Instant Pot Carnitas Chicken is tender pulled chicken with notes of citrus and oregano. Ready in 35 minutes, use this healthy chicken thigh recipe in tacos, burrito bowls, salads, and more. This easy recipe is perfect for meal prep and lunches.
What is carnitas chicken?
Carnitas is a classic Mexican dish of pulled pork slow cooked with lime and orange. To finish, the meat is broiled to make it all crispy awesome around the edges of the bits of meat.
Carnitas chicken is essentially the same as carnitas pork, just prepared using chicken. Far and away, I prefer chicken thighs over breast for flavor, juiciness, and tenderness.
With only 30 calories more per serving, boneless skinless chicken thighs are my go-to.
What makes this recipe great
So why should you want to give this recipe a go? Because chicken carnitas is easy and healthy. Whether you use an Instant Pot or slow cooker, we just dump in the ingredients and let it cook.
There is no added oil, no processed sugar, and no ingredients with issues.
What ingredients do you need?
The ingredients for this healthy chicken thigh recipe are so easy and combine with the chicken for such deliciousness, you will not believe you hadn’t tried this sooner.
- Boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I trim off as much fat as I can. Using a super sharp knife helps.
- Lime. We use both the juice and zest of a whole lime.
- Orange. Like the lime, we use all the zest and juice of an orange.
- Dried oregano. I originally intended to use Mexican oregano, but I checked a couple stores and could not find it. So, I decided to keep this recipe as approachable as possible and used conventional oregano. This will sound strange, but in a pinch you may substitute Italian seasoning – it is mostly oregano anyway.
- Kosher salt.
- Fresh cracked pepper.
- Minced garlic.
- Mexican seasoning blend or grill rub of choice. I have used McCormick Mexican seasoning blend, purchased barbecue seasoning, and my own chicken grill rub all with great results.
- Beer. This is for flavor, moisture, and we only use 1/4 cup. Chicken stock would be an appropriate substitute.
How to make chicken carnitas
As I said before, making carnitas chicken is one of the easiest recipes out there.
In the Instant Pot
Simply put all the ingredients in the Pot and put on the lid. make sure the vent on top is closed, then hit the Poultry button for “More” pressure (see photo). The display will read ON, and will change to 00:30 once it comes to pressure.
Once the cycle is complete, vent the Pot manually. Open the lid, and use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a bake sheet. Use two forks to shred.
Broil the chicken for 2-4 couple minutes, stirring/tossing every minute or so with fork, until the edges are crispy. Done!
More easy chicken recipes
In the slow cooker
For prepping carnitas in the slow cooker, follow exactly the same steps as for the Instant Pot, just in a slow cooker, then cook on high 4 hours or low 6 hours.
Proceed just the same with pulling the meat and broiling.
Ways to use carnitas chicken
Here is where this healthy chicken thigh recipe is so awesome because this tender, flavorful chicken can go just about anywhere.
- Burrito bowl: brown rice, black beans, chopped fresh spinach or romaine, tomatoes, and carnitas chicken. Serve with guacamole, light sour cream, or salad dressing of choice.
- Tacos: I made simple tacos with shaved romaine lettuce, cilantro, and avocado in whole wheat taco tortillas for these photos, and they were devoured by my family. I also put light sour cream on mine.
- Tamales: I have never made them, but I sure love to eat them.
- Salads: whatever salad ingredients you like, just throw it all together and enjoy.
- Pizza: I strongly believe pizza is the best food on the planet and you put literally anything on it.
- Breakfast: want to up the protein in your breakfast? Use carnitas chicken in Mexican Eggs Benedict or in a breakfast sandwich.
This chicken is especially good with my Huevos Ranchero Sauce, so you may want to check that out too.
Be sure to grab boneless, skinless chicken thighs. You do not want to have to deal with fetching out bone and cartilage. You can, and bone-in thighs are less expensive and I have done it myself, but it is a pain in the butt.
Do not overthink the seasoning. I have used all kinds of different seasoning blends to make this chicken, and I have never been disappointed. The key here is that we want the lime and orange citrus notes to sing.
If you do not have a zester, get one! Or not. You can use the small holes of a cheese grater or zesting edge if your grater has one.
The tried and true method of using two forks to pull meat applies here.
Yesssss you can use chicken breast in place of thighs. I personally am not a fan of pressure cooked or slow cooker chicken breast because it gets mealy, but if that is your thing you do you. Cooking directions remain the same either way.
I do not recommend omitting the beer (or stock). We need to add that bit of liquid because as the Instant Pot heats up, if that bit of liquid is not there, it will sound a Burn alarm and not work right. So, the beer is not just for good looks and flavor, it also has function.
Broiling the meat at the end is completely optional and you can totally skip it if you are not feeling that.
Looking for healthy lunch ideas?
Instant Pot Carnitas Chicken
- 2 ½ lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs trimmed of large pieces of fat
- 1 lime juice and zest
- 1 orange juice and zest
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- good pinch kosher salt
- 1 pinch fresh cracked pepper
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tsp Mexican seasoning blend or grill rub of choice
- ¼ cup beer or chicken stock
Make in the Instant Pot
- Add all of the ingredients to the Instant Pot. Place on the lid and rotate to lock securely.
- Set the pot to "Poultry, More". The time display will read "ON". After the unit comes up to pressure, the time gauge will display 00:30 (30 minutes).
- Once the Instant Pot has run the cycle and sounds the alarm, switch the top lever to "Vent" and manually release the steam. When complete, remove the lid.
- Transfer the meat to a rimmed bake sheet. Use two forks to shred the meat. Taste for seasoning and add a pinch of salt if necessary.
Make in a slow cooker
- Follow all the directions as above, except cook in the slow cooker 4 hours on high heat or 6 hours on low heat.
Calorie count is purely an estimate calculated using an online application to serve as a guide and not to be taken as accurate nutritional information. Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.