This authentic Mexican carnitas recipe features pork shoulder and aromatics like garlic, onion, orange, and spices cooked low and slow on the stovetop or in the oven for the best carnitas recipe with a secret ingredient: Mexican Coca-Cola.
If you’re new to making carnitas, don’t be intimidated. This recipe is incredibly easy and is basically a gateway to braised meats. I love it because it’s one of those “simmer low and slow and just forget about it” recipes you can make on either the stove or in the oven, perfect for a lazy Saturday or Sunday. Or, start it on a weekday morning then let it cook while you’re doing other things.
Carnitas, which translates to “little meats” in Spanish, is a popular Mexican street food staple originating in Michoacan. Pork butt or pork shoulder is slow-cooked in oil or a flavored broth to become amazingly tender and shreddable, then crisped up in the oven or on the stovetop. The end result is a wonderfully savory, irresistibly tender, juicy meat with crispy ends stuffed in a soft shell and simply garnished with chopped onions and cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lime, or guacamole, creamy avocado salsa verde, or pico de Gallo with a heaping mound of my chopped Mexican kale salad on the side. Is your mouth watering yet?
What’s in These Carnitas
You don’t need a laundry list of ingredients to make carnitas. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt)—this cut of meat is optimal because of its higher fat content that literally melts into the meat as it cooks. The fat imparts more flavor and once cooked low and slow, the meat becomes incredibly tender and easily shreddable.
- Vegetable or canola oil
- Mexican Coca-Cola—Mexican Coca-Cola is sweetened with can sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup like American coke. Those sugars help caramelize and tenderize the meat. You could also use beer if you prefer, such as a lager, witbier, or IPA. Or, just go with water instead.
- Onion—yellow or white works fine
- Orange peel—imparts just the right amount of citrusy flavor
- Bay leaves
- Dried oregano
- Ground cumin
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
How Are Carnitas Traditionally Made
Carnitas are traditionally braised in a generous amount of lard or oil, sometimes with liquid (often citrus juice and water), then cooked in the oven or on the stovetop low and slow. They’re then usually crisped up in a hot skillet or in the oven before adding to shells or tortillas as tacos or burritos.
How to Make The BEST Carnitas
I checked in with my local carnitas taco shop where they cook theirs the traditional way, in a big pot where the pork is completely covered in oil with orange juice and slow-cooked for 4 hours. Looking through my traditional Mexican cookbooks, I saw this method mentioned often, and also with lard.
But instead of using so much oil to steep the pork, I adjusted tactics. First, I seared large chunks of the fat-capped pork butt in oil, then covered the meat with water, Mexican Coca-Cola, and orange peel (instead of using just water and/or citrus juice as I’d seen in several other recipes) and herbs. The natural cane sugars in this type of Coca-Cola (American Coca-Cola has high-fructose corn syrup) help tenderize and caramelize the meat.
How to Make Moist and Tender Carnitas
Brown the meat. Cut the pork into large chunks with the fat cap still in place. Trim only the stringy fat that may separate the chunks, but keep most of the fat as that is what adds flavor and makes the meat tender. and Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Brown in a generous amount of oil that you’ll reserve for the braise. Do so in batches if necessary.
Bring to a boil, simmer, and skim. Add the Coca-Cola and water to the meat in the pot, then bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. You’ll see some foamy scum rise to the surface (don’t worry, that’s just the proteins from the meat congealing and it’s totally normal). Use a spoon to skim it off (I add it to a small bowl) and discard.
Add your aromatics. When there’s nothing left to skim, add the onion, garlic, orange peel, bay leaves, oregano, and cumin. Add more water if needed to make sure the pork is just barely covered.
How Long Do Carnitas Cook
Braise in the oven or keep it on the stove, then forget about it. The pork will simmer and get tender in its luxurious, long soak.
- If braising in the oven, cook at 325°F, covered with a lid, for 3 hours. The pork should still have about ¼ to ⅓ of the liquid in it. Add more water if it begins to run dry.
- If braising on the stove, simmer with a lid mostly covering the pot, for 2 – 2 ½ hours or until fork-tender. The pot should still have at least ⅓ of the braising liquid by the time the pork is done. Add more water to the pot if it starts to go dry.
The Key to Perfectly Crispy Carnitas
Shred your pork. Once your meat has simmered to perfect tenderness (it should fall apart easily when poked with a fork), use a slotted spoon to remove it from the pot and transfer to a sheet pan. When cool enough to handle, shred with your fingers or with two forks. Discard any large chunks of fat.
Let the broiler work its magic. It’s likely the pork will be crisped in places but if you want even more crispy, broil it. Place the carnitas under a low broil for a few minutes, then toss and broil another couple of minutes until lightly crispy (be careful not to over-broil or your meat will dry out!). Or, put in a skillet and give them a quick fry.
What Kind of Meat is Carnitas
Carnitas are made with pork shoulder (also known as pork butt). It’s an inexpensive cut of meat, and its higher fat content ensures that after cooking it low and slow you’ll end up with super tender, juicy carnitas. This is because a long cooking time allows the pork’s fat to melt into the meat, keeping it moist and tender. Also, ample time to cook means more time for the aromatics to penetrate the meat and impart their savory flavors.
