Smoked Carnitas on a Pellet Grill

Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised in a mixture of fresh squeezed oranges, onion, garlic, dried guajillo pepper and mexican seasonings.
10 minutes
8 hours 10 minutes

I am a passionate carnitas enthusiast.

I’ve tried numerous variations and techniques to pursue that perfect melt-in-your-mouth texture paired with a rich, flavorful crust. 

My family is OBSESSED with this twist on traditional carnitas. If it’s not Brayden asking about the next time we’re making carnitas, it’s kenzie!

Carnitas are always delicious on their own, but smoking the pork infuses a deep, woodsy flavor that’s simply irresistible. 

Trust me, the smokiness enhances the pork’s natural flavors with an essence that traditional cooking methods can’t replicate. 

Let’s dive into making these smoked pork carnitas you’ll want to savor every weekend!

Or.. just check out the video: 

What are Carnitas?

Carnitas, literally meaning “little meats” in Spanish, is the heavyweight champion of Mexican comfort food. 

Imagine pork so soft it could be mistaken for butter, but don’t get too distracted by its melt-in-your-mouth texture—those crispy edges that come from a final quick fry or broil are the real taco clinchers.

I LOVE Serving up in tacos, but they have so much flavor on their own that you can enjoy them on a plate with some rice and beans and some corn tortillas. 

With this smoked version, we add an extra layer of smoky charm to this classic, transforming your kitchen into the next best thing to a street-side taqueria in Mexico.

This dish traditionally features pork shoulder (Boston, butt also works) and is slow-cooked in lard until it’s so tender it practically begs to fall apart. For this carnitas recipe, we’re going to be letting this in an orange juice and guajillo pepper-based braising liquid to build on top of that smoky flavor from the traeger smoker.

Ingredient Needed for Smoked Pork Carnitas

This carnitas recipe has 2 stages:  a dry rub seasoning blend for the pork itself while it smokes, and then we move it to a citrus and pepper-based braising liquid to soak flavors deep into the pork meat. The goal is to have shredded pork infused in flavor throughout each bite. 

For the Pork Shoulder:

  • Pork Shoulder: Choosing bone-in pork shoulder enriches the carnitas with deeper flavors as the marrow and tissues around the bone cook into the meat. If you can’t source a pork shoulder, a large pork butt works too! 
  • Kosher Salt & Black Pepper:  These are the backbone of your dry rub, pulling moisture to the surface of the meat, which helps to form a savory crust. Coarse grains also ensure an even distribution without overpowering the pork.
  • Paprika & Cumin: Paprika adds a smoky undertone and vibrant color, while cumin brings its distinctive earthy warmth. Together, they enhance the meat’s natural flavors and pair beautifully with the smokiness from the grill.
  • Chili Powder: This provides a complex layer of mild heat and adds a subtle smokiness that complements the wood flavors from the smoker.
  • Oregano: If possible, use Mexican oregano, as it offers a more intense and less sweet flavor than regular oregano—perfect for Mexican dishes.
  • Yellow Mustard: While it doesn’t add much flavor, it’s excellent for helping the spice rub adhere to the meat, ensuring every bite is as flavorful as the last. Alternatives like olive oil or avocado oil or even manteca (lard) can be used if desiered.

For the Braising Liquid:

  • Dried Guajillo Peppers: These peppers are not overly spicy but add a distinctive red hue and sweet, fruity undertone to the braising liquid, enriching the carnitas with layers of flavor.
  • Oranges: The juice adds a necessary acidity and sweetness, balancing the robust flavors of the spices and the richness of the pork.
  • Red Onion & Garlic Cloves: Fundamental for building the flavor base, they contribute a robust, aromatic foundation that infuses the pork as it braises.
  • Bay Leaves: Their herbal and slightly floral aroma subtly permeates the meat, adding complexity to the dish.
  • Salt & Water: These are essential for the braising process, helping to tenderize the pork and distribute the flavors evenly throughout the meat.

Equipment Needed

  • Smoker (Pellet Grill): Ideal for maintaining consistent low temperatures and easy smoke control.
  • Dutch Oven or Aluminum Pan: For braising the pork on the grill.
  • Cast Iron Skillet or Flattop Grill: Perfect for crisping up the pork after it’s been smoked and braised.

