This tomato-chipotle pulled chicken is one of those wonderful “back pocket” recipes: once you learn it, it’s not only incredibly easy to bang out on a busy weeknight, it’s also incredibly easy to experiment with, and spontaneously tweak. Do I sound like a broken record over here? So much of what I cook is about developing recipes that will put a good meal on the table, but also make it easy to swap ingredients in and out. Sometimes our own fear of messing up is the thing that makes it hard to trust our intuition and practice cooking creatively.
If you're going to eat a chicken taco, make it a good chicken taco.
I’ve always been up front about my approach to cooking with meat (at least I hope I have). In fact, it’s right smack-dab in the middle of my homepage! We really don’t eat a lot of meat-heavy meals, so when we do it’s important to make sure we really hit it out of the park. Normally that leads us to buying whole birds to roast, repurposing leftovers and enjoying homemade stock for days afterwards. Sometimes, though, we go for parts, generally choosing juicy dark meat. When we do buy breast meat, it’s usually for a specific purpose, and this recipe is one of our favorites.
Chicken breast is usually maligned for being dry and flavorless--not in this recipe!
One of the best places for breast meat, in my opinion, is when you want easy pulled chicken. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to douse it in bottled BBQ sauce or make tacos, the longer fibers of the breast meat are going to give you that perfect pulled texture.
The steps for this recipe are simple:
- Quickly sear one side. To quote Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “Roasted, broiled, and fried meats develop a crust that is much more intensely flavored, because the meat surface dries out and gets hot enough to trigger the Maillard or browning reactions.” We’re not trying to cook the chicken all the way through here, just quickly get some extra flavor from the browning.
- Simmer everything together, covered. The lid helps keep in moisture, but it also helps trap heat and reflect it back down to cook the top layer of food. This steamy environment minimizes the need for stirring, helps prevent anything from drying out, and helps flavors mingle.
- Shred the chicken, even if not fully cooked, then finish in the reduced sauce. One of the main reasons chicken breast ends up dry is because it’s just overcooked! Shredding up the meat not only gives you a good look at how cooked (or undercooked) it is, but when you return it to the pan the increased surface area means it will finish cooking at lightning speed.
- Add some fat. Chicken breast lacks natural fattiness. Fat carries flavor, and also plays a huge role in mouthfeel. Think of this step as the cousin of adding a drizzle of EVOO to your finished pasta dish or bowl of soup. It coats the meat just enough to make sure each bite is succulent and flavorful.
Keeping the flavors simple means each one will pop--and also makes the perfect canvas for tasty garnishes!
We most often make this pulled chicken recipe for tacos. Part of the point of tacos, in our opinion, is the excellent array of toppings: salsas, onion, fresh cilantro, sliced radish, sour cream… I could go on. This recipe strikes a careful balance between big, juicy flavors and playing well with as many toppings as your heart desires.
If you’re not in the mood for tacos, try this chicken in burritos, quesadillas, or as the star of a cozy grain bowl. Or, make a tasty slaw with plenty of lime and tuck everything into a toasted bun!
Looking for some improvisation inspiration? Try these ingredient swaps!
For a slightly milder and less smokey sauce, try swapping in one 4-ounce can of chopped Hatch (or regular green) chilies in place of the chipotle and adobo.
Not feeling tacos at all? How about BBQ? Try 3 to 4 tablespoons of your favorite barbecue sauce instead of the chipotles and adobo. Or, add a few spoonfuls of barbecue sauce in addition to the chipotles, for extra smokey heat!
Keep that bottled sauce inspiration flowing: try bottled teriyaki or stir-fry sauce (we are a Bachan’s household for sure). Instead of relying on tomatoes for moisture, add a slosh of water or broth to simmer with the other ingredients.
If you’re craving Italian-inspired flavors, add a blob of tomato paste, omit the chipotle and cilantro entirely, and add some finely chopped basil at the end of cooking. Pile it into a sandwich under some melty mozzarella, stuff it into manicotti or giant shells, or layer it into lasagna!
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Notes for Success:
If you happen to only have chicken thighs, this recipe will still work exactly as written. If you usually trim your thighs of excess fat, feel free to do that here, too.
Looking for a vegan option? Try mushrooms! Shredding mushrooms makes a great swap for pulled meats, as in this vegan take on mussakhan. Shred your mushrooms before browning, and then proceed pretty much as-written. You can fish out the mushrooms while your sauce reduces, or just leave them in until you get a texture that makes you happy.
Tomato-Chipotle Pulled Chicken
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, patted dry
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil, divided
- 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (About 4 plum tomatoes)
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 shallot, chopped (Or ½ an onion)
- 1 canned chipotle in adobo, finely chopped, PLUS 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, stems and leaves reserved separately
- Step 1In a large skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil until shimmering. Add the chicken and sear until golden brown on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip the chicken, then in an even layer, add the tomatoes, garlic, shallot, chipotle and adobo, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and cilantro stems. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook until the tomatoes have begun to break down, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Step 2Remove the partially-cooked chicken from the skillet and transfer to a bowl. Increase the heat back to medium-high, and give the tomato mixture a quick stir to loosen any stuck-on bits. Let the mixture simmer and reduce to a loose paste, about 7 to 10 minutes. While the sauce is reducing, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces. When the sauce is ready, return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens enough to cling to the meat, about 2 minutes more.
- Step 3When the sauce is thickened, remove from heat and stir in the remaining oil and cilantro leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.