Chicken Carnitas (Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, or Oven)

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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.

193 CAL 3g CARBS 6g FAT 29g PROTEIN 4

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 for chicken carnitas including chicken thighs, cilantro, spices, and limes.

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.

Crispy carnitas with chicken on a baking sheet with browned crispy edges, limes, and cilantro.

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:

Tacos with chicken carnitas, avocado salsa, limes, cilantro, and white onions.

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. It will give you a texture and taste similar to traditional carnitas tacos. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the most common questions about making these chicken 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. 

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.

Slow cooker Chicken Carnitas with lime juice and pico de gallo.
The Recipe
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Chicken Carnitas (Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, or Oven)

193 CAL 3g CARBS 6g FAT 29g PROTEIN 4
COOK TIME: 4 Hours, 10 Min
TOTAL TIME: 4 Hours, 20 Min
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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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Nestle the chicken thighs into the slow cooker. Mix together all the spices.


Sprinkle half the spice mixture over the chicken. Flip using a fork and sprinkle the other side of the chicken with seasoning.


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.


Preheat the broiler. Shred the chicken using two forks. Remove from the slow cooker using a slotted spoon. Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and broil for 6-8 minutes until chicken is browned on the top and crispy.


If desired toss the chicken with the broth that remains in the slow cooker and fresh lime juice.


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Nutritional Facts
Serving Size: 6 oz.
Amount Per Serving
Calories 193
Calories from Fat 2
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 6g
Saturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 2g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Cholesterol 132mg
Sodium 643mg
Total Carbohydrate 3g
Dietary Fiber 1g
Sugars 0g
Protein 29g

* 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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About the author Meet Kristen McCaffrey
Hi, I’m the cookbook author, recipe developer, and food enthusiast behind Slender Kitchen. I am obsessed with making healthy food that is easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. Meal planning is my secret weapon and I hope I can make meal time easier for you with our tried and tested recipes and foolproof meal plans. Learn More
On Chicken Carnitas (Slow Cooker, Instant Pot, or Oven)
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Shalom Kane
May 4, 2023 - 16:04
Add a Rating:
There is no measurement for line juice that I see. How much should be mixed in with the liquid from the slow cooker and the chicken?
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September 19, 2023 - 10:57
We like this with the juice of 2 limes, or 2-3 tablespoons of lime juice. Feel free to add to taste!
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July 7, 2022 - 13:50
Obsessed with these chicken carnitas! My husband doesn't eat pork, and I try to avoid it as well. I love that this is a crock pot recipe so it's nice and simple, but finishing it in the oven is key to get it all nice and crispy. One of our favorite recipes!
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Nelly Steele
May 5, 2019 - 16:04
Add a Rating:
Easy, delicious!
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Susan DeRespinis
October 28, 2017 - 04:43
Absolutely LOVED this recipe! Followed it exactly and served on corn/flour tortillas. Will def be a repeat in our house!
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