Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas — These EASY and flavorful chicken carnitas are seasoned with Mexican spices, citrus juices, chipotle peppers in adobo and slow-cooked to PERFECTION! A quick trip under the broiler ensures those traditional crispy bits and then it’s ready to use in tacos, burritos, salads, or other Mexican-inspired dishes for a simple but family FAVORITE weeknight dinner!
Table of Contents
- Easy Chicken Carnitas … in a Crockpot!
- Ingredients in Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
- How to Make Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
- Chicken Carnitas Toppings and Serving Suggestions
- Tips for Making the Best Chicken Carnitas
- Storing Leftover Chicken Carnitas
- Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas FAQs
- Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas Recipe
- More Easy Slow Cooker Dinners:
Easy Chicken Carnitas … in a Crockpot!
Move over pork carnitas, these chicken carnitas are a new favorite!
While pork may be the meat that comes to mind traditionally when making this dish, carnitas actually means ‘little meats’ in Spanish and can be made with most any protein you would like.
In this case, chicken is slow-cooked in a super flavorful spice mixture with chipotle peppers, garlic, cumin, chili powder, oregano and more.
Then it’s shredded and broiled briefly to obtain those classic crispy ends while retaining its overall moisture.
These carnitas de pollo also have a secret ingredient that makes them so tender you will make them over and over again to satisfy any Mexican food craving.
I love that this is a true set it and forget it meal that’s perfect for busy weeknights. Blend up spice mixture, pour it over the chicken breasts (or thighs) in your slow cooker, and slow cook away. Then shred it, broil, and serve your chicken carnitas in tacos, burritos, over rice, or make a burrito bowl.
Keep on reading because I’ve got lots of serving suggestions and ideas below how to use it.
Ingredients in Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
To make the best chicken carnitas of your life, you’ll need the following fridge and pantry ingredients. Tip – If you’ve never bought them before, canned chiles with adobo sauce are usually found in the Mexican section or aisle of your grocery store.
Here is what you will need to get started:
- Boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts
- Fresh orange juice
- Fresh lime juice
- Garlic cloves
- Chipotles in adobo sauce
- Chili powder
- Mexican oregano (or regular)
- Black pepper
- Mexican Coke (or regular)
- Bay leaves
Note: All ingredients amounts are listed in the recipe card section when you keep scrolling down.
How to Make Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
Using the slow cooker makes this easy dinner a true set-it-and-forget-it dinner. It cooks while you’re at work or out-and-about. When you get home all you have to do is shred it and put it under the broiler.
Follow these easy step-by-step directions, pile the meat high in a tortilla, and top with all your favorite taco toppings!
Step 1: Place the chicken in a 6 to 7-quart Crock-Pot. Don’t use anything smaller.
Step 2: To the canister of a high-speed blender, add the orange juice, lime juice, garlic, chipotle, jalapeno, cumin, chili powder, Mexican oregano, salt, and blend.
Step 3: Pour the sauce over the chicken and pour the Coke over.
Step 4: Add bay leaves, stir to combine, place the lid on top, and cook carnitas chicken on high for 4 hours OR low for 6 hours. Check it with a digital thermometer to make sure it’s 165F and done.
Step 5: Remove the bay leaves and shred the cooked chicken, and you can do it right in the Crock-Pot.
Easiest Way to Shred Chicken
Use a handheld electric mixer to shred the chicken. It might splatter a bit, but it’ll shred your chicken in no time!
Of course, you can always shred with a couple of forks too. Take it out and shred it on a cutting board so the forks don’t accidentally scratch your Crock-Pot.
Step 6: Turn the broiler to high, and move an oven rack to the top of the oven.
Step 7: Place the shredded chicken on a large baking sheet and broil for 5 minutes just to toast the ends. Don’t leave them too long!
Step 8: Serve in tacos and top with your favorite toppings. Make sure to keep reading for my favorite toppings and serving suggestions!
Chicken Carnitas Toppings and Serving Suggestions
The fun part of this Mexican dish is how you will top your carnitas!
To serve traditional carnitas tacos you will need at least fresh cilantro, limes, and soft flour tortillas or corn tortillas. From there, you can customize things.
