Pork carnitas are one of the great Mexican pork dishes, with tender, supple, bites of beautifully roasted pork mixed in with rich crispy bits of fat. Really great carnitas can be a transformative experience and is something I always look forward to having at large community events and great Mexican restaurants.
I’m less excited to make them at home, in part because traditional carnitas are cooked in lard, which I don’t often have in large quantities and because the dish can be so rich and fatty that it can be overwhelming to have more than once in a while.
Just because something is hard to make or shortens my life by weeks every time I eat it doesn’t make me want it less. What I wanted to find was an easy way to make tender fall apart pork tacos in the spirit of carnitas that were less coronary-inducing and easy enough to make that people who are intimidated by making carnitas would feel comfortable giving them a try.
Making Pork Tacos in a Crock Pot
So with those simple goals in mind, I set out to develop a recipe for tender slow-cooked pork tacos. Our preferred cut for slow-cooked pork dishes is pork shoulder, which is something we use a lot to make pulled pork for parties. Pork shoulder, sometimes called Boston Butt, comes from the front of the pig and is a cut that has lots of flavors and stands up incredibly well to slow cooking.
The next question was how to cook the pork. For pulled pork, we normally use the oven or the smoker, both which would work for this, but require more tending than I was looking for and can be challenging when you want to cook something all day when you’re not planning on being home.
This past summer a friend made great shredded beef tacos in her crock-pot, which provided a lot of the inspiration for this dish. There are some advantages to using a crock-pot for slow-cooked dishes; the biggest ones are: you can get everything ready the night before, you can just turn it on and leave it, and almost everyone already has one, which helps make a dish accessible.
A challenge with slow cookers is unlike grills and smokers they don’t add much flavor during the cooking process, which meant figuring out how to get flavor into all the nooks and crannies. Carnitas generally have some seasoning, but what stands out is the wonderful roasted pork flavor and crispy bits that this pork wouldn’t get from the slow cooker.
Tacos with Big Bold Flavors
To make sure the tacos were tasty I started building flavors by adding onion, garlic, and a few spices along with lemon and lime juice to add a citrus note, which helps to brighten pork up and can make a heavy dish feel lighter. The lemon and lime juices also add some moisture, which is helpful at the beginning of the cooking process and in getting the spices to soak into the pork.
I started by cutting up the pork shoulder into large chunks and rubbing everything down to try and make sure the spice mixture got spread everywhere. After letting everything cook for seven hours or so I could tell by the rich chili-laden smell permeating the house and the very excited pup that everything was on the right track. The problem was even though the pork was so tender that you could shred it with a pair of tongs and a fork right in the crock-pot, it didn’t have much flavor to it.
What ended up working through some trial and error was shredding the pork and letting the shredded bits take an hour-long bath in the cooking liquid. This helped make every bite of the pork very soft and tender with a rich, sweet, spicy flavor. It was spot on – incredibly tasty, tender pork tacos that anyone could make at home.
I usually make the tacos the way carnitas are traditionally served on corn tortillas with a cilantro, onion, lime juice mixture that adds a tart crunch to the tacos and a little Cojita cheese, but you should use whatever kind of tortillas and toppings you like.
For more recipes and cooking tips like this check out Umami’s Slow Cooking section.