King Ranch Chicken: The King of Chicken Casseroles
If you grew up in Houston, or anywhere else in Texas for that matter, you're probably already familiar with King Ranch chicken. Maybe you tried it in a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or more likely, your own mom or grandmother lovingly prepared it for you. This hearty dish is basically a Tex-Mex style casserole with chicken, cheese, corn tortillas and peppers. Think of a Tex-Mex lasagna with tortillas rather than noodles and you get the picture. Double or triple the recipe for a party or large gathering, and serve it with corn on the cob, collard greens, pinto beans, a simple green salad or a chunk of warm, fluffy Mexican cornbread.
King Ranch chicken tastes great hot out of the oven, the next day, the day after that, and it even freezes and thaws beautifully—what's not to love? No wonder it's so popular at neighborhood potlucks, school lunchrooms, funerals, church suppers and family gatherings! If you haven't tried King Ranch chicken before, grab the ingredients and make some. It's quick to prepare and pretty much guaranteed the family will love it. King Ranch chicken is relatively mild, at least compared to some Tex-Mex dishes, and its creaminess ensures it's a winning dish if you want tried-and-true comfort food.
The History of King Ranch Chicken
Some dishes have a definitive history but this isn't one of them. Founded in 1853, King Ranch itself, located deep in the South of Texas, near the aptly named Kingsville, is the biggest ranch in the United States. In fact, at 1,289 square miles it's larger than Rhode Island. A lot of people simply assume this recipe was created there but nobody knows for sure who invented it.
King Ranch founder captain Richard King's descendants are proud of their beef and game, but chicken doesn't really come into that equation. The family has never taken credit for the recipe, so perhaps a ranch cook created it, or could it have been a South Texas hostess throwing together a filling meal for the cowboys? King Ranch chicken is believed to date back to the 1940s or maybe the 1950s. The original recipe used cream soups while some modern versions use a flour-and-butter roux instead.
Tips for the Perfect King Ranch Casserole
Although this recipe is great for using up leftover shredded chicken, you can also cook a whole chicken, then shred it to use in this dish or just grab a ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken from the store. If you're making your own, simmer it with onion, garlic and celery then skin and debone it when it's cooled down. Keep the resulting broth and use it in the recipe. You should also use Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with green chiles if you want to stick closely to the original recipe. If you can't get Ro-Tel for whatever reason, either use canned diced tomatoes and chopped fresh green chile peppers or just throw in your favorite tomato salsa.
Not into spicy foods or making this for younger kids? Just leave the chiles out altogether and serve hot sauce on the side for those who want to add some zing. This recipe makes enough for 6 people, but you might like to double or triple it because King Ranch chicken freezes so well. Just freeze in batches, then thaw overnight and reheat in a 350-degree oven the following day for 40 minutes or until piping hot in the center.
King Ranch Chicken Casserole Recipe
- 1 chopped yellow onion
- 1 seeded, diced red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter or cooking oil
- 1 whole cooked chicken - skinned, de-boned and shredded
- 14 ounces cream of chicken soup
- 14 ounces cream of mushroom soup
- 10 ounces Ro-Tel tomatoes with green chiles, drained
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 12 quartered corn tortillas
- 2 cups grated cheddar cheese
- First preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile sauté the onion and bell pepper in the butter or oil until tender. Mix the onion and bell pepper with the shredded chicken, soups, tomatoes and half the broth in a bowl. If it's too thick, add some more broth.
- Now line a 13-by-9-inch casserole with half the tortilla quarters, then spoon half the chicken mixture on top and smooth it across. Cover it evenly with half the cheese, then add the remaining tortillas and the rest of the chicken mixture. Top with the rest of the cheese.
- Bake the casserole uncovered for 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot with your favorite Tex-Mex sides.