Recipe: Slow-Cooker Pork Carnitas

Recipe: Slow-Cooker Pork Carnitas

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

We started this website to help people cook more often and more joyfully, with the idea that the kitchen is the hearth of the home, the warm place. It is by spending time there that we connect and grow.

But sometimes it gets so hot in the summer, you have to draw the line. A few straight days of humidity and 90°F weather, and I do not feel like being in the kitchen at all, let alone put together a big meal.

A few years ago, in the dog days of summer, when the temperatures didn't dip below 90°F for a few days straight, I did something you might think was nuts: I slow-cooked a pork butt. Now, whenever I have a crowd to feed and it's "too hot to cook," it's the slow cooker that does the work.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

Here's my plug for using your slow cooker in the heat: You can make a lot of food at once without heating up the whole house with ovens; mixers; and your own blood, sweat, and tears. You can also do any grunt work — and for these carnitas, smashing some garlic is the only real work — in the morning when it's cool, and set the cooker to work during the day, or you can prep in the evening and set the cooker to work while you sleep.

You really don't need a recipe for cooking in a slow cooker. The basic formula is to place spices with the meat in a slow cooker and cover with liquid (broth, juice, wine, beer, etc.). Cook on LOW for the most tender meat. Chicken is done in as little as four hours, while darker meats like longer cooking times. Cooking on HIGH speeds up the cooking, but the meat is not as tender.

Here's an example using my version of carnitas (usually pork simmered in lard, but in this case, slow-cooked in juice and beer). Any of these spices can be left out or substituted; this is just my usual formula. The same goes for the chipotle peppers — substitute other peppers, or leave them out, although make sure to amp up other flavor agents, like garlic and spices. Sometimes butchers have many sizes of shoulder to choose from, other times the selection is limited to one general size. A smaller piece of meat still works, but may cook faster.

Tester's Note

The original recipe is unconventional and not a traditional carnitas, to be sure, but this slightly spicy derivation is still delicious in its own right. The cinnamon adds a hint of sweetness, cayenne adds heat, and chipotles add spiciness and smokiness to perfume the tender pork. Feel free to omit any of these if they're not your speed.

Since I like my carnitas browned, I added easy broiling instructions so that you can crisp up the braised pork easily in one big batch after it comes out of the slow cooker. I have half of this stashed away in my freezer for a busy future weeknight, and I can't wait to break it out and make tacos or a mean dinner salad!

- Christine, May 2018

Slow-Cooker Pork Carnitas

Makes about 30 small tacos; serves 15

  • 1

    pork shoulder or pork butt (7 to 8 pounds with bone, 6 to 7 pounds if boneless)

  • 2 tablespoons

    kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon

    ground cumin

  • 1 tablespoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon

    dried oregano

  • 2 teaspoons

    ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon

    cayenne pepper (optional)

  • 8

    garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

  • 4

    individual chipotle chiles from a can of chipotles en adobo

  • 1

    (14- or 15-ounce) can diced tomatoes

  • 2 to 3 cups

    liquid,such as orange juice, beer, low-sodium broth, or a combination

Trim any excess surface fat from the pork and discard. Cut the pork into two pieces if needed to fit in a 6-quart or larger slow cooker. Sprinkle evenly with the salt, cumin, pepper, oregano, cinnamon, and cayenne if using. Place in the slow cooker.

Place the garlic and chipotles around the pork. Pour the diced tomatoes and their juices and the liquid around the pork. Cover and cook until the pork is fork tender or falling off the bone, about 8 hours on the LOW setting.

Using tongs, transfer the pork to a rimmed baking sheet (lined with aluminum foil if broiling). Remove and discard the bone if needed and any large chunks of fat, then use 2 forks to shred the meat into large chunks. The pork can be served at this point or browned in the broiler.

If broiling, arrange a rack about 6 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler to high. Broil the carnitas until a dark golden-brown crust forms on top, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the carnitas and broil until the second side is golden-brown, about 4 minutes more. Meanwhile, warm the tortillas one at a time over a gas burner, or stack and wrap completely in aluminum foil and warm in the oven while the carnitas is browning.

Transfer the pork to a serving bowl. For carnitas tacos, serve in tortillas with accompaniments, like sour cream, cilantro, radishes, pineapple, chopped red onion, and lime wedges. If desired, skim the fat from the leftover juices and keep as a medium for moistening the carnitas when reheating.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: Slow-cook the pork, remove from the cooking liquid to an airtight container, and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator, then proceed with broiling.

No-broil option: If you don't have a broiler or want to brown small amounts of carnitas, brown in a frying pan heated over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until browned all over.

Storage: Leftover carnitas can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Gluten free: Check that the chipotles en adobo contain no wheat to make this recipe gluten-free.

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