Some of my favorite toppings and ways to serve Crock-Pot chicken carnitas include:
- Tortillas – flour or corn
- Lime wedges
- Red onions or pickled red onions
- Shredded cabbage
- Salsas: Avocado Tomatillo, Restaurant-Style Red Salsa, Pineapple Chipotle Salsa (use your extra chipotles in adobo and make this easy salsa), pico de gallo
- Guacamole or Avocado: DIY Guacamole, Chunky Guacamole
You can also repurpose any leftover chicken carnitas and put them in burritos. Follow how I made these Smothered Beef Burritos for a general idea, but use the leftover chicken instead.
Tips for Making the Best Chicken Carnitas
Slow cooker recipes really are a cinch and this one is no-fuss. You don’t need to sear the chicken in a skillet first and then transfer it, no marinating required, it’s truly easy-peasy.
However here are a few tips to make your life even easier:
– Use a hand mixer to shred the chicken right in the slow cooker.
– If there’s a lot of juice in your slow cooker, you may want to remove some of it before shredding. Do that easily by putting a 1 cup measuring cup in and ladle it out into another bow; don’t toss it, you may want it later. Don’t try to pick up your Crock-Pot and just dump some out though. It’s hot, heavy, awkward, and you’ll either burn yourself or make a huge mess!
– Don’t leave it under the broiler too long – 5 minutes or so is all it will take. Carnitas are known for their crispy parts. However, because chicken is so lean, it can quickly and easily get too dry if you over “toast” it. So don’t overdo it. Just a few minutes to get crispy parts, then remove it, and serve.
– Spices: This recipe uses a homemade blend of spices including cumin, chili powder, and Mexican oregano. Use taco seasoning instead if you wish. However use taco seasoning from a spice container and NOT a packet of “taco seasoning” like you’d sprinkle over ground beef in a skillet to make tacos. Taco seasoning packets not only have the spices and seasonings, but there is also something in them to thicken up sauces which is an advantage when making tacos, but not here.
Storing Leftover Chicken Carnitas
Store your chicken carnitas leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. You can also freeze it for up to 4 months.
When reheating, take it easy with the microwave which can accidentally dry out the chicken in a hurry. Save some cooking liquid in a container in your fridge for this, just in case.
Also, adding salsa, lime juice, or sour cream is especially nice to serve with any extra chicken carnitas meat.
Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas FAQs
Other than the obvious difference in that one is pork and the other chicken there are a few differences in making carnitas with chicken instead of pork.
Pork butt or pork shoulder which are used for traditional pork carnitas is a large piece of meat and as such requires more salt. This chicken version will not need as much salt.
Pork also contains more fat so it tends to stay moister and isn’t as prone to drying out.
If possible, shred your chicken then let it sit for 30 minutes in the Crock-Pot in the juices to help to reabsorb liquids before crisping it up under the broiler.
If you’re interested in making pork carnitas, follow my Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe and my Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Tacos recipe. Crisp the meat up under the broiler for carnitas-style crispness if you prefer but that’s the only alteration you need to make.
I haven’t tried this exact recipe to make pork carnitas. However, I would use make the blended chipotle sauce that I use in this recipe. But use the same type of pork and same general slow cooking method I use in my Slow Cooker Pulled Pork. Shred it and broil the pork like I do in this chicken carnitas recipe.
For the juiciest and most flavorful chicken carnitas, use dark meat chicken thighs.
Boneless skinless chicken breasts can also be used but because they’re leaner, will not have quite the same flavor and could become more dry if you’re not careful. However, there is plenty of cooking juice that will keep the chicken moist while cooking so don’t worry if that is all you have!
The best tip to keep in mind is to use boneless skinless chicken without skin so you don’t have to deal with the skin+ shredding when the time comes.
The acidity in both the juices helps tenderize the meat in this easy slow cooker recipe. One is sweet and one isn’t, so you need both.
I highly recommend freshly squeezed orange juice although OJ from a carton will work in a pinch. As for the lime juice, we are only talking 1-2 limes depending on size, so definitely squeeze them and don’t buy bottled lime juice.
Great question! The natural sugars in Coca-Cola add flavor and somehow work to tenderize the meat. You’d have to get deep into food chemistry why this exactly works, but it does!
I use the same concept in my Slow Cooker Cherry Coke Pulled Pork and it works like a charm.
Please note, you need to use regular, not diet, Coca-Cola.
If you can find Mexican Coke at a place like BevMo or even Home Depot of all places, it has a bit more sugar and the carnitas are just that much better. But if you don’t have it, regular Coke is just fine.
