A hearty pulled pork sandwich never fails to satisfy our sweet and smoky BBQ cravings. But when we're looking for a lighter-flavored yet equally filling shredded meat dish, we love cooking up carnitas. These tender and crunchy pieces of pork are bursting with fresh and zesty flavors that go perfectly in tacos, pasta, salad and more. Even better? Making carnitas is also hassle-free as it doesn't involve searing the pork shoulder in oil before braising it in a Dutch oven. In fact, skipping this time-consuming step actually helps the pork keep more its moisture for extra-juicy results. Keep reading for tips on making homemade carnitas to enjoy for dinner tonight and the rest of the week!
What are carnitas?
Carnitas means "little meats" in Spanish. Traditionally, it's pork shoulder that's slowly simmered with ingredients like orange juice and oregano until it's tender enough to shred. The shredded carnitas are then crisped up in a hot pan, oven or oil. It's common to see carnitas served in tacos alongside chopped onions, cilantro and a fresh squeeze of lime. But there's plenty of other ways to use this cooked meat in savory dishes — basically any recipe where you'd use pulled pork, you can swap in carnitas.
The difference between pulled pork and carnitas
Pulled pork and carnitas share a couple of similarities as they both use pork shoulder and a low and slow cooking method to produce tender meat. However, unlike pulled pork, carnitas are deep-fried, sautéed or broiled once shredded for a crispy exterior that complements the soft interior.
The flavors of each pork dish also vary: Carnitas are mild and citrusy thanks to orange juice and oregano being added to the braising liquid. Meanwhile, pulled pork is smoky and tangy due to ingredients like cayenne pepper and apple cider vinegar.
Why you don't need to sear the meat before braising
While many chefs swear by searing before braising meat to kickstart the flavoring and browning process, it's not a crucial step for carnitas. Plus, searing has been linked with drying out meats since exposing it to high temperatures lowers its moisture content.
Instead, simmering the pork in liquid for hours is the secret to create those rich and intense flavors. Plus, the carnitas being crisped up at the end also eliminates the need to do so beforehand
With this in mind, it's ideal to skip searing and get straight into braising the carnitas in a sturdy pot for fully developed flavors. A Dutch oven is perfect for this thanks to its ability to retain heat well, resulting in evenly cooked and tender carnitas!
How to make Dutch oven carnitas at home
Below, Kai Borghesan, a butcher at Walden Local Meat, shares his recipe Dutch Oven Carnitas, a simplified version of the dish that still delivers on bold and fresh flavors. (Don't worry — he reveals his method for making this recipe in the slow cooker too.)
His top tip: Don't open the lid too often as it causes the heat to escape and leads to uneven cooking. "Go to work. Go see your kids. Have a glass of wine or 10, the carnitas don’t care," he reassures.
Looks like this carnitas recipe will become our new "set it and forget it" dish!
Dutch Oven Carnitas
5 to 7 lb. boneless pork shoulder, patted dry
1 Tbs. ground oregano
2 tsp. cumin
1 onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
¾ cup orange, pineapple or mango juice
1 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil (or lard)
Generous pinch of salt and pepper
Optional accompaniments like warm tortillas, chopped onions minced cilantro and lime wedges
Yield: approximately 8 to 10 servings
Braising the meat:
Preheat oven to 200°F.
In small bowl, combine cumin, oregano, salt and pepper; rub spice mixture all over outside of pork. Place pork, onion, garlic and fruit juice into Dutch oven and cover.
Transfer pot to oven and cook until meat is soft and easily falls apart, 8 hours. Remove Dutch oven from oven and place pork onto large plate or baking sheet. Cool slightly before shredding. (To break up the meat in under 1 minute, click through for how to shred meat with a stand mixer.)
Crisping and serving the meat:
With remaining liquid in pot, pour around 1 cup into measuring cup. (Adjust the amount depending on how juicy you want carnitas to turn out.)
Heat oil in larger skillet over medium-high. Once oil is shimmering, add shredded pork and pour some of reserved juices over. Stir and cook, reducing juices down and browning crispy edges onto the meat. Then, add more liquid and reduce down again. Process should take less than 10 minutes until you no longer have any liquid to pour in.
Remove from heat once dark brown caramelized edges appear an carnitas and they're coated in reduced liquid without being soggy.
If desired, serve carnitas with tortillas, onions, cilantro and lime wedges. Enjoy!
For a slower cooker version: Add all of the ingredients to the slow cooker and braise on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours. Then, follow the same steps for crisping and serving the meat.
5 additional ways to enjoy Dutch Oven Carnitas
Once cooled, carnitas will stay fresh when stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. That's plenty of time to try out these five suggestions for eating leftover carnitas:
1. Turn the pork into lettuce wraps.
Place the pork onto leaves of Boston Bibb lettuce or romaine and top with other vegetables like shredded red cabbage, carrots or onions. Wrap the lettuce around the filling and enjoy as a crunchy treat.
2. Toss the pork in your favorite pasta dish.
Transform last night's carnitas into tonight's dinner by stirring the meat into a hearty pasta sauce like Bolognese or marinara during the last few minutes of cooking. This quickly heats up the meat so it's ready to savor atop your pasta-perfect dish!
3. Serve the carnitas on top of a salad.
Top any salad with cold or warm carnitas, then toss everything together. This simple addition adds that protein kick to your salad.
4. Add the carnitas to sandwiches.
If you're looking for ways to dress up a plain grilled cheese or club sandwich, try adding carnitas. The fat from the meat provides the sandwich with a richer taste and extra juiciness that mixes well with the other condiments.
5. Use the meat as a baked potato topping.
A loaded baked potato isn't complete without a meat topping, and carnitas definitely fit the bill. You can place a few shreds on top of a single potato, or use the entire amount of leftover carnitas if you're making several loaded potatoes. (Click through for tips and topping ideas that will help you make the ultimate baked potato bar for a crowd.)
Bonus: a Dutch oven we love for all things braising!
For a Dutch oven that cooks yummy carnitas and is easy to clean up afterwards, consider Hesslebach's Dutch Oven (Buy from Hesslebach.com, starting at $199). This pot's nonstick surface does double duty for thoroughly braising meats and preventing any liquid from clinging to the bottom for effortless cleanup. Plus, you won't have to deal with your Dutch oven taking up tons of room with sizes ranging between 6 and 12 inches. (To keep your pot sparkling like new, check out our story on how to clean a Dutch oven.)
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