Did you get an Instant Pot for the holidays and you’re wondering what to make first? Or maybe you’ve had your Instant Pot for a while and can’t figure out how best to use it. Perhaps, you immediately embraced your pressure cooker as the hardest working tool in your kitchen and you’re just looking for a little inspiration? Whatever your current relationship status with your Instant Pot, making carnitas should be your next move.
Why Everyone Should Make Instant Pot Carnitas
If you’re not already familiar with carnitas, it’s a Mexican dish made by braising pork in oil or lard until it is pull-apart tender and crisp in bits. Like most braised meats, carnitas is typically made with a big, fatty cut — in this case, pork butt or shoulder. Both render enough of their own fat to make the meat itself nearly all you need for this recipe. In the end, the pork is succulent, but not fatty, and bursting with flavor.
As someone who cooks every day for a living, I don’t easily obsess over recipes. This is an exception! Among its virtues: It is dead easy. It calls for very few ingredients. And it yields an incredibly delicious source of protein that I can use to make meals all week long — without getting bored once.
How to Turn Carnitas into Easy Weeknight Meals
One pork shoulder will give you tons of leftovers that can be used for an endless variety of meals. I promise that everything you make with your carnitas will be more delicious for it. Here are a few ideas:
1. Taco Tuesday
All you need for a simple and delicious taco night are your favorite tortillas or wraps, avocado, and quick-pickled red onion. No cheese or sour cream required. Unless, of course, you want the works!
Pile carnitas into a bowl with avocado, chunks of roasted sweet potato, corn, tomatoes, and raw, pickled, or fermented cabbage for an epic burrito bowl. If you eat rice and/or beans, add them too. And while I love topping the whole thing with sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt), the carnitas have enough flavor that just a drizzle of fresh lime juice and sprinkle of fresh cilantro and chopped white onion will do.
3. Any Other Kind of Bowl Meals
Just because carnitas is a traditional Mexican preparation, that doesn’t mean that you can only use it in Mexican dishes. For example, pair carnitas with pilaf or cauliflower rice, chopped cucumber and tomato salad, lemony tahini and Feta cheese for a Greek-ish bowl. Or warm chopped carnitas in coconut milk with chickpeas, curry powder, fresh garlic, and ginger. Serve over rice with roasted cauliflower, plain yogurt flavored with lime juice, and cilantro. The possibilities are endless!
4. Shortcut Meat Sauce
Classic Italian-style meat sauce is slow cooked, but you can cheat your way there by adding pulled carnitas to your favorite jarred tomato sauce. I like starting with a low- or no-sugar added marinara so that I can build my own flavor by cooking the carnitas in just a touch of olive oil with chopped fresh onion and garlic before adding the sauce.
5. Dinner-Worthy Sandwiches
Sandwiches are underrated as a dinner food, especially when you make them using carnitas. Slather rolls with your favorite bean dip or canned vegetarian refried black beans and pile with shredded lettuce, tomato, and avocado. Even just a small amount of carnitas will transform your bean and veggie layers into a hearty, satisfying meal. And if you aren’t big on eating tons of bread, use just half of a roll and add more meat and veg: open face sandwiches for the win!
The Easiest Instant Pot Carnitas
This recipe, adapted from Make It Easy, is one of the easiest recipes out there, calling for just 3 ingredients. Once you master this basic carnitas recipe, consider riffing on it. Add smashed garlic cloves, a halved jalapeno, and/or fresh or dried oregano to the mix. You can also rub the pork with cumin and coriander and brown before adding everything else and setting the pressure cooker to do its thing. Carnitas is as delicious dressed up as it is dressed down.
- 3 lbs boneless pork shoulder
- 1/2 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice (from about 2 juicy oranges)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 bay leaf
- Trim the pork of some of the excess fat around the outside, being sure to leave some on to aid in the cooking. Keep in mind that carnitas is pork cooked in its fat, so you don’t want to get rid of it all! Cut the pork into 2-inch-thick strips or chunks.
- Place the meat, along with the orange juice, salt, and bay leaf, in the insert of your Instant Pot. Toss to coat the meat with the juice, then cover, and set the valve to pressure. Cook on HIGH pressure for 35 minutes, and when done, release the pressure manually.
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to a large bowl and use two forks to shred the meat. (Reserve some of the cooking liquid, especially if you plan on storing leftovers in the refrigerator.) At this point, you can serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.
- Optional: Add any portion of shredded meat that you plan on serving immediately to a nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Cook, undisturbed for about 5 minutes, until the underside is crispy. Toss and cook for another 5 minutes or so, to crisp the meat some more. If at any point the meat begins to dry out, add a splash of the leftover cooking liquid.