While this is not necessary and I don’t think you’ll need it for moisture. But if you would like you can add a small amount of chicken broth or light beer for flavor, you can.
In my opinion, no this isn’t a spicy dish. There are chilis in adobo sauce and I use 2-3 plus some of the liquid. But if you or your family members are sensitive to spice, you can reduce the amount of both the chilis and the liquid. Just use 1 chili and only a few tablespoons of the liquid rather than what the recipe calls for.
The beauty here is that you can use either! I would choose what slow cooking time works best for your schedule.
Cook it on HIGH for 3-4 hours. Or on LOW for 6-8 hours.
Either way, the shredded chicken will fill your home with amazing aromas and everyone will be running into the kitchen asking when it’s going to be ready.
Some like it spicy, some like it not.
To control the spice in your chicken carnitas:
-use less or more chipotle peppers and the adobo sauce
-leave out or add in more jalapenos
-and for those that love spice add a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper
Can i HALVE the recipe?
Yes you can. When I am making recipes like this, I like to make enough to serve a hungry family and to also have planned leftovers for at least a couple more meals throughout the week.
However, if that doesn’t sound like you, feel free to halve the recipe by halving all ingredients. In turn, the chicken will cook more quickly in your slow cooker. Not by half, but by maybe 25% so start checking earlier. After about 3 hours on high, and 4 1/2 hours on low, give or take.
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Slow Cooker Chicken Carnitas
- 4 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs, pound them a bit if they’re very thick
- ¾ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- ¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 2 chipotles with adobo sauce, finely chopped or blended
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, or regular oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 cup Coca-Cola, not diet
- 2 bay leaves
- Place the chicken in a 6 to 7-quart Crock-Pot or similar slow cooker; set aside.
- Sauce – To the canister of a high-speed blender, add the orange juice, lime juice, garlic, chipotles and some adobo sauce (more or less depending on your preference for spiciness), jalapeno, cumin, chili powder, Mexican oregano, salt, pepper, and blend on high speed, until smooth and combined.
- Evenly pour the sauce over the chicken.
- Then pour the Coke over the chicken, add the bay leaves, and lightly stir and make sure the chicken is fully submerged. Tip – If you can find Mexican Coke at a place like BevMo or even Home Depot, it has a bit more sugar and the carnitas are just that much better. But if you don't have it, regular Coke is just fine.
- Slow Cooking – Place the lid on the slow cooker, and cook on LOW for about 6 hours or on HIGH for about 4 hours. Tip – Chicken is done when it seems to give away easily when touched with a fork signifying it will shred easily, and it reaches an internal temp of 165F as measured with a digital thermometer. Better not to guess!
- Shredding – Remove the bay leaves and then shred the cooked chicken. Tips – You can do this right in your Crock-Pot with a handheld electric mixer. If there's a lot of juice, first remove that by submerging a 1-cup measuring cup into the liquid and removing some of it, and place it in a separate bowl rather than discarding it. Then, with the mixer on low to medium speed, shred the chicken. You can also shred the chicken with two forks on a cutting board. Don't do it in your slow cooker because the forks could accidentally scratch it.
- If desired, add back in and removed cooking juices (save any in small airtight container in the fridge; you may want it to pour over leftovers), and if time permits, allow the chicken to sit in the cooking juices for about 30 minutes, which adds flavor and prevents dryness.
- Broiling – Move an oven rack to the top position and turn your broiler to HIGH.
- Place the shredded chicken on a large, foil-lined or well-sprayed baking sheet. Tip – If your baking sheets are a bit smaller, use two and do this in batches rather than cramming and crowding everything onto one.
- Broil for about 5 minutes to add a bit of crispiness to the chicken, which is what carnitas are known for. Tips – Do not broil past the stage of just a bit of light crispiness and "toasting" the tips or ends of the meat because it will turn dry and tough; some parts will be drier and crispier, and others will stay moister. Don't walk away from your kitchen or accidentally forget about it because things can go from underdone to burnt in 1 minute flat under a hot broiler. Rotate the pan once midway through broiling for optimal results.
Serving – Serve as desired with warmed flour or corn tortillas, cilantro, and lime wedges at a minimum. Then consider:
- Red onions or pickled red onions
- Shredded cabbage
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
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