King Ranch Casserole is the ultimate comfort food your whole family will crave!
If you’ve never enjoyed King Ranch Casserole before, prepare for a new family favorite! This King Ranch Casserole is creamy, cheesy casserole perfection WITHOUT ANY CANNED SOUPS! It’s made with layers of juicy chicken, corn tortillas and cheese enveloped in a luscious cream sauce with tomatoes, bell peppers and green chiles then then baked to gooey perfection. King Ranch Chicken Casserole can be made ahead of time, refrigerated then baked when ready for the ultimate make-ahead dinner!
I love the Fall and Winter months because they mean comforting casseroles! There just anything better than sinking your teeth into a mountain of saucy flavor and texture like our Tuna Casserole, Chicken Divan, Cheesy Taco Pasta Bake, Million Dollar Mac and Cheese, Hashbrown Casserole, and Eggs Benedict Casserole and now you can add this King Ranch Casserole to the list!
WHAT IS KING RANCH CASSEROLE?
If you aren’t familiar with King Ranch Chicken Casserole, let me introduce you! King Ranch Casserole is the quintessential Texan casserole. You will find it everywhere from potlucks, to funerals, to school cafeterias, to church socials to family dinner tables. It is made with layers of chicken, tortillas and cheese, swaddled in a cream sauce made of canned cream of mushroom and chicken soups, canned Ro-Tel tomatoes, and bell peppers. Of course, this King Ranch Casserole recipe is made with a divine from-scratch quick and easy homemade creamy chicken sauce.
Where did King Ranch Casserole come from?
King Ranch Casserole is named after King Ranch in Texas, one of the largest ranches in the world, that began in 1853. King Ranch now covers 825,000 acres—more land than the state of Rhode Island! Over the course of over 160 years, King Ranch led some of the first cattle drives, developed different breeds of cattle and bred championship horses. Today, King Ranch is a major agribusiness with interests in cattle ranching, farming and recreational hunting.
So, what does King Ranch Casserole have to do with King Ranch? The recipe and the ranch don’t seem to have any actual connection to each other than the name. Still, they are both Texan icons. I can imagine that the name refers to the casserole’s stick-to-your-ribs hearty nature and mountains of layers suitable to feed and satisfy the hardworking ranch hands.
NO CREAM OF CHICKEN SOUP!
Today, King Ranch Casserole is not just popular in Texas but all across the U.S. Still, there are countless versions out there, in fact, you’ll probably find two or three versions at every Texas potluck; some with whole tortillas, some with cut tortillas, some with corn chips instead of tortillas, some with condensed soup, some without. I am in the without camp. It’s so quick and easy to whip up a roux and add broth to make a sauce without any mystery ingredients, plus, it tastes way better!
KING RANCH CASSEROLE RECIPE
This King Ranch Casserole recipe is so satisfying, so comforting, so outrageously delicious that your entire family will be begging you to make it again and again and again.
REASONS TO LOVE king ranch CASSEROLE RECIPE:
- NO CANNED SOUP. This is NOT your mother’s King Ranch Casserole. I’ve kept the creaminess of the original but ditched the condensed soups in place of a perfected homemade cheesy, creamy white sauce that you will want to drink; and you can because there aren’t any mystery ingredients!
- FLAVOR! Many King Ranch Casserole recipes rely on Rotel and condensed soup for the flavor, but I’ve amped up the delicious factor by infusing the homemade white sauce with fire roasted diced tomatoes, 2 cans of green chiles and salsa. Now we have a King Ranch Casserole worthy of its legendary name.
- EASY. In addition to being unapologetically delicious, this King Ranch Casserole is simple to make. Just whisk up the homemade white sauce, layer the creamy chicken layer, tortilla layer and cheese layer then bake to spectacular bubbly goodness.
- VERSATILE. You can follow this King Ranch Casserole recipe as written, or mix it up by adding beans, vegetables, cheeses or even make it with ground beef!
- MAKE AHEAD. This King Ranch Chicken Casserole can be completely assembled up to two days ahead of time then just popped in the oven at dinnertime – you will be loving life.
- FREEZER FRIENDLY. You can prep this King Ranch Casserole to freeze or double the recipe and enjoy one now and freeze one for later.
