder, pork butt provides all the same benefits. This well-marbled cut braises into delicious pulled carnitas.
Pork ribs, especially meaty country-style ribs, also braise down beautifully. The rich, fatty meat stays attached to the bone, providing incredible flavor. The bones can be left in the carnitas for taste or removed before shredding.
While untraditional, braising cubes of pork belly results in carnitas with the most crispy, caramelized bits. Every bite is ultra rich and flavorful.
Heritage Breed Pork
Seeking out heritage breeds like Red Wattle, Berkshire, or Mangalitsa provides superior texture and flavor over conventional pork. The extra marbling produces noticeably juicier and more tender carnitas.
Imported from Spain, acorn-fed Iberico pork makes absolutely amazing carnitas. From the first bite, you’ll notice the complex, nutty flavor and extensive marbling of this highest quality pork.
Preparing the Pork
Once you’ve selected the perfect cut and type of pork, proper preparation is also key:
- Cut the pork into 1-2 inch cubes. This increases the surface area for crispy browning.
- Season generously with salt and pepper. Mexican oregano, cumin, garlic, and citrus juice also pair well.
- Browning the seasoned pork cubes before braising further enhances flavor.
Authentic carnitas are made by braising the pork low and slow in lard or oil. There are a few easy methods:
On the Stovetop
Brown seasoned pork in batches in a large pot. Add just enough lard or oil to cover (traditionally lard is used). Cook over very low heat for 2-3 hours until fall-apart tender. This requires monitoring, adding liquid as needed.
After browning, place pork in a slow cooker. Cover with lard, oil, salsa, broth, orange juice, beer, etc. Cook on low heat for 7-8 hours. The slow cooker does all the work for hands-off cooking.
Carnitas can be made faster in the trendy Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Follow manufacturer instructions for pressure cooking time, cooking for 35-45 minutes until tender.
Arrange cubed pork in a Dutch oven or baking dish, cover with fat/liquid. Braise in a 250-325°F oven for several hours until extremely tender.
Traditional carnitas get deep, complex flavor from:
- Mexican oregano
- Citrus – orange, lime, lemon
- Chiles – jalapeño, chipotle
- Beer or tequila (optional)
- Lard for frying
The braising liquid caramelizes as it evaporates, coating the carnitas in rich, aromatic flavor. A small amount of liquid like broth, salsa, or water can be added to the pot along with the seasoned pork and lard to further build flavor.
Once tender, the pork should shred easily by pulling it apart with two forks. Traditional carnitas has crispy bits and juicy, tender morsels of pork. To serve carnitas:
- Pile shredded pork onto tortillas, nachos or tostadas
- Top with salsa, guacamole, sliced onion, cilantro and lime
- Add to tacos, burritos, tamales, enchiladas and more
- Garnish with shredded lettuce, queso fresco, crema
- Squeeze lime juice over each serving
Carnitas also keeps well for about 5 days refrigerated. Reheat gently before serving. The crispy pork bits re-crisp nicely in a hot skillet or oven.
When selecting the best pork for carnitas, opt for well-marbled cuts like shoulder, butt, ribs, or belly. Seek out high quality heritage breed or imported Iberico pork for maximum flavor and juiciness. Cook the seasoned, cubed pork low and slow in lard or oil until fall-apart tender. Then pile the shredded, crispy carnitas onto tortillas or nachos and add your favorite toppings for an amazing homemade Mexican feast!