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Low Carb Crispy Pork Carnitas Dinner

Low Carb Crispy Pork Carnitas Dinner
Home » Low Carb Lifestyle » Low carb dinner ideas » Low carb pork carnitas

Mexican cuisine can be readily adapted to low carb lifestyles without losing flavor or the essence of the dish. These seared crispy carnitas are so good that you will not miss tortillas in the slightest. Easy prep with a low and slow (but hands-off) cooking time!

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RECIPE
Traditional Taste
Illustrated Step by Step
Carnitas vs Pulled Pork
Cooking with Lard
Best Side Dishes for Carnitas

Skillet with pork carnitas and grilled avocados on the sie
Skillet with pork carnitas and grilled avocados on the side

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Can Mexican Food Really be Low Carb??

Mexican cuisine often has a bad rap in the low carb world, but many of the food choices associated with Mexican food are actually quite healthy and can fit into a slow carb or low carb diet beautifully.  

One of my favorite food memories were some perfectly cooked carnitas topped with fresh avocados that I had at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Riverside California. ….crispy seared on the outside and warm and tender on the inside. 

Slow cooked pork carnitas with side of pickled onions
Slow cooked pork carnitas with side of pickled onions

Tortillas and rice are generally the culprits that add carbs to Mexican cuisine. In many cases however, rice and thick tortillas can actually mask the flavor of my favorite Mexican dishes. 

I think that’s why the carnitas were such a food memory for me.  It was simple and perfectly cooked and the flavor was allowed to shine through.  My dish was accompanied with fresh avocado, cilantro, sour cream and refried beans….all slow carb and all delightful.

Traditional Cooking Method

Carnitas are crispy on the outside and juicy tender on the inside, which is a bit different than just pulled pork.

The traditional way to cook carnitas is to simmer the meat slowly in lard in a thick-bottomed pot (I used a dutch oven), which disperses the heat evenly in a process similar to making a confit. 

Mexican spices are added as it simmers, and once the appropriate tenderness is achieved, the heat is turned up and the outside of the pork begins to crisp.

Illustrated Step by Step:

Here are the steps lined out with photos. For the details of the recipe itself, see the recipe card below.

3 pound pork butt partially cut up into 2-inch pieces.
Step #1: Cut 3-4 lb pork butt into bite-size pieces.
One chopped onion and a tablespoon of minced garlic.
Step #2: Remove pork from pot & caramelize chopped onion for ~ 5 min.
Water, orange juice and spices ready to add to pork and onion mixture.
Step #3: Water, OJ, & spices ready to add to pot.
Dutch oven with all of carnitas ingredients simmering for 2 hours.
Step #4: Simmer all ingredients together for 2 hrs.
Plate of finished carnitas with a sprig of thyme as a garnish.
Finished plate of carnitas

Carnitas vs Pulled Pork

The crisping of the outside of the pork is one of the things that distinguishes carnitas from pulled pork.  At their best, carnitas are moist & juicy inside, with plenty of well-browned, crisp edges on the outside.

Pop Sugar put together this summary below of the differences between carnitas and other Mexican meats, which I found really helpful:

  • Carne asada: Grilled, marinated pieces of beef (typically sirloin or rib) served inside burritos and tacos.
  • Carnitas: Shoulder of pork that’s been seasoned, braised until tender with lard and herbs (oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic), pulled apart, and then oven-roasted until slightly crisp, then eaten alone or used as a filling for tacos, tamales, tortas, and burritos.
  • Al pastor: Crisp-thin shavings of vertical spit-roasted pork, marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote, then served on tortillas. Pastor means “shepherd,” the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City in the early 1900s, bringing the concept of shawarma with them.
  • Cochinita pibil: Whole suckling pig or pork shoulder that’s marinated in citrus with achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. Historically, it’s buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom.
  • Barbacoa: Traditionally, beef cheek and head that’s covered in leaves from the maguey plant, then slow cooked over a wood fire in a pit in the ground. In America today, it also refers to spicy, shredded, slow-braised beef that’s been made tender, then pulled apart.

Cooking with Lard

Mexican kitchens have been cooking with lard for a long time. Using fat, of any kind, has been given a bad rap in the past, but that is slowly changing as the research behind keto and low carb diets increases.

Here are some of the documented benefits that I have been able to find including on the Coast Packaging web site:

  • Lard is not a typical saturated animal fat, because pure lard contains no trans fats. 
  • Lard is 60 per cent monounsaturated fat, which is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, whereas butter is 45 per cent monounsaturated fat.
  • Lard’s smoke point is high, about 190C (375F), making it the ideal frying oil because it makes fried food lighter, fluffier, and crispier in a shorter time, without burning and turning carcinogenic.
  • Pork lard is odourless and tasteless when rendered properly.
  • Lard and butter have the same trace amounts of cholesterol — about 95 milligrams per 100 grams of fat.

Best Low Carb Side Dishes for Carnitas

Refried beans and rice are typical side dishes that accompany a Mexican dinner.

