Chicken Carnitas Tacos
These Chicken Carnitas Tacos with juicy seasoned chicken piled high into warm corn tortillas with all the best toppings may just be your new favorite chicken taco. Full of flavor and the most delicious crispy edges.
If you are looking for a new recipe for Taco Tuesday, these Chicken Carnitas Tacos are it! Made with crispy chicken carnitas, warm corn tortillas, fresh cilantro, onion, and plenty of lime juice for a truly delicious chicken taco.
It’s no secret that tacos and one of our favorite things to make. While we love traditional carnitas made with pork, sometimes there just isn’t time to slow cook pork.
On those nights, chicken thighs make a perfect substitute. Chicken thighs have more flavor than chicken breasts and most closely mimic the texture of pork carnitas. Plus they are lighter and healthier. Win-win.
Serve them with all your favorite taco toppings for an easy meal everyone will love. These crispy chicken tacos are also perfect for parties! Set out salsa verde, guacamole, pickled red onions, pico de gallo, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese, and let everyone build their own tacos and bowls.
Why You’ll Love Chicken Carnitas Tacos
- Faster than pork carnitas: Traditional carnitas take 8-10 hours to cook! This chicken version cooks much faster.
- Great for a crowd: This recipe is a huge hit for parties and get-togethers. Chicken thighs are affordable and using them in tacos stretches the protein even further.
- Healthier than traditional carnitas: While pork carnitas are delicious, they aren’t the healthiest option since they are made with higher-fat pork and cooked in lard. This lightened-up option is a lighter, healthier option.
Looking for more Mexican recipes for chicken tacos? Try these Chicken Tinga Tacos, Chicken Birria Tacos, and Shredded Chicken Tacos.
Ingredients and Substitutions
Here is everything you need to make these delicious tacos.
- Chicken thighs: Boneless skinless chicken thighs are the easiest option. They cook quickly, shred easily, and the higher fat content ensures the chicken stays moist. If you prefer swap in chicken breast or bone-in chicken.
- Spices: To add flavor to the chicken, this recipe uses ancho chili powder, kosher salt, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, and black pepper. Swap in taco seasoning if you prefer. Regular chili powder also works.
- Limes: Carnitas is typically made with a combination of citrus juices. While this recipe only uses lime juice, feel free to add some orange juice as well.
- Tortillas: In Mexico, carnitas is almost always served with corn tortillas. Feel free to swap in flour or alternative tortillas if you prefer.
- Toppings: Traditional carnitas are served with fresh cilantro, diced white onion, and limes. Most times there is a spicy red salsa, chipotle salsa, or green salsa on the side as well. Serve these with any toppings you like.
How to Make Chicken Carnitas
There are three ways to make these chicken carnitas. Choose the one that works for you.
For all three versions, start by tossing the chicken with the spices making sure it is well coated.
Option 1: Oven or Stovetop
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Drizzle some oil in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed, oven-safe skillet. Sear the chicken thighs on both sides. Add about 1 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer. Cover and cook in the oven for 45-60 minutes until the chicken shreds easily.
If you don’t want to turn on the oven, simply simmer it over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and shreds easily.
Let the shredded chicken hang out in the juices for a few minutes to soak up some extra flavor.
Option 2: Slow Cooker
Add the chicken to the slow cooker. Cook on low for 3-4 hours until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Shred the chicken using two forks.
Chicken thighs contain enough natural moisture that you don’t need to add any additional liquid to the slow cooker. If you would like to add some liquid, add 1/2-1 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer.
Option 3: Instant Pot
Add the seasoned chicken thighs to the Instant Pot or any pressure cooker. Add ½-1 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer. Cook on manual mode for 15 minutes and let naturally release for at least 5 minutes. Shred with two forks.
Make them crispy!
No matter what method you use, make sure to get them crispy and browned! That is part of the magic of carnitas. Start by preheating the broiler.
Remove the chicken using a slotted spoon. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Broil for 6-8 minutes until browned and crispy on the edges. Watch it closely since broilers vary in temperatures and you don’t want the chicken carnitas to burn.
Toss the chicken with fresh lime juice before making the tacos.
