If you are looking for an authentic carnitas recipe, this is it.
A zillion carnitas recipes exist on the internet, and 98 percent of them bear no resemblance to real deal, carnitas Michoacanas. And it is the Mexican state of Michoacan that is almost universally recognized at the true home of carnitas.
Well, OK, you’re thinking. I love carnitas. Hell, I make carnitas. What am I doing wrong?
Put simply, an authentic carnitas recipe is closer to French confit than it is to braised pork shoulder. And that means fat, specifically lard. Even more specifically, fresh rendered lard, the kind you get at the butcher’s counter in any carniceria in the US or Mexico.
There is no getting around it. You need chingos de manteca to make authentic carnitas. That translates into a whole lot, like minimum three quarts. This is why you almost never see an authentic carnitas recipe on the internet. No one will go there. Too much fat.
I make no apologies. You need it. But remember two things that may help convince you that this is worth it. One, you don’t eat much of that fat. It’s just a cooking medium. Two, if you use my method below, you can reuse your lard several times.
Fresh rendered lard will keep for a few weeks in the fridge, and a year or more in the freezer. What’s more, many carnitas restaurants use something of a “mother lard,” mixing old, heavily flavored lard with some new stuff.
Flavored? Yes, an authentic carnitas recipe has spices and other flavors in the cooking lard. Mine has orange peel (pith removed), lots of bay leaves, a head of garlic sliced in half, and a white onion peeled and quartered. One common and really good variation: Pour in half a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola (drink the other half).
You can cook carnitas in any vessel that works, but traditional, authentic carnitas Michoacanas is cooked in a special copper pot. So that’s what I did. My friend Patricio has one, and you can buy them online if you go looking.
Does it matter? Hard to say, but I’d like to think that the copper adds some hard-to-pin-down flavor. Michoacanos swear by it.
Now, here’s where variations start. Depending on the recipe, you either start or finish your pork in oil hot enough to fry. The rest of the time it just cooks slowly at a lower temperature. I start “cool,” roughly 195°F or so, and let the meat roll at this temperature until it starts to fall off the bone.
Here’s a short video on what carnitas should look like when it’s cooking.
And while I will still swear that this is an authentic carnitas recipe, I do deviate slightly in only one way — and that is because I am, ahem, thrifty. Normally you just jack up the temperature once the meat is tender to fry the exterior of your carnitas crispy. Then pull it apart and serve.
Instead, I remove the carnitas when it is tender, then remove the bones. And then I use only a portion of the lard to sear the outside of the big chunks. And then I pull and serve. The difference is that the majority of the lard stays well below its smoke point, so it will keep longer and I can reuse it more. So I’m cheap. Sue me.
What you do not want to do is shred your carnitas and then crispify it. That is much closer to a dish called machaca than real carnitas.
Any authentic carnitas recipe uses pork. Period, end of story. Doesn’t matter if it is wild pork, which is what I used in these pictures, or farmed. Real carnitas Michoacanas is a pork dish.
Yes, I have a really good wild turkey carnitas recipe, and turkey legs and thighs can absolutely be used in this recipe, as could chicken thighs or rabbits, but carnitas is a white meat preparation.
That said, authentic carnitas is not just pork shoulder. It is often the entire pig, especially the skin. Much like my Portuguese recipe for feijoada, the more random pig parts you have on hand, the better your carnitas will be.
My perfect combo would run something like this:
- A shoulder, including hock
- A hind leg, also including hock
- Some belly with skin on it
- Several pig’s feet
- The ears and jowls
- The heart, tongue and maybe the kidney
That combination gives you a wide variety of colors, flavors and textures from one hog. But you do you.
Cutting and Pulling
You really want to pay attention when you are dismantling your carnitas. It will fall apart in very natural ways, and you will want to ease the bits apart, using a knife to slice across the grain so that the meat can be easily eaten in a taco.
If you don’t do this, and just pull, you can end up with long stringy bits. Now one option that is perfectly cool is to pull and chop the way they do with Southern barbecue. But, inspired by the amazing carnitas episode of the Netflix show “The Taco Chronicles,” I do like being able to tell which bit of the pig I am eating.
How to Eat Carnitas?
Literally any way you can stuff it into your mouth. It’s that good.
But, carnitas is most often eaten as a taco, and any authentic carnitas recipe ought to lay out what you would normally see if you had this in Michoacan, no?
For starters, corn tortillas. Not flour. I have a great recipe for homemade corn tortillas, but you can buy them if you want. Oh, and well made tortillas don’t need to be doubled up. That’s only for crappy tortillas and for those who need extra calories at lunchtime.
