As a well-seasoned chef who has cooked for some of the most elite families in the world,
I have been asked this question a lot, mainly because my head chef (and soon to be co-worker) has a habit of mispronouncing bar-BA-coa and calling it car-NEE-tas at work.
This really drives me craz…
Because as you know, I am a perfectionist and I don’t want any of my sous chefs mispronouncing words and getting them wrong.
I used to get really upset about it and yell at him, but he always seemed to get the last laugh because he would make the food better than me (because he mispronounced the ingredients).
A brief Background about Barbacoa & Carnitas
Barbacoa and carnitas are both traditional Mexican dishes, but while the two share some characteristics, there are many differences between them.
For example, while you start out with largely the same ingredients in both dishes—chuck roast, onions and garlic—the way you cook them is substantially different.
The cut of meat isn’t the only distinctive feature of these dishes, either: barbacoa is traditionally wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked in a hole in the ground, while carnitas are generally simmered in fat in a pot or slow-cooker.
In the end, both are equally delicious, and you can experiment with them in any number of ways..
You can serve them as you would any other meat dish
What is Barbacoa?
Technically, barbacoa refers to how the meat is cooked rather than the type of meat used.
Literally, the word barbacoa translates to barbecue as you may have guessed. Once upon a time, this preparation of meat involved placing the meat in an underground oven.
Literally, a whole lamb, goat, or side of beef would be cooked in a pit in the ground. The meat would then be steamed until it was nice and tender, practically falling apart and giving it its shredded meat look.
Nowadays, barbacoa is typically made on a stovetop or in a slow cooker, unless you live in a very traditional household.
But you can also use a lamb shoulder or beef roast in a roasting pan and cooked on a grill too.
Upon first glance, it is very easy to see how carnitas can be confused for barbacoa.
However, carnitas is made solely from pork and is prepared a little bit differently. Boneless pork shoulder works great. The heavily marbled pork cut is typically braised or simmered for about 3 hours in a Crock-pot with seasoning and lard until it is tender enough to shred into large chunks.
At the end of the cooking process, the meat is browned in a cast-iron skillet until crisp.
It’s really difficult to say that one of these meats is better than the other. It’s all about flavor and diet preferences as well as the dish(es) you are pairing them with. When it comes to flavor and texture, barbacoa stands out a bit more than carnitas, especially when you are talking about beef barbacoa. It is heartier and has a bolder flavor.
On the other hand, carnitas has a much lighter flavor profile. But has the crisp texture that comes from browning it after slow-cooking it.
Some restaurants will simmer their pork with berries and bay leaves, giving it a slightly fruity flavor that reminds you of a light roast coffee. But the best carnitas is pretty simple, letting the pork flavor speak for itself. With the keto diet all the rage right now, you may be asking which meat is better for those with carb restrictions.
Both carnitas and barbacoa are suitable for the keto diet, though carnitas may be the better option. A serving of carnitas at Chipotle has 0 grams of carbs while the beef barbacoa has 2 grams.
In the U.S., barbacoa is often prepared with parts from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks. In northern Mexico, it is also sometimes made from the beef head, but more often it is prepared from goat meat (cabrito). Is Barbacoa?
What kind of meat is Carnitas?
The best cut of meat for carnitas is pork shoulder because the whole secret to carnitas is cooking the meat low and slow so that it comes super tender. During this time the fat melts and melds into the meat but keeps it moist.
A large pot is prepared with a little liquid (usually water and/or pulque with vegetables and aromatic herbs) and a grille in the bottom so that the meat does not touch the bottom of the pot.
Meat, usually lamb or mutton, is wrapped in maguey leaves and placed inside the pot, then topped with the animal’s stomach, into which has been stuffed the other edible organs and a mixture of herbs, spices, and chiles.
The oven is covered with a metal sheet and a layer of fresh earth, then left overnight for the meat to cook undisturbed. When uncovered, the organs (often called pancita de barbacoa) and the leaf-wrapped meat are perfectly cooked to tender, moist goodness, and the liquid has turned into a delicious soup.
Frequent partakers of this rustic culinary masterpiece often do justice to all three parts, starting their meal off with a small bowl of the brothy soup (called consomé), followed by tacos made from the internal organs and finally tacos made from the meat itself wrapped into soft corn tortillas.
Start by mixing the spices and herbs together, then rub them all over the pork shoulder.
You can speed up the cooking process by cutting the pork shoulder into 4-inch pieces.
If you do this, it should only take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours in the oven or about 3 1/2 hours on the stovetop.