Do You Need a Pellet Grill for Smoked Carnitas?

While cooking smoked carnitas on a pellet grill is my preferred method, it’s not the only way to achieve that succulent, smoky flavor. 

The beauty of a pellet grill, like the ones from Traeger Pellet Grilll or alternatives like Pit Boss, and REC TEC, is their precision temperature control.

You can effortlessly smoke at low temperatures, shift to a medium range for braising, and crank it up high for that perfect crispy finish—all without ever touching your kitchen oven.

And If you’ve been eyeing a pellet grill, models like the Yoders YS640 are dream machines, combining rugged build quality with versatile cooking options.

Plus, It keeps the house cool and the AC bill low—always a win in my book!

However, if pellet grills aren’t your thing or are out of your budget, there are plenty of other ways to smoke your carnitas. You can set up a kettle style bbq with wood chunks for a low and slow cook or use a smoke box with your existing propane grill to maintain lower temperatures. 

For the dedicated BBQ enthusiast, a Weber Smokey Mountain can provide an excellent smoking experience and is perfect for those who prefer a more hands-on approach to temperature management.

No matter your equipment, the goal is the same: juicy, flavorful carnitas with a hint of smoke. 

Each tool has its advantages, and they can get the job done with some practice and patience. Check out my brisket video for tips on using different types of smokers to achieve the best results. 

Looking for another smoked pork recipe? Check out my Texas Pulled Pork recipe!

Smoked carnitas is Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised in a mixture of fresh squeezed oranges, onion, garlic, and mexican seasoning

How to Make Smoked Carnitas

1. Prep the Pork: 

Begin by giving your pork shoulder a good slather of yellow mustard; this acts as the glue for the spices. Once you’ve coated it well, liberally season it with your dry rub mixture of kosher salt, coarse ground pepper, paprika, cumin, chili powder, and Mexican oregano.

Make sure every inch gets some love so that the flavors penetrate into the meat. This foundation sets the stage for all the deliciousness to follow.

2. Smoke:

Set your pellet grill to 225 degrees f and place the seasoned pork shoulder on the grill grates. Let the pork smoke undisturbed for about 4 hours or until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F.

PRO TIP: use a meat thermometer to gauge the temp.

This low and slow smoked process allows the smoke to seep deep into the pork. Imparting that irresistible wood-fired flavor that is the hallmark of great carnitas.

Keep a water pan inside the grill if possible, to help maintain moisture.

3. Braise:

Once smoked, remove the pork from the grill and let it rest until cool enough to handle. Cube the pork into 2-inch pieces to maximize surface area for browning later.

Place these pieces in a Dutch oven with your braising liquid—a mix of orange juice, chopped red onions, garlic, dried guajillo peppers, bay leaves, and salt.

Cover and set the pellet grill to 350°F.

Place the Dutch oven back on the grill and let the pork braise for about 3 hours. The slow braising process tenderizes the pork further and infuses it with the flavors of the liquid.

4. Crisp:

After braising, transfer the chunks of pork shoulder onto a hot skillet or flattop grill. The goal is to crisp up the edges while keeping the inside tender and juicy.

Let the pork sear without moving it around too much at first. This allows the edges to develop a deep golden crust.

After a few minutes, you can start stirring to ensure even crisping.

Don’t have a skillet or a flattop grill? Spread the braised pork on a baking sheet (or roasting pan) and broil in the oven until the edges are beautifully golden and crispy; about 5-10 minutes. 

5. Serve:

Your carnitas are now ready to be enjoyed.

Serve that crispy pork carnitas in a warm corn tortilla with a side of rice and beans.

Or, enjoy them plate-style with your favorite garnishes like fresh cilantro, diced onions, and some pico de Gallo.

Carnitas make a perfect meal for any family dinner or festive gathering. Beats pizza delivery at the next birthday party for sure!!