The Best Taco Toppings
There really isn’t a wrong way to top your tacos and this is where you can get creative. Here are some toppings we love adding to our chicken carnitas tacos.
- Traditional: Authentic carnitas tacos are served with fresh cilantro, diced white onion, lime wedges, and green salsa made with tomatillos.
- Tortillas: Corn tortillas are the most popular option for chicken tacos, but you can use flour tortillas, cassava tortillas, or even lettuce wraps.
- Salsa and sauces: Pair these with your favorite salsa or sauce. Consider something traditional like pico de gallo or guacamole. Or get more creative with ranchero sauce, creamy avocado salsa verde, grilled pineapple salsa, or sour cream.
- Fresh toppings: Top your tacos with shredded lettuce, shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, fresh cilantro, onion, sliced avocado, or radishes.
- Cheese: Cheese is usually served with carnitas but feel free to add some shredded cheese, queso fresco, or queso cotija.
Side Dishes for Chicken Carnitas Tacos
There are so many different Mexican side dishes to serve with tacos from traditional options like Mexican rice and refried beans to salads, veggies, and more.
- Beans: Serve these tasty tacos with slow cooker pinto beans, black beans, Frijoles Charros, or Borracho Beans.
- Salads: Make a Mexican Street Corn Salad, Black Bean and Corn Salad, or Cucumber, Avocado, and Tomato Salad for something fresh and light.
- Vegetables and more: Serve these tacos with some Mexican Street Corn, Cilantro Lime Cauliflower Rice, or Spicy Cabbage and Corn Slaw.
Storage and Freezing
These chicken carnitas tacos keep well in the fridge for 4-5 days. Store the chicken separately from the tortillas and toppings. Reheat the chicken in a hot skillet.
You can also freeze leftover meat. Once it has cooled, store it in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let defrost overnight in the fridge and reheat in a hot skillet or the broiler.
Tortillas also freeze well if you end up with leftovers.
What to Make with Leftovers
Any time we make a Mexican protein like these chicken carnitas, we always double or triple the recipe to have leftovers for quick and easy meals. Use leftover carnitas for:
- Chicken taco bowls and burrito bowls
- Chicken quesadillas with melted cheese and bell peppers
- Easy chicken nachos with baked tortilla chips
- Chicken tostadas with a layer of refried beans and tons of toppings
- Shortcut chicken fajitas with sauteed peppers and onions
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the most common questions about making this carnitas de pollo recipe.
What is carnitas? Why type of meat is typically used?
Carnitas is a slow cooked pork dish from Michoacan where pork shoulder (or pork butt) is braised in a copper pot with lard until it is super tender and crispy on the edges.
It is normally seasoned with spices like salt, oregano, garlic, and bay leaves. Many versions also use lime juice, bitter oranges, or Seville oranges.
How to make crispy chicken carnitas tacos?
To make crispy chicken tacos, start by preparing the chicken carnitas. Then warm corn tortillas in the microwave so they are soft and pliable. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Fill each tortilla with the chicken, a thin layer of cheese or refried beans, and any other toppings you like. Fold over and place on a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray.
Bake for 16-20 minutes, flipping halfway through so they get browned and toasted on both sides.
What is the difference between carnitas and barbacoa?
Carnitas is traditionally made with pork shoulder, while barbacoa is traditionally made with beef.
Chicken Carnitas Tacos
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- 2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 1 tsp. ancho chili powder
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp. paprika
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. onion powder
- 1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 2 limes, juice
- 12 corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 cup onion, diced
- 1 cup green salsa
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- Nutritional Information
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
The Nutritional Values provided are estimates only and may vary based on the preparation method.
This recipe can also be made with chicken breasts if you prefer. The texture will not be as juicy and moist.
Alternative cooking options:
Instant Pot: Toss the chicken with the spices. Add the seasoned chicken thighs to the Instant Pot or any pressure cooker. Add ½-1 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer. Cook on manual mode for 15 minutes and let naturally release for at least 5 minutes. Shred with two forks.
Slow cooker: Add the chicken and spices to the slow cooker. Toss to coat. Cook on low for 3-4 hours until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Shred the chicken using two forks.
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