The Food Lab: How to Make the Best Creamy Chicken Enchiladas

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Tender chicken in a spicy, smoky salsa verde stuffed into soft corn tortillas and baked with cheese. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Growing up, my enchiladas came in two forms. The first was the creamy, cheese-packed enchilada casserole that my mom used to make. I'm fairly certain it was created by combining chicken thighs with some canned green chilies, a tub of sour cream, a pack of grated Jack cheese, and a packet of tortillas, all layered into a casserole dish and baked. It was delicious and comforting, for sure, but hardly sophisticated fare.

The other form was the enchiladas suizas at Fiesta Mexicana, the hot-plate Mexican joint up in Morningside Heights that closed down after a fire perhaps 20 years ago. For my birthday, we'd pile into the old Volvo station wagon and park it on a side street (where its radio would inevitably get stolen). My older sister would order the taquitos al carbón while my little sister would order the "Ranch Burger" without the ranchero sauce (which we later realized was the same as ordering a regular old cheeseburger, but cost $1 more). My enchiladas were a trio of soft corn tortillas stuffed with pulled chicken meat, smothered in a creamy green sauce specked with smoky bits of charred skin and swirled with crema and cilantro.*

*Enchiladas suizas—Swiss-style enchiladas—are so-named for the creamy sauce they're covered with. Swiss immigrants in Mexico were known for their dairies.

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While the pizza cognition theory allows for only a single progenitor that defines pizza in the mind of each individual, I'd posit that with enchiladas, your primary exposures can mesh into one perfect dish in your head. For me, the perfect green chicken enchiladas combine elements from both of my early memories. I want my corn tortillas bathed in a smoky chili-tomatillo sauce with bright, fresh, flavors. I want the spice and the complexity. I want tender pulled chicken meat, sure, but I also want the rich creaminess of my mom's casserole.

In short, I'm after the whole enchilada, which is exactly what this recipe delivers.

Salsa and Cream

While both my mom's enchilada casserole and classic enchiladas suizas make use of a green sauce that's enriched with cream and cheese, no matter how much I tweaked a creamy salsa recipe, I just couldn't get one that I found to be tastier than a classic green tomatillo salsa. So instead of trying to cram dairy into the sauce, I decided to incorporate the creamy elements elsewhere in the dish, while focusing on developing clean, complex flavors in the basic salsa.

Fortunately, with several recipes for great green chili sauces under my belt, it was easy to adapt them to this variation.

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I started with roughly chopped onions, whole tomatillos, poblano and Serrano peppers, and garlic, which I placed on a rimmed baking sheet to set under the broiler.

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The goal is to soften the vegetables completely, all while giving them a nice smoky char.

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As the vegetables cooked and charred, I flipped them, making sure to give every side a go at the direct heat. You'll probably find that your tomatillos will char and soften long before any of your other vegetables. I found that transferring the tomatillos to a bowl as soon as they were completely softened was the best way to prevent them from burning while the other vegetables finished cooking.

The peppers in particular need to be well-cooked in order to ensure that they peel easily.

Peeling Peppers

As anyone who's grown up in or around Hatch, NM can tell you, charred peppers, with their sweet, tender, smoky flesh, are one of god's hard working farmers' and cooks' greatest culinary gifts to mankind, but boy, can those papery, sticky skins be a pain in the butt to peel.

Lazy folks might be tempted to peel them under running water, but purists will scoff, rightfully pointing out that the smoky flavor you worked so hard to achieve with the charring ends up going right down the drain.

So what's a pepper-lover to do?

I turned to a technique that I first developed when working on this Crispy Braised Chicken with Chile Verde: peel the peppers in a bowl of water or stock, then reincorporate that liquid into your recipe.

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By doing this, you not only get the ease of peeling chilies under liquid, but you also maximize flavor in your dish as the charred skins steep in the liquid. Once strained, the liquid forms a flavorful base for the salsa.

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If you want to be extra-obsessive, you can scrape away any remaining seeds and membranes after peeling the chilies.

Pickin' Chicken

Both my mom and the restaurant used pulled chicken thigh meat for their enchiladas, and I saw no reason to do any different. It's more juicy and flavorful than breast meat; provided you cook it right, it's more tender as well.

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Using bone-in, skin-on thighs was the easiest route, not just because they're inexpensive and more widely available than boned, skinless thighs, but because that skin provides protection for the meat underneath, keeping it juicy as the chicken cooks.

