This old-school carnitas–pork shoulder simmered with onion, garlic, bay leaf, and orange until falling-apart tender and crispy–is excellent in burritos, tacos, or on its own. And it can be made in an Instant Pot or slow cooker.
I have to confess something. Pork carnitas—Mexican braised and fried pork chunks with their addictively crisp edges—were unfamiliar to me until I tried this recipe. Which is weird, because I love pork and I love Mexican food, but never the twain had met in the gloriousness that is carnitas. But that’s all ancient history seeing as I’ve been making this dish for years now.
This recipe is the classic—with one exception. Instead of being cooked entirely on the stovetop, the pot is slid into the oven so you don’t have to tirelessly attend to the burner to make sure the pork is cooking at just the right temperature. The One and I devour these tucked in soft, warm tortillas as tacos as well as heaped atop rice and beans. We add an entire orange to the pot, as we like that hint of citrus in the background. And, yes, we do use lard. Quelle surprise. [Editor’s Note: That’s French, David. Wrong language. Sigh.]–David Leite
How do you properly cut this recipe in half?
This authentic carnitas recipe makes what some would consider A LOT of pork. Hardly a problem in our minds, seeing as we can’t imagine not being able to pack away a batch of this subtly infused Mexican-style braised crispy pork in a single sitting.
That said, should you wish to make just half a batch, the author advises that you cut the amount of pork, salt, and oregano in the recipe below in half, but that you rely on the same amount of water, onion, orange, garlic, bay, sweetened condensed milk, and lard (mmmm, lard).
You’ll also want to rely on a slightly smaller pot than what the recipe suggests. Consider your baby batch the diminutive–though not at all diminished–form of this classic. Carnitas-ito, anyone?
What’s the difference between pulled pork and carnitas?
Pulled pork and carnitas are often prepared the same way, by slowly roasting or simmering until the meat is tender enough to be shredded. Carnitas are typically fried or roasted again after shredding, in order to crisp up the meat.
Carnitas ~ Mexican Braised Pork
- Slow cooker (if following the slow cooker method)
- 4 pounds fatty pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 3 cups cold water
- 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 orange, preferably seedless, cut into 2 wedges (or 1 to 2 oranges if using the Instant Pot Variation)
- 1/4 cup lard, (or, for the lard averse, vegetable oil)
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican, crumbled
- 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fine salt, or 3 to 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- Place all of the ingredients in a wide 6- to 7-quart heavy pot. (Don’t worry if everything isn't completely submerged.) Bring to a boil, skimming any scum that collects on the surface as necessary.
- Reduce the heat to medium-lowish and simmer vigorously, stirring occasionally, until the pork is fork-tender and the liquid has completely evaporated, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Discard the orange pieces and bay leaves.
☞TESTER TIP: If the liquid hasn’t completely evaporated, transfer the pork to a bowl and continue to simmer the liquid, stirring often, until it is reduced and only a glossy layer of oil remains.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F (232°C)
- If your pot isn't ovenproof, transfer the pork and fat to a dish of some sort that's ovenproof. Slide the pork into the oven, uncovered, and let it fry in its own fat until it's browned, 20 to 30 minutes. There’s no need to stir. Serve it straight from the pot. (Leftovers—as if!—keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)
Carnitas ~ Mexican Braised Pork Variations
SLOW COOKER CARNITAS
Just toss everything in the slow cooker, reducing the amount of water by at least 1 cup, and cook on low, covered the entire time, for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 6 to 8 hours, or until the pork is tender and falls apart. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, place the chunks of pork to a large skillet, leaving the cooking liquid in the cooker. If desired, shred the pork using 2 forks (or your fingertips if you like things messy). Heat the pork in the skillet over medium to medium-high heat until crisp at the edges but still knee-weakeningly tender within. If desired, dribble a little of the strained cooking liquid over the pork before serving to moisten and flavor it. (If the cooking liquid is quite watery, pour it into a saucepan and simmer until it reduces to the desired consistency.) Curious to hear more about working magic with your slow cooker? Check out what our testers had to say in the TC comments below and then peruse our entire selection of slow cooker recipes.
INSTANT POT CARNITAS
Season the pork with the salt and, working in batches, sear the pork in a large skillet in the lard or olive oil until very, very brown. (The Instant Pot’s insert is too narrow and high-sided to sear effectively. It takes too long and the meat ends up steamed rather than seared. Trust us, the skillet is infinitely better and faster.) Meanwhile, juice 1 or 2 oranges to yield 1/2 cup orange juice. Layer the onions, garlic, juiced orange halves, orange wedges, and bay leaf on the bottom of the Instant Pot insert. Dump in the pork and sprinkle with oregano as you go. Drizzle over the condensed milk and orange juice. Secure the lid and push the pressure release valve to “sealing.” Select “manual” and set the cooking time to 30 minutes at high pressure. When finished, carefully quick release the pot by moving the pressure release to “venting.” Once the steam is fully released, open the pot and scoop the pork with a slotted spoon onto a foil-lined baking sheet. Discard the orange halves and bay leaf. Cook the pork in the oven at 450°F (232°C) until crisped, 10 to 15 minutes.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
This Mexican fried pork dish is RIDICULOUS! It’s so tasty that I can’t believe *I* made it! And I love the hint of orange in the meat. I think the most difficult part was slicing the pork away from the bone—otherwise, it came together beautifully. It required the full 2 hours to evaporate all the liquid in the pot and about 25 minutes in the oven to darken the pork to a point that it was almost burnt (I love it that way). This is an excellent recipe and one that I’ll make again once I have a crowd—in the meantime, I’m looking forward to leftovers!
