Carnitas vs Barbacoa: What’s the Difference?


When it comes to Mexican pulled pork, there are two popular options: carnitas and barbacoa. They both have distinct flavors and textures, so it can be hard to decide which is the best. The critical differentiator between carnitas and barbacoa is the cooking method.

Carnitas are simmered in their fat, whereas barbacoa is cooked in an oven or slow cooker with added liquid. You can’t go wrong with either option, but if you want to try something new, this two-meat showdown might help you decide.

What is Carnitas?

Carnitas are made with pork shoulder that is slowly cooked until incredibly tender. The pork is then shredded and fried until it is crispy. This results in pork that is both juicy and crispy, with a slightly sweet flavor.

Carnitas are a popular dish in Mexico, but they have also become popular in the United States. They are commonly served as tacos, burritos, or bowls. It is often topped with salsa, cheese, and sour cream.

What is Barbacoa?

Barbacoa is made with a beef chuck that is cooked slowly until it is incredibly tender. The beef is then shredded and cooked in a sauce with chilies, cumin, and garlic. This results in flavorful and spicy beef with a slightly chewy texture.

It is important to note that there is some debate over what constitutes barbacoa. Some people believe that the dish must be made with lamb, while others believe that any meat can be used. 

What is the Difference Between Carnitas and Barbacoa?

Carnitas and Barbacoa are dishes that are popular in Mexican cuisine. But they are not the same.

The following are the major differences that make these two dishes unique:

Meat usedPorkBeef
Carbs per serving0 gram2 grams

1. Preparation

Carnitas are made from pork that has been slow-cooked until it is very tender. On the other hand, barbacoa is made from beef or lamb that has been slow-cooked until it is very tender. When preparing carnitas, the pork is typically fried in its fat until it is crispy. Barbacoa does not usually involve frying.

2. Flavor

Carnitas have a slightly sweet flavor due to the brown sugar usually added during the cooking process. Barbacoa has a more earthy flavor, which may be due to different herbs and spices. In terms of texture, Carnitas are crispy while Barbacoa is more tender.

3. Texture

Carnitas are usually very crispy outside, while barbacoa is generally quite tender. This is due to the different cooking methods that are used. The carnitas texture can be a bit greasy, while Barbacoa is not as greasy. This is because carnitas is usually pan-fried, while barbacoa is cooked slowly in a pit or oven.

It makes a big difference when it comes to the final texture of the dish.

4. Serving

Carnitas are often served as a standalone dish. It is served with tortillas, salsa, and guacamole. Barbacoa is often served as a filling in tacos or burritos. When serving carnitas, it is vital to have some dipping sauce, such as salsa or guacamole. Barbacoa does not typically need any dipping sauces.

5. Price

The price for carnitas is usually a bit cheaper than the price for Barbacoa. This is because carnitas does not require as many ingredients or as much time to prepare. Barbacoa is a bit more complicated to make, so it tends to be more expensive.

6. Appearance

Carnitas usually has a reddish-brown color, while Barbacoa is typically a darker brown. This is due to the different types of meat used in each dish. Carnitas are also generally smaller in size, while barbacoa is usually larger.

7. Type of Meat

Carnitas is made from pork, while barbacoa can be made from beef or lamb. This is the biggest difference between the two dishes. Barbacoa is typically made from the tougher cuts of meat, such as the shoulder or leg. This is because these cuts are better suited for slow cooking.

8. Region

Carnitas is a dish that is popular in Mexico and the United States. Barbacoa is a dish that is popular in Mexico and Central America. This is due to the different cooking methods used in these regions.

Like in Mexico, carnitas are made with pork. However, in the United States, carnitas is also made with beef. Barbacoa, on the other hand, is made with lamb or beef.

How to Make Carnitas?

When you want the best of both worlds, you make carnitas. This dish is a combination of pork and beef, cooked so that the flavors meld together perfectly. It’s not as labor-intensive as barbacoa, but it’s still more complicated than your average weeknight meal.

The pork cut needs to be seasoned and then braised in a flavorful liquid until it’s cooked. The ingredients used are thyme, cumin, orange juice, and a little bit of tequila (optional but recommended).

Traditionally, people used to cook carnitas using copper pots. However, nowadays, you can use a thick-bottomed pan for cooking them. The primary thing is to ensure the pan distributes the heat evenly. When the carnitas are done cooking, they will be crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

Serve them with some of your favorite toppings, such as salsa, guacamole, sour cream, or cheese.

Step by step guide for cooking carnitas:

  1. You should sear the meat over medium-high heat in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Make sure to get a nice, even crust on all sides of the pork.
  2. Remove the pork from the skillet and set it aside.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, and spices to the skillet and cook until the onions are translucent.
  4. Add the pork back in, along with any pan juices, and then pour in the orange juice and tequila.
  5. Bring the mixture to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 2-3 hours until the pork is fall-apart tender.
  6. Remove the pork from the skillet and shred it using two forks.
  7. If desired, you can brown the shredded pork in a bit of oil over medium-high heat until it’s crispy.

How to Make Barbacoa?

