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posted October 04, 2021

Smoked Chicken Carnitas

Ready for a meal that is knock-your-socks-off good? These smoked chicken carnitas are savory, sweet, and tangy to please every member of the family. Take a spin on the wild side and try your carnitas with chicken instead of pork for dinner this week!

Tortilla filled with shredded chicken next to a dutch oven with grilled chicken with text overlay - Chicken Carnitas.

Chicken Carnitas

Now I know what you may be thinking. “Umm, excuse me? Carnitas are made from pork, not chicken!” While you are extremely correct, my well-informed friend, you can also make carnitas from shredded chicken with similar spices and seasonings.

These grilled chicken carnitas transform juicy chicken thighs into tangy, citrusy, well-seasoned shreds of deliciousness. This awesome meat is perfect in tacos, on top of salads, stuffed into burritos, or eaten straight out of the pan. Trust me, these smoky chicken carnitas are extraordinary.

Ingredient for chicken carnitas on a round wooden board.

Ingredients for Smoked Chicken Carnitas

The secret to these killer chicken carnitas comes from the combination of awesome flavors. Our chicken thighs are going to be braised and smoked, so it’s crucial to combine flavors that will work well together and compliment the smoky goodness of the chicken.

Here’s what you need to make these chicken carnitas. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post for a full recipe card!

  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/4 cup fat or vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Hey Grill Hey Sweet Rub
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Hey Grill Hey Fiesta Rub
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 1 sweet onion
  • 2 oranges
  • 2 limes
  • 1 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves

Both of my seasonings can be purchased from the Hey Grill Hey Store OR you can make them from scratch! It’s totally up to you. If you plan to make them at home, check out the recipes here: Best Sweet Rub and Homemade Fiesta Rub.

Seasoned chicken, lime, orange, and seasonings in a cast iron skillet.

How to Make Smoked Chicken Carnitas

These chicken carnitas are dying to be made, so let’s get into the process. I’ve detailed here how you can cook these in either a pellet smoker or a charcoal grill. The recipe card below includes more information about cooking these carnitas in a smoker.

  1. Preheat. I cooked these in my 12-inch cast iron skillet on my pellet smoker, but you can use whatever grill you have available to you. Carnitas can also be cooked in a dutch oven if you prefer that over a skillet. If you decide to cook it on a charcoal grill, toss some chunks of hickory to the charcoal for added smoky flavor.
  2. Cook the chicken. Season the chicken on all sides with the Fiesta Rub and Sweet Rub. Melt the fat or vegetable oil in the skillet on the grill over direct heat if using a charcoal grill. If using a pellet grill, complete this step and the next one on the stovetop. Place the seasoned chicken in the skillet and brown both sides.
  3. Make the braise. Add bay leaves, onion, garlic, lime juice, orange juice, and chicken stock to the skillet with the chicken. Bring to a boil. 
  4. Smoke. Move the skillet over to the indirect heat side of the grill if using a charcoal grill, or place the skillet in your preheated pellet grill. Smoke for 1 1/2 hours.
  5. Finish cooking. Cover the skillet with a lid that is slightly offset and continue cooking for 1 hour.
  6. Shred and serve. Remove the skillet from the smoker and shred the chicken thighs in a bowl with 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. If you want your chicken a bit crispy on the edges, you can cook the shredded chicken in more oil before serving. 

Shredder claws shredding chicken carnitas in a large glass bowl.

Tips for Making Chicken Carnitas

Ready to make these? Check out these tips before diving into the recipe.

  • Reuse the liquid! The remaining strained braising liquid is magic if you use it to make dirty rice or added to the blender to smooth out black beans for refried beans.
  • Want to make this pulled chicken birria-style? Dip your tortillas in the leftover liquid then pan fry. Fill with shredded chicken and cheese and dip the tortillas in more of the strained cooking liquid.
  • Go crispy. If you want your chicken to be more crispy on the edges like the authentic pork carnitas, heat some oil in a pan after shredding and fry up that shredded chicken. Don’t go too long and dry out your chicken, but let it sizzle in the hot oil juat long enough to add some really great texture and crunch!

Chicken carnitas tacos in a row on a white wooden surface.

More Chicken Recipes

Have I converted you over to chicken carnitas yet? If so, I have a feeling you’ll love these other chicken recipes from the site. Be sure to check out that pulled chicken recipe. It’s a major favorite.

Smoked Chicken Carnitas Recipe

Now that you have all the tools to make this recipe, it’s time to dive in and give you mouth a delicious treat!

As always, Hey Grill Hey is in the business of helping you make better BBQ so you can feel like a backyard BBQ hero. If you loved this recipe, be sure to let me know in the comments below!

Shredded chicken carnitas in a cast iron skillet.

Smoked Chicken Carnitas

Taylor Shulman
Ready for a meal that is knock-your-socks-off good? These smoked chicken carnitas are savory, sweet, and tangy to please every member of the family. Take a spin on the wild side and try your carnitas with chicken instead of pork for dinner this week!
Prep Time : 30 mins
Cook Time : 3 hrs
Total Time : 3 hrs 30 mins
Servings : 4
Calories : 650kcal

Ingredients
 

  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • ¼ cup tallow, lard, bacon fat, or vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons Hey Grill Hey Sweet Rub (recipe in notes)
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons Hey Grill Hey Fiesta Rub (or your favorite taco seasoning)
  • 8 cloves garlic (smashed)
  • 1 sweet onion (peeled and quartered)
  • 2 oranges (quartered)
  • 2 limes (quartered)
  • 1 ½ cup chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves (optional)

Instructions

  • Preheat the smoker. Preheat your smoker for an overall temperature of 275 degrees F.
  • Season the chicken. Mix the Fiesta Rub and Sweet Rub seasonings and set half the mixture aside. Use the other half of the seasoning blend to season the chicken thighs on both sides.
  • Brown the chicken. Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the tallow, bacon fat, or vegetable oil to your pan and heat through. Place the thighs in the skillet and brown both sides (approximately 4-5 minutes per side). You may have to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pan.
  • Make the braise. Return all browned chicken thighs to the skillet and nestle in the bay leaves, onion wedges, and crushed garlic cloves. Squeeze the juice from the limes and oranges into the pot and add a wedge or two of each citrus into the pan. Pour the chicken stock into the pan and let it all come to a boil.
  • Smoke. Move the skillet to the preheated smoker and close the lid. Smoke for 1.5 hours.
  • Finish braising. Cover your pan with a lid that is offset slightly so there is a 1/2 inch vent. Close the smoker and braise for 1 hour. Your chicken thighs will be reading around 195 degrees F internally and feel very tender.
  • Shred the chicken. Remove the thighs from the skillet and place them into a bowl. Strain the remaining liquid and discard the onion, garlic, and bay leaves. Transfer ½ cup of the cooking liquid into the bowl with the chicken thighs and shred.
  • Crisp the meat. (Optional step) Heat 2 Tablespoons of tallow in a skillet and return the shredded chicken to the pan when the oil starts to ripple. Crisp the edges of the shredded chicken before serving.
  • Enjoy! Serve the shredded chicken with lime wedges, onions, and avocados on grilled tortillas.

Nutrition

Calories: 650kcal | Carbohydrates: 27g | Protein: 70g | Fat: 29g | Saturated Fat: 15g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 7g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 326mg | Sodium: 517mg | Potassium: 1241mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 13g | Vitamin A: 487IU | Vitamin C: 52mg | Calcium: 154mg | Iron: 6mg
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