I used a big Dutch oven but use any large pot that is oven safe. Place the meat in the pot then throw in the onion, garlic, juice from the orange and limes, and the remaining orange and lime halves.
Cover the pot and place it in the oven. If using the whole piece of meat, bake for about 3 1/2 hours. The meat should be tender enough and shreddable.
Remove the meat from the pot and place it on a baking sheet.
Using two forks shred the meat into small pieces. There should be about 1 1/2 cups of liquid left in the pot. Ladle about 1 cup of that liquid all over the pork. Crisp up the pork under the broiler for a few minutes.
Like several other relatively complicated-to-make traditional meat dishes, barbacoa is not everyday Mexican fare.
It is generally to be found at one of the following three venues: unassuming mom-and-pop restaurants or market stalls that sell barbacoa as breakfast, brunch, and/or dinner on weekends; communities that come together to prepare the dish as a group (for their town’s patron saint celebration, for example); and party halls or private citizens homes where a caterer has been hired to serve barbacoa at a wedding, quinceañera party, or another grand social occasion.
Despite its rustic ingredients, appearance, and preparation, barbacoa is considered a delicacy, a treat, a special-occasion food.
Pork provides high-quality protein and is an excellent source of several B vitamins, which help the body produce energy.
It also provides selenium, a mineral essential for a healthy immune system.
Today’s pork carnitas offer a wonderful blend of flavors.
Load up that bowl with a little bit of rice, black beans, lots of fajita vegetables, and perhaps some chicken or beef (avoid the barbacoa or carnitas; they’re higher in sodium and fat). You’ll cut the calories significantly, and have a much more nutrient-dense meal.
The barbacoa is bold and slightly more complex, and you know you are eating beef. The carnitas is pretty soft and has a pork flavor, not spicy, and you can really get a sense of the berries and bay leaf that they simmer it with.
The carnitas is pretty soft and has a pork flavor, not spicy, and you can really get a sense of the berries and bay leaf that they simmer it with. Has a lighter but fruitier flavor, akin to a light roast coffee, whereas the barbacoa would be a very dark roast.
The difference between barbacoa & carnitas is the type of meat & how carnitas is finished at the end.
Barbacoa can be beef, lamb, or goat. Barbacoa, like carnitas, is slow-cooked on the stovetop, oven, or Crock-pot. But, carnitas, which is always pork, get shredded into large chunks after cooking & browned until crisp.
It is the least spicy of all the meats. Adobo-marinated and grilled chicken.
This is by far the spiciest meat offering. Barbacoa consists of fresh whole cuts of beef shoulder rubbed with a seasoning blend and fresh chopped garlic, and braised for a full 8 hours until rich, tender, and juicy.
- 3 pounds beef chuck roast (fat trimmed), cut into 2-inch chunks
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 chipotles, chopped
- 1 (4-ounce) can dice green chiles
- 1 small white onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano (or standard dried oregano)
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup beef stock or water
1. Slow cook. Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a slow cooker. Toss gently to combine.
Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, or on high for 3-4 hours, or until the beef is tender and falls apart easily when shredded with a fork.
2. Shred and toss. Using two forks, shred the beef into bite-sized pieces inside of the slow cooker.
Toss the beef with the juices, then cover and let the barbacoa beef soak up the juices for an extra 10 minutes.
Remove the bay leaves.
3. Serve. Use a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon to serve the barbacoa beef and enjoy it!
1. Season pork. Trim and discard excess fat from the pork.
In a small bowl, combine chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper. Generously season the pork on all sides.
2. Add onion, garlic, and citrus. Place the seasoned pork in the bottom of the slow cooker and add garlic, chopped onions, orange juice, and lime juice around it.
3. Cook. Cover and cook on LOW for 7-8 hours or high for 4-5 hours.
4. Shred. Remove pork from the slow cooker, shred the meat, and return it to the pot.
Taste and add more seasonings or salt and pepper, if needed.
5. Broil (optional). At this point you can eat the pork as is or, to be truly authentic, you can place the meat on a baking sheet and broil it for 2-3 minutes until the edges are crispy.
6. For tacos, serve inside warm corn tortillas, garnished with cilantro.
I hope this should answer …
What is the difference between Barbacoa and Carnitas?
I get this question a lot from my Mexican friends.
Carnitas are usually thicker cuts of meat (these can be pork, beef, or chicken) that are then fried in lots of fat until they are brown and crispy on the outside.
These are often served with rice and beans, and are delicious.
Barbacoa is usually a thinner cut of meat (usually beef) that is then boiled in lots of spices and other ingredients until they are tender and delicious. This meat is often served with tacos, and is also delicious.