What's the Best Meat for Carnitas?

Ingredient Intelligence

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One of my favorite meats to order at a Mexican restaurant is carnitas, hands-down. The meat is rarely dry — instead, it's juicy, flavorful, tender, and, if I'm lucky, someone took the time to crisp it up a little too.

If you're making carnitas at home, can you use any cut of pork, or is there one that works best?

Carnitas is made by braising pork, usually in lard but it's also done in broth or stock for a lighter end result. And for braising, you need the right cut of meat, one with streaks of fat to keep things moist, and one that can stand up to and benefit from a lower temperature and long cooking time.

The winner here? Pork shoulder or pork butt.

→ Make the recipe: Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas

What Is Pork Shoulder?

Pork shoulder or pork butt are the same thing: a cut of meat from the same primal section of the pig: the shoulder, which averages about 15 to 20 pounds.

Here are other names you'll see tossed around that refer to cuts from the same general area, but they all have the same characteristics and textures that make them good choices for carnitas:

  • From the top of the shoulder: Boston butt, pork butt, fresh pork butt, Boston shoulder, Boston butt roast, or shoulder roast
  • From the foreleg section of the shoulder: picnic or picnic shoulder

So Why Is It Sometimes Called Pork Butt?

If it's not from the well, butt, of the pig, why call it pork butt? This name is a remnant from Colonial days, when butchers in the Boston area would pack the pork shoulder in barrels they called butts.

Does Bone-In or Boneless Matter?

Some recipes are specific about using bone-in or boneless pork shoulder, with some people claiming the presence of the bone makes things more flavorful. In my own experience, I really haven't found that to be the case so I just buy what's available. In fact, according to a butcher I spoke to recently, consumers are actually preferring to buy boneless pork shoulder, making the bone-in ones a little harder to find.

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Why Is Pork Shoulder the One to Use for Carnitas?

Carnitas is cooked low and slow, and if done right, comes out super tender. The long cooking time means the fat melts and melds into the meat but keeps it moist, and there's ample time for seasonings and flavorings to permeate the meat.

When it's ready, pork shoulder also shreds like a dream, which you just can't do with a lean cut like pork loin, and it eagerly soaks up more of the tasty cooking liquid or sauces to stay moist. Plus, it's one of the most inexpensive cuts of pork out there, and who doesn't like that?

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)

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