The traditional method of cooking barbacoa is to pit cook the meat over an indirect fire. This can be difficult to do at home, so a slow cooker is your best option. The ingredients used are simple – just beef, onion, garlic, and spices. However, the result is incredibly complex and flavorful.

Step by step guide for cooking barbacoa in a slow cooker:

  1. Add pepper and salt to the beef and onion mixture.
  2. Spread half of the onion mixture in the bottom of a slow cooker.
  3. Add the beef and garlic, then top with the remaining onion mixture.
  4. Pour in beef broth and apple cider vinegar, then add cumin, oregano, and smoked paprika.
  5. Set the slow cooker to low and cook for 8 hours.
  6. Remove the beef from the slow cooker and shred with two forks.
  7. Skim the fat from the cooking liquid and discard.
  8. Add the shredded beef back to the slow cooker and stir to combine.
  9. When you entirely cook the meat, it should have a reddish-brown color and a slightly crisp surface. Barbacoa is now ready to serve.

Carnitas vs Barbacoa: Which is Better?

It depends on what you are looking for in a dish. Carnitas is usually crispier and has a sweeter flavor. Barbacoa is more tender and has a more earthy flavor. Barbacoa is also better suited for tacos or burritos.

If you are looking for something crispy and sweet, then carnitas is the better option. If you are looking for something more tender and earthy, then Barbacoa is better.

In terms of the nutrition each dish provides, barbacoa tends to be a little healthier. Carnitas is usually fried in lard or vegetable oil, which can add a lot of extra calories and unhealthy fats. Barbacoa is traditionally cooked in a slow cooker with beef or pork, which can help to make it a bit healthier.

However, both dishes are relatively healthy when compared to other Mexican dishes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Part of Pork is Carnitas?

Carnitas are made with pork shoulder. This is the upper part of the pig’s front leg. It is a tough cut of meat, but it is perfect for carnitas because the slow cooking method breaks down the muscle and results in juicy, tender pork. This part is also relatively affordable, so it is a popular choice for carnitas.

How Long Does It Take to Cook Carnitas on the Grill?

Carnitas can be cooked on the grill for about 2 hours. However, it is important to keep a close eye on them so that they do not overcook. However, if you are short on time, you can also cook carnitas in the oven. They will be done in about an hour.

Is Barbacoa Healthier Than Steak?

There is no definitive answer to this question. It depends on what you are looking for in a healthy protein. Barbacoa is made with beef and has a higher calorie count than steak. It also has more protein and iron. If you are looking for a healthy, high-quality protein, then steak may be a better choice for you.

However, if you are looking for something that is a bit more filling, barbacoa may be the better option.

Can Barbacoa Be Smoked?

Yes, barbacoa can be smoked. Smoking is a popular cooking method for this dish. The smoke gives the beef a delicious flavor that is hard to replicate with other cooking methods. If you are interested in smoking barbacoa, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, you will need to find a good-quality beef brisket. Second, you will need to allow plenty of time for the meat to cook. Barbacoa can take up to 12 hours to smoke properly. Finally, you will need a smoker that is capable of maintaining a low temperature.

If you do not have a smoker, you can also cook barbacoa in the oven. It will take about 4 hours to cook at 275 degrees Fahrenheit.

Related: How Much Brisket Per Person

Is Barbacoa or Chicken Better for You?

When thinking of which Mexican dish to make, you might be wondering if barbacoa or chicken is better for you. Both of these dishes have their unique flavors and health benefits, so it can be tough to decide. But when you are precise with your ingredients, chicken can be a very healthy option.

Is Carnitas White Meat?

Carnitas is made with pork shoulder, which is dark meat. This means that carnitas is not white meat. However, this does not mean that it is not a healthy option. Dark meat is high in protein and nutrients, so it is a good choice for those looking for a healthy protein.

Is Chicken Healthier Than Carnitas?

This is a tricky question because it depends on your looking for in a healthy protein. Chicken is lower in calories and fat than pork, but it is also lower in protein and iron.

Carnitas is higher in both protein and iron so it may be a better choice for a more nutrient-dense protein. However, chicken is a good choice for people looking for a healthy option that is lower in calories and fat.

Can You Cook Barbacoa on the Grill?

Yes, you can cook barbacoa on the grill. It’s a great way to add smoky flavor to the meat. You’ll need to wrap the meat in foil to keep it moist. Make sure the grill is hot before putting the meat on, and cook for about 45 minutes.

You can also cook barbacoa in the oven. Just put it in a baking dish and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours.


Carnitas and barbacoa are both popular Mexican dishes, but they use different methods and ingredients. Carnitas are made from braised pork and then fried, while barbacoa is made from lamb or beef that is slow-cooked.

Barbacoa is usually served with a sauce made from chipotles in adobo, while carnitas is traditionally served with a salsa or sauce made from tomatoes.

Bobby Johnson

When he's not writing about barbecue, you can find Bobby smoking meat for friends and family. He's been a backyard pitmaster for roughly half his life, and has worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands-on guide to teach them BBQ, but that's what Bobby hopes to do with Electric Smoker HQ. He wants to help people create amazing food that they can be proud of.