KING RANCH CASSEROLE INGREDIENTS
You can use either rotisserie chicken or make your own shredded chicken with chicken breasts, or chicken thighs:
- Shortcut Rotisserie Chicken: is my first choice because it’s SO easy plus delicious! Rotisserie chicken is a mixture of light and dark meat so it’s extra juicy and flavorful. It is also beautifully tender, delicately seasoned and delicious plain, so it makes a fabulous starting point for this King Ranch Casserole recipe. I like to purchase rotisserie chicken from Costco because you get almost twice the amount of chicken on one bird for the same price. You can portion the chicken into sandwich bags and freeze so you’re ready to make this casserole at a moment’s notice! I always stock shredded rotisserie chicken in my freezer and it’s a huge time/last-minute-dinner saver.
- Chicken Breasts or Thighs: You can make your own shredded chicken with either chicken breasts or chicken thighs so you can always make this King Ranch Casserole recipe with whatever chicken you have on hand – it will just require the extra step of cooking the chicken. Chicken thighs will give you juicer, more flavorful shredded chicken, but chicken breasts will work as well.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN SHREDDED CHICKEN
This King Ranch Casserole recipe is swimmingly easy with rotisserie chicken but if you don’t have it on hand and need this casserole NOW, you can easily make your own shredded chicken. You will need approximately 1 ½ pounds of chicken or 2-3 chicken breasts depending on their size.
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add chicken and cook 3-5 minutes, or until golden brown on one side.
- Flip chicken and add 1 1/2 cups chicken broth.
- Cover and reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes, then flip chicken over and continue to cook 5-10 minutes (thighs will take less time) or until chicken is cooked though and tender enough to shred. Add additional chicken broth or water if the liquid absorbs before the chicken is cooked through.
- Cooking time will vary depending on thickness of chicken and actual temperature. If your chicken does not shred easily, then continue to cook, adding additional broth/water if needed.
- Remove chicken from skillet and let rest 5 minutes before shredding.
- Butter: use unsalted butter so we can control the salt. You may replace the butter with your favorite oil if you prefer.
- Olive oil: use quality olive oil for the best flavor.
- Flour: all-purpose flour is used to thicken the sauce. You may use gluten free flour.
- Chicken broth: use low sodium chicken broth so we can control the salt.
- Aromatics: the complexity of the flavor profile begins with the aromatics. You will need ½ cup chopped onion and 4 garlic cloves. If you’re having a lazing cooking day (no judgement here!) then you may substitute with 1 teaspoon onion powder and 1 teaspoon garlic powder.
- Bell peppers: one red bell pepper and one green bell pepper so we get both sweet and earthy flavors.
- Salsa: you can use my amazing Homemade Salsa recipe, your favorite recipe or store bought. If you want more of a kick, use medium salsa.
- Chopped green chiles: these come from a can and add a subtle, delectable tanginess that cuts through the creaminess of the sauce. Take care you choose MILD chopped green chiles because the hot can is HOT. Mild green chiles, however are more tangy than hot so you don’t have to worry about them making your casserole spicy.
- Fire roasted tomatoes: are NOT spicy – the fire simply means they have been roasted which gives them a complex smokiness and removes the acidic bite. Fire roasted tomatoes are located next to the traditional diced tomatoes – just make sure you get the ones without any added seasonings. If you can’t find fire roasted diced tomatoes, then use traditional diced tomatoes.
- Sour Cream: is a must in my book for the ultra-creamy, luscious sauce with slightly tangy undertones. Full fat sour cream melts easier than nonfat, but you can certainly use nonfat with this knowledge. For full disclosure, I have not tried this King Ranch Casserole recipe with Greek Yogurt. I am sure it can be used but will offer a tangier flavor profile.
- Seasonings: in addition to the aromatics, green chiles and salsa, this King Ranch Chicken Casserole is seasoned with chili powder, ground cumin, dried oregano, chicken bouillon, salt and cayenne pepper. We need robust seasoning to cut through the creaminess and the richness of the sauce.
You’ll want to use both sharp cheddar and Monterrey Jack cheese for the best flavor and texture. Monterey Jack melts beautifully with a mild buttery flavor and sharp cheddar adds the needed kick of flavor. Please use freshly grated cheese because pre-shredded packaged cheeses use anti-clumping chemicals which prevent them from melting as well.
