King Ranch Chicken Casserole is a cozy, comfort food classic with melty layers of chicken, tortillas, and cheese. And this from-scratch version features a simple homemade sauce in place of condensed soup!
I think it’s probably time to confess that I’ve been holding out on y’all. It’s true. After all, it’s taken me 1 year, 3 months, and 29 days of blogging to share with you one of my all-time favorite recipes. But today the wait is over…I present to you comforting, classic, King Ranch Chicken Casserole!
Many (if not most) of you have probably heard of the King Ranch. Founded in 1853 in south Texas, it remains one of the largest ranches in the world. And while the King Ranch has a fascinating and storied history, King Ranch Chicken Casserole seems to be a tribute in name only, with no record of it being historically connected to the actual cattle ranch in any way. Nevertheless, this is a cozy, gooey, cheesy casserole whose appeal is as vast as the state of Texas!
I’ve mentioned before that my mom is from Germany, and while she cooked plenty of American — and even Texan — fare while I was growing up, King Ranch Chicken Casserole never made it on the menu. My first time trying this delicacy was in college, when my roommate’s mom would occasionally visit on the weekends and cook it for our household of poor, starving, college students. It quickly became a favorite, so I jotted down the recipe on an index card way back then and I’ve been making it ever since.
I like to think of this dish as the one that (in part) won me the heart of my husband. You see, this was the main course of the first dinner that I ever cooked for him. I believe I served it with a high-brow side of canned ranch-style beans and frozen margarita pie for dessert. To this day, my hubby will tell you that when I cooked that first meal for him, he just knew he had to marry me. So it goes without saying that this has been a regular recipe in our dinner rotation for all of our years of wedded bliss!
Now y’all know that I like to put my own spin on recipes by replacing canned/packaged ingredients with fresh wherever possible. That wasn’t always the case, mind you. I’ve been making this recipe for years using the standard can of Cream of Chicken soup plus can of Cream of Mushroom soup. And let me tell you…using those cans, it has always turned out dee-li-cious. But several years ago, I stopped buying condensed ‘Cream of X’ soups in favor of making my own simple sauces, from béchamel to cheese sauce. I love from-scratch sauces like these because they’re quick to whip up, don’t include any weird ingredients or icky preservatives, and allow me to control the sodium and seasonings.
The sauce used in this casserole calls for butter, garlic, flour, milk, chicken broth, and spices. After just a few minutes, these ingredients transform into a thick and creamy sauce that puts canned soup to shame. And I promise that it’s so easy! So step away from the can opener, friends… 😉
King Ranch Chicken Casserole starts with (surprise!!!) chicken, which you may cook in the oven, the slow cooker, in some simmering water on the stove, or take the shortcut of using a trusty rotisserie chicken…it’s up to you! For the casserole pictured here, I tossed some frozen chicken breasts in the crock pot, seasoned them well, and let them do their thing until they were tender to the point of falling apart.
Spread half of your shredded chicken in the bottom of the dish, layer with half of your sauce and quartered corn tortillas, and sprinkle with shredded cheddar. Repeat the layers once more and then top the whole caboodle with diced tomatoes and green chiles (and jalapeños, if you’re a fan of a little heat). I’ve been known to use fresh tomatoes when they’re in season, but Rotel is more readily available year-round, so I suppose I need to take back what I said earlier. Feel free to get the can opener back out!
And that’s it! Pop your baking dish in the oven and bake until hot and bubbly. The tortillas will soften into the sauce, causing the scrumptious layers to practically meld together. You can garnish with fresh cilantro, sour cream, salsa, and/or diced avocado if you like, or you can just enjoy the steamy simplicity of chicken, tortillas, and cheese without any adornments. Any way you slice it, I’m telling you…this is ultimate. Comfort. Food. Adults love it. Kids love it. Even persnickety toddlers can’t wait to get their little mitts on it…
So thank you to my former roomie’s mom for introducing me to this recipe. Thank you to my significant other for liking it enough to marry me. And thank YOU for bringing joy to your family by adding these ingredients to your grocery list and making it for dinner this week! I promise…King Ranch Chicken Casserole will be an instant keeper in your recipe file.
One last warning, though…if you happen to be single, be sure to wield the power of this casserole with great care. After all, this is a recipe that’s entirely capable of eliciting you a marriage proposal somewhere down the road. 😉
More comfort food classics…