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Can I use pork loin instead of pork shoulder for carnitas?

Quick Answer

Yes, you can substitute pork loin for pork shoulder when making carnitas. While pork shoulder is the traditional cut used for carnitas, pork loin will still produce delicious results. The main difference is that pork shoulder has more fat, which keeps the meat tender and moist during cooking. Pork loin is a leaner cut that can dry out, so you’ll need to monitor it closely and add extra liquid if needed. With some simple adjustments, pork loin carnitas can be just as tasty!

Comparing Pork Shoulder and Pork Loin

Pork shoulder, also called Boston butt or pork butt, comes from the upper part of the front leg of the pig. It contains a good amount of fat marbled throughout as well as collagen, which breaks down into gelatin when cooked slowly. This gives pulled pork shoulder a succulent texture.

Pork loin comes from the back of the pig. It’s a lean, tender cut that contains less fat and connective tissue. Here’s a comparison:

Cut Fat Content Connective Tissue Price
Pork Shoulder High High Low
Pork Loin Low Low High

As you can see, pork shoulder has a lot more fat and collagen. This is why it’s great for braises and slow cooking methods like carnitas, where the fat and collagen break down over time, leaving the meat tender. Pork loin is leaner and more expensive.

How to Make Juicy Pork Loin Carnitas

Don’t let the leanness of pork loin deter you. With a few tweaks, you can still end up with incredibly moist, flavorful carnitas:

– Cut the pork loin into large chunks, around 2-inch cubes. Smaller pieces give the meat more surface area, so it can dry out faster.

– Season the pork generously. Use a dry rub with spices like cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, oregano, and salt. Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight. The seasonings add a ton of flavor.

– Cook it low and slow. Carnitas are traditionally braised or simmered for a few hours. Cook the pork loin over medium-low heat with some broth or water in the bottom of the pan. Cover and let it cook at a gentle simmer.

– Add extra liquid as needed. Since pork loin is lean, you may need to top up the braising liquid every so often to keep things moist. Have some extra broth or water on hand.

– Shred and crisp it. Once cooked through, shred the pork with two forks. You can broil or pan fry the shredded meat to get crispy, browned edges. This adds great texture.

– Serve with lots of toppings. Warm tortillas, salsa, guacamole, diced onions, cilantro, lime wedges, and more make perfect accompaniments. Their juiciness and flavors complement the pork.

Choosing the Right Pork Loin

Not all pork loin is created equal. Here are some tips for picking the right one for carnitas:

– Go for the shoulder end. This comes from nearer the fatty shoulder and will be more marbled than the loin end.

– Get a nice thick cut, at least 2-3 inches. Thinner pieces will overcook too quickly.

– Find boneless loin. Bones can make shredding more difficult.

– Opt for enhanced pork. Enhancing is a process that injects a salt solution into the meat to make it moister. This helps counteract the leanness.

– Choose a package without viele. Veins of hard, chewyconnective tissue are less than ideal in this application.

Cooking Tips

Follow these tips when making carnitas with pork loin to ensure it turns out juicy and flavorful:

– Trim excess fat. Pork loin doesn’t have a ton of fat to begin with, so too much can make the braise greasy.

– Preheat the oven or pan before searing. Get the pan or oven nice and hot before browning the meat to develop fond.

– Use a thermometer. Cook to an internal temp of 200-205°F to fully tenderize.

– Add liquid often. Check and add more broth/water every 30-60 minutes.

– Cover while braising. The lid traps steam which keeps things moist.

– Let it rest before shredding. 10-15 minutes allows juices to absorb back into the meat.

– Crisp in batches. Don’t crowd the pan when crisping up the shredded pork.

Sample Recipe

Here is a sample recipe for juicy, flavorful pork loin carnitas:


– 2 lbs pork loin, cut into 2-inch chunks
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– 1 onion, chopped
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 orange, juiced and zested
– 1 lime, juiced
– 2 tsp cumin
– 1 tsp oregano
– 1 tsp chili powder
– 1/2 tsp cinnamon
– 1 cup chicken broth
– Corn tortillas, guacamole, salsa fresca, cilantro for serving


  1. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sear pork chunks on all sides until well browned, about 2 minutes per side.
  2. Remove pork from pot and reduce heat to medium. Add remaining 1 tbsp oil and the onion. Cook 5 minutes until softened.
  3. Add garlic and spices. Cook 1 minute until fragrant.
  4. Return pork and any juices to pot. Add citrus juice, broth, and enough water to just cover meat. Bring to a simmer.
  5. Cover and cook at a gentle simmer, adding more liquid as needed to keep pork mostly submerged, for 2-3 hours until very tender.
  6. Remove lid and simmer uncovered 30 minutes. Pork should be fall-apart tender.
  7. Remove pork to a plate. Shred with two forks.
  8. Heat broiler. Spread shredded pork on a sheet pan and broil 5 minutes until crispy edges form. Watch closely to avoid burning.
  9. Serve carnitas in warm tortillas with desired toppings.

The Verdict

While pork shoulder is the classic choice for carnitas, juicy, flavorful results are absolutely possible with pork loin. Choosing a well-marbled piece, cooking it gently with plenty of liquid, and finishing with a crispy broil or quick pan fry gives you all the succulent, shredded goodness you want. With the right prep and cooking methods, carnitas made with pork loin can be just as delicious as the traditional version. Give it a try!


In summary, pork loin can stand in for pork shoulder when making carnitas with a few easy adjustments:

– Choose a nicely marbled loin and enhance it with a flavorful dry rub.

– Cook low and slow, adding extra liquid often to prevent drying out.

– Shred the pork once fully tender and crisp it up to add texture.

– Serve with lots of flavorful toppings to complement the leaner meat.

With the right cut, seasoning, and cooking methods, pork loin carnitas can be moist, tender and full of flavor. Don’t be afraid to substitute loin for shoulder in this classic Mexican braise.