The BEST carnitas. Super easy, 100% foolproof and juicy, delicious carnitas that might even be as good as your favorite taqueria’s.
Carnitas is the best homemade taco filling. Whenever we’re too tired to cook, or just want to party homemade taco night edition, carnitas is the right choice.
What is carnitas
Carnitas is juicy and succulent pork that’s been slow braised and confit-ed in its own fat along with spices, then pulled apart and crisped to perfection. It’s simply the best taco filling.
Why make carnitas
Carnitas is not just a good taco, it’s a good meat to go with just about everything. Carnitas and rice, carnitas and pasta, carnitas quesadillas and burritos, you name it. Having a big pile of carnitas around is like a cooking cheat-code.
But if you’re asking, why can’t I just order it from my local Mexican place? The answer is, you can, but it costs at least $20/lb for decent stuff. This carnitas recipe is just as good and it costs just the price of pork shoulder. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of making it yourself.
How to make carnitas
Making these carnitas is super easy, barely an inconvenience. All you need is an instant pot and to follow these steps:
- Brown the pork. Cube up your pork and season well with salt and pepper. Preheat your instant pot on the saute high setting, with enough oil to cover the bottom of my instant pot. Sear the pork cubes on 2-6 sides (depending on your level of meticulousness) for 1-2 minutes per side. I generally sear 2 sides. It takes about 2 batches to brown 3.5lbs of pork shoulder. Long tongs and a splatter shield is highly recommended here.
- Add your braising liquid. For the instant pot you’d ideally have about 1” less liquid than the top of the pork cubes. More on the braise in the ingredients section below.
- Cook at pressure. Close the lid of the instant pot. You may need to open the release valve to get it to close as it may still be hot the browning step. Cook at high pressure for 45 minutes, then quick release.
- Shred and crisp. This is an important step that you shouldn’t skip. Using two forks, shred the cubes of pork completely. Transfer to a cast iron skillet or other pan. Working in batches, form a thin layer of meat about 1/2” thick and crisp for 4-5 minutes on medium heat. Once you’re done, add about 1/2 cup of the braising liquid in. Mix it up, and you’re done. Enjoy on tacos, in burritos, or any other way you’d like.
The ingredients for this carnitas are pretty straightforward. Some notes:
- Well marbled pork shoulder. We skip the pork fat in this recipe, so you’re looking for a nicely marbled piece of pork shoulder to replace that fat. Save yourself some time and opt for the slightly more expensive boneless cut as well.
- Coke. Believe it or not, coke is a pretty traditional ingredient. I’ve made carnitas without coke and it’s no contest, carnitas made with coke is far better than without.
- Mexican oregano. Mexican oregano is a different species of oregano that is more floral than conventional oregano. I love it a lot more. Dried Mexican spices tend to be much cheaper than conventional ones too. This one will be easy to find in the Latin aisle, so there is no reason not to try it.
Instant pot carnitas
An instant pot is definitely the best way to make these. But, it’s not the only way. You can also make these with any of these other methods below. The major difference is that it’ll take closer to 6-10 hours to achieve the right texture without pressure.
It’s the same process for stovetop carnitas. The best pot for stovetop carnitas is a large dutch oven or a stock pot that’s not non-stick.
- Brown the pork. Cube up your pork and season well with salt and pepper. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of your dutch oven and place over high heat. When the oil is just about smoking, sear the pork cubes on 2-6 sides (depending on your level of meticulousness) for 1-2 minutes per side. I generally sear 2 sides. It takes about 2 batches to brown 3.5lbs of pork shoulder. Long tongs and a splatter shield is highly recommended here.
- Add your braising liquid. On the stovetop (as well as in the oven and crock pot) you’d ideally have just enough liquid to cover the top of the pork cubes.
- Simmer. Simmer for 4-6 hours at the lowest possible temp your stove supports, about 1 bubble every 30 seconds. You’ll need to keep an eye on the liquid level. Check back about once an hour and add hot tap water as needed to keep the liquid level stable.
- Shred and crisp. This is an important step that you shouldn’t skip. Using two forks, shred the cubes of pork completely. Transfer to a cast iron skillet or other pan. Working in batches made of a thin layer of meat about 1/2” thick, crisp for 4-5 minutes on medium heat. Once you’re done, add about 1/2 cup of the braising liquid in. Mix it up, and you’re done. Enjoy on tacos, in burritos, or any other way you’d like.
Oven carnitas are a bit of an upgrade over stovetop. It’s the exact same process, but instead of simmering, you braise in the oven at 200ºF for 4-6 hours. Because it’s in an oven, evaporation should be low and you won’t need to baby it as much. It’s also impossible for it to roll over into a boil.