You’ll want to use corn tortillas verses flour tortillas for King Ranch Casserole for their flavor and texture. Their sweet corn flavor is a delectable complement to the green chili cream sauce, but most importantly, corn tortillas hold up better layered in between the sauce.
For all of my taco recipes, I highly recommend La Tortilla Factory corn tortillas because they are thicker and don’t tear, but for this King Ranch Chicken Casserole, however, I find them a little too thick. Instead, save your money and quality tortillas for when they’re not smothered in sauce and use any corn tortillas from your grocery store.
HOW SPICY IS THIS KING RANCH CASSEROLE?
The spice level of your King Ranch Chicken Casserole will depend on your salsa and the cayenne pepper. If you use medium salsa and omit the cayenne pepper, it might have a little kick but not very spicy. If you use both medium salsa and cayenne pepper, you should be able to taste the heat, but it won’t be too much for most individuals.
To keep this casserole extra family friendly, use mild salsa and omit the cayenne pepper initially. Once the sauce is completely made, including the sour cream, then give it a taste and decide if you want to add any cayenne pepper, keeping in mind the flavor will mellow when combined with chicken and layered with tortillas.
HOW TO MAKE KING RANCH CHICKEN CASSEROLE
STEP 1 – CHAR TORTILLAS (optional)
- Charring the tortillas over an open gas flame is optional but adds a subtle roasted corn flavor which is sublime. You can char the tortillas days in advance and store them in an airtight container at room temperature.
- To lightly char tortillas, use tongs to place tortillas directly on the burner of your gas stove then flip with tongs once they are lightly charred in spots on one side. You can also accomplish this on the grill as well.
- Don’t “over-char” the tortillas or they will become brittle and break. You still want the tortillas soft and pliable.
- I usually have multiple burners going so this process can be done in minutes.
- When tortillas are cool enough to handle, cut 9 of them in half with a pizza cutter, scissors or knife. Cutting them in half helps them layer a bit more evenly.
STEP 2 – MAKE HOMEMADE WHITE SAUCE
- Start by melting butter in olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add onion and bell peppers and sauté 5 minutes. Next, sprinkle in flour and garlic and cook for 1 minute (it will be thick).
- Reduce heat to low and slowly whisk in chicken broth, followed by salsa, diced tomatoes, green chilies and spices.
- Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in sour cream until combined, followed by chicken.
STEP 3 – LAYER CASSEROLE
- Cover the bottom of the casseroled dish with tortillas by placing two whole tortillas in the middle of the pan and surround with 6 halves with the straight cut edges flush against the sides of the pan.
- Top evenly with 1/3 of the chicken mixture (approximately 2 cups), followed by 1 cup of cheese. Repeat with another layer of tortillas, 1/3 chicken mixture, and 1 cup cheese. Finish with final layer of tortillas, remaining chicken mixture and remaining 1 cup cheese.
STEP 4 – BAKE
- Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 15-20 more minutes to golden bubbly deliciousness!
- Remove pan from oven and garnish with desired toppings.
- Add vegetables. This recipe has bell peppers, but you can also add corn, zucchini, chayote, spinach, olives, jalapenos, etc. You will need to reduce the amount of chicken to make up for the extra volume of veggies so the King Ranch Casserole is saucy enough.
- Add beans. Pinto beans add an irresistible textural creaminess that complements the casserole without fighting it. You can also use black beans but they don’t offer the same creamy satisfaction. If you choose black beans, I would simmer them with the sauce so they soften a bit.
- Add rice or quinoa. Stir in cooked rice or cooked quinoa directly into the sauce for added texture. Again, you will need to reduce the amount of chicken so the casserole stays saucy.
- Swap protein: Although this recipe is typically made with chicken, the seasonings and ingredients work well for ground beef, ground turkey, and ground chicken as well.
- Swap cheese. Use more or less cheese – and when I say “more or less,” I, of course, mean more. You can also swap the type of cheese but be aware this will change the flavor profile. If you love spicy, consider using Pepper Jack cheese (you might want to omit the cayenne pepper in this case).
- Make it lighter. Replace the butter with oil and the sour cream with Greek yogurt. I prefer sour cream but if you love Greek yogurt, it is a good healthier alternative. It is a 1:1 substitute but be aware it will deliver a tangier end result.