Smoked Pork Carnitas: Tips for Success

  • Temperature Control: It’s key to maintain a consistent temperature in your smoker and Dutch oven. A wireless thermometer is used to check the internal temperature of the pork during the smoking process.
  • Moisture is Key: Ensure the pork doesn’t dry out during the smoke by using a water pan in the smoker and keeping the Dutch oven covered during the braise.
  • Final Crisp: Don’t overcrowd the skillet when crisping up the pork; doing it in batches is better for achieving the perfect crust.
Smoked carnitas is Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised in a mixture of fresh squeezed oranges, onion, garlic, and mexican seasoning

Mouth-watering Ways to Enjoy Smoked Pork Carnitas

Carnitas Tacos:

Pork carnitas tacos are a classic way to savor carnitas. Load up warm, soft corn tortillas with the smoked pork. Then, top with diced onions, fresh cilantro, a squeeze of lime, and your favorite salsa for the best pork tacos that rivals any taqueria.

Carnitas Fries:

Take a platter of crispy French fries, smother them with juicy carnitas. Then, drizzle with a creamy chipotle sauce, and sprinkle with shredded cheese. Broil until the cheese melts, then top with pico de gallo and guacamole for a mouthwatering fusion dish.

Carnitas Burrito Bowls:

Layer cooked rice, beans, carnitas, and fresh veggies like lettuce, corn, and tomatoes in a bowl. Add dollops of guacamole, sour cream, and a generous helping of salsa for a colorful, satisfying, hearty, and healthy meal.

Carnitas Enchiladas:

Roll the carnitas in corn tortillas and place them seam-side down in a baking dish. Cover with a rich, zesty enchilada sauce and plenty of cheese. Then bake until bubbly for a comforting meal perfect for any gathering.

Carnitas Quesadillas:

Sandwich carnitas and a blend of melted cheeses between two flour tortillas. Cook on a skillet until golden and crispy. Then cut into wedges and serve with salsa and sour cream for a simple yet irresistible treat.

Breakfast Carnitas Hash:

Mix carnitas with diced potatoes, onions, and bell peppers for a smoky breakfast hash. Top with a fried egg and serve with a side of toast to start your day with a robust meal packed with flavor.

Smoked carnitas is Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised with fresh oranges, onion, garlic, and mexican spices


How does smoking enhance the flavor of carnitas compared to traditional cooking methods?

Smoking imparts a unique woodsy aroma and depth of flavor that you can’t achieve with traditional braising alone.
The smoke gently penetrates the pork, complementing its natural richness with a subtle hint of whichever wood pellets you choose. Try hickory, mesquite, or applewood! These add layers of flavor that elevate the dish beyond the typical kitchen preparation.

What type of wood pellets work best for smoking carnitas?

The choice of wood pellets can greatly influence the flavor profile of your carnitas. Applewood is excellent for a subtle, sweet undertone, while mesquite offers a stronger, more robust smoky flavor profile. Hickory strikes a nice balance between the two, providing a hearty smoke flavor that isn’t overpowering. Experiment with different woods to find your family’s favorite.

Can I prepare the pork ahead of time before smoking? 

Yes! You can season and even marinate the pork shoulder overnight in the refrigerator. This saves you prep time on the day of cooking and enhances the meat’s flavor and tenderness. The spices and mustard (or your choice of binder) will penetrate deeper into the meat, enriching the carnitas with even more flavor.

What’s the best way to store and reheat leftover smoked carnitas? 

Store leftover carnitas in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. Reserve some of the braising liquid for reheating. Then gently warm them in a skillet over medium heat with a little bit of that liquid to retain moisture. Alternatively, you can reheat them in a low oven covered with foil. This method helps retain the moisture and brings back the crispy edges by finishing them under the broiler for a minute or two.

Are there any tips for making the carnitas extra crispy?

After braising, increase the heat of your grill or stovetop and use a cast iron skillet to crisp up the pork chunks. The key to extra crispy carnitas is letting the pork sear undisturbed for a few minutes before stirring. This allows the edges to develop a nice crust, giving you those irresistible crispy bits that are so beloved in carnitas.

How can I make this recipe if I don’t have a smoker?

If you don’t own a smoker, you can still create a smoky flavor using a regular grill. Use a smoker box or make a DIY smoke packet with aluminum foil and wood chips. Set up your grill for indirect cooking and place the pork shoulder away from the direct heat, allowing it to cook slowly, like a smoker.

What are some creative ways to serve smoked carnitas?

Beyond the classic taco setup, smoked carnitas can be used in various dishes. Try using them as a filling for enchiladas, topping for nachos, or as a protein in a hearty Mexican-inspired salad. They also make a fantastic filling for empanadas. An can be served over a bowl of rice with a side of grilled vegetables for a smoky carnitas bowl.