I love this authentic Mexican fried pork, and these authentic carnitas were exactly what I was looking for in terms of taste and texture. The author’s method of oven-frying the pork in the rendered fat from the shoulder is genius. I have to admit that I pilfered some of this “liquid gold” to brown onions and garlic for a killer black beans and rice to serve as a side. [Editor’s Note: Brilliant! We’re stealing that trick!]
I used the half recipe method and it worked perfectly, although I will suggest that even though I’d cut the salt in half, the reduction became dangerously close to being a tad salty. Err on the side of caution, whether you make the full 4 pounds or otherwise and add less salt than specified. I made the carnitas tacos with this and the fresh tomatillo salsa was delicious, creamy, and added a nice balance to the rich meat.
Does it get any easier than this? I don’t think so. This recipe worked exactly as written and produced an incredibly great-tasting, authentic pork carnitas. Where you put the pork from there is up to you. It is fantastic in tacos, would be delicious in a burrito with some salsa verde, and something to look forward to on a tostada after a busy work day. And it tastes even better the second day. Check the pork after 20 minutes in the oven, as it browns quicker than you might think.
Since this authentic carnitas recipe is one of my favorites on the site, I was enthusiastic to try it in the slow cooker. I began by combining the onions, garlic, and pork together, and then adding them to the slow cooker. I then put in the bay leaves, oregano, and oranges. Reducing the liquid by 1/2 cup, I poured that on top. I let this cook on low for 10 hours. At that point, I removed the pork from the liquid (the liquid had doubled!), and placed the pork in a container for the next day. Discarding the orange and bay leaves, I poured the liquid in a separate container and placed it in the refrigerator. The next day, I skimmed the fat from the top of my reserved liquid (discarding the remaining cooking liquid), and spooned it into an ovensafe pan. I preheated the oven to 425°F and placed the pork in the fat in the oven for 30 minutes. The result was perfect! They had the same flavor and browned bits as the original recipe. I just warmed some tortillas and served. Next time I will reduce the liquid by 1 cup before adding it to the slow cooker.
I’ve been a fan of pork carnitas as a restaurant dish for years, but have never made it myself, so I was happy to take a crack at this recipe. Long a fan of duck confit, I quickly realized upon reading the description of the dish that this is essentially pork confit. Sweet baby Jesus, what could be better than that?! I’m here to tell you, not much. This is without a doubt one of the tastiest dishes I’ve ever made, and given that it’s a cinch to throw together, I can see making it again and again and again and again and…you get the picture. My only deviation from the recipe as written is that I pulled the pot from the oven only 15 minutes into the roasting phase, whereas the recipe calls for 20 to 30 at this point to crisp the meat. Attention is warranted at this step. Aside from that, following the recipe to a T yielded a sheet pan full of moist, flavorful, and beautifully caramelized pork deliciousness. One could always dabble with the aromatics in the braising liquid to bring other flavors to the dish, but it’s awfully good just as it is, and certainly not in need of any tweaking.
I didn’t hold out much hope when I got home and first saw the results in the slow cooker. The pork looked kind of meh, nondescript, not really interesting. Then I removed the meat, shredded it onto a pan, and put it in the convection oven for about 15 minutes, stirring once. Holy smokes, what a difference! When I pulled the pork out, the texture had changed and it was tender and crisp at the same time. The pork was gently spiced and delicious. I did find there to be too much liquid in the pot, but it kept the meat very moist and tender. I left it on low for 8 hours while I was at work. I used a 4-pound pork shoulder roast, cubed, and kept the other ingredients true to the recipe, except for the lard. (The roast was fatty enough that I felt the lard wasn’t needed.) And I was right, since I skimmed a lot of fat from the pot but no scum. I might decrease the amount of water next time. Also, I think I’d like to add a couple of dried chilies to the initial cook pot, too, to add a little more spice.
I also made this in the Instant Pot. I like easy recipes like this, minimal hands-on time with big, flavorful results. My pork shoulder was closer to 4 1/2 pounds. It took me 10 minutes to sear the meat in 3 batches, then juice the orange, layer everything in the pot, and set it and let the magic happen. When the meat was removed and put onto the tray to crisp, it was very tender. After the time in the oven, it was fabulous. The meat was flavorful, tender, and crisp. I was very surprised to find I could still taste the orange used after all the cooking. We served this with tortillas, sliced avocados, shredded lettuce, and chopped onion and tomato. Everyone liked this so much that there was very little left over.