- Spice it up. If you love heat, you have quite a few options to spice up this casserole: 1) add additional cayenne pepper to the sauce, 2) add hot sauce to the sauce, 3) sauté 1-2 seeded, minced, chopped jalapenos with the onions, 4) sauté chopped chipotle pepper with the garlic, 5) swap the Monterrey for Pepper Jack. Alternatively, you can allow everyone to control the spice level of their own portion by passing around a bottle of hot sauce.
WHAT TOPPINGS FOR KING RANCH CASSEROLE RECIPE?
Just like enchiladas, this King Ranch Casserole is always better with toppings!
- Tomatoes: quartered cherry tomatoes or seeded, chopped Roma tomatoes or skip the plain tomatoes and use pico de gallo.
- Pico de gallo: is fresh tomato salsa that adds a vibrant, punchy freshness. You can use my homemade pico de gallo recipe or store bought. You can make the pico de gallo ahead of time and store it in an airtight container in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before serving.
- Cilantro: if you skip the pico de gallo, you can load on fresh cilantro and tomatoes instead for a fresh, zesty flair.
- Avocados: chopped or sliced avocados or my favorite guacamole recipe.
- Salsa: Salsa verde is a natural choice or black bean corn salsa, avocado salsa, or charred corn salsa add delightful texture.
- Hot Sauce: pass around the hot sauce so individuals can customize the heat.
WHAT SHOULD I SERVE WITH KING RANCH CASSEROLE?
This King Ranch Casserole is the main event and doesn’t need much of a supporting cast, but I always love serving it with rice and some sort of fruit. Here are a few side ideas:
- Rice: soaks up the saucy goodness and offers a delightful textural juxtaposition. Plain rice is excellent because the casserole is so flavorful or cilantro lime rice is excellent as well. You may also swap the rice for quinoa cauliflower rice.
- Salad. This creamy layered King Ranch Casserole benefits from the contrast of a bright, fresh salad. You can go as simple as a green salad or go big with Mexican salad, southwest salad, or corn salad.
- Vegetables. You can jam all your veggies into the salad or serve the salad along with or in addition to baked asparagus, roasted broccoli, roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts or roasted butternut squash.
- Fruit: keep it simple and serve this chicken casserole with your favorite fruit such as pineapple, cantaloupe, or grapes or amp it up with any of these fabulous options: pina colada fruit salad, fruit salad with honey lime vinaigrette, grape salad, or winter fruit salad.
CAN KING RANCH CASSEROLE RECIPE BE MADE AHEAD OF TIME?
Yes! You can make this King Ranch Casserole recipe ahead of time for an easy bake and serve dinner! Just note that the longer the casserole is refrigerated, the softer the tortillas will become so it is a good idea to char the tortillas first.
- To make ahead, prepare casserole according to directions, cover tightly with foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
- When ready to cook, let the casserole sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Bake according to recipe directions, increasing the baking time (with the foil on) by approximately 10 minutes or until the casserole is hot and bubbly and completely heated through.
- You can also prep all of your toppings ahead of time by chopping and storing in airtight containers or baggies. The guacamole (if using) will keep for up to a day without changing color very much – just make sure to press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the guac to prevent oxidation.
HOW LONG IS KING RANCH CASSEROLE GOOD FOR?
King Ranch Casserole should be tightly covered in plastic wrap or foil, or transferred to an airtight container. When stored correctly, this casserole is good for up to 5 days. Of course, always use your best judgment.
HOW TO REHEAT KING RANCH CASSEROLE
This King Ranch Casserole reheats exceptionally well both in the oven and in the microwave.
- OVEN: cover the pan with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
- MICROWAVE: you can also reheat individual servings in the microwave by transferring to a microwave safe plate and microwaving for 60 seconds. Continue to microwave at 20 second intervals until heated through.
CAN I FREEZE KING RANCH CHICKEN CASSEROLE?
Yes, you may freeze this easy King Ranch Chicken Casserole, just be aware that the tortillas will become much softer so it is a good idea to char the tortillas if you plan on freezing.
- Let the casserole cool completely (or freeze before baking).
- Wrap casserole securely with plastic wrap, then with aluminum foil.
- Label and freeze for up to 3 months.
- When ready to eat, thaw King Ranch Casserole completely in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Bake covered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 15-20 more minutes, until the cheese is melted and heated through.
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