Use Your Pressure Cooker to Make the World's Fastest, Easiest Chicken Enchiladas

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-28.jpg

Use the pressure cooker to simultaneously braise your chicken and produce a flavor-packed enchilada sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've learned many useful things from my wife Adri over the years. The importance of doctors and dentists. That keeping track of airline miles and credit card rewards really can pay off in the long run. That there is nothing I enjoy more than taking a long walk outside as soon as I hear Project Runway starting. But perhaps the most useful are her cooking tricks, whether it's boiling pasta with less water, using crackers to make a lime pie in 10 minutes, or throwing five ingredients into a pressure cooker and coming back to a complete and delicious meal.

It's this latter trick that I've been trying to find new ways to employ. The idea is simple: Take raw chicken legs, a few aromatics and vegetables, throw them all into a pressure cooker, and then cook them just until the chicken is cooked through in about 15 minutes. The airtight seal of a pressure cooker prevents any liquid from escaping, which means that your ingredients end up producing their own sauce, with no added water or stock required. Pretty neat, right?

I've been on a big enchilada and salsa kick recently, so I thought to myself, could I use this technique to kill two birds with one stone, cooking my chicken and producing an intensely flavored enchilada sauce all at the same time?

Turns out it works well. Remarkably well. But it took a little tweaking to get there. Here's how it went down.

Two Techniques, Two Sauces

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-01.jpg

Because of that Colombian chicken stew recipe, I already knew that cooking chicken with moist vegetables—in this case tomatoes, onions, garlic, and fresh chilies—along with some aromatics—Mexican oregano, cumin, coriander, bay leaf, and dried ancho chilies—would successfully produce a tasty sauce and tender chicken. The question is, are there any other steps I could take to make it taste even better, without losing sight of the ease-of-preparation factor?

If anything, I figured that adding a few browning and sautéing steps would help things out.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-02.jpg

I cooked one batch of the mixture by dumping all the ingredients straight into a pressure cooker and cooking it on high pressure for 15 minutes before using the quick-release method to open the pot (I ended up actually adding a bit of boxed chicken stock because I wanted the enchilada sauce to be extra-saucy at the end).

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-08.jpg

I pulled out the chicken and set it aside to cool, discarded the bay leaves, and then puréed the vegetables into a sauce, adding a squirt of soy sauce to it as it blended for a salty umami blast.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-10.jpg

This was the chicken and sauce I'd use as a baseline for flavor comparison. For the next batch, I decided to pan-sear the chicken with the skin side down until golden brown before adding the remaining ingredients.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-09.jpg

Un-seared on the left, seared on the right

I figured the extra browning would add correspondingly more flavor. Similarly, I also tried a batch in which I sautéed the onions and garlic in a bit of chicken fat to soften them before adding the remaining ingredients, sealing the pot, and cooking. To my great surprise, neither of these batches was significantly better (or even significantly different) from the batch in which I just dumped all the ingredients, closed the lid, and set it on the stovetop. Certainly not different enough to warrant the extra time and effort needed.

Dump-and-cook recipes are not generally my style, but in this case, the method works incredibly well.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-11.jpg

The puréed sauce was so tasty with its intense chicken and chili flavor that I was almost tempted to just thin it with some more stock, season it, and eat it as a soup (in fact, I may well do that next time), but for now I had a different goal in mind.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-14.jpg

As soon as the chicken was cool enough to handle, I shredded it apart with my fingers, discarding the skin and bones.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-16.jpg

Then I added some of my seasoned sauce...

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-17.jpg

...and tossed it all together along with some cilantro and lime juice. At this stage, I was almost tempted to stop again and just call it a day, using the filling and salsa to stuff tacos or burritos.

In fact, if you want an even quicker meal, I'd suggest doing just that—the most tender chicken tacos with an incredibly flavorful salsa in about 25 minutes is not bad on the work-to-delicious scale that I often use to rate my meals.

But I'd committed to enchiladas, so enchiladas it is.

Assembly and Baking

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-07.jpg

To form the enchiladas, I started by frying fresh corn tortillas in oil on the stovetop just long enough to soften them (about 5 minutes). You can also steam them in the microwave or heat them in the oven wrapped in foil if you prefer, though frying gives them a little more texture in the finished dish.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-20.jpg

Next I dipped them into the sauce, stacking them as I worked.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-21.jpg

I spooned the chicken filling into the center of each one in a row...

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-22.jpg

...then rolled it up like a cigar. It's important not to overstuff at this stage. Just a few tablespoons of filling per tortilla will do.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-23.jpg

I tucked them into a casserole dish layered with a bit of extra sauce as I worked, making sure to place them seam side-down so that they wouldn't unravel in the process. After spooning on a little more sauce, I was at a critical juncture. Do I go full-on Tex-Mex with melty Jack or Cheddar cheese, or do I keep things a little more austere and traditional?

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-25.jpg

It wasn't really a hard question to answer. Bring on the cheese, please.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-26.jpg

Here's a quick trick: You want to make sure that your cheese stays gooey and moist as it bakes? Drizzle on some extra sauce on top of the grated cheese. Just like it does with a Trenton-style Tomato Pie (what they call pizza over there), the cheese comes out extra gooey this way.

I covered the dish with aluminum foil (another thing that'll help melt that cheese without drying it out), then popped it in the oven for about ten minutes before removing the foil. I almost popped it straight back in to finish uncovered (just to get some bubbling and browning action going on), but who am I kidding? It needed more cheese before that happened.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-27.jpg

A big handful of grated cotija to melt in with the cheddar. Of course, I reserved some of that cotija to sprinkle on just before serving as well. I speculated that I apply my enchilada cheese almost exactly the same way I apply mozzarella and Parmesan on my pizza: sauce and melty cheese on the bottom, grated hard cheese on top, baked hot, then a finishing layer of grated hard cheese after it comes out of the oven for some extra-fresh bite. Perhaps there's some sort of underlying order to the universe dictated by cheese layering after all. This will require further speculation and analysis.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-33.jpg

But it'll have to wait. For now, there was a hot tray of enchiladas on my dining room table and they sure as heck weren't going to eat themselves.

20150416-pressure-cooke-chicken-enchiladas-recipe-29.jpg

I could have pretended that I'd toiled over the stove all day instead of taking the quick and easy pressure-cooker route in order to justify the rate at which I wolfed these down, but honestly, you don't really need justification when faced with something this delicious, now do you?