Salsa is up to you, but I prefer my tomatillo salsa verde, my salsa de chile de arbol or my salsa morita. I’ve had carnitas tacos made with all three. You want something acidic and spicy to balance the richness of the pork.
Another option, and let’s be honest I just add this on top of the salsa, is white onion soaked in lime juice — and for a Michoacano touch, chop some chiles manzanos in there, too. These are also known as chiles peron or rocoto chiles. Hot and juicy and really great if you can take the heat. If not, go with a jalapeno.
Add a sprinkling of cilantro and you’re good. But again, you do you.
Once you made your authentic carnitas — and you made a lot because it is, frankly, a project — it will keep in the fridge for a week. Up to 10 days if you are working with a freshly killed pig.
Use leftovers in chilaquiles, in tamales, Mexican empanadas, over rice, or as the filling in sopes, which are little “boats” made of corn masa dough.
Carnitas freezes very well. Vacuum seal portions and it will keep forever in the freezer.
- 5 pounds various bits of pork (see headnotes)
- 3 quarts lard (see headnotes
- Zest of 3 oranges
- 5 bay leaves
- 1 white onion, quartered
- 1 head garlic, sliced in half
- Cut the meat into large chunks, or leave it on the bone if the hunks will fit in the pot you are using. Salt them well.
- Fill your pot with the lard and heat it to about 200°F or thereabouts. You might need more than 3 quarts. Remember, you will be able to reuse this lard later, and almost all of it will stay in the pot, so fear not.
- When the lard hits temperature, add the pork. Now, there is an order to things. Different pieces cook at different rates. Longest cooking bits, in order, are: hocks, feet, tongue, heart, jowls, shoulder, ribs, hind leg, skin, belly, loins. Depending on what you are using, add the longest cooking bits in first. In general, wait 30 minutes before you put in the next item. Even loin will ultimately need 1 hour, though, so keep this in mind. Carnitas is a process.
- Once you put in the first pork item, add all the remaining ingredients and let things cook at about 195°F, more or less, until all the various piggy bits are soft and tender. Normally this takes about 4 hours, but could be more with wild hogs.
- When the meat is starting to fall off the bone, remove it from the lard and let it cool a bit. Carefully debone it. If you are using feet, this will be fiddly. Now, you have two choices. If you don't care about reusing the oil, heat it to 350°F and fry the pork until the exterior is crispy. If you do want to reuse the lard, remove all but about 1 cup and then sear the pork bits in that lard until crispy.
- Chop and shred the meat as you like and serve. It will keep a week in the fridge and freezes well.
Some Keys to Success
- Use various cuts of pork. This is a fun place to get adventurous, because it will all get chopped up anyway.
- Use fresh lard, and lots of it. Remember you can reuse it and you're not actually eating all of it.
- Be patient. This is more like confit, as in slow cooking. Your patience will be rewarded.
- Do make lots. Carnitas is a process, so you want to make a big batch and then eat off it, or freeze it, for easy dinners later.
Late 70s to early 80s, drinking age being 18 in Mexico, my friends and I spent a lot of time at The Rosarita Beach Hotel and a minute or two in Tijuana strip joints. Copper pots all up and down the hour drive. I am looking to make that recipe. Crispy 1 1/2 to 2″ chunks dripping fat on a paper plate with salsa Verde, beans and tortillas. Yours sounds like excellent tacos and what is typically called Carnitas in San Diego. Just not quite what I am looking for. With solid copper pots going for over $100. I can’t imagine why my rarely used aluminum turkey fryer wouldn’t work just as well?
Can I paint my almost never used turkey frier?
Late 70s to early 80s, drinking age being 18 in Mexico, my friends and I spent a lot of time at The Rosarita Beach Hotel and a minute or two in Tijuana strip joints. Copper pots all up and down the hour drive. I am looking to make thar recipe. Crispy 1 1/2 to 2″ chunks dripping fat on a paper plate with salsa Verde beans and tortillas. Yours sounds like excellent tacos and what is typically called Carnitas in San Diego. Just not quite what I am looking for.
I love these. However, I live at 4600 feet, and can only get bubbling action like yours at 200 degrees. I chose to stick with the higher temperature, rather than maybe not done (though in 3-4 hours it had better be!) meat. Any thoughts? Could altitude make a difference? Thanks very much?
