A long, slow cook time using a sous vide water bath for precise cooking makes these shredded carnitas tender, while a trip under the broiler adds crispy, browned flavorful edges.
Carnitas are tender, crispy shredded pork cooked low and slow for a long period of time. They're a classic taco filling from the Michoacán region of Mexico.
I love these carnitas for tacos, but as a practically minded home cook and food blogger, I also love them for their versatility. This is a big batch recipe that makes plenty for taco night AND sheet pan carnitas nachos, while still having plenty left over that you can freeze for use in all sorts of recipes later.
Why I Like This Recipe
Okay so, I'm Jewish and, despite never having kept kosher, pork has really only become a regular fixture in my diet in the past decade or so (thanks, Jimmy!). And, oh wow did I miss out not knowing about carnitas sooner.
So gather 'round and let me tell you why I love carnitas, and why I love cooking them with a sous vide.
When we first got our sous vide a couple years ago, one of the first recipes Jimmy made with it was Serious Eats' carnitas. I was like, "What are carnitas? Don't you like my chicken tacos?" and Jimmy was like, "Of course I do, but just trust me." So I did.
And, as with everything else I've trusted him with — I did not regret it in the least. The recipe starts with 4 pounds of pork and makes so much carnitas that every other month or so we declare it Taco Week and basically just eat tacos for 5 days straight. It is THE BEST.
Unlike other taco fillings, carnitas make versatile leftovers because they aren't covered in sauce or heavily seasoned. The ingredients list is short and generates minimal waste, which is always a win in my book.
Carnitas freeze well and can be easily reheated in the microwave or in a cast iron skillet without losing their texture.
When we're in a pinch for a quick and easy dinner, we grab any leftover carnitas we have in the freezer and use them in grilled cheese, toss them with scallions and hoisin sauce and serve them in lettuce cups, scramble them into eggs, use them in pupusa filling, and have even added them to our fave brussels sprouts carbonara in place of bacon.
Why Use a Sous Vide?
While you can make carnitas in the oven, I prefer to use a sous vide. "Sous vide" is a method of cooking that involves vacuum sealing your ingredients and cooking them in a water bath at set temperature for a set number of hours. It's also the name of the immersion circulator appliance used to prepare food this way.
So in order to sous vide your carnitas, you'll need a sous vide.
Sous vide is how restaurants are able to prepare steaks at specific levels of doneness ready to go before customers even arrive.
The sous vide circulates water at a precisely regulated temperature, which means your food is at much lower risk of overcooking or drying out.
Traditionally, carnitas are braised or simmered in fat (usually lard) for 3-4 hours, but using the sous vide means they're basically cooking in their own fat, which helps keep all the flavor in the meat instead of letting it escape into the rendered fat.
The carnitas get some subtle flavor from onions, garlic, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and a whole orange (yes, an orange), but the pork's rich flavor is truly the star of the show.
Though the sous vide method takes longer, I prefer it because we can set it up the night before and know it will be done in time for dinner the next day. It also means the carnitas can cook basically unsupervised, which is a huge win for our time.
Here are all the ingredients you will need to make these sous vide carnitas! See recipe card at the end for quantities.
- Pork Shoulder or Pork Butt - You'll want to pick up pork butt (aka "Boston butt") or pork shoulder (aka "Picnic roast") for your carnitas. Both are tough, fatty cuts which means they benefit from long, slow cooking times. Pork shoulder tends to be sold with the skin on, while pork butt is better for shredding.
- Onion - A white onion is just fine here. Poke the cloves into the onion to make them easier to remove from the bag at the end.
- Orange - This adds a very subtle fruity, floral, orange flavor to your carnitas. It's the sort of flavor note you might not notice if no one told you to pay attention to, but that you would definitely notice was missing if you left the orange out. The orange is worth including!
- Garlic - The biggest cloves you can find, and smash them well.
- Cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and cloves - Crucial seasoning for your carnitas. Some people prefer making them without the cloves, but I like the slightly sweet-bitter-warmth they add. You don't need a lot of them here!
- Salt - I use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt which half as salty as other brands. If measuring by weight, it doesn't matter what brand of salt you use. But if you're measuring by volume and using a different brand of salt, even a different brand of kosher salt, cut the amount of salt in half.
- Black Pepper - Freshly cracked or pre-ground, either one works just fine here.
Broiling Sous Vide Carnitas
When you cook any kind of meat in a sous vide, what you gain in precise interior cooking you lose in exterior crispiness, browning, or charring.
In the case of carnitas, once the meat has cooked, you'll want shred it and stick it under the broiler in the oven for 10 minutes to get brown and gorgeously crispy.