Crock pot carnitas
Crockpot carnitas are awesome and generally what the crockpot excels at. The only issue is, the crockpot can’t sear and takes a good 4 hours to come to its ideal temp. What I like to do is do all the searing and getting up to temp on the stove, then transfer to a crockpot on low for the remaining time.
If for whatever reason you don’t have a stove handy, you can do this without the searing step. Just assemble everything into your crock pot. Cook on high for 2 hours and then switch to low for 6 hours.
How to make carnitas tacos
So now you have carnitas! The best thing to do with them is to make tacos. Below is everything I know about making good tacos:
The right amount of meat and importance of crisping
In general, but especially for tacos, it’s very important to crisp, then finish your carnitas with a little braising liquid. Specifically for tacos, one of the biggest differences between a great taco and a sad one is how dry the filling is. I don’t think anyone likes a dry taco. You might even want to add a little more than the half cup I recommend.
The best tortillas and the importance of warming your tortillas
Another tip for really good tacos are your tortillas and how you warm them. After all, they’re what holds your tacos together. I like to use locally made uncooked corn tortillas or flour tortillas and cook them myself. Whole foods often carries really good local tortillas, even uncooked ones in the fridge section.
If you are in a place without access to good locally made tortillas, some of the best mass-produced tortillas around are La Tortilla Factory and Santa Fe Tortilla Company. With store bought tortillas, you need to warm them to make them pliable and delicious. The best way to warm tortillas is to wrap 6-12 at a time in a damp paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds. You can also buy a tortilla warmer instead of the paper towel thing. Of the major, major brands, Mission Foods is probably the way to go.
For me, the best tortillas come from Sonora – Southern Arizona and New Mexico. Anything you can get from around those parts is going to taste insanely good.
Last but not least, great tacos need great toppings:
- Chopped onions, fresh cilantro, and lime wedges are standard and non-negotiable. Is it even a taco without these? I also like to have extra sliced jalapenos on the side as well.
- Queso fresco adds a cheesy umami to your tacos.
- Pickled shallots add a bright tart note.
- Freshly made pico de gallo is a game changer for me. The important detail is to make it fresh that day and let it sit for 15 minutes to let the flavors meld. I always try to make some before we have tacos. Pico de gallo in our house is just chopped roma tomato, 1/2 small onion, jalapeno, cilantro, the juice of a half lime, and a little salt to taste.
- Finally, hot sauces are an excellent optional but not really optional thing. For us, we don’t really make these, we buy them locally from our favorite restaurants. Hot sauces are made differently everywhere, and I’ve found restaurants pretty much beat anything that’s available commercially. We usually get a salsa roja, salsa verde, and a salsa picante. Basically, a red sauce made of chipotle, a green sauce of mostly tomatillos, and a spicy sauce of mostly habeneros. If you don’t have a good Mexican restaurant nearby, I recommend the Aardvark Habanero and Aardvark Serrabanero as a pretty decent substitutes.
Why this is the best carnitas
This is the best recipe I could develope over a lot of time and experience making carnitas. It’s simple, pure, and foolproof. All of the fluff is gone, but all of the flavor is there.
It doesn’t need hard to find ingredients like pork fat or whole cuts of pork, and, most importantly, it doesn’t need 6+ hours on the stove because it uses an instant pot. It’s my best carnitas, pared down to just the basic, super lazy recipe perfect for taco night or a big dinner party. A blank slate for your customization.
And that’s it. I really feel these will be the best carnitas you’ve ever made. Go forth and taco party!
The Best Carnitas Recipe
Super easy, 100% foolproof and juicy, delicious carnitas that might even be as good as your favorite taqueria’s.
- 3 lb pork shoulder/butt cubed, well marbled
- 1 medium onion chopped
- juice of 1/2 orange about 1/4 cup
- 1/2 cup coke coke zero preferred
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 tbsp oregano Mexican preferred
- 2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 bay leaves
Cover the bottom of your instant pot with high heat oil (about 2tbsp) and preheat on saute high. Cube the pork and season with salt and pepper, keeping an eye on the instant pot to make sure it’s not smoking.
Brown 2 sides of your pork cubes, in batches if needed,
Add the rest of the ingredients and set to high pressure for 45 minutes, then quick release.
Using two forks, shred the cubes of pork completely. Transfer to a cast iron skillet or other pan. Working in batches made of a thin layer of meat about 1/2” thick, crisp for 4-5 minutes on medium heat. Once you’re done, add about 1/2 cup of the braising liquid in.
Mix it up, and you’re done. Enjoy on tacos, in burritos, or any other way you’d like!
The Best Carnitas Recipe
Amount Per Serving (4 oz)
Calories from Fat 221
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 9g56%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.