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What is Carnitas?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Carnitas is a dish in Mexican cuisine that usually uses pork, typically the front sections of the hog or pork shoulder, that is braised or roasted for a long time, sometimes the length of a day. The meat is then shredded or pulled and cooked in lard, which creates very crispy meat with a tender, melt in the mouth center. It's then served in a variety of ways. One method is to serve it similar to the way people eat fajitas. It can be placed on a dish and accompanied by salsas, fresh vegetables, beans, and guacamole, and then diners can use tortillas to create tacos or burritos.

Due to the popularity of this meat, it is frequently made in Mexican restaurants and will be used as a filling for other types of dishes. Diners can order up a carnitas taco or enchilada in many places. The dual process for creating crispy soft pork is often easier when it is made in the large quantities needed in a restaurant setting.

The lengthy cooking process of this dish means that in many families, it's only made on special occasions. Some Mexican-American families enjoy having it around the Christmas holidays, while others will prepare it for special events like children’s birthdays or anniversaries. Of course, skilled cooks may prepare the meat more often when they have the time to do so.

There is some dispute about the way meat should be shredded, and some prefer it to be chunkier instead of in very small shreds. It’s really up to personal taste how much the cook chooses to break down the meat before frying it. Carnitas translates as "little meats" in Spanish, however, so it should not be served in large slabs.

Knowing that the pork is fried in lard may stop some people from enjoying this food favorite because they don’t want to add additional fat to their meals. Many recipes skip this step and suggest cooking the pork in slow cookers or for a long time over the stove. It won’t have the same crispy texture, but when spices like marjoram, cumin, bay leaf, garlic, onion, oregano, and thyme are added to the slow cooked pork, the cook will approximate the flavors of carnitas. Chefs can use lower fat pork cuts as well for a lower fat meal. When it's served with multi-grain or whole-wheat tortillas, fat free beans, and plenty of fresh vegetables, it will become a healthier meal.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By myharley — On Nov 27, 2012

My boyfriend loves carnitas so I thought I would make some for his birthday. I had tasted them before at a restaurant, but never really knew what was included in the spices.

The recipe I used called for spices I was not surprised about, but it was interesting how this recipe also called for cinnamon. I mixed spices such as garlic powder, cumin, oregano and coriander, then added a little bit of cinnamon.

The carnitas turned out great. I would have never guessed at blending these spices together on my own, but will do it the same way the next time I make them.

By bagley79 — On Nov 26, 2012

Making carnitas can be time consuming, but I think the taste is worth it. I have gotten in the habit of cooking my pork in the slow cooker on the weekend. This way the meat is tender and ready to use in a carnitas recipe during the week.

We really enjoy eating them just like you would eat a fajita. My family likes things pretty spicy, so I add more chili powder than what most recipes may call for.

By SarahSon — On Nov 25, 2012

My husband works with some guys that are from Mexico, and we have eaten at their house on some special occasions. Until then, I had no idea what carnitas were.

I am usually pretty reluctant to try food I am not familiar with, but these were pork carnitas and I thought they sounded pretty good. These were made the traditional way, and I must say I wasn't expecting them to be as tasty as they were.

I would never go to the time or effort to make my own homemade carnitas, but do enjoy eating carnitas if they are prepared the right way.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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