Everytime I need to entertain, am strapped for time or need to feed an army, this easy and healthy pulled pork (carnitas) is my go-to recipe. It is simple and delicious. The added bonus is that it is actually tastier to use a cut of pork that is the least expensive cut, because it renders the most flavor!
I recently made this pulled pork recipe for all the volunteers at Vacation Bibile School and since I got so many requests for the recipe, I decided to write it up.
"Healthy" pulled pork sounds like an oxymoron. How can pulled pork be healthy? By removing most of the fat after cooking, and not frying it in lard, this recipe is tasty, juicy and a lot healthier than traditional pulled pork (carnitas).
Tips for making this easy and healthy pulled pork (carnitas).
My pulled pork recipe can either be done in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker like an instant pot. The slow cooker will take 6-9 hours and the instant pot will take 90 minutes. The flavor matures as the meat sits in the juices. This pork becomes much more flavorful and juicy if made the day before and allowed to sit in the juices!
There are different cuts of pork. Knowing which part to use will make the difference between a tough piece of leather and a fall-apart, succulent and juicy meat. Meat containing fat layers such as shoulder butt roasts work the best. These roasts, when on sale, are usually the cheapest cut of meat and sold with the shoulder bone intact. There is even a pork shoulder roast that comes with the skin. The great thing about this cut is that it's the cheapest and you can roast the skin into crispy pork rinds and have that either as a snack or a crunchy side to go with the carnitas.
However, you can easily get the boneless roast you need if you know how to cut it or just buy a boneless roast. So, don't use the more costly sirloin chops for this dish!
When you have your boneless roast, cutting the pork into large cubes allows more of the flavor to penetrate the meat.
Flavoring easy and healthy pulled pork (carnitas).
The addition of an acid like lime, orange, lemon juice helps break down the protein fibers, resulting in a more tender meat. I also add salt and spices and marinate the chunks of meat at least a 1/2 hour before cooking. However, the slow cooking process does break down the meat fibers.
Herbs and spices.
This recipe has a combination of aromatic herbs, paprika and chili powder. The chili powder is optional. However, I do cook these chunks with bay leaves which gives it a unique flavor. Don't forget to remove the bay leaves before serving!
This recipe uses a concentrated liquid smoke to get the smoky flavor into the meat without having to use a smoker. (My cheater method!)
Cooking the pork.
When using either the crockpot or pressure cooker, sear the pork first. To avoid using oil, place the chunks fat side down so the fat will render (liquify).
What to do with the meat juices.
After cooking the pork, there will be quite a bit of pork fat on the surface. I don't like to consume all that fat so I will either pour the liquid into a fat / gravy separator and use just the juice with a LITTLE bit of fat for flavor, if needed. However, in my experience, no one seems to miss the pork fat so why add extra calories and clog up your arteries unnecessarily? The strained juices are poured back into the pork after the meat is pulled for added flavor and moisture.
If you don't have a fat separator, you have several ways to separate the fat from the juices.
If you are making this dish a day ahead of time, refrigerate the juices overnight and a layer of congealed fat will form that can be easily removed from the container.
For a time sensitive meal, skim the fat off the top with a spoon when the mixture settles.
You can use this trick to separate the juices from the fat. Cool the juice mixture. Make sure you do this over the sink. You will need 2 containers. One for the juice and one for the fat. It is best if the fat container is disposable like an empty tin can. Pour the juice mixture into a thick plastic or FREEZER bag and position the bag like a funnel with one corner as a tip . Allow the fat and juice to settle and separate. The fat will rise to the top. Pierce or cut one corner of the freezer bag to allow the juice to drain, making sure that the little cut piece of plastic does not fall into the juice. When all the juice has drained, either squeeze the corner of the freezer bag and discard the fat or allow the fat to drain into the disposable fat container.
EASY AND HEALTHY PULLED PORK (CARNITAS)
- 1 kg pork shoulder or butt roast
- 2 tsp sea salt
- ⅓ cup orange juice
- ⅓ cup fresh lime juice
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp cumin powder
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp onion powder optional
- 2½ Tbsp liquid smoke
- 1 Tbsp fresh chopped garlic
- ½-1 tsp cayenne chili powder optional for spiciness
- 2 bay leaves
- Cut shoulder / butt roast into large chunks
- Add sea salt, spices and juice for at least ½ an hour.
- Heat the instant pot to saute.
- Add a few pork chunks fat side down and render a little bit of the fat. (Cook some of the fat)
- Add the fresh chopped garlic to brown.
- Brown the rest of the pork chunks.
- Add marinade.
- Add liquid smoke.
- Add bay leaves.
Using a pressure cooker
- Cook for 90 minutes.
- Cook for 9 hours on low or 5 hours on high until meat is soft and tender.
- Remove meat from juices.
- Shred pork using 2 forks.
- Separate fat from cooked pork juices using a fat separator.
- Add some of the pork juices back into the shredded pork. Serve or refrigerate overnight when cool to allow the juices to fully absorb into the meat.
- Reheat before serving if refrigerated.