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The Difference Between Barbacoa Vs Carnitas Chipotle

Taco enthusiasts and Chipotle fans in the United States often find themselves debating which meat option to choose for their mexican cuisine meal: barbacoa vs carnitas Chipotle. 

carnita tacos on plate with lime

Both choices offer tantalizing flavors. But understanding the key differences between these two popular toppings can help make your decision at the ordering line easier. 

In exploring their unique characteristics and different flavors, here’s the scoop on the distinct meat types and cooking processes that define barbacoa and carnitas at Chipotle.

What are These Two Meats

carnitas tacos on plate with toppings and limes

Barbacoa, a traditional Mexican dish, features flavorful meat that is slow-cooked for a long period of time, resulting in a tender and flavorful preparation. 

At Chipotle, barbacoa is made from beef, initially cooked sous vide to achieve maximum tenderness, and then braised to imbue it with a combination of a Mexican blend of spices. 

In contrast, carnitas is a dish made solely from pork. 

The primary cooking method for carnitas involves slow-cooking the meat until tender. Followed by browning it to achieve a crispy exterior along with a juicy, tender inside.

Despite similarities in their slow-cooking methods, barbacoa and carnitas at chipotle locations offer unique flavor profiles that cater to different taste preferences. 

The main difference between the two is that, while barbacoa beef is known for its heartier texture and deeper taste, carnitas present a milder, more delicate flavor that is accentuated by the addition of citrus juices, herbs, and spices. 

Armed with a better understanding of these key distinctions, you can now confidently savor the myriad delights available in Chipotle’s delectable culinary offerings.

Barbacoa vs Carnitas: Understanding the Basics

barbacoa soft shell tacos with toppings on plate

Origin of Barbacoa and Carnitas

Barbacoa and Carnitas are both popular Mexican dishes, each with its own unique history and preparation methods.

Let’s take a closer look at the origins of barbacoa and carnitas.

Barbacoa originated as a method of cooking meat, particularly lamb or goat, in a pit oven. 

Traditionally, barbacoa was steam-cooked underground, but modern variations can be prepared over an open fire, on a stove, or in a slow cooker.

On the other hand, carnitas translates to “little meats” in Spanish and originated in the state of Michoacán in Mexico.

Carnitas are traditionally made from pork and have been a staple food for Mexican families for centuries.

They are now becoming the best choice for tasty fast food that uses the best meat. 

Type of Meat

carnitas tacos on wooden dish

One of the key differences between the two dishes lies in the type of meat used. 

Barbacoa can be made with different meats, including beef, lamb, or goat, depending on regional preferences and family traditions. 

It often utilizes tougher cuts of meat, such as large chunks of beef. Which become tender and juicy after hours of slow cooking.

In contrast, carnitas are specifically made using pork, usually from the shoulder or butt, which contains higher fat content, making the meat flavorful and tender when cooked slowly over time.

Cooking Methods

The barbacoa meat is typically seasoned with a blend of smoky chili peppers and aromatic spices like oregano, cloves, and bay leaf. 

It is then either steam-cooked in a pit oven or prepared using a more modern method, such as slow cooking, stove-top, crock pot, or open fire methods. 

You could use different parts of the beef, such as beef shoulder, when considering your meat options for barbacoa. 

This cooking process results in tender, juicy meat with a bold, smoky, and spicy flavor.

Carnitas, on the other hand, are prepared using a slow cooking method, where the pork is simmered in its own fat along with seasonings like juniper berries, thyme, and bay leaves. 

The pork has enough fat of its own, so you don’t need to worry about having too little fat.

Once the meat has cooked for several hours and becomes tender, it is then roasted or pan-fried to create a crispy exterior. 

Carnitas are a great option if you like softer, savory, and slightly sweet flavors.

Ingredients and Flavor Profiles

soft shell barbacoa tacos on plate with salsa


Barbacoa is a Mexican dish traditionally made from beef. 

The beef used for chipotle’s barbacoa is seasoned with a combination of smoky chili peppers and aromatic spices like black pepper, oregano, cloves, and bay leaf. 

This gives barbacoa a bold, smoky, and spicy flavor profile. 

The best way to cook the meat is for an extended period of time, which creates a tender and juicy texture.

Some of the key ingredients in barbacoa include:

  • Beef
  • Chipotle peppers
  • Oregano
  • Cloves
  • Bay leaves
  • Cumin
  • Garlic
  • Black pepper 
  • Salt


carnitas chipotle taco and salsa

Carnitas, on the other hand, is a Mexican dish made from pork. 

The pork meat is seasoned with a blend of seasonings and spices including juniper berries, thyme, and bay leaves. 

