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Easy Slow Cooker Carnitas with Quick Pickled Red Onions

Adapted from Fresh Flavors for the Slow Cooker, by Nicki Sizemore (Story Publishing, 2019).
If you’re looking for an easy main course that’s the ultimate crowd pleaser, this slow cooker carnitas recipe is for you. I’ve been making it for over a decade (it’s even featured in my third cookbook!), and it’s still one my most requested recipes. A spice-rubbed pork shoulder cooks all day until ultra succulent and tender, and it’s served with Quick Pickled Red Onions and your favorite taco fixings. With less than 30 minutes of hands-on time, this is slow cooking at its best. For the best flavor, rub the pork with the spice rub the day before and refrigerate (this will allow the seasonings to permeate into the meat).
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time8 hrs
Total Time8 hrs 15 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Mexican
Keyword: crockpot carnitas, easy carnitas recipe, slow cooker carnitas recipe
Servings: 6 -8 people

Equipment

  • Slow Cooker or Dutch Oven

Ingredients

Spice paste

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons packed brown sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 3-4 pound boneless skinless pork butt or pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat

Slow cooker

  • ¾-1 cup fresh orange juice (from about 2 large navel oranges)
  • ½ lime or more to taste

For serving

  • Warm corn tortillas
  • Pickled Red Onions (recipe link in header)
  • Cotija or feta cheese
  • Avocado slices
  • Cilantro sprigs
  • Hot sauce

Instructions

Rub the pork

  • In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, brown sugar, garlic, salt and olive oil. Stir to make a paste. Rub the paste all over the pork shoulder. Cover the pork and refrigerate overnight (if you’re short on time you can proceed directly with the recipe).

Assemble the slow cooker

  • Place the pork in a 4- to 7-quart slow cooker, and pour the orange juice around it (not over the top). Cover and cook until the pork is very tender and pulls apart easily with a fork, about 9 to 10 hours on low or 7 to 8 hours on high. (You can also braise the pork in a 325˚F oven. Place the roast in a Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid. Pour the orange juice around the roast, and add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the meat. Cover and cook in the oven for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is tender.)
  • Transfer the pork to a cutting board or platter. Pour the liquid from the slow cooker into a medium pot, and allow the fat to settle to the top (alternatively, pour the liquid into a fat separator). Ladle off and discard the fat (there might be quite a lot). Bring the remaining juices to a boil. Cook until slightly syrupy, about 10 to 15 minutes—if you run a spatula along the bottom of the pot, you should be able to see a line. Remove the pot from the heat.
  • Using 2 forks, shred the pork into bite-sized pieces. Discard any large chunks of fat. Scrape the shredded meat into the pot with the reduced juices, and toss to coat (you can also scrape everything back into the slow cooker to keep warm). Squeeze in the juice from ½ lime and season well with salt and pepper.

Serve

  • Serve the carnitas in warm corn tortillas with Quick Pickled Red Onions, crumbled cotija or feta cheese, avocado slices, cilantro sprigs, and a drizzle of hot sauce (or whatever toppings you like!).

Notes

Do Ahead: 
  • The carnitas can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. If needed, add a few splashes of water to moisten.
  • You can also cook the pork in advance without shredding - let it cool in the cooking liquid then refrigerate everything overnight (I pop the whole slow cooker insert into the fridge). The next day, peel off the hardened fat from the top of the sauce, then reheat the pork and proceed with the recipe.
Tips:
  • You’ll need a 4- to 7-quart slow cooker for these slow cooker carnitas. I prefer oval slow cookers, as they have a bigger surface area and can therefore fit larger cuts of meat and whole vegetables. 
  • No slow cooker? No problem! You can also braise the pork in the oven using a dutch oven
  • The recipe calls for a boneless pork butt or pork shoulder. You could use a bone-in shoulder if you prefer, but the cooking time will be a bit longer. 
  • Before beginning, trim off most of the fat from the pork, leaving a thin layer on top. The enclosed heat of the slow cooker will ensure the meat stays juicy (it’s okay if there’s a thicker layer of fat, but you’ll have to skim off more at the end).
  • For the best flavor, rub the pork with the spice paste the day before. As a bonus, it makes the morning prep really easy (all you have to do is place the prepped pork in the slow cooker and pour in the orange juice!).
  • Traditionally carnitas are cooked over high heat to crisp up. If you prefer those crispy bits, you can spread the carnitas in a baking pan and broil them until browned. 
  • The Quick Pickled Red Onions provide a crunchy, tart counterpoint to the rich braised meat. They’re also awesome on sandwiches, burgers and salads.
  • Pair the carnitas with these Instant Pot Beans.
  • For a ton of other flavor-packed slow cooker recipes, check out my book, Fresh Flavors for the Slow Cooker (Story Publishing, 2019)!