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What’s the Difference Between Barbacoa and Carnitas?

I love Mexican food, and I especially love slow-cooked meats. And two favorites in Mexican cuisine are barbacoa and carnitas. But what’s the difference between barbacoa and carnitas?

Barbacoa, like carnitas, is slow-cooked on the stovetop, oven, or Crock-pot. But, carnitas get shredded into large chunks after cooking & browned in a skillet until crisp. Additionally, barbacoa can be beef, lamb, or goat, whereas carnitas is always pork. 

But that only scratches the surface of these 2 amazing Mexican types of meat.

There is no denying that Mexican food is beloved by just about everyone. And thanks to restaurants like Chipotle, we know that Mexican cuisine is about more than just tacos.

Meat is the base of many Mexican dishes and there being so many options available. So, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the ones that look alike.

So let’s take the mystery out of it.

What is carne barbacoa?

Carne barbacoa is beef that has been slow-cooked in Mexican spices until tender and then shredded. Traditionally, it would have been beef check or head, but many types of beef are used today. 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.

Just make sure to not have the pan directly over flames; you want indirect heat.

While most Mexican restaurants – like the infamous Chipotle – serve beef barbacoa. But in traditional Mexican kitchens, you might also see lamb and goat.

Want a great recipe for barbacoa?

This one, from Simple Nourished Living, with it a nod to one of my favorite chefs, Rick Bayless, is outstanding.

Is pulled pork the same as barbacoa or carnitas?

Pulled pork is very similar to carnitas which is also pork. However, once pulled, carnitas typically get pan-fried in a skillet until crisp. Barbacoa is also slow-cooked and shredded, but typically refers to beef, lamb, or goat and not pork.

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.

Want a great recipe for carnitas?

Going back to Rick Bayless again, here is his outstanding recipe for Michoacan-style carnitas. Don’t know Rick? Well if you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know him, it might seem strange that I’m recommending Mexican recipes from someone who isn’t Mexican.

And that’s true, but Rick has literally spent decades exploring all parts of Mexico and Mexican cuisine, owns numerous James Beard-awarded Mexican restaurants. AND, he was awarded the highest honor available to foreigners from the Mexican government; the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Trust me. If you love Mexican food and cooking, you should get to know him. I literally own all of his cookbooks and got him to sign one of them. He’s a heck of a nice guy too!

CLICK HERE to see all his cookbooks on Amazon

Which is better barbacoa or carnitas?

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.

What it really comes down to when eating out on the keto diet is the side dish(es) offered with either of these meats.

In a recent article, we go into more detail about the keto diet when eating out at a Mexican restaurant. You want to be careful to avoid tortillas, beans, rice, chips, and possibly even avocado, depending on how much you are planning to eat.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

If you don’t have diet restrictions, then you may just want to try both types of meat with all the glorious topping and side dishes to see which you prefer.

What can I use instead of pork shoulder for carnitas?

Alternatives to pork shoulder that work well for carnitas include any pork labeled Boston butt, pork butt, Boston shoulder, or Boston butt roast. All of these cuts are similar and will produce similar results and require the same cooking time.

Ironically, pork “butt” does not refer to the part of the pig it comes from.

Butts refer to wooden barrels our ancestors used to store pork shoulder in after butchering the pigs. So in most regards, pork butt and pork shoulder are exactly the same. But you do sometimes see one or the other in your local grocer’s meat case.

So that’s why it’s important to know all the different ways it can be labeled.

Carnitas, like pulled pork, is made from a marbled cut of pork and cooked until it is tender enough to be pulled and shredded. Boneless pork shoulder works great for either one, which is why it is so often mentioned in recipes.

However, cooking carnitas requires an extra step to make it carnitas. The meat is browned in a skillet after 3 hours in a slow cooker. This gives it a browned color and a crisp texture on the outer layer.

In addition to the difference in cooking methods, pulled pork and carnitas usually have different seasoning methods and mixes. Common seasonings for carnitas are a mix of salt, pepper, onion, oregano, cumin, garlic, and chili powder, as well as lime juice.

Carnitas are made to be either eaten on their own with salsa or as a filling for tacos.

What is the difference between barbacoa and steak?

Steak always refers to beef, whereas barbacoa meat refers to beef, goat, or lamb. Additionally, steaks are often cooked quickly on a grill or in a skillet, whereas barbacoa is slow cooked either on a grill, in the oven, or in a Crock-Pot. 

Though the term does typically refer to Mexican shredded beef, barbacoa can also be made with various other types of meat, depending on the region you’re eating in. Lamb and goat make great barbacoa too.

The term barbacoa is of Caribbean Indian origin and it is where we get our modern term barbecue. However, these two things are very different.

Barbecue refers to cooking food over a grill, like a steak or a burger.

On the other hand, barbacoa is a steaming and baking process than renders meat so tender that it begins to fall apart. It was traditionally cooked in an underground pit by wrapping the meat in maguey leaves with a mixture of herbs, spices, and chiles.

Today, barbacoa is usually made on the stovetop or in a Crock-pot where you can still maintain moisture without building an oven under your backyard.

When it comes to the type of beef used for barbacoa, it is very different from steak.

Typically, the beef cuts used to make barbacoa are taken from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks. These tend to be more tender cuts than those used for steak, which is usually taken from the rib if you are looking for the best cut.

Steak, at least in Mexican cuisine, is often something like carne asada. That is most often chuck, flank, or skirt steak. The latter two also get used extensively for fajitas.

Can I use any pork for carnitas?

Do not use just any pork cuts for carnitas. Look for pork labeled pork butt or pork shoulder. Cuts like pork tenderloin will be too lean and come out way too dry.

The right cut needs to be heavily marbled; like a good steak.

That way, the fats, and collagen break down to make the meat nice and tender. This means that the pork shoulder or butt, as well as picnic ham cuts, are the best for carnitas.

I prefer boneless pork shoulder for my carnitas. But bone-in can work too since you’re slow cooking it and it will be easy to pull off the bone.

I’ve also heard of people using pork tenderloin too which would be much leaner.

However, since you are rendering most of the fat out of the pork by slow cooking, I’m not sure it’s worth the minor trade-off of fat for the pretty big loss of flavor from that fat.

So the best way to go for flavor and ease of cooking is boneless pork shoulder.

What is the best cooking method for carnitas and barbacoa?

Barbacoa was traditionally cooked in the ground using steam. But in more modern days, it might be steamed over an open fire or cooked in a slow cooker or Instant Pot. Essentially you would want to cook it like you would a roast.

So even a dutch oven would work. It gets cooked slowly at a low temperature over a long period of time until it’s tender.

Carnitas can really be cooked exactly the same way.

BUT, once tender, carnitas would get cut into chunks and those chunks would get pan-fried in a skillet until the outside is crisp.

That, aside from the type of meat used, is the main difference between carnitas and barbacoa.

Final thoughts

Carnitas and barbacoa meats may look very similar, but they are in fact very different.

Barbacoa refers to the method in which the meat is cooked – which could be beef, goat, or lamb. The meat gets slow-cooked until tender, and then shredded.

Carnitas is strictly pork. While it does also get slow-cooked, at the end of the cooking, large chunks of it get browned in a skillet to give it a crispy texture.

You can make some great Mexican dishes with both of these meats. Each has its own flavor profile. Try them both! You may just find one of your new favorite dishes.

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Jeff Campbell