Additionally, the dish is flavored with citrus juices and herbs, giving it a softer, savory, and slightly sweet flavor profile. 

After the pork is slow-cooked, it is typically browned to create a crispy texture and a tender, juicy interior. 

The flavor of carnitas is milder than that of barbacoa, with the pork’s natural flavors taking the spotlight. 

The confit cooking process imbues the meat with a rich, savory taste that is enhanced by the addition of minimal spices, such as salt and pepper. 

You could even add pickled red onions on your carnitas to enhance the flavor. 

Some of the key ingredients in carnitas include:

  • Pork
  • Citrus juice (often orange or lime juice)
  • Juniper berries
  • Thyme
  • Bay leaves
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Dried thyme
  • Garlic
  • Pickled red onions

Cooking Tips and Techniques

soft shell barbacoa tacos with salsa and tacos


Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican dish made with beef, often braised for several hours to make it tender and flavorful. 

At Chipotle, barbacoa is prepared by cooking the beef sous vide before braising it. 

Many mexican restaurants, such as Chipotle, use shredded meat for this great recipe.

You can recreate this chipotle mexican grill dish at home using a slow cooker, instant pot pressure cooker, stovetop, or Dutch oven. 

Here’s how to follow this easy barbacoa recipe that is based on the traditional method of cooking barbacoa:

  1. Choose a well-marbled beef cut, such as chuck roast or brisket.
  1. Season the pounds of beef with Mexican spices, such as cumin, oregano, and chili powder.
  1. Sear the beef on all sides to enhance the flavor and create a nice brown crust. This step is especially important when using a slow cooker, as it helps retain moisture.
  1. Transfer the seared beef to your chosen cooking vessel, along with a braising liquid like beef broth, tomato sauce, or a combination of both.
  1. Cook the beef low and slow for several hours. The exact time will vary depending on the cooking method and equipment:
    • Slow cooker: 8-10 hours on low temperature
    • Stovetop: 3-4 hours on a low simmer
    • Dutch oven: 3-4 hours in a preheated 300°F (150°C) oven

During the cooking process, the beef should become tender and easily shred with a fork.


Carnitas, on the other hand, is a Mexican dish made with pork, traditionally cooked for several hours until tender and crispy. 

A Carnita does not require to be cooked at extremely high temperatures, and uses slow-cooked meat. 

You can prepare carnitas using a variety of cooking methods, including a slow cooker, large pot, Dutch oven, or stovetop.

  1. Choose a cut of pork with some fat, such as pork butt or pork shoulder, which can be found in grocery stores.
  1. Season the pork with a mixture of citrus juice, herbs, and spices.
  1. Brown the pork on all sides to create a flavorful crust and lock in moisture. This step is crucial regardless of the cooking method.
  1. Transfer the seared pork to the preferred cooking method, along with any cooking liquid as required:
    • Slow cooker: Add a small amount of liquid, such as orange juice or beer, and cook on low for 6-8 hours.
    • Dutch oven: Add a small amount of liquid, cover, and cook in a preheated 300°F (150°C) oven for 3-4 hours.
    • Stovetop: Add enough liquid to partially cover the pork, and simmer on low heat or medium-high heat for 2-3 hours.

Once the pork is tender, you can shred it using a fork and then crisp up the edges by pan-frying or broiling for a few minutes, if desired.

You can use a few tablespoons of vegetable oil or chicken broth as cooking fat on a large skillet.

Remember that the connective tissue of pork carnitas must be heated to a minimum of 160° F or a maximum of 170° F to soften and have a tender texture. 

By following these cooking tips and techniques, you can create tasty and authentic barbacoa and carnitas at home that rival Chipotle’s flavor and tenderness.

Comparing Barbacoa and Carnitas in Chipotle Dishes

tacos carnitas with limes and garnish


In Chipotle burritos, barbacoa offers a bold, smoky flavor resulting from the marinated beef slow-cooked with Mexican spices such as cumin, oregano, and chipotle peppers. 

This slow-cooking method ensures tender, juicy meat, which complements the other ingredients inside the tortilla wrap. 

Chipotle offers flour or corn tortillas for this popular menu item. 

On the other hand, carnitas bring a distinct taste to burritos, with shredded pork cooked in citrus juice, herbs, and spices until crispy. 

The combination of tender and crispy textures adds complexity to the overall experience of biting into a Chipotle carnitas burrito or burrito bowl.


Whether you choose a barbacoa or carnitas protein for your Chipotle bowl, both options provide flavorful, satisfying, and delicious meal experiences.

The tender beef barbacoa provides a heartier texture and deeper taste, while carnitas offer a unique combination of tender and crispy pork.


Chipotle tacos are highly customizable, and both barbacoa and carnitas meats make for excellent choices. 