What Goes on Carnitas
Traditionally Carnitas are served in small corn tortillas (although I like flour best) and usually topped with chopped white onion, cilantro, tomatillo salsa, and a squeeze of fresh lime. You might also find thinly sliced radish, pico de gallo, salsa, jalapeño, avocado, pickled red onion, and/or crumbled cotija cheese on carnitas. Feel free to add as few or as many toppings as you’d like.
Tips For Making The Best Carnitas
- Don’t trim all of the fat off your pork. The fat is crucial for developing flavor and is also necessary for rendering from the meat and essentially confiting the pork (cooking in its own fat) to preserve its moisture and keep it nice and tender.
- Some traditional carnitas recipes call for a stick of cinnamon. Feel free to add one, but if you do, make sure you get the Mexican variety (Canela cinnamon). The American cinnamon you typically see in stores (Cassia cinnamon) is stronger and will overpower your carnitas.
- If making tacos with your carnitas, warm your tortillas in a cast-iron or non-stick skillet. Corn tortillas are best when that raw taste has been heated out of them. To do so, bring your skillet to medium-high heat, and once it’s hot, either spray the pan with non-stick spray and add the tortillas, or, dip your corn tortilla in a bowl of water or the reserved braising stock, then place in the skillet to cook until the water has evaporated and the tortilla has some brown spots (about 30 seconds). Flip, then cook for about 15 more seconds. Wrap the warmed tortilla foil to keep warm before stuffing them with the carnitas.
- If you’re serving carnitas over Mexican rice (which is equally delicious), serve your pork in the remaining braising liquid (you could even boil it down a bit to thicken it if you want). This would be delicious over rice and alongside some pinto beans and guac.
What to Serve with Carnitas
- Grilled Corn on the Cob
- Mango Margarita with Chile Salt and Lime
- Chunky Citrus Guacamole
- Creamy Avocado Salsa Verde
- Pico de Gallo
- Mexican Corn Dip
- Salsa Verde
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating on this recipe below and leave a comment, take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #foodiecrusheats.
How to Make THE BEST Carnitas
- 3 pounds pork shoulder or Boston butt pork roast
- 3 teaspoons kosher salt , divided
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup canola or vegetable oil
- 12 ounces Mexican Coca Cola
- 3 cups water
- ½ yellow onion , thinly sliced
- 5-6 long strips orange peel , peeled with a vegetable peeler, plus the juice of the orange
- 6 cloves garlic , peeled and smashed
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- small corn or flour tortillas
- finely chopped onion
- finely chopped cilantro
- salsa verde
- Cut the pork into large chunks, discarding any stringy connective tissue. Season with 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt and 2 teaspoons of the black pepper. Add the oil to a large dutch oven or heavy bottom pot on the stove and bring to medium high heat. Sear the pork in two batches, turning the pieces every 4-5 mintues until golden on both sides. Add all of the pork to the pan, turn off the heat and let the oil cool slightly. Slowly add the Mexican Coca-Cola and the water watching for hot splatters. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, skimming off and discarding any scum that rises to the top.
- Add the onion, orange peel, smashed garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano, and remaining kosher salt and stir to combine. Add more water if needed to cover the pork completely.
- If cooking on the stove, cover ¾ of the way with a lid and cook at a lightly rolling simmer for 2 – 2 ½ hours or until the pork is super tender and falls apart easily. Cooking time will vary so plan ahead. Add more water if the pot begins to dry.
- If cooking in the oven, preheat to 325°F, cover the oven-safe pot with a lid, and cook for 3 hours or until the pork is super tender and falls apart. Again, cooking time will vary. Add more water ¾ of the way through if the pot begins to dry.
- Transfer the cooked pork to a baking sheet and reserve the cooking liquid if desired. If you'd like, cook the liquid longer to reduce and thicken then use as a dipping sauce for the carnitas. Once the meat is cool enough to handle, shred with a fork or your fingers.
- Before serving, crisp the pork in the oven. Arrange the top oven rack so it’s about 4 inches below the heating element. Place the pork on a sheet pan under the broiler on low for 3 minutes. Toss it around and place back under the broiler for about 3 minutes more. Tent carnitas with foil to keep warm while you prepare tortillas or other fixings.
- Serve the carnitas in warmed corn or flour tortillas with diced onion, cilantro, salsa verde, and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
More Taco Recipes to Master
- Baja Fish Tacos
- Grilled Steak Tacos
- Blackened Fish Tacos with Creamy Avocado Sauce
- Just Like Taco Bell Tacos Recipe
- Breakfast Tacos Recipe
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I really enjoyed this recipe. Followed it to a T. (OK, so I added some orange rind. And I threw in the bone for the braise.)
Very balanced flavors with many levels. Instead of using the broiler to crisp up the pork, I put a small sheet pan of the pork on the grill after I pulled some corn off and it crisped up great.
Definitely will make this again. Thanks Heidi!
Thanks for the notes Mike, and the orange rind was a great addition.
I don’t want to rate because I haven’t made it. This sounds delicious! My family also adores Mexican Food. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for transferring to a crock pot after the meat has been seared? My spouse and I work different shifts. It’s a win/win if I can set up a crock the night before and he can put it in the warmer and turn it on before he leaves for work.
I’m sure the crock pot would be a great idea for keeping it warm Pamela. Enjoy!
I really enjoy her recipes each time I make them.
this looks amazing. we do. it does any type of pop in our house. is there a healthy sub for the cola? tia!
You could leave the soda out of the recipe entirely.