Carnitas are a classic Mexican dish featuring juicy pork in a citrus marinade. While traditional recipes take hours, slow cooking or pressure-cooking the pork saves time and results in a similarly tender-yet-crispy texture. This recipe is just the thing you need for a flavorful weeknight dinner or a festive gathering with friends and family.
Originally from the state of Michoacán, Carnitas are now one of the most popular dishes in Mexico. The word "carnitas" means "little meats," referring to the star of the recipe — tender, mouthwateringly delicious pork.
Carnitas and carnitas tacos offer a perfect balance of savory, citrusy, and spicy flavors. The pork is first slow-cooked (or pressure-cooked in this case) in a citrus marinade until it turns fall-apart tender. You can also add a slight crispiness by broiling the meat at the end, which we highly suggest.
The combination of juicy and caramelized pork, vibrant garnishes, and warm corn tortillas is like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. Plus, the Instant Pot makes cooking the pork an absolute breeze without compromising flavor.
Why you'll Love Carnitas Tacos
- Flavorful: Carnitas tacos are the ultimate meal! This recipe is packed with savory, sweet, tangy, spicy, and bold ingredients guaranteed to please a crowd.
- Tender: The pork turns out so tender and juicy that it practically melts in your mouth.
- Crispy: The additional broiling helps with the Maillard reaction, resulting in more flavor development and a perfectly crispy texture.
- Easy: You’ll be surprised at how much time and effort the Instant Pot saves you in this carnitas recipe.
Love carnitas but want a different protein? Try these delicious Crispy Chicken Carnitas.
Ingredients and Substitutions
Here is everything you need to make delicious carnitas at home.
- Pork: We recommend pork shoulder for the most flavorful carnitas. It contains a high-fat content, resulting in tender, juicy textures. If you can’t find pork shoulder, try pork loin or tenderloin, but you may want to incorporate additional fat as these cuts are leaner. Or try a healthier leaner version of carnitas with this Healthy Carnitas recipe.
- Onion and garlic: Onions add natural sweetness and depth of flavor while garlic imparts bold, aromatic notes. Keep them fresh for the best results.
- Chicken broth: Homemade or store-bought broth adds moisture and richness to the carnitas. Vegetable broth, beer, and water will also work.
- Citrus juice: To tenderize the meat and balance the rich, savory flavors. Use both fresh orange and lime juice for a perfect balance of sweet and tangy notes. You can also replace the lime with lemon or use more oranges.
- Seasonings: Use a combination of cumin, ancho chili powder, oregano, salt, and pepper for ultra-savory, warm, earthy, and herbal flavors that hold up well to pork.
- For serving: Stuff your carnitas into warm corn tortillas, flour tortillas, or lettuce wraps. Top them with classic garnishes like cilantro, diced onion, and lime wedges.
The Best Cuts Of Pork For Carnitas
Choosing the right cut of pork is the key to achieving tender, flavorful, and mouth-watering carnitas. Here's a list of the best pork cuts for the job:
- Pork shoulder: Also known as pork butt or Boston butt, this is the traditional cut used for carnitas. It's marbled with fat that renders down during slow cooking, resulting in juicy, flavorful meat.
- Pork picnic roast: This cut comes from the lower part of the shoulder. It's also a great choice for carnitas as it's fatty and flavorful.
- Boneless country-style ribs: These are cut from the blade end of the loin close to the pork shoulder. They're meatier but still have enough fat to make your carnitas juicy and tender.
- Pork belly: While not traditional, pork belly can be used for fattier, richer carnitas. It's incredibly flavorful but might be too rich for some.
How to Make Carnitas
Although traditional carnitas are a labor of love, this easier-at-home version comes together quickly and is great for a crowd.
1. Prepare the pork
Before adding the pork shoulder to the Instant Pot, it’s helpful to cut it into a few smaller pieces. This not only helps it cook faster, but it also coats more surfaces with the marinade ingredients. Toss the pork with the marinade right in the pressure cooker until it's well coated.
2. Cook the pork
Instant Pot: We typically use the preset buttons on our Instant Pot. You can choose the "meat" setting if you have an Instant Pot, followed by the "pressure" button until the light on "high pressure" turns on. Cook it for 30 minutes, then allow the steam to release naturally once the cooking time is up.
Slow cooker: If you don’t have an Instant Pot or other pressure cooker, repeat the same process for preparing the pork, then add it to a slow cooker. Cook it on low for 8-9 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.
