How to Make King Ranch Chicken Casserole, an Iconic Texas Recipe
This cheesy potluck dish is a Texas staple!
The creamy and cheesy King Ranch chicken casserole is famous in Texas, but it might be a new recipe for folks like me who live outside the South. I decided it was time to see what all the hype was about and whip up a King Ranch casserole at home in Vermont.
The History of King Ranch Casserole
It’s not known exactly where this dish got its name or who created it. But it’s believed that the dish has been around since the late ’40s, which makes sense considering that one of the two Campbell’s soups in the recipe, Cream of Chicken, debuted in 1947. Many people have assumed that the recipe was created at King Ranch, a well-known cattle ranch in southern Texas. The owners refute this, however, noting that the ranch’s 168-year history has been focused on beef, not chicken.
Even though we don’t know its true origin, this dish is the unofficial casserole of Texas. It’s a staple for potluck dinners, funeral receptions, church suppers and, of course, kitchen tables. It’s a popular contribution to local Junior League cookbooks, too. Don’t miss our full list of famous Texas foods.
What’s in King Ranch Chicken Casserole?
In this Tex-Mex recipe, corn tortillas are layered in a baking dish with shredded chicken, a thick sauce made with canned cream soups, diced onions and canned, diced tomatoes with green chilies. (Think Ro-Tel brand.) Shredded cheese is sprinkled over the top and the whole thing gets baked to create a pan of bubbling, melty deliciousness.
Many versions of the recipe attempt to change King Ranch chicken casserole into a more modern creation, with homemade roux, fresh mushrooms and even Greek yogurt. While this is certainly a dish that invites each cook’s personal touch, it’s OK to let King Ranch chicken casserole be what it’s meant to be: a Texas casserole that’s easy, cheesy comfort food. Or, as a 1966 edition of the San Antonio Light newspaper put it, “a hit with men as well as with women guests.”
Find the most famous casserole recipe from every state.
King Ranch Chicken Casserole Recipe
While looking for a vintage version of this recipe, I found one that belonged to Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady and wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Texas-born and raised Johnsons were known for their love of Southern comfort food. This is Lady Bird’s recipe from the LBJ Presidential Library Archives, slightly adapted to amp up the flavor and spice.
This recipe makes 6 servings.
- 12 small corn tortillas
- 1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 medium poblano peppers, seeded and diced
- 1 can (10 ounces) diced tomatoes with green chilies (like Ro-Tel)
- 1 can (10.5 ounces) cream of mushroom soup
- 1 can (10.5 ounces) cream of chicken soup
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 cups cooked, shredded chicken
- 2 cups shredded Mexican-blend cheese
- Optional garnishes: extra chili powder, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions, diced tomatoes, sour cream, salsa
Step 1: Toast the tortillas
One at a time, lay a corn tortilla in a hot, nonstick pan over medium-high heat. (If you have a glass-top stove, you can lay them right on the burner!) Toast the tortilla for 20-25 seconds until brown or lightly blackened spots appear, then use tongs to flip it and toast the other side. Repeat with the rest of the tortillas. Hold them aside.
Step 2: Saute the veggies
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray the inside of a 13×9-in. baking dish with nonstick spray.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, then stir in the diced onions. Saute the onions for 5 minutes. Add in the diced poblano peppers. Stir and saute for another 3 minutes, until the onion looks translucent and the peppers have softened.
Step 3: Add the tomatoes and liquids
Pour the diced tomatoes and chilies, cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup and chicken stock into the skillet. Add in the chili powder, garlic powder and pepper. Stir everything together, then simmer the mixture for about 7 minutes, until the sauce looks thickened. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir the shredded chicken into the sauce.
Step 4: Assemble the casserole
Lay six of the tortillas across the bottom of the pan with the edges going up the sides just slightly. Spoon half of the chicken and sauce mixture over the tortillas. Lay the remaining six tortillas over the top and then spoon the rest of the chicken and sauce over. Sprinkle the Mexican-blend cheese evenly over the top.
Step 5: Bake
Place the pan in the oven and bake the casserole for 30 minutes, until it looks bubbly and the cheese has melted and started to brown. Remove the pan and let it cool for 10 minutes. Garnish with a little sprinkle of chili powder for color and scatter chopped cilantro, scallions or diced tomatoes across the top. Slice and serve with optional garnishes like sour cream or salsa.
Nancy Mock/Taste of Home
What I Thought
My family and I eagerly tucked into the hot servings of King Ranch chicken casserole—and we loved it! This is definitely comfort food at its finest. The casserole was creamy and with a thick topping of melted cheese. The corn tortillas provided a nice bit of chewiness amidst the rich filling, especially along the edges of the casserole where the tortillas browned and crisped up a little.
The poblano peppers and spices give a nice flavor and just the right amount of chili pepper heat. I’m happy to add this Texas family recipe to my Vermont family’s dinner rotation! With Laura Bush’s Cowboy Cookies for dessert, of course.
King Ranch Casserole Tips
Make Ahead and Freeze
Another reason this casserole is such a favorite is that it’s a great freezer meal. To freeze, assemble the casserole. Then wrap the dish well and freeze it for up to three months. To bake, let the pan thaw overnight in the fridge and bake as directed above.
Toast the Tortillas
Toasting the tortillas brings out the delicious corn flavor and improves the texture. Believe me, it’s worth the time to toast them, but you can skip this step and use corn tortillas straight from the package.
Want to cook like a Texan? Check out these cowboy cooking tips we learned from a real cowboy!