Variations for Carnitas

  • Spicy Carnitas: For those who love a fiery kick, add diced chipotle peppers or a few splashes of adobo sauce to the braising liquid. The smoky heat of the chipotle peppers adds an intense layer of flavor that complements the pork’s richness perfectly.
  • Citrus Herb Carnitas:
    Infuse a fresh, zesty flavor by marinating the pork overnight with a blend of orange, lime, and lemon juices along with chopped cilantro and mint. This marinade not only tenderizes the pork but also imparts a bright, aromatic profile that’s refreshing and delicious.
  • Beer-Braised Carnitas:
    Swap out some or all of the water in the braising liquid with a light Mexican beer to give the carnitas a malty depth. The beer intensifies the meat’s natural flavors and adds a subtle yeasty undertone that’s absolutely irresistible.
  • Pineapple Carnitas:
    Add a tropical twist by including chunks of fresh pineapple in the braising stage. The pineapple adds a sweet, tangy element that cuts through the richness of the pork, enhancing the overall flavor complexity.
  • Mole Carnitas:
    For a deep, complex flavor, braise the pork in a traditional mole sauce. The rich, chocolatey notes of the mole provide a unique backdrop to the smoky meat, creating a dish that’s bursting with the authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine. Smoked pork carnitas recipe not only satisfies the belly but also delights the soul, making every bite a testament to your culinary prowess. Enjoy the process and the delicious outcome!
Smoked carnitas is Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised with fresh oranges, onion, garlic, and mexican spices

With that crispy on the outside tender on the inside texture? Smoked Carnitas are my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE Mexican recipe to make during barbecue season. Trust me. This recipe is going to make you a star!

Smoked Carnitas

Course: Dinner
Cuisine: barbecue, Mexican
Keyword: smoked
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 8 hours
Total Time: 8 hours 10 minutes
Servings: 8 Servings
Calories: 190kcal
Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised in a mixture of fresh squeezed oranges, onion, garlic, dried guajillo pepper and mexican seasonings.
Print Recipe


  • Pellet Grill
  • Dutch oven
  • Cast Iron Skillet



  • 3 lb pork shoulder bone in or boneles
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp course ground pepper
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp mexican oregano
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp yellow mustard


  • 3-4 dried guajillo peppers
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 red onion roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic roughly chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups water


  • Preheat pellet smoker to 225 F. Combine kosher salt, coarse ground pepper, paprika, chili powder and cumin into a spice shaker.
  • Cover your pork shoulder in a thin layer of mustard, then liberally coat in the rub seasoning. Place on the smoker and let smoke for 4 hours.
  • Remove pork shoulder from pellet grill and increase smoker temp to 350 F. Cut out and remove the bone, then cut into 2 inch cubes.
  • Place pork into a Dutch oven. Squeeze juice from oranges into Dutch oven, along with guajillo peppers, chopped onions, garlic and bay leaves. Fill with water with about 1-2 inches of room left on the top of the Dutch oven. Cover and place back on the smoker. Cook for about 3 hours.
  • Remove dutch oven from pellet grill and increase temperature to its highest setting and place a large cast iron skillet inside and cover. Let it heat up for about 10-15 minutes.
  • Remove pork from the dutch oven and place into a colander to remove any excess fluid. While your pellet grill is heating up to the high temp, now would be a good time to heat up beans and rice!
  • Once the pellet grill is piping hot, place pork carnitas into the skillet. Let it side and crisp up for about 5 minutes, then begin to break up and turn to crisp up more of the carnitas. Continue until you've reached your desired crispiness.
  • Serve with rice beans and tortillas. Garnish with onions and cilantro if you like. Makes an awesome tostada too!



Calories: 190kcal | Carbohydrates: 8g | Protein: 22g | Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Cholesterol: 70mg | Sodium: 2179mg | Potassium: 516mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 1217IU | Vitamin C: 20mg | Calcium: 52mg | Iron: 2mg
Smoked carnitas is Pork shoulder smoked with hickory wood pellets, then braised with fresh oranges, onion, garlic, and mexican spices

Derek Campanile
Derek Campanile
I'm an IT professional by day. Home cook for the family by night. Follow my blog for easy to make recipes, how-to's and ideas to gather the family at the dinner table!