Since the Serious Eats recipe does lose some moisture in the oven, we take the extra step of reducing the remaining juice and aromatics from the bag in a pot on the stove; once the carnitas have finished crisping up, the juice gets strained back into the pan with the carnitas.
Practical Tips and Recipe Notes
- If you can't find either pork butt or pork shoulder in the meat section of your grocery store, hit up the meat counter. They often have larger cuts in the back and can trim them to the size you need. If you can't find a boneless cut, that's okay too — either ask the meat counter to remove the bone, or remove it yourself at home, just make sure to account for any weight lost when you remove the bone. So if your grocery store only has bone-in cuts, go for a 4.5-5 pound cut instead of 4 pounds.
- If you can't find a 4 pound cut of pork shoulder, you can always buy an 8 or 12 pound cut, divide it in halves or thirds (use a kitchen scale!), and freeze the remaining amount for later.
- Make sure you press as much air out of the cooking bag as possible. This is easy if you have a vacuum sealer. If you don't, you can use a gallon ziplock bag. Seal the zipper almost all the way shut, press out as much air as possible, then finish sealing it. If any air is trapped your bag is likely to float and the water isn't able to get as close to the meat, which means it won't cook as nicely.
- Some of the water will evaporate as the sous vide runs, so you'll either want to add more water or start out with more than enough water. You can also loosely tent aluminum foil over the top to redirect any evaporating water back into the pot.
- If your bag floats, you can attach it to the side with a clip or use sous vide weights or a wet kitchen towel to keep it submerged.
- When the pork is done cooking, it's gonna be super ugly and pale pink in color. That's normal. It's fully cooked, it just hasn't had a chance to brown yet. That's why it takes a trip under the broiler.
- You don't need fancy Wolverine-style shredding claws to shred the carnitas. Two forks will do just fine.
- Sous vide — I like Anova's because it can be operated manually and doesn't require an app (though it does have one).
- Gallon cooking pouch — I usually use a gallon freezer bag, but you can buy specialty sous vide bags with air suction pumps, silicone sous vide bags, or a vacuum sealer if you have one.
- Large sheet pan — I like one with high sides to contain everything while you shred the pork.
- Wire mesh strainer — Honestly I don't know how I ever survived in my kitchen without one of these. You'll need it to strain the juices back into the sheet pan when the carnitas are done getting crispy.
Sous Vide Carnitas
- Vacuum sealer (optional)
- Resealable BPA-free plastic gallon bags
- 4 pounds boneless pork butt (or pork shoulder)
- 1 medium onion (cut into quarters)
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 orange (skin on, cut into eighths)
- 1 cinnamon stick (broken into 2-3 pieces)
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 whole cloves
- salt and pepper
- Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Stick the cloves into the onion pieces so they're easy to remove later. Season generously with salt and pepper, toss to combine.
- Transfer the mixture to a large vacuum bag or resealable plastic gallon bag and seal tightly, pressing all the air out to prevent it from floating.
- Fill cooking basin with water, attach the sous vide, and set to 165°F.
- Place vacuum sealed bag in the water bath so that it’s fully submerged. The water will evaporate as it cooks, so make sure there’s an extra 2-3″ of water above the bag, or add more water while it’s cooking. Loosely covering the top of the basin with aluminum foil will help any evaporated water return to the bath and reduce the amount of water loss during cooking.
- Cook for 18-24 hours. The meat will be fully cooked by 12 hours and can be removed then, but at 18-24 hours the flavor and tenderness will be at its peak.
- Remove the bag from the water bath. Transfer the pork to a large sheet pan, and transfer the aromatics and remaining juices to a small sauce pot.
- Place the small sauce pot on the stove over medium-high heat and bring to a rolling boil to reduce.
- Shred the meat using two forks or your hands, then place in the oven on the top rack under your broiler for 10 minutes, flipping and stirring the pieces halfway through. NOTE: If you don’t have a broiler, place the sheet pan on the top rack of your oven at 500°F degrees.
- When the liquid in the pot has reduced by about half and the carnitas have come out of the oven, pour the liquid through a strainer into the sheet pan with the carnitas and toss to coat.
- Adapted from: https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2017/01/sous-vide-carnitas-crispy-mexican-style-pulled-pork-recipe.html
- Carnitas can be made up to 5 days in advance and kept in an airtight container in the fridge. Carnitas can also be frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
- If you can’t find exactly 4 pounds of pork, ask at the meat counter of your grocery story. They can often cut exactly the amount you need. If you buy a bone-in cut, add at least half a pound of weight to account for the bone being removed before cooking.