Oven method: You can also use the oven method. Just add everything to a Dutch oven or oven-safe dish with a lid. Slow-cook it at 325 degrees F for around 4-5 hours, or until the pork is tender and cooked through.
3. Crisp the carnitas
While optional, broiling the carnitas adds a slightly crispy texture that complements the soft, tender meat. Spread the cooked pork out on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil it until crispy.
4. Assemble the tacos
Make sure to warm the corn tortillas before filling them with carnitas, then top the tacos with fresh cilantro and diced onion, a wedge of fresh lime, and any other garnishes you enjoy.
Carnitas Taco Toppings
- Sliced avocado or guacamole
- Pico de gallo
- Fresh or pickled jalapeños
- Pickled red onions
- Sour cream or crema
- Cotija cheese or crumbled queso fresco
- Salsa verde or habanero salsa
Side Dishes For Carnitas Tacos
There are so many Mexican side dishes you can serve with carnitas tacos. Here are a few traditional and non-traditional options to choose from:
- Beans: Enjoy your tacos with a side of black beans, Frijoles Charros, slow cooker pinto beans, or Borracho Beans.
- Salads: Prepare a Black Bean and Corn Salad, Mexican Street Corn Salad, or Cucumber, Avocado, and Tomato Salad for a lighter option.
- Vegetables and more: Pair them with some Cilantro Lime Cauliflower Rice, Mexican Street Corn, or Spicy Cabbage and Corn Slaw. You can even turn your carnitas tacos into nachos by serving them on top of tortilla chips with cheese.
Storage and Reheating
If you have leftover carnitas tacos, follow these storage and reheating tips to make the most out of your recipe:
- Fridge: Once cooled, store the leftovers in separate airtight containers for up to 4 days.
- Freezer: Transfer the carnitas to a freezer-safe container or bag. You can keep them in the freezer for up to 3 months this way.
- Reheating: Reheat your carnitas in a pan over medium until warmed through, then serve them in fresh tortillas. Alternatively, you can microwave them in 30-second bursts. If you’re cooking from frozen, let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight before heating.
Although classic carnitas couldn’t be more delicious, you can also mix things up.
- Chipotle: Substitute ancho chili powder with chipotles in adobo.
- Spicy: Add a diced jalapeño or serrano pepper to the spice mixture for an extra kick.
- Beer-braised: Replace the chicken broth with your favorite Mexican beer, like Modelo.
- Taco salad: Serve the carnitas on a bed of lettuce with your favorite taco salad add-ins.
- Burritos: Make burritos instead of carnitas tacos. Just add the toppings to a large flour tortilla, then roll it up with fillings like guacamole, cheese, beans, and veggies.
- Mulitas: Add a layer of carnitas and shredded cheese between two corn tortillas, then cook it until the cheese is melty. Stuff extra guacamole and salsa inside before serving!
Tips for Making Perfect Carnitas Tacos
- Use the right cut: For the most flavorful and authentic carnitas, use pork shoulder or butt.
- Evenly coat with spices: Make sure the pork is evenly seasoned for the best results.
- Natural release: Allow the steam to release naturally from the Instant Pot. This will help create an ultra-tender and juicy pork texture.
- Broil: We don’t recommend skipping the broiling step. This is what gives carnitas such an addicting and dangerously delicious texture.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the most common questions about making these at home pork carnitas.
Of course! You can replace pork shoulder with pork loin or pork tenderloin. However, you may want to incorporate a few tablespoons of olive oil, flavorless coconut oil, or another neutral vegetable oil to make up for the lack of fat.
If you don’t like pork, you can substitute it with boneless skinless chicken thighs, but you’ll have to adjust the cooking time.
Classic Carnitas (Slow Cooker or Instant Pot)
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- 2 lbs boneless lean pork shoulder (regular or lighter blade roast, fat trimmed off)
- 1/2 onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 tbsp orange juice
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1.5 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ancho chili powder
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp pepper
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Instant Pot: Press the “Meat” setting and then press the “Pressure” button until the light on “High Pressure” turns on. Set the time to 40 minutes using the up and down arrows Cook and let the steam naturally release. Carefully remove the lid and shred using two forks. Crockpot: Cook on low for 8-9 hours until the pork is fork tender.
For crispy carnitas, cover a baking sheet with foil. Turn the broiler on high. Spread the meat out on the baking sheet. Broil for 4-6 minutes until crispy. Toss with some of the cooking juice after broiling to add moisture back to the pork, for about 15 minutes. Carefully remove the lid and shred using two forks.
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
The Nutritional Values provided are estimates only and may vary based on the preparation method.
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