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It's easy and economical to make fall apart tender, deeply flavorful Chicken Carnitas in your slow cooker. You'll need just a few everyday ingredients, 15 minutes of active time and 3 to 7 hours of hands off time in your slow cooker (depending on whether you cook on the low or high setting).
In Spanish, carnitas means “little meats,” and the dish originated in Michoacan, Mexico. Though the most common version is pork carnitas — which I love — the chicken version is equally delicious. Made with boneless skinless chicken thighs (or boneless skinless chicken breasts), and the same delicious seasonings, you might struggle to choose a favorite when tasting them side by side.
Ingredients You Need to Make Chicken Carnitas
- Chicken: boneless skinless chicken thighs (recommended) or boneless skinless chicken breasts
- Ground Cumin
- Dried Oregano: ideally Mexican oregano
- Cayenne Pepper: add more than the recipe calls for if you like extra spicy kick
- Garlic: fresh garlic cloves
- Tomato Juice
- Orange Juice: ideally fresh
- Chipotle Hot Sauce: such as Tabasco or Cholula brands
- Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Serve a Group or Enjoy the Leftovers
Chicken carnitas is a simple way to satisfy and delight a group of 8 or more hungry people (this recipe yields about 2 pounds of shredded meat): serve it in tacos, on nachos, in burritos, or on salads. But it's also a great choice for 2 or 4 with the promise of leftovers and freezes beautifully for quick and easy meals later.
Chicken Breasts or Chicken Thighs
For the juiciest carnitas, I recommend using chicken thighs. But chicken breasts also work well, they just tend to be drier, but you'll have plenty of cooking juices to moisten it as needed. Whether you choose thighs or breast, opt for the skinless boneless variety for easy shredding.
High or Low in the Slow Cooker
Both high and low slow cooker options work well here, so choose the one that best fits your schedule. Either way, you'll end up with plenty of succulent shredded chicken and a home that smells amazing.
Control the Spice
How spicy do you like your Chicken Carnitas? Some like it mild, others more toward the heat of a thousand suns. I'm somewhere in between, so as written, this recipe has a medium level of spice. Adjust it to your liking with more or less cayenne pepper and chipotle hot sauce.
- Homemade Refried Beans
- Salsa Guacamole
- Pico de Gallo
- Mexican Corn on the Cob
- Homemade Whole Wheat Tortillas
- Rice Cooker Mexican Rice or Mexican Cauliflower Rice
How to Make Chicken Carnitas
Whisk spices together and sprinkle over chicken thighs in a slow cooker. Add garlic cloves and pour tomato juice, orange juice and chipotle hot sauce mixture evenly over the top. Cook until chicken shreds easily with a fork, 6-7 hours on low or 3-4 hours on high.
Transfer slightly cooled meat from the cooking juices to a large bowl and shred into bite size pieces with two forks. Add ¼ cup or more of the cooking juices (fat skimmed and discarded) to the shredded meat and gently toss to coat. (Refrigerate or freeze remaining juices for reheating the chicken or other use). Serve in warm corn or flour tortillas with your favorite toppings
- 4 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano ideally Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
- 3 cloves garlic smashed
- ½ cup tomato juice
- ½ cup orange juice
- 1 tablespoon chipotle hot sauce such as Tabasco or Cholula brands
- Place chicken thighs in slow cooker. Combine salt, cumin, pepper, oregano, cinnamon, and cayenne in a small bowl and sprinkle over chicken. Add garlic cloves.
- Whisk together tomato juice, orange juice and chipotle hot sauce and pour over meat. Cook on low for 6-7 hours or on high 3-4 hours, until chicken shreds easily with a fork.
- When the meat has cooled slightly, carefully transfer from the cooking juices to a large bowl. Using two forks, shred into bite size pieces.
- Skim fat off of the slow cooker juices. Add ¼ cup or more of the juices to the shredded meat and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate remaining juices for reheating the chicken (see note #1) or freeze for another use (see note #2).
- Serve in warm corn or flour tortillas with your favorite toppings for tacos, or on tostadas, in burritos, or on taco salads. (For crispy chicken carnitas, see recipe note #1.)
- My favorite way to crisp up or reheat chicken carnitas is in a slick of hot oil in a non-stick or cast iron skillet until the meat is heated through and the edges are crisp, adding a little bit of the cooking liquid for flavor and moisture. OR spread the carnitas into an even layer on a baking sheet and broil for 5 to 6 minutes, or until lightly browned with crispy edges, stirring halfway through and adding more of the cooking liquid as needed.
- Don't throw excess cooking liquid away! If you have some left over when your chicken carnitas is gone, you can freeze it. It makes a great start for chili or other savory soup.
- Yields about 2 pounds of shredded meat.