Carnitas Vs Barbacoa – What’s The Difference?

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Carnitas and barbacoa are two Mexican dishes that look quite alike. And while carnitas and barbacoa meat can be served in a similar manner too, there are many things that set them apart.

What are the differences between carnitas and barbacoa? The main difference is that pork cuts are used for carnitas while barbacoa can be made with different meats, including beef, lamb, and goat meat. Another difference is that after hours of slow cooking, the shredded meat for carnitas is roasted or pan-fried to make it crispy. 

In this article, we have compared and contrasted carnitas and barbacoa. Read on to learn what makes these two Mexican dishes different despite some similarities. 

What Is Carnitas?

The word carnitas translates from Spanish into “little meats”. It is a Mexican dish that transforms inexpensive cuts of pork into juicy and hearty goodness.

This is done by simmering the meat on low heat for a few hours in lard or water. 

What makes this dish unique is the fact that the shredded meat is then pan-fried or roasted to make it crispy

What Is Barbacoa?

Unlike carnitas, barbacoa refers not so much to the meat in the recipe but to the method of preparation. In fact, the word barbacoa is where barbecue comes from! 

The traditional cooking way barbacoa implies is placing the meat into a pit dug in the ground. And while the meat cooks underground, the hole is covered with maguey (agave) leaves

When agave leaves are used to make barbacoa, they are first trimmed and heated to become malleable.

As mentioned, the leaves are used to cover the meat in the pit. But they can also go under it and along the walls of the large pot where the meat is cooking. 

These agave leaves are used not only to make the meat more flavorful but to tenderize it too. 

Aside from the cooking method that the term barbacoa stands for, the word may also refer to the meat that has been steamed until its tender and falls apart. 

So, while the word barbacoa is where barbecue comes from, the cooking methods for the two dishes are very different.

In the case of Mexican barbacoa, the meat is cooked by steaming or baking it without applying direct heat. The process of barbecue, on the other hand, implies grilling the food over an open fire. 

What Are the Differences Between Carnitas and Barbacoa?

If you are familiar with Mexican cuisine, you know that there is confusion around many pairs of Mexican dishes, such as tacos and fajitas, burritos and enchiladas, and more. 

Carnitas and barbacoa are another pair of Mexican dishes that are constantly confused. Let’s compare these two Mexican dishes to see what makes them different. 

Type of Meat 

The type of meat used for carnitas and barbacoa is one of the main differences between these Mexican dishes. 

The type of meat traditionally used for carnitas is pork. Traditionally, the heavily marbled parts of pork are chosen for this dish.

If you are going to make carnitas, you can choose such cuts of pork as boneless Boston butt, other parts of pork shoulder, or picnic ham. 

You can make carnitas using chicken too. Chicken thighs and breasts work well for this cooking method.

As for barbacoa, different meats can be used for it. In northern Mexico, the popular types of meat for barbacoa include beef head and goat meat.

Lamb is another meat option for barbacoa popular in central Mexico. In the US, people make barbacoa mainly with beef. 


The main reason people confuse carnitas and barbacoa is how they look when they are fully cooked. In the case of both dishes, the final result is shredded meat. 

If you look closer, you can spot carnitas as it looks crispy as a result of its final cooking step where the meat is browned by roasting or frying it

Flavor and Texture

When it comes to texture, the meat turns out very tender and juicy in the case of both dishes. 

This is because the long cooking time breaks down the collagen in the meat which makes it very tender.

But the texture of carnitas does change a little as a result of crisping up the meat. So, barbacoa may be heartier and juicier than carnitas

In terms of flavor, carnitas are lighter. The flavor of beef barbacoa turns out much bolder. This is also the result of the different cooking methods of these dishes. 

Nonetheless, the flavor of both dishes largely depends on the type of meat and the seasonings that go with it. 


The preparation of carnitas and barbacoa is another thing that sets the two dishes apart. Despite the similarities in appearance, the process of cooking the meat for carnitas and barbacoa is different.

But they have one thing in common. Each of these dishes has only a few cooking steps and a very long cooking time. 

How To Make Carnitas

To make carnitas, the cut of pork is seasoned and then simmered or braised in melted lard on very low heat. The common seasonings used for carnitas are salt, cumin, oregano, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic. 

Traditionally, copper pots were used to cook carnitas. But you can use any thick-bottomed pan you have. The key is choosing a pan that will distribute the heat evenly. 

After cooking and tenderizing the meat for a few hours on low heat, the shredded meat is crisped up by roasting or pan-frying it. 

Here are step-by-step instructions for making carnitas:

  1. Sear the cut of pork on both sides. This step is optional. But it does seal in all the juices inside the meat. 
  2. Pour 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan that is large enough to fit the meat. 
  3. In the meantime, pat dry the meat to get rid of the excess oil and rub it with your preferred blend of spices. 
  4. Put the meat into the pan and cook it for a couple of minutes on all sides. 
  5. Next, place the pork into the slow cooker. Add a little water, bay leaves, and thyme. 
  6. Cook for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high setting. 
  7. Once cooked, remove the pork from the slow cooker and shred it.
  8. Crisp up the meat by frying it in small batches in a hot pan or roasting it in the oven. 

How To Make Barbacoa

The traditional way of cooking barbacoa is in an underground pit. But this is not a very practical method. So, through the years people have come up with other cooking methods for barbacoa. 

You can use your slow cooker to cook barbacoa too. Transfer the seasoned meat into the slow cooker a few hours before dinner and go about your day.

When it’s time to eat, you will have tender meat that you can serve with your favorite ingredients. 

Here’s how to make beef barbacoa:

  1. Add salt and pepper to your preferred cuts of meat. 
  2. Brown the meat in the pan.
  3. Add onions, garlic, oregano, bay leaves, and other ingredients of your choice to the meat. Lime juice and apple cider vinegar are other optional ingredients you can use. 
  4. Pour broth over the meat so that it covers it. 
  5. Simmer on low heat for 3-4 hours. 
  6. When the meat is cooked, you should be able to easily pull it apart with forks. 

Serving And Pairings 

Carnitas is served with all traditional Mexican ingredients, including salsa, guacamole, refried bean, and tortillas

The Mexican way of serving barbacoa is with chopped onions and cilantro. Like carnitas, it is often accompanied with salsas.

The shredded barbacoa meat can also go on tortillas alongside a wedge of lime, or be served with a bowl of consommé. It often goes with a hearty corn stew too. 

Both carnitas and barbacoa meat can become an ingredient for tacos, tamales, burritos, and tortas.

In fact, you can use these tender meats in any sandwich and wrap of your choice, paired with the ingredients you love. Carnitas and barbacoa meat can go into hearty salad bowls too.  

Which One Is Better?

It’s hard to choose between carnitas and barbacoa as both dishes feature hearty and tender shredded meat that can be enjoyed as is or go into some of your favorite Mexican dishes. 

You may like either of these two dishes better depending on your meat preferences as well as what texture you like the meat to have. If you like the combination of crispiness and juiciness, then you will like carnitas better. 

In terms of nutrition and which dish is healthier, consider the fact that carnitas may be cooked in lard and then fried to become crispy.

Barbacoa, on the other hand, is quite healthy as it is simply slow-cooked meat that makes a great source of protein. 

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