Chicken Carnitas (Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, or Oven)
These crispy Chicken Carnitas couldn't be easier to prepare and make the best chicken taco filling. These carnitas are healthy, full of flavor, and a great alternative to traditional carnitas.
These easy Chicken Carnitas (Carnitas de Pollo) with cumin, paprika, oregano, chili powder, and lime juice have all the flavor of your favorite pork carnitas without the guilt.
We eat tacos at least once a week in our house and taco-inspired leftovers at least one other night. Think stuffed poblano peppers, quesadillas, taco bowls, and more.
Suffice it to say, we live on tacos and easy Mexican proteins around here. For that reason, I am always working on new and easy taco recipes to satisfy our addiction.
This delicious and simple Chicken Carnitas recipe is one of our new favorites. It couldn't be easier to make, is full of flavor from a quick homemade spice blend, and seriously makes some of the best chicken tacos.
Looking for more easy and versatile Mexican proteins? Try this Chicken Tinga, Beef Barbacoa, and Salsa Verde Chicken. We also love making this Pollo Pibil. It's another traditional pork recipe made with chicken instead.
Ingredients and Swaps
Here is everything you need to make this delicious dish.
- Chicken thighs: Carnitas is meant to have moisture and to get the right texture, it needs to be made with a cut of meat that has some fat. Traditionally it is made with pork shoulder. That's why this recipe uses chicken thighs. Although you could swap in chicken breasts, it really turns out best with thighs.
- Spices: Spices add flavor to the chicken carnitas. This homemade spice rub uses smoky ancho chili powder, kosher salt, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, and pepper. Swap in taco seasoning for an easy option.
- Lime juice: Lime juice is a must to really make this recipe taste amazing. Typically carnitas uses a combination of lime and orange juice, so add some extra citrus if you like.
- For tacos: If you are making tacos, you will also want to add some warm corn tortillas, fresh cilantro, diced onion, and salsa.
How to Make Chicken Carnitas
Let's talk about the cooking of these tacos for a moment. Although there are options for the Instant Pot and oven, I almost always cook these in the slow cooker. One of the first things you will notice is that there is no additional liquid in the recipe. It's just chicken thighs and spices.
Since chicken thighs contain some fat and natural juices, you don't need to add any extra liquid. Once the cooking process starts, they will release their natural juices and cook in this. This heightens the chicken flavor instead of diluting it with another liquid.
If you are worried about cooking in your slow cooker without liquid (you shouldn't be!), you can add in some chicken broth or light beer.
Now let's talk about spice. Since I am always adding gobs of salsa and fixings to my tacos, I keep the chicken fairly neutral when it comes to heat. A little ancho chili powder goes a long way since it is smokier and spicier than regular chili powder.
If you want to kick things up, use more chili powder or throw in a couple of diced chipotle peppers in adobo, like traditional chicken tinga. You could also add in some diced fresh jalapenos or regular chili powder if that's what you have in your spice cabinet.
Finally, for the very best Crockpot Chicken Carnitas, make sure to follow the full recipe and add the chicken to the broiler in the end. This step gets the chicken nice and crispy on the edges, which is one of the best parts of traditional pork carnitas. You want to have a lot of texture in the meat with some crispy bits and some smooth bits.
Believe me - it may seem like a small step but it makes things that much more delicious.
Best Toppings for Chicken Carnitas
One more thing - toppings! Usually, we like to eat these tacos loaded up with fresh cilantro, diced onion, tomatoes, and lots of this creamy avocado salsa or quick homemade guacamole.
If you love things spicy, add some of this simple ranchero sauce. This is also delicious with chipotle salsa. I can find it in my local grocery store next to the canned chipotle peppers. If you can't find it, just toss a can of chipotle peppers in adobo in the blender. Same thing.
More topping ideas:
- Pico de gallo
- Pickled red onions
- Shredded cabbage
- Salsa verde
- Creamy chipotle sauce
- Diced tomatoes
- Creamy Mexican slaw
- Pineapple salsa
Tips for Making Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
Follow these tips to make the most delicious carnitas de pollo.
- Use chicken thighs: You can use any cut of chicken you like for this recipe but I think boneless skinless chicken thighs work best. You don't have to worry about them drying out and you don't have to remove any bones or skin after the chicken has cooked. If you decide to use chicken breast, consider adding some chicken broth or light beer to make sure the chicken stays nice and moist.
- Take the time to broil the chicken: Two steps not to skip! Make sure to take the time to shred the chicken and broil it before serving. The crispy bits really make the recipe special and will give the tacos the best texture. Also, don't skimp on the lime juice. Usually, I squeeze 2-3 limes worth of juice on the chicken before serving it.
- Toppings: When it comes to toppings, anything goes! We always use cilantro and diced onion but you can use almost anything.
- Leftovers: If you have leftover taco meat, it works great for quesadillas, taco bowls, burritos, burrito bowls, and taco salads.
- More traditional: If you are looking for a more traditional salsa-style, tomato chicken, try this Mexican Shredded Chicken recipe.
Serving and Leftover Ideas
Although tacos are the most popular way to serve carnitas, this chicken is so versatile. Normally I make a double or triple batch (it freezes great) since the meat can be used in so many ways.
- Make the best chicken taco bowls.
- Turn leftovers into chicken quesadillas with black beans and cheese
- Serve this crispy chicken over a Mexican chopped salad
- Make carnitas nachos with these baked tortilla chips.
- Turn leftover chicken into delicious homemade tostadas.
- Make chicken fajitas with sauteed peppers, onions, and flour tortillas.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the most common questions about making these chicken carnitas.
What are carnitas?
Carnitas are a traditional Mexican dish from Michoacan that is normally made with pork shoulder cooked with spices and citrus. Many times the carnitas is cooked in lard.
Think of it as a Mexican version of pulled pork. The pork is always juicy with crispy edges. It is often served as tacos or as a plate with rice, beans, and tortillas.
Should chicken carnitas be marinated?
This recipe doesn't use marinated chicken, you can marinade the chicken thighs overnight for even more flavor. Make a delicious carnitas marinade with the juice of 1 orange, juice of 2 limes, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/4 cup cilantro, and 2 minced garlic cloves. Then when it is time to cook, remove the chicken from the marinade and add the spice rub.
Chicken Carnitas (Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, or Oven)
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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
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Slow cooker: Cook on high for 3-4 hours until chicken is cooked through and tender. Don't worry about adding liquid, the chicken thighs will release liquid as they cook creating just the right amount of liquid needed for cooking. Instant pot: Place the chicken in the Instant Pot and add 1/2 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer. Cook on manual for 15 minutes. Let naturally release. Oven method: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Sear the chicken in a Dutch oven. Add 1/2-1 cup of chicken broth or Mexican beer. Cover and cook in the oven for 45-60 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and easily shreds with a fork.
* 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.
Although this recipe can be made with chicken breasts, the taste and texture will be more similar to carnitas if you use chicken thighs.
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