When recipes are this easy to do and the results are so full of flavor, I would be happy to make this again and again. We got 10 generous servings from the recipe.
This recipe was fantastic! There aren’t a ton of ingredients in this dish, and having never made this before, I was surprised just how simple the ingredient list was (where were the spices?). It takes a bit of time to come together, but it really just needs to be babysat. It’s a really simple dish to make. I put it on to simmer and made some homemade Spanish rice and salsa. It doesn’t seem like much in the beginning–in fact, I had my doubts looking at the meat and veggies swimming around in this unappetizing milky water—but the very end is where the magic happens. When I finally pulled the finished product out of the oven and saw these beautifully browned pieces of tender pork, I could hardly wait to start eating it. It was definitely a hit!
I made these last night using a little different technique with the slow cooker. First, I reduced the water from 3 cups to 2 cups, then I cooked the meat on high for 3 hours and, knowing the meat was completely cooked through and I was not risking undercooking pork, I took off the lid and continued to cook it on high for 3 more hours, until the liquid was absorbed. Then I transferred the meat to a large cast iron skillet and browned the meat. We tasted the meat both before browning it and after, and it was amazing both ways.
I cannot imagine an easier recipe to make on a weeknight. WOW! And WOW to its flavor and tenderness, too. The meat came out juicy and fork-tender with a slight crispness. Every single person in our household asked me to make this again—and soon. I decided to serve it with the fresh tomatillo salsa, white rice, and black beans. The salsa was an amazing addition to the meat. The cold, tart salsa was a true blend of tastes.
This dish is quite the little ace in the hole. It’s so easy yet yields so much flavor. A little bit of prep work, then throw it into the pot and go about your other kitchen tasks—like making tomatillo salsa. There’s a little checking and stirring here and there, but the dish practically makes itself. Don’t forget to keep the lid off while simmering away.
This recipe delivered tender, crisp pork carnitas as promised. The ingredients were readily available and the preparation was simple, especially since the pork could be browned by sliding the original pot into the oven. The pork had a fine flavor when tasted right out of the oven, although it was ten times better the following day when the flavors had a chance to blend and mellow. (The oregano was a bit too dominant right after cooking for my taste). I do question the use of 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk—was it really worth it to open an entire can, especially since it isn’t an ingredient that I use often? But overall, it was an easy way to prepare pork shoulder for a variety of uses.
I adapted this recipe to the slow cooker, which did require some modification, but it produced excellent results. The big difference between slow cooker and stovetop cooking, and often the downfall of the former, is that much less liquid evaporates in the slow cooker, and often the flavors are not as concentrated. With that in mind, I omitted ALL the water in this recipe. I mixed the pork shoulder and other ingredients, and squeezed the other half of the orange over everything. Then I let it cook on low for 7 hours. During this time, the pot went from having no liquid in it to speak of to the pork being almost covered with fat and liquid.
After the 7 hours of low and slow cooking, I moved the insert of the slow cooker to an oven preheated to 450°F. I let this go for almost an hour, stirring once to turn everything over and prevent over-browning. At this point, all the liquid had evaporated and the pork had browned in its own fat. The carnitas were falling apart tender and very flavorful. It’s great on tacos or just with rice. A tomatillo salsa is the ideal embellishment.
What a fantastic dish! This is one of those recipes that I immediately knew I had to make. Cinco de Mayo was the perfect occasion. The results are fantastic! I made the recipe exactly as-is except for a substitution for the condensed milk (I used 2 tablespoons whole milk heated with 1 tablespoon sugar). I used coconut oil and a Cara Cara orange, which dissipated nicely into the pork. (I was able to discard the orange peel, although it did break into several large pieces.) It took about 1 1/2 hours for the liquid to completely boil down. The oven browning method worked great. I will definitely make this again. The green tomatillo and avocado blended salsa recipe also found on this site is fantastic with the these!
Every time I have used the Instant Pot, I have been impressed with its performance. This carnitas recipe was no different. It does require some moving around the kitchen, from stove to Instant Pot and back into the oven to finish, so I would recommend it for an evening when you have more time in the kitchen (and time to do dishes). The pork ended up flavorful, moist, and just melt-in-your mouth delicious. I couldn’t decide if I loved the crunchy outer bits or the rich fatty ends more. Either way, together they created a decadent combination.
I used a cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat to sear the pork. I worked in 2 batches and each took about 12 minutes, flipping the pieces once or twice. I needed one large navel orange to get ½ cup of juice. It took 10 minutes to reach high pressure. The pork emerged from the steam step tender, but still held together somewhat. I let the pork stay in the oven 15 minutes. It got an amazing crunchy outer layer. I used two forks to break the pork chunks into shreds for tacos.
I got 4 good-sized entrée servings. I served the carnitas on tacos with cilantro-lime sour cream, veggies, and cheese. I don’t think the leftovers I gifted my boyfriend will survive the next 24 hours.
Originally published October 7, 2020