Barbacoa brings a robust, smoky flavor to the tacos, while carnitas deliver a zesty and crispy twist to the traditional taco filling. 

Both meats are tender and juicy, ensuring that each bite of a Chipotle taco is full of the chosen protein’s distinct and satisfying taste.


For Chipotle salads, diners can also choose between barbacoa and carnitas as their protein option. 

The tender and savory meat in barbacoa enhances the salad’s textures and flavors with its richness, while carnitas add a crispy, citrusy touch that complements the fresh greens and vegetables.

Health and Nutritional Considerations

tacos with meat peppers and limes on a plate with salsa

When considering the health and nutritional aspects of barbacoa and carnitas at Chipotle, it’s important to evaluate their caloric content, fat, carbohydrates, sodium, and protein levels.

Barbacoa contains approximately 150 calories per three ounces of cooked meat, along with 5 grams of fat, zero g carbs, and 360 mg of sodium. 

On the other hand, carnitas have about 270 calories per three ounces of cooked meat, with 13 grams of fat, 2 carbs, and 470 mg of sodium. 

Below is a quick comparison of the nutritional profiles of both options:

CaloriesFat (g)Carbs (g)Sodium (mg)Protein (g)

Barbacoa may be the better option if you’re looking for mexican food with fewer calories, less g fat, and zero grams of carbs. 

As well as this, barbacoa only has one extra g protein compared to carnitas. 

The pulled pork used in carnitas could be eaten while on a keto diet, as it does not contain a lot of carbs by itself.

However, keep in mind that adding too many pairings and toppings that are high in carbs could not continue to remain friendly to the ketogenic diet. 

In terms of flavor, barbacoa is known for its smoky, spicy taste, which comes from a combination of chili peppers and spices like oregano, cloves, and bay leaf. 

Conversely, carnitas offer a softer, savory, slightly sweet flavor, achieved through a blend of seasonings and spices including juniper berries, thyme, and bay leaves.

Both barbacoa and carnitas provide a good source of protein, with only a slight difference in their protein content. 

However, those who are watching their calorie and fat intake might prefer barbacoa due to its lower caloric content and fat levels.

Additionally, carnitas are higher in sodium, which could be a consideration for those looking to reduce their sodium consumption.

Ultimately, the better choice between barbacoa and carnitas at Chipotle largely depends on your personal preference of taste and your individual nutritional goals or dietary restrictions.

Pairing Options and Toppings

soft shell barbacoa tacos with garnishes on plate

When enjoying a Chipotle meal with either barbacoa or carnitas as the main protein, there are various pairing options and toppings to enhance the overall flavor profile.

Each protein type works well with different combinations, allowing for a highly customizable and satisfying dining experience.

Barbacoa Pairings

Barbacoa, made from beef braised for many hours until tender, offers a rich and succulent taste. 

As a result, it pairs well with lighter and fresh toppings to balance the dish. 

Consider the following delicious options when customizing a barbacoa-based meal:

  • Cilantro-Lime Rice for a fresh, tangy base.
  • Black Beans for added protein and fiber.
  • Fajita Veggies for a touch of color and crunch.
  • A variety of salsas, such as pico de gallo, or the Tomatillo-Green Chili or Roasted Chili-Corn options.
  • A dollop of guacamole or sour cream for additional smoothness.
  • The secret ingredient to adding smokiness to the flavor is adobo sauce.

Carnitas Pairings

Carnitas, consisting of slow-cooked pork that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, is a versatile choice for customizing a meal. 

It works well with a wide array of salsas and toppings. 

Opt for the following combinations to suit your taste buds:

  • Pinto Beans to complement the pork’s rich flavors.
  • Fajita Veggies for added texture and nutrients.
  • Fresh fruit or a light salad to strike a balanced contrast to the savory flavors.
  • Experiment with various salsas, including the Tomatillo-Red Chili or Fresh Tomato Salsa.
  • A scoop of guacamole or sour cream for an indulgent touch.

Final Thoughts

In comparing barbacoa and carnitas at Chipotle, there are noticeable differences in taste, texture, and preparation methods. 

Barbacoa, made of beef, is known for its hearty texture and deep flavor, while carnitas, made of pork, has a more subtle taste and slightly crunchy texture.

The preparation techniques also vary, as barbacoa involves braising beef for many hours until tender while carnitas is slow-cooked in a mixture of citrus juice, herbs, and spices until crispy. 

These distinctions make each option unique and cater to different preferences when it comes to Chipotle menu items or options.

Choosing between barbacoa and carnitas ultimately depends on personal preferences, dietary restrictions, and one’s cravings for savory beef or tender pork dishes. 

barbacoa vs carnitas chipotle Pinterest image

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