Pretty good recipe. A beer and Pepsi for the carnitas and a beer and Pepsi (or more) for the chef is how my padrino used to make it in a big pot on a grill in the backyard so he could still be around the action. And the translation is actually a little more vulgar than lots of Manteca ?
Hank Shaw says
Vince: Ja! Yes, it is. 😉 I’ve not heard of beer in the carnitas before, so thanks for that. And I imagine Coke vs. Pepsi in the carnitas is just a personal choice. I almost always hear Coke, but there’s zero reason Pepsi wouldn’t work.
Jeremy A Lehl says
Thank you very much….this is exactly what I needed! This took me back to the roadside stands and taqueria’s in Mexico. The only thing I did different is I cooked the whole orange in the lard and added a half bottle of coca-cola (per a friends recommendation). Thank you again for this awesome and authentic recipe!
P.S. I am making natural levain pizza dough tonight and think I will make a Carnitas pizza! I can’t get enough!
LAUREN K ALLEN says
This is truly the only way to make carnitas. It is so good.
Laura Cunningham says
OMG – I was blown away. I’ve made carnitas for years, having grown up a couple miles from the border in San Diego county. But these – so worth the effort (not that there is much). I’ve made them seven times, now, and can’t get enough of them! I have most of a magalitza pig in my freezer – I’m pretty sure this recipe will be it’s fate (along with some sausage. Freezing before crisping works very well, and allows me to make just enough for a couple meals for me at a time. I always love getting your Mexican recipes in my email – I miss good Mexican food, and find I have to make it to have it up to my “standards”. Thanks again for another keeper!
miguel fernandez says
Could this be made ahead of time and then reheated to serve and still be just as good? If so, what would the best way to go about reheating be?
Hank Shaw says
Miguel: Yes. In that case, skip the searing/frying step initially and do that when you are ready to serve.
AMAZING. Meat is tender, not even remotely greasy for anyone hesitating. Topped with tomatillo salsa verde and pickled red onions.
Worth every second spent drooling over the smell of that pork cooking.
I’m thinking of picking up one of the copper pots – how large does it need to be accomodate this recipe? 14 inches?
Hank Shaw says
David: 11 inches across the bottom of the pot is fine. That’s what I used.
Being a big fan of confit, this recipe does not scare me at all! My only issue will be finding that much fresh lard. Will have to search the farmer’s markets this summer. Looking forward to making my carnitas more authentic.
Bill Smith says
Just buy the fat at any meat selling store that cuts their own meat and render it yourself. Then, you know how fresh it is.
This is exactly how my uncle Ängel from Michoacán would prepare carnitas. When I was a kid this was an all day affair for the entire familia on the ranch. Uncles watching the copper cazó drinking their beer and the women making sides, salsas and fresh tortillas. Great times
Fantastic! I’ll try this with boar and pork-belly.
btw, is this the young Steven King on the pic? 😀
Walter Matera says
Having watched the Carnitas episode of the Taco Chronicles at least 4 or 5 times, I’m looking forward to this. I know a farm to table hog farm the does pasture fed piggies. Now all I need is for the neighborhood to reach herd immunity so I can feed a bunch of this to everyone.
Is it OK to use that shelf stable stuff in the tub from the supermarket? Or is there another option,many years ago I made my own leaf lard and could not you what I used it for.Another time when the Mangalitsa Pig was trendy i got a large pork chop from Corti Bros. and got a good bit of lard from that but not enough for Carnitas.
Hank Shaw says
Lowandslow: I mean yes it’s OK, but really any Mexican market will have it.
Yes my local Mexico market had it (to my surprise not the owners who laughed when I was tickled) its inexpensive and well worth the effort to get. (Northern California, suburbia USA ??)
Daniel Gerzina says
Was excited for today’s post after I saw the video you linked pop up on Youtube yesterday. Can’t wait to try this one, your Mexican recipes always knock it out of the park! Just gotta work on my corn tortillas first…
Also laughed at the chopping pic that features the cat in the background.
Excellent recipe, Hank. Do you have any recipes for Hare? I live in Manitoba, Canada and we have oodles of Hare in the Central and Northern parts of the Province. I tasted Hare once, many moons ago, and was in love with the taste. any recipes with Hare would be greatly appreciated.
Hank Shaw says
Don: yes, quite a few. If you look at the Navigation Bar at the top of this site, you will see a link to all my recipes for rabbits, hares and squirrels.
I can’t think of anything nicer, so unctious and full of flavour. As you say the lard is a cooking medium. Sounds delicious especially if like me you are a lover of pork.