Smoked Pork Belly Carnitas

smoked pork belly carnitas with tacos and salsa verde

Each crispy bite of Smoked Pork Belly Carnitas is packed with so much juicy flavor and texture. You’ll have a hard time deciding on a taco, sandwich, or just a fork. Seriously simple to pull off, there are no excuses.

smoked pork belly carnitas with tacos and salsa verde

Carnitas happens to be one of my favorite tacos to order when I go out because I don’t typically fry a lot of food at home. I can always find them fried and crispy to perfection served with a number of fresh salsas and toppings.

Frying food at home takes extra ingredients and makes a mess. These smoked pork belly carnitas are designed to simplify the process for both cooking and prep while replicating the experience of crispy pork with juicy flavors inside. Pork belly is seasoned, smoked, and pulled into bite-size pieces using the same method as my recipe for pulled pork belly.

Why You’ll Love Pork Belly Carnitas

  • Crispy textures. Every single bite is full of crispy bark, along with meaty pork and rich fat.
  • Packed with flavor. Pork belly is thinner than pork shoulder, giving the seasonings a better chance to penetrate through each bite.
  • Pork flavor. We’re not hiding pork behind a sugary rub. This pork belly has a delicious natural flavor enhanced with spices and aromatics.
  • Prep ahead friendly. Pulled pork belly can be reheated very easily, crisped up in a skillet on demand. Another reason to make more for yourself.
Shredding the pork belly for tacos

It’s important to address that this recipe is not traditional, but an interpretation of the authentic slow-cooked pork shoulder recipe for carnitas. Let’s take a moment to describe the original, which is where the inspiration comes from.

What are Traditional Carnitas?

Carnitas are golden-brown chunks of pork that have been cooked slowly in pork fat, creating a crispy exterior with a juicy interior. Carnitas tacos are garnished with a variety of toppings, typically including salsas, guacamole, and even just cilantro and onions with salt.

The origins of carnitas are thought to have come from Mexico City, but this dish is known to be famous in the state of Michoacan. Pork shoulder is cooked in large copper pots, said to conduct the heat properly for even cooking. Traditional carnitas has a simple base recipe, which consists of fresh pork, lard, salt, and water. Many different carnitas joints around Mexico will adjust their recipes with different herbs, spices, and of course salsas to finish.

pork belly carnitas tacos with salsa verde and radishes
Smoked Pork Carnitas Tacos with Salsa Verde

Carnitas has changed quite a bit over time, especially in the United States. Many different cuts are used for a variety of textures, and new flavors are infused. It’s not uncommon to see pork shoulder slowly cooked with slices of orange, spices, and even a splash of Mexican Coca-Cola.

While we don’t have access to the large copper pots of Michoacan, there are a number of ways to replicate or mimic the textures and flavors. One of the most common ways you’ll likely see carnitas when searching on the web is to slowly cook the pork shoulder in a crockpot, oven, or smoker and then finish it off by crisping it up under a broiler or in a skillet. No matter which method you choose, make sure you have plenty of tortillas with fresh salsa!

Need more info on smoked pulled pork belly?

We’ve got a guide for that. Read this post about making the perfect smoked pulled pork belly if you need additional guidance or just want some new ideas.

Pork carnitas seasoning for the pork belly

As you’ve seen traditional pork carnitas has a very simple list of ingredients. Over time, herbs and spices have been added to complement the flavor of the pork. Smoked pork belly needs a bit more than just salt and fat, so this recipe for Pork Carnitas Seasoning was developed. This specific blend of flavors works well with smoked pork carnitas, deeply seasoning the meat while focusing on the natural pork flavors you’d expect.

Pork Carnitas Seasoning

Measured for use up to approximately 5 pounds of pork belly.

  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

These spices can be simply mixed together and you’re ready to go. Feel free to use fresh-ground black pepper, which will have a stronger flavor. Dried Mexican oregano can be either the leaves or the ground version, but make sure to crumble up the leaves if using those before mixing them into the spices.

Dry brining a pork belly with the pork carnitas seasoning

How to Make Smoked Carnitas

Carnitas need to be crispy on the outside, which is what makes the first step is the most crucial: prepping and seasoning the pork belly for smoking.

STEP 1: Score and season the pork belly. Using a very sharp knife, cut a crosshatch pattern into both sides of the pork belly. Cut about ¼-inch deep into the meat, on both sides. Take the pork carnitas seasoning and rub it all over the pork belly, making sure to push it into the slices as well. There should be enough rub for up to about a 5-pound pork belly. Use just enough to season the pork, don’t overdo it. NOTE: Purchase a pork belly with no skin. This recipe will not work the same if the skin is still attached.

STEP 2: Dry brine in the fridge for 48 hours. This is the most important process as it will help create the crispy exterior while deeply seasoning the meat. Read below to learn more about dry-brining and how it works.

Pork belly on the smoker at 250°F

What is Dry-Brining?

This is a fancy name for the simple process of salting and resting meat before cooking it. Doing so provides the same goals of wet-brining without diluting the natural flavors of the meat. The food becomes deeply seasoned and remains very juicy.

Season the meat, and allow it to rest uncovered in the fridge for a period of time. It’s as simple as that. Osmosis and diffusion do the magic, drawing out excess moisture and sucking back in salt, creating a natural brine that penetrates deep into the muscles.

