What Is Carnitas? (The Origins & Best Way to Prepare It)

Iva Carter
Published by Iva Carter
Last Updated On: December 4, 2023

If you are a fan of Mexican food, then you've probably had carnitas before. This dish comes from the Spanish word for "little meats."

As an adherent of the carnivore lifestyle, I am intrigued by any and all meat dishes. So, I have dug into the origins, history, and preparation of carnitas to bring you everything you need to know about this food.

Quick Summary

  • Carnitas is a delicious Mexican dish consisting of slow-roasted pork seasoned with various spices.
  • Carnitas can be used as an appetizer or in various dishes such as carnitas tacos or burritos.
  • Found in most Mexican restaurants, carnitas are often confused with other dishes but differ in significant ways.

What Is Mexican Carnitas?

A top view image of Mexican carnitas

Mexican Carnitas is an authentic Mexican dish that originated in the state of Michoacán.

Michoacán is known for its abundance of pork, so it's no surprise that carnitas meat is traditionally pork shoulder.

The dish is a type of pulled pork that is slow-cooked until it is incredibly tender and easily shredded.

Carnitas is traditionally cooked in large copper kettles over an open fire. In an authentic carnitas recipe, the pork shoulder is slowly simmered in lard until it is fall-apart tender.

The lard is flavored with seasonings like cumin, chili, marjoram, oregano, and thyme. This cooking method gives carnitas its signature flavor and texture.

Today, however, carnitas is often made by placing pork chunks in a slow cooker over the course of several hours. Onions, garlic, and spices are added to the recipe as well.

“Let’s get one thing straight: Mexican food takes a certain amount of time to cook. If you don’t have the time, don’t cook it.”
- Denise Chavez, Author

Once the carnitas is cooked, it is shredded and served with fresh tortillas, chopped cilantro, salsa, guacamole, and lime wedges.

Carnitas can also be used with cheese as a filling for tacos or burritos. It is also sometimes served with rice and beans.

The Best Way to Make Carnitas

An image of two delicious carnitas

Carnitas are surprisingly easy to make at home, and the results can be better than anything you could get at a Mexican restaurant.

The key to a great meal is using high-quality ingredients and slowly cooking a heavily-marbled cut of pork over low heat.

This allows the fat to render out completely and the meat to become incredibly tender. It also makes it unnecessary to add lard or fat to the meat.

Here's what you'll need to make carnitas:

  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-2 onions
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 cup water or chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2-3 lbs pork shoulder, boneless Boston butt, or picnic ham

This carnitas recipe begins by cutting the meat into large chunks. You don't want them to be too small, or they will dry out during cooking.

Season the pork with cumin, chili powder, onion and garlic powder, pepper, and salt.

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the pork and onion and cook until the pork is browned and the onion is soft and translucent.

Then add the bay leaf, lime juice, and water or chicken broth as a braising liquid.

Cover the Dutch oven and simmer over low heat for 3-4 hours, or until the pork is fork tender and shreds easily. Cooking time varies with the amount of meat being cooked.

Be sure to check on the meat occasionally while cooking and add more water if necessary.

Once it's finished cooking, remove the pork from the Dutch oven and shred it with a fork.

Serve immediately with warmed tortillas, salsa, and lime wedges.

You can also make this Mexican pork dish in a slow cooker, pressure cooker, or instant pot.

Carnitas vs Other Foods

An image of carnitas on a wooden board

American audiences often do not know the difference between carnitas and other similar dishes. Here is a primer on some well-known dishes and how they compare to carnitas.

Unlike pork-based carnitas, barbacoa is made with beef cheek meat that are slow-cooked in a pit until tender. Originating in the Caribbean, the name of this dish provides the root of our current word, "barbecue" [1].

Both meals can be done in a slow cooker, and barbacoa is a type of meat often made with adobo seasoning, which is fairly similar to carnitas seasoning.

Pollo al carbon is a dish made with chicken that has been cooked over charcoal. This dish is popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States. You can also use this flavorful and tasty meat instead of beef in your tacos.

Carne asada is a dish made with beef steak that is grilled or roasted. Carne asada is popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

The beef is marinated in lime juice and carne asada seasoning before you cook it. Depending on how long the meat is cooked, it may have a crispy and fried appearance on the outside.

Al pastor is a dish created by marinating pork in a chili pepper sauce and then cooked on a spit.

Al pastor originated in Central Mexico as a local version of lamb shawarmas that were brought there by Lebanese immigrants [2].

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What Is the Difference Between Pulled Pork and Carnitas?

The difference between pulled pork and pork carnitas is in how they are cooked. Like carnitas, pulled pork is made by cooking it until it is very tender and then shredding it. However, pulled pork is usually cooked or finished with BBQ sauce, which gives it a sweeter flavor than carnitas seasoning or adobo seasoning.

How Do You Eat Carnitas?

You can eat carnitas in a variety of ways. I often serve carnitas as an appetizer with warm tortillas, salsa, guacamole, and lime wedges. The meat can also be used as a filling for other Mexican cuisine like burritos, tacos, and quesadillas using corn tortillas.

Can Carnitas Be Frozen?

Yes, carnitas can be frozen. Place the pork in a freezer-safe container and store it in the freezer for up to two months. To reheat, thaw the meat in the refrigerator overnight and then reheat it in a microwave or over low heat until warmed through.


  1. https://books.google.com/books?id=OGxaDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA11#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33993719
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About the author

Iva Carter
Associate Editor
As a foodie and blogger, Iva loves to share delicious yet quick dinner recipes. When she's not in the kitchen concocting meaty delights, you'll find her playing with her dog, Sylvie.
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