King Ranch chicken. It’s a classic American casserole that many recall as the best thing from their childhood. It’s chicken and roasted peppers layered with tortillas and cheesy goodness. One taste and you may want to rewrite your early years.
Hailing from an era when casseroles were king, this Tex-Mex addition reigns supreme as the staple dish for church suppers and neighborhood potlucks. Though not an invention of the famed King Ranch—it’s more likely the invention of a lady’s Junior League—the spicy flavors of chili powder, roasted peppers, and cumin never fail to please.–Jessica Dupuy
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CAN I MAKE KING RANCH CHICKEN IN ADVANCE?
One of the great things about casseroles is that you can just slide ‘em in the oven and forget about ‘em for a while. The trick, however, is that quite often some prep work has to happen before you get to that point of just effortlessly sliding the whole shebang in the oven, and this King Ranch chicken recipe is no exception. You can, however, assemble the casserole ahead of time, or even in stages, by doing some of the prep—shredding the chicken, chopping the vegetables, even toasting the tortillas—earlier in the day or week so that when it comes time to bake the casserole everything is at the ready.
King Ranch Chicken
- 6 tablespoons (3 oz) unsalted butter or mild vegetable or olive oil plus more for the baking dish
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion (about 1 large)
- 1 cup chopped red bell pepper (about 1 medium)
- 1 cup chopped poblano pepper (about 2 medium peppers)
- 1 jalapeño pepper seeded and chopped
- 2 garlic cloves chopped
- 1 tablespoon chile powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 cups store-bought or homemade chicken stock
- One (10-oz) can diced tomatoes with green chiles drained
- 1 1/2 cups sour cream
- 2 pounds smoked chicken meat coarsely chopped (about 5 cups shredded or chopped chicken; you can substitute roasted or grilled chicken)
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves chopped, plus more for garnish
- 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
- Eighteen (6-inch) corn tortillas
- 1/4 cup mild vegetable or olive oil for frying the tortillas
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly slick a 13-by-9-inch (33-by-23 cm) baking dish with butter or oil.
- Melt the butter or heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and the bell pepper, poblano pepper, and jalapeño peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
- Sprinkle the flour over the vegetable mixture and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Still stirring constantly, slowly stir or whisk in the stock and bring to a boil. Boil until the mixture thickens, which could take anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Add the tomatoes and sour cream to the skillet and stir to combine. Add the chicken and cilantro and stir again until blended.
- Combine the cheeses in a small bowl.
- Place a large cast-iron skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Lightly brush each tortilla on both sides with oil. Cook the tortillas, working with just a couple at a time, on the hot skillet or wok until lightly browned and crisp, flipping once, about 1 minutes per side.
- Cover the bottom of the prepared baking dish with 6 tortillas, overlapping the tortillas slightly. Top with 1/2 of the chicken mixture and 1/3 of the cheese mixture. Repeat the layers once, adding 6 more tortillas and the remaining chicken mixture and 1/2 the remaining cheeses. Top with the remaining tortillas and cheese.
- Lightly coat a sheet of aluminum foil with butter or oil and cover the baking dish, butter or oil side down. Bake the casserole for 20 minutes.
- Uncover the casserole and continue to bake until bubbly and lightly browned on top, 10 to 15 more minutes.
- Let the casserole stand 10 minutes to cool slightly and then sprinkle with cilantro, serve, and prepare to be serenaded by compliments.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
When my husband and I first moved in together, we were both transplants to the great state of Texas. Specifically, Georgetown, the home of the Monument Diner. In case you’re unfamiliar with this almost holy institution, the food is second to none and their signature dish (which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, alongside the hottest Georgetown native, Matthew McConaughey) is the King Ranch chicken casserole. So we know our stuff.
Shockingly, I’ve never tried making King Ranch chicken on my own—perhaps because I had the idea that it was too complicated or that I’d totally ruin it. However, we left Texas in 2012 and I suppose nostalgia got the better of us, so I gave it a whirl. OH MY. While I grant that it’s a little time-consuming, it’s more than worth it. I’d eat this every single day if I could—piping hot out the oven for dinner, cold for a quick breakfast or lunch, or at 3 a.m. as a late-night dessert. But then I might weigh 600 pounds, so perhaps there’s some merit to it being a little fussy to put together.
There’s not a thing I’d change with this recipe. This reminds me so much of the Monument’s King Ranch chicken it’s scary, and my husband has said multiple times (because I didn’t believe him) that he thinks it’s actually better. This is a winner. The two of us polished off the whole casserole (across several meals) in 3 days.
This more-or-less-from-scratch version of the classic King Ranch chicken casserole is much more labor-intensive than the original but produces a creamy, cheesy comfort food nonetheless—and without canned condensed soup.
Putting an entire cup of cilantro in seemed like overkill but it blended in and cooked through and wasn’t noticeable to me as a distinct element, though we like cilantro in this household.
It’s very important to have all the ingredients prepped before starting so you can put this together with some kind of efficiency. I slacked and had to grate the cheese last-minute before I could assemble the casserole and it made the whole process much less efficient. I think I might prefer the tortillas torn up so that they cover the pan more fully than they do whole, but that’s a minor quibble. To pump up the Tex-Mex element in this even more, I used pepper jack cheese. I also used grilled chicken breasts that had been coated with bbq sauce and thighs with smoked paprika.
This King Ranch chicken is a spicy, cheesy meal that’s absolutely delicious. A little prep ahead of time helps make this come together in a snap.
I baked 2 pounds of chicken thighs (9 medium) the evening before. I cooled and chopped and sealed them in an airtight plastic bowl and refrigerated them until the next day. My chopped chicken was a super time saver the next day. I also chopped my onions and peppers and grated my cheese the night before as well. Once I arrived home after work, I took everything out of the fridge and pantry and got started on dinner.
The mix of cheeses was a great treat…cheese is always a good thing…right? Layering was a breeze. I popped it in the oven for the recommended time and it came out bubbly hot and looked absolutely beautiful. The tortillas softened and weren’t tough and chewy like I thought they would be. A great addition. My husband thought it needed another jalapeño pepper, so for those who love spicy, I’d try 2. Next time I make this, I’m going to try crumbled crunchy corn tostadas to save time instead of using fresh tortillas.
I’ve visited King Ranch several times when I was young. While the recipe didn’t come from the ranch, I believe they’d be proud to be linked to this homemade version. This King Ranch chicken recipe is far above the one using canned “cream of” soups. The smell brought everyone from their rooms to see what was being cooked. The flavor is nice and I was expecting a little kick from the peppers but it wasn’t hot.
I love the thought that went into the way this recipe is put together. Adding the spices and letting them heat to release their natural oils was perfect. I do recommend crisping the corn tortillas first before starting this recipe. It wouldd be easier to have them ready when time to assemble. Everyone agreed this will replace the boring old original King Ranch chicken recipe.
This King Ranch chicken casserole reminded me of a Tex-Mex lasagna. It was a real crowd-pleaser, too. Lots of flavor from the spices and not overwhelmingly hot, though you could certainly bump up the chili powder and jalapeños if you want it hotter. There was a good amount of prep work to do, particularly crisping the corn tortillas, but the work was well worth it!
The casserole was hearty but not too heavy for a warm summer night on the patio. I had mine in the fridge for 5 days and it held up quite well. Crisping the tortillas took about a minute per side. Since there were so many to prep, it takes a while since you can only do 1 or 2 at a time. Next time I would just spritz them with oil, place them on a single layer in several baking sheets, and bake them in the oven, flipping halfway through. Or I might try buying tostadas, the circular crunchy corn tortillas.
Originally published January 29, 2017