Benefits of Dry-Brining

  • Crispier bark, crust, or skin on the outside.
  • Deeply seasoned food throughout every bite.
  • Higher juice and moisture retention.
  • Simple process, very little work involved.

You’ll be using this same method for ALL meats, including whole chicken, turkey, pork, chicken wings, and more. Dry-brining works well for anything that will be smoked slowly, or grilled directly over the coals.

How Long Should the Meat Dry-Brine?

The time required for dry-brining depends on what you’re doing and the size of the meat. Smaller cuts that you’ll cook for a shorter period of time and searing on the grill won’t take much longer than an hour or so, and larger cuts like the Prime Rib above need to dry-brine overnight. Most meats will be seasoned properly if rested overnight.

Equipment for Dry-Brining

Aside from your seasoning of choice, the only equipment that I recommend is a wire rack on a baking sheet. Allowing the meat to be elevated provides even airflow around the meat, drying out the outside on the bottom as well, which lifts it out of its own juices. Having a soggy bottom goes against what you’re trying to accomplish.

Smoked pork belly is building a crust

STEP 3: Smoke at 250°F until internal temperature is around 180°F. Place the pork belly fat-side up, away from the heat source, into the smoker. Smoking a pork belly should take about 6-8 hours depending on the size and fat content. Do not attempt to smoke at a lower temp, it will not properly render out the pork fat in the same way. I’ve tested smoking a pork belly on a pellet grill, as well as live fire. You do not need to spritz, there is so much fat in the pork belly that will render out and keep it moist.

STEP 4: Increase heat to 300°F until it’s done. Higher heat will crisp up the outside bark, giving that fried texture to the fat and meat. The final temperature will be around 200-205°F. Use a temp probe or toothpick, it should slide right through the smoked pork belly with little resistance. Remove the pork belly and immediately wrap in butcher paper, allowing it to rest for at least 30-45 minutes.

STEP 5: Shred and serve immediately. The juices will dry out if left to sit, so make sure your guests are available and hungry. If you’re planning to store it for another day, shred and store it once it has cooled off a bit.

Pork belly has rested and ready to shred

What if the Smoked Pork Belly is done but not crispy enough?

This can happen, it depends on the fat content and many other factors with the smoker. Shred the pork belly and crisp it up immediately in a cast-iron skillet or a broiler in the oven. Make sure to pour in all of the juices when you do so.

Can I smoke the pork belly carnitas ahead of time?

Absolutely yes, and you’ll simply crisp up the pork as described above. Doing so ahead of time does not impact the final flavors or textures.

shredded carnitas

How should I serve the carnitas?

Tacos are the key, though I wouldn’t roll my eyes if you wanted to make some amazing sandwiches. Whatever you choose, make sure the pork is the star. Less is more when it comes to tacos. Here are some recommended toppings:

Smoked pork belly carnitas ready to be served

More Taco Recipes You’ll Love

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smoked pork belly carnitas with tacos and salsa verde

Smoked Pork Belly Carnitas

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Each crispy bite of Smoked Pork Belly Carnitas is packed with so much juicy flavor and texture. You’ll have a hard time deciding on a taco, sandwich, or just a fork. Seriously simple to pull off, there are no excuses.

  • Total Time: 2 days 6-8 hours
  • Yield: Serves about 1012 1x


  • 35 pound pork belly, no skin

Pork Carnitas Seasoning

  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2  teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon


  1. Prepare the pork belly. Pat it dry with paper towels. Using a very sharp knife, slice into the pork belly to create a crosshatch pattern, about ¼-inch deep. Do this to both sides, the fat cap and the meaty side.
  2. Mix the ingredients together for the Carnitas seasoning. Sprinkle the seasoning from above onto the surface of the pork belly, rubbing it into all of the cracks and crevices.
  3. Dry-brine the pork belly for 48 hours. Place it on a wire rack with a baking sheet, leaving it in the fridge uncovered for 48 hours. This will deeply season the pork while drying out the surface, absolutely key for creating a crispy bark.
  4. Preheat the smoker for 250°F. When it’s time to cook, fire up the smoker and clean the grates. Remove the pork belly from the fridge as you’re preheating.
  5. Smoke the pork belly. Place the seasoned pork belly into the smoker and allow it to smoke for about 6-7 hours, depending on the size. There is no need to spritz, the smoked pork belly has so much fat that will render out, it will keep it moist and crisp for the end. Smoke until the pork belly is around 180°F internal temperature.
  6. Turn up the heat to 300°F. Cook until it’s around 200-205°F. I’ve had some go as high as 208-210°F before being tender enough. Use a temp probe or toothpick, it should slide right through the smoked pork belly with little resistance.
  7. Remove the pork belly and immediately wrap in butcher paper. Allow it to rest on the counter at room temperature until it falls to at least 190°F before placing it in a cooler for resting. Monitor the temperature and allow it to rest at least for a full hour before shredding.
  8. Shred the pork belly carnitas. The outside bark should be crisp, and the pork will have a combination of meaty strands with bits of fat. All of the textures should be mixed together for the best experience. Serve immediately.
  • Author: Brad Prose
  • Prep Time: 48 hours
  • Cook Time: 6-8 hours
  • Category: Pork
  • Method: Smoking
  • Cuisine: Mexican
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