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I started by laying the thighs skin side-down in a hot Dutch oven with just a little bit of oil. If you aren't the type of person who enjoys a bit of pain with their pleasure in the form of hot chicken fat splashing all over your body, I strongly suggest you very gently lay the thighs down in the hot pot.

*and if you are that type of person, shoot me a line, I have some offline activities we can chat about.

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Cooking that skin until it's a deep brown means it's developed flavor that will make it into your final dish. And by brown, I mean brown. Rich, golden, fully rendered, and crisp throughout.

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As the chicken cooked, I noticed that it released a lot of fat and juices. The fat I discarded—it was very hard to get it to emulsify into a lean, green salsa—but the juices, I kept. The easiest way to do this was to simply tip the pot out into the sink* into a separate container, pouring off the top layer of fat until just the browned juices underneath remained, then discarding the excess fat in the garbage.

*Thanks for pointing out to me why you shouldn't pour animal fat into the sink!

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Once the chicken was browned on both sides and the fat skimmed off, I added all of my roasted vegetables to the pot along with a cup of cilantro leaves and the reserved chili-skin-infused stock. I blended it all with a stick blender into a rough sauce.

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Back went the chicken for a short simmer until it had just cooked through, allowing the sauce to pick up some more flavor from the browned skin.

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Meanwhile, I packed up some soft corn tortillas in an aluminum foil pouch and transferred them to an oven preheated to 375°F. This is how you make sure they'll be nice and pliable when it comes time to stuff them. Nobody likes a stiff tortilla. At least, nobody you should trust.

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Once the chicken was cool enough to handle, I picked it into bite-size shreds, tossing the bones and eating the skin directly off each thigh while leaning over the kitchen sink like a hungry rat discarding the skins. Here's where most chicken enchilada recipes would have you start stuffing the tortillas with the shredded chicken, perhaps adding a bit of cheese to the mix.

But me? Like I said, that extra-creamy texture from my mom's casserole is a built in taste memory for me, so I wanted to make sure that I got a good dose of it.

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I combined my chicken with both grated pepper Jack cheese (man, do I have a weakness for pepper Jack!), along with a healthy dose of Mexican crema, a small upgrade from the sour cream my mom used (though you can use a mixture of sour cream and milk if you can't find Mexican crema).

Enchiladas, Assemble!

From here on out, everything is pretty much straightforward construction (and you can make both the sauce and the chicken mixture at least a few days ahead of time).

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I started by laying down a base of salsa in the bottom of a large casserole dish. Next, I coated my warm tortillas with the salsa. With a thick sauce like this, it was a bit of a pain to get a really thin, even coat of sauce on my tortillas (it ended up being too thick unless I carefully scraped off the excess on the side of the bowl). The solution? Dip just the bottom of one tortilla in the salsa, then transfer it to a cutting board. Repeat this over and over, stacking the tortillas as you go, and you'll end up with a stack of tortillas separated by thin layers of sauce, effectively coating both sides.

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It took years of training and discipline to beat the habit of over-stuffing everything that could potentially be overstuffed (see: tacos, sushi, dumplings, and Dumpling, exhibits A, B, C, and D), and I know that for a chronic overstuffer, no level of admonition is going to help, but I'll do it anyway. Keep the filling to a minimum!

Just a couple of tablespoons of the chicken mixture should suffice.

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I rolled up the enchilada nice and tight like a cigar...

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...then arranged it in the dish, making sure to keep the seam side down.

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There's something to be said for enchiladas that are baked near-nude until they get crispy, browned tops, but for this recipe, I prefer the tender creaminess you get from sauce-smothered tortillas, so I'm not skimpy with the salsa.

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Finally, a layer of grated Jack spread across just the center of each row adds rich creaminess without masking the smoky flavor of the salsa underneath.

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To get the cheese to melt without drying the enchiladas out, I covered the whole dish with foil before baking, removing the foil for the last 10 to 15 minutes to encourage just a touch of browning on the cheese.

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As soon as the enchiladas came out of the oven, I drizzled them with more of the crema and a handful of chopped cilantro leaves

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If your neighborhood dogs don't show up at your doorstep right around now with plaintive, hungry looks in their eyes, then something must have gone seriously wrong, because this s*&t should smell irresistable.

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With their bright, smoky flavor and tender, creamy filling, I've finally brought the hybrid enchiladas of my dreams to life.

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Don't get me wrong: like any rational human, I love to stuff my face with tacos al carbón (with my friends or when I'm all alone). But chicken enchiladas are my true addiction.