Here's what you need to know.

By Nadia Hassani
Updated February 12, 2021

Have you ever wondered what "carnitas" means — and what makes the Mexican dish so darn delicious? You've come to the right place! Here's everything you've ever wanted to know about carnitas and how to make it at home:

What Is Carnitas?

Credit: Meredith

Carnitas — which means "little meats" in Spanish — is a Mexican pork dish. An inexpensive, heavily marbled cut of pork, such as boneless Boston butt, pork shoulder or picnic ham, is braised or simmered for several hours with seasonings and lard until it is so tender that is can be shredded. At the end of cooking, the meat is roasted to make it crisp.

Carnitas is served on its own with salsa, or used as a filling for tacos, burritos, or enchiladas.

Braised Carnitas vs. Barbacoa

Slow Cooker Beef Barbacoa

Carnitas is made from pork whereas barbacao is from beef, usually from the beef cheeks, and it originated in the Caribbean. The word "barbecue" comes from barbacao.

There are different ways of preparing barbacao. In the United States the term generally means spicy slow-braised beef that has been marinated in adobo seasoning and cooked until fork-tender and pulled apart.

Carnitas vs. Pulled Pork

shredded pork on a white plate with salad in the background
Credit: Rock_lobster

Both carnitas and pulled pork are cooked slowly for several hours, and great to make in the slow cooker or instant pot. Unlike pulled pork, however, carnitas are finished by roasting the meat in the oven until browned and crisp.

Carnitas vs. Carne Asada

Carne Asada Tacos
Photo by bhofack2 | Getty Images

Carne asada are thin strips of beef, such as sirloin or rib, that are marinated in lime juice and other seasonings, then grilled. It takes much less time to make but just like carnitas, it's also a popular filling for tacos or burritos. Discover more about carne asada.

"Carnitas are cubes of fragrantly spiced pork are slowly cooked in lard until they're crispy on the outside while at the same time remaining soft and succulent inside," says Chef John. Add some to warm tortillas, drizzle with a little braising liquid, and top with salsa, chopped onions, and cilantro.

What is in Carnitas Seasoning?

Midwest Living-Out and About-Ethnic Food/Neighborhoods-CMR#
Credit: Meredith

The ingredients in ready-to-use carnitas seasoning are very similar to adobo seasoning, containing a mix of salt, black pepper, onion or onion powder, oregano, cumin, garlic or garlic powder, and chili powder, plus additional lime juice.

How to Make Carnitas

All this carnitas talk have you feeling hungry? Try your hand at one of these top-rated recipes:

Carnitas Recipes

Pork shoulder is slow cooked, shredded, and served in soft corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, onion, pico de gallo topped with lime crema.

Zesty Carnitas Tacos
Credit: Allrecipes Magazine

"The milk braising beforehand seems to give the meat a little extra succulence," says Chef John. "The subtle sweetness from the orange is also very nice."

Orange and Milk-Braised Pork Carnitas
Photo by mauigirl

"Carnitas, avocado, and cheese are layered between thick slices of bread and grilled with more cheese on the outside of the bread in this ultimate Tex-Mex grilled cheese," says Julie Hubert.

Tex Mex Ultimate Carnitas Grilled Cheese
Photo by bd.weld

"This can be easily adapted to a slow cooker, but the pressure cooker really seals in the flavor and cuts down on cooking time," says yellowpairs. "Perfect for taco bars! All the leftover broth from the pressure cooker is packed full of flavor, great as a starter for chile verde, and freezes well. Serve carnitas with white corn tortillas, guacamole and pico."

Pressure Cooker Carnitas
Photo by bd.weld

"Carnitas means 'little meats' and is traditionally fried then braised," says Erin Parker. "This recipe is made much easier using the slow cooker but the results are just as tasty. This makes a great filling for tamales, enchiladas, tacos and burritos. This filling is also great combined with your favorite barbecue sauce and served on buns."

Slow Cooker Carnitas
Photo by Tammy Lynn

"This is the easiest recipe for tasty carnitas," says Ken from CA. "Once cooked, the meat can also be shredded and mixed with BBQ sauce for incredible pulled pork sandwiches, or pan fried in a little oil until crisp on the outside."

Simple Carnitas
Photo by bd.weld

Check out our collection of Mexican Pork Recipes.