Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (2024)

  • Turkey Mains
  • Tacos
  • Thanksgiving Turkeys

Transform your leftover Thanksgiving turkey into wonderfully crispy and juicy taco filling


J. Kenji López-Alt

Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (1)

J. Kenji López-Alt

Culinary Consultant

Kenji is the former culinary director for Serious Eats and a current culinary consultant for the site. He is also a New York Times food columnist and the author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

Updated August 31, 2023



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Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (2)

Why It Works

  • Boiling the already-cooked turkey meat first makes it extra tender.
  • Pan-frying shredded, cooked meat adds crisp texture and complex flavors.

I’m writing this after four solid days of roasting and smoking turkeys by sunlight and painting the walls in my house by moonlight. The last thing I want to do right now is write a long article. It's also going to be published the morning of Thanksgiving, which means that the last thing you'll want to do is dig into a long article. I think we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement here, so I'll keep it snappy, and you'll have the chance to dig into a tasty taco that much faster tomorrow.

Here's what you need to know: You can transform your leftover turkey meat into wonderfully crispy and juicy shreds that are a dead ringer for carnitas, minus all the lard and time involved. This is a technique I discovered by accident a few years back, when I decided to see what would happen if I fried up the shredded meat I'd picked off the turkey carcass that I'd just used to make stock.

Extreme deliciousness is what happened.

The technique works best with leftover dark meat from the thighs, drumsticks, wings, and scraps picked from the carcass, which I simmer until it's falling-apart tender. I pretty much always use my turkey carcasses to make soup or stock, which means that I always have plenty of that boiled meat available. If you don't typically make soup or stock yourself, you can simply simmer your leftover dark meat in nearly enough water to cover, along with a few traditional carnitas flavors: sour orange, onion, and bay leaf.

Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (3)

After that is the easy part. Take that tender double-cooked turkey, shred it up as finely as you'd like, then fry it. You want a good amount of oil in the pan—at least a couple of tablespoons—in order to give the turkey some extra succulence. If you have access to some duck, turkey, or chicken fat, all the better.

Make sure to season the turkey with salt while it's in the pan. Not only will the salt cling to it better, but when you inevitably start stealing pieces of crispy turkey out of the skillet, those stolen bites will at least be seasoned properly.

The real keys here are to use a nonstick or cast iron skillet (you want all the brown, sticky bits to cling to the turkey, not the pan) and to cook the turkey longer than you think is necessary. As bits start to crisp up, fold them over and gently stir them back into the rest of the meat. Continue doing this until the turkey is as crisp as you'd like (I like mine quite crisp).

And that's about it. A super simple technique that creates delicious carnitas for any dish that calls for them, including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos.

Of course, I won't blame you if it all disappears from the pan before it ever even gets to the table. Pro tip: Blame it on the dog.

Recipe Details

Leftover Turkey "Carnitas"

Prep5 mins

Cook75 mins

Active20 mins

Total80 mins


  • Any amount leftover cooked dark-meat turkey (thighs and drumsticks) (see note)
  • 1 orange, preferably sour, per pound (450 grams) of leftover turkey meat, quartered (see note)
  • 1 medium onion (about 6 ounces; 175 grams) per pound (450 grams) of leftover turkey meat, quartered
  • 2 bay leaves per pound (450 grams) of leftover turkey meat
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, chicken fat, turkey fat, or duck fat per pound (450 grams) of leftover turkey meat
  • Kosher salt


  1. Combine turkey meat (with bones if available), orange, onion, and bay leaf in a pot that fits them snugly. Add enough water to cover halfway. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to a bare simmer and cook until turkey is fall-off-the-bone tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Discard orange, onion, and bay leaves and drain turkey well. Shred turkey and discard bones.

  2. Heat oil or fat in a cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add turkey and spread into an even layer. Cook, without moving, until meat is well browned and crisp on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Stir turkey to incorporate the crisp bits and introduce new soft bits to the bottom. Continue this process until the turkey is as crisp as you like it (I like mine quite crisp). Season with salt.

    Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (4)


You can make this recipe from scratch by roasting turkey legs in a 400°F (200°C) oven until they reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) (45 minutes to 1 hour), then proceeding as directed. Meat picked from the scraps of turkey used to make stock can also be crisped in a skillet and deliver delicious results. After making turkey stock or soup, remove some dark meat, shred it, and proceed as directed in step 2. Sour oranges can be purchased in a Latin market or well-stocked supermarket.

Leftover Turkey "Carnitas" Recipe (2024)


What is the secret to good carnitas? ›

These are the 3 steps to making the best pork carnitas every time.
  1. Use a fatty piece of meat. I get a lot of questions asking if this same recipe and technique can be used with a pork loin or chicken breasts. ...
  2. Cook the Mexican pork low and slow. ...
  3. Use a broiler to concentrate the flavor.
Feb 20, 2024

What's carnitas in English? ›

Carnitas, literally meaning "little meats", is a dish of Mexican cuisine that originated in the state of Michoacán. Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender.

How do you serve carnitas for a crowd? ›

Serve with your favorite fixings – rice, beans, sautéed onions and peppers, corn, salsa, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, avocado or guacamole, lime, cilantro, tortillas, chips…it doesn't need all the adornment, but it sure is good!

How do you remove meat from turkey legs? ›

To eat the meat from around a turkey leg bone, you can use a knife to carefully cut away the meat from the bone, or you can use your fingers to pull the meat off the bone. Be sure to discard any tendons, gristle, or other unwanted bits as you go.

Why do you put orange juice in carnitas? ›

The orange juice in the cooking liquid provides acidity that helps break down the meat so it's extra tender and juicy.

How do you keep carnitas moist? ›

Store leftover carnitas in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Drizzle with a couple extra tablespoons of the cooking liquid to help keep them moist before storing. Reheat in the microwave. Second-day carnitas are fantastic in quesadillas, burritos, and burrito bowls.

What is carnitas seasoning made of? ›

Pork Carnitas Seasoning

Pork shoulder is extra flavorful thanks to kosher salt, a chopped onion, fresh garlic, lime juice, chili powder, dried oregano, and ground cumin.

Why do Mexicans eat carnitas? ›

Carnitas is associated with festive occasions, and it's usually consumed during weekends, particularly on Sundays, the traditional “mercado”, or marketplace, day in Mexico. Carnitas vendors are a common, some would even say indispensable, sight at any tianguis (another word for marketplace!) in all states.

How do Mexicans eat carnitas? ›

As Nancy said, carnitas can be a dish by itself, or as an ingredient in tamales, tacos (made with two tortillas so they don't tear apart) or tortas. Depending on where you eat them, they can be served with chopped cilantro, diced onion, salsa, guacamole, tortillas, refried beans, lime and/or radishes.

Why do you add milk to carnitas? ›

In other regions of Mexico, people add their own special seasoning to this dish, such as condensed milk, garlic, chicken broth, co*ke, orange juice, and/or beer. Not only do these ingredients give the carnitas their distinctive golden-brownish color, but they also help tenderize the meat.

Can you overcook carnitas? ›

Slow Cooker Carnitas Recipe FAQ

They cook at the same temperature over several hours either way. Can you overcook carnitas in slow cooker? Any cut of meat can become overcooked, even in the crockpot.

Should you sear carnitas before cooking? ›

Step One: The trick to getting the most flavorful carnitas, is to sear the pork before allowing it to braise for hours. First, season the pork with a liberal sprinkle of salt and then sear the pork pieces on both sides until golden brown in avocado oil. Browning the meat helps to develop a rich deep flavor.

How do you spice up bland carnitas? ›

To spice up bland carnitas, try adding extra seasoning such as chili powder, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or diced jalapeños for a kick of heat. You can also experiment with different herbs and spices to tailor the flavor to your liking.

Can I use lemon juice instead of orange juice in carnitas? ›

FAQs About Carnitas

You can also use lime juice, lemon juice, or a combination of any of these.

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