A lower carb/lower calorie option for the refried beans would be pickled onions. Pickled onions add a bright tangy note to the rich, buttery fat of the pork which is very complimentary.

Red onions with pickling ingredients ready to marinate
Red onions with pickling ingredients ready to marinate
Plate of carnitas with pickled onions and avocado
Plate of carnitas with pickled onions and avocado

While not quite as low in carbs, a classic accompaniment to carnitas is broiled red onions (Cebollas Encurtidas).  These onions are often broiled and then soaked in citrus juices and are an often-seen side to carnitas. 

Creamy, healthy avocados are a classic keto or low carb ingredient that pairs wonderfully with pulled pork dinners. Grill them for a special dinner, or just slice them and place on top of the crispy carnitas.

Refried beans, while not keto, work well on a “slow carb” diet where beans are one of the mainstay proteins.

Since tortillas and taco shells are not compliant with a low carb or slow carb diet, the meat itself takes on a more important role. You’ll never miss the tortilla if you treat yourself to carnitas cooked to perfection!

Check out this post about creating low carb carnitas bowls.

Woman holding a large burrito bowl
Burrito bowl for a party

Other accompaniments might include salsa, shredded cabbage slaw or cilantro.

One of my favorite side dishes is this low carb jicama tomatillo slaw.

Jicama and tomatillo slaw
Jicama and tomatillo slaw

If you enjoy all types of Mexican food, check out this category of ALL Mexican recipes, where you will find over 40 Mexican recipes, from casual, to low carb, to fancy.

See this post to learn more about the similarities and differences between Low Carb, Slow Carb and Keto diets.

Low Carb Seared Carnitas

Plate of finished carnitas with a sprig of thyme as a garnish.
Easy seared carnitas made in a dutch oven. Quick hands-on time with 2-hour simmering time.
5 from 2 votes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours 15 minutes
Servings 10
Calories 186

Equipment

Ingredients

  • 1 orange
  • 2 tablespoon lard olive oil if you don’t like lard
  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder roast cut into 1-2 inch pieces
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle spice choose a spice that meets your heat preference
  • 3 tablespoons lard or oil

Instructions
 

  • Zest an orange and then squeeze the juice from the orange.  Add them together in a bowl and set aside.
    1 orange
  • In a large Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), heat 2 tablespoons lard over medium-high. Add some of the cut up meat in a single layer to cover the bottom of the pot, being careful not to crowd. Cook first layer of meat until browned, turning with tongs to brown all sides. When that layer of meat is browned, remove to a plate and add the next layer of meat and cook it until browned and then remove to the plate. Repeat until all meat is browned.
    2 tablespoon lard, 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder roast
  • When meat is browned and removed to a plate, add the onion and garlic to the Dutch oven pot. Cook until onions are translucent and caramelized, about 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.
    Return meat to pot.
    1/2 cup chopped onion, 3 cloves garlic
  • Add the reserved orange zest and juice and the next 6 ingredients to the Dutch oven (through the chile pepper). Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for 2 hours.
    2 cups water, 4 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon chipotle spice
  • After 2 hours, bring the pot back up to a gentle boil and cook, uncovered 15 to 20 minutes more or until most of the liquid is evaporated, stirring occasionally. Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaves and either go to the next step or store the meat until ready.
    The meat can be stored at this point in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
  • When ready to make the carnitas, heat 1 Tbsp lard over medium heat in a large skillet. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the sauce and spread it in a single layer in the skillet. Cook 5 minutes or until meat starts to crisp, turning occasionally (may need to do this in batches).
    3 tablespoons lard
  • Serve with lime wedges, jalapeno pepper, guacamole (or fresh, sliced avocados), caramelized onions, and refried beans.

Notes

NOTE: It is sometimes confusing to distinguish the various Mexican pork dishes. Here are the basic differences:
    • Carnitas: Shoulder of pork that’s been seasoned, braised until tender with lard and herbs (oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic), pulled apart, and then oven-roasted until slightly crisp, then eaten alone or used as a filling for tacos, tamales, tortas, and burritos.
    • Al pastor: Crisp-thin shavings of vertical spit-roasted pork, marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote, then served on tortillas. Pastor means “shepherd,” the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City in the early 1900s, bringing the concept of shawarma with them.
    • Cochinita pibil: Whole suckling pig or pork shoulder that’s marinated in citrus with achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. Historically, it’s buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom.
 
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If you enjoy all types of Mexican food, check out this category of ALL Mexican recipes, where you will find over 40 Mexican recipes, from casual, to low carb, to fancy.
 
See this post to learn more about the similarities and differences between Low Carb, Slow Carb and Keto diets.

Nutrition

Calories: 186kcalCarbohydrates: 3gProtein: 31gFat: 5gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 82mgSodium: 310mgPotassium: 560mgFiber: 1gSugar: 2gVitamin A: 271IUVitamin C: 10mgCalcium: 35mgIron: 1mg
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