Mexican cuisine can be readily adapted to low carb lifestyles without losing flavor or the essence of the dish. These 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!Jump to Recipe
Low Carb Mexican Food??
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.
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.
A lower carb/lower calorie option for the refried beans would be pickled onions. Pickled onions add a bright note to the rich, buttery fat of the pork and the avocados.
Home cooked carnitas served with fresh sliced avocados and carmelized onions is not only a simple low carb meal, but can quite easily become a food memory! Refried beans, while not keto, can be added to slow carb Mexican meals.
How are Carnitas Different from other Mexican Meat Dishes?
Carnitas, literally means “little meats”, and is often looked at as just one of the “taco or burrito meats”. 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 however, and you’ll never miss the tortilla if you treat yourself to carnitas cooked to perfection.
Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil, or lard, until tender (do not fear the lard). 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.
The crisping of the outside of the pork is one of the things that distinguish carnitas from pulled pork. At their best, carnitas are moist & juicy inside, with plenty of well-browned, crisp edges on the outside
Pop sugar has put together this summary 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.
Side Dishes for Low Carb Carnitas
A classic accompaniment to carnitas is broiled red onions (Cebollas Encurtidas). These onions are often broiled and then soaked in citrus juices and are a perfect foil with carnitas. Pickled onions also work well with rich meats, adding a tangy note that is very complimentary. A quick and easy recipe for pickled onions (not broiled onions), can be found here.
Add some avocados or guacamole and some refried beans and you will have the ultimate slow carb Mexican dinner. Other accompaniments might include salsa, shredded cabbage slaw or cilantro.
Low Carb Carnitas
- 1 orange
- 2 Tbsp lard olive oil if you don’t like lard
- 3 lb boneless pork shoulder roast cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 cups water
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp chipotle spice choose a spice that meets your heat preference
- 1 Tbsp lard or oil
- Zest an orange and then squeeze the juice from the orange. Add them together in a bowl and set aside
- In a large Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), heat 2 Tbsp 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. Rinse and repeat until all meat is browned.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Serve with lime wedges, jalapeno pepper, guacamole (or fresh, sliced avocados), caramelized onions, and refried beans.
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