Smoky and Spicy Chicken Tinga Is the Ultimate One-Pot Taco Filling

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Spicy, smoky, and easy chicken tinga. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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Mexican Food

Recetas deliciosas to transport your tastebuds south of the border.

I first knew tinga poblana through the great recipe Rick Bayless includes in Authentic Mexican, a recipe which he in turn based off of the version made in Puebla's Fonda de Santa Clara restaurant. It's a spicy tomato- and chipotle-based stew that includes both chunks of pork and chorizo sausage. I always found this to be rather odd. He also offers versions made with shredded pork stewed with chorizo. What kind of stew uses ground meat and chunks of meat side by side?

Things snapped into clearer focus when I read Alex Stupak's take on it in his recent book, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. He likens tinga poblana to an Italian Sunday gravy. A sort of catchall stew that starts with the same base flavors—tomatoes, smoky chipotle chilies, and meat—but is infinitely variable in how it is assembled. This goes a long way toward explaining the multitude of chicken-based versions of the recipe I've run into over the years.

I'm loath to include ingredients like fresh Mexican chorizo in what are meant to be quick and easy recipes; you're either gonna have to seek it out from a Mexican market (where you hope the butcher makes it fresh) or make it yourself. Neither is a very quick or easy option. So it's good to know that even without the chorizo, chicken tinga can be both delicious and authentic.

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Here's chicken tinga at its most basic: Simmer chicken breasts or thighs with tomatoes, onions, and aromatics in water. Purée the tomato and onions with chipotle chilies. Shred the chicken, and stir it all together. Made this way, chicken tinga is tasty, but I wondered if I could improve the flavor with just a few minor tweaks, while not making the recipe significantly more inconvenient.

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Starting with bone-in, skin-on chicken was good. The skin, bones, and connective tissue offer flavor to the sauce as the chicken simmers. The skin also acts as an insulator, helping the chicken stay moist. I used split chicken breasts because the meat shreds more cleanly than thighs and has a milder flavor that carries the flavor of the sauce better. Browning the chicken in oil or lard also adds another dimension to the dish.

Some recipes call for tomatoes alone, while others call for a combination of tomatoes and tomatillos. I prefer the latter. Tomatillos offer bright acidity to the sauce, as well as plenty of pectin, which helps give it a thicker, more rib-sticking (er, chicken-sticking) texture. Tomatoes and tomatillos are cousins, but they're pretty distantly related, which means that cooking them together shouldn't cause a scandal.

Seeing as I already had a hot saucepan ready, I wondered if I could add more flavor by browning the vegetables a bit. Adding diced tomatoes, tomatillos, and garlic didn't work—they released too much moisture, making them impossible to brown—but when left whole, they browned nicely over the course of a few minutes.

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Next, I added some diced onion to the pot, using the moisture it released to scrape up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan from the chicken and the other vegetables. Once the onions were softened and their harsh edge had cooked away, I added some Mexican oregano (classic in tinga) and bay leaves, stirring for just about 30 seconds before hitting the pan with a couple of canned chipotle chilies and a splash of cider vinegar. The tomatoes add bright tartness, but the vinegar really brings the dish together, contrasting with the heat of the chipotle peppers (don't worry, we'll get to those soon).

Rather than water, I opted to use chicken stock for my poaching liquid. (Canned or boxed low-sodium stock works just fine—even water is okay if you're in a pinch.) I first tried adding enough liquid to completely submerge the chicken, which required me to reduce it on the stovetop for a good 30 minutes after the chicken cooked to get it to a thick, saucy consistency. It was much faster and easier to use just two cups of stock, covering the pot as it simmered and occasionally turning the chicken to make sure it cooked evenly.

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If I were serving chicken breasts straight up, I'd cook them to around 150°F in order to make sure they stayed juicy, with a pleasantly firm texture. But in this recipe, the chicken gets cooked twice: once in the poaching liquid, then again after it's shredded and tossed with the sauce. So, for the initial poaching step, I found that cooking the chicken to only 145°F is the way to go—hot enough that it shreds nicely, but cool enough that it won't dry out during the second cooking phase.

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As soon as the chicken finished cooking, I took it out and set it aside to cool slightly while I reduced the sauce down to about half its original volume (which took about five minutes), then puréed it with a hand blender. It was tasty, but the smoky flavor of the chilies was a little too muted. Adding more of them made the sauce too spicy.

Up to this point, I'd been adding the chipotle chilies before simmering, figuring that their flavor would help season the chicken. I tried instead reserving the chilies until the very end, blending them into the sauce after it was done cooking. This was the way to go: Their deep, smoky flavor came out much more intensely.

Besides, once the chicken is shredded and mixed back into the sauce, that flavor is gonna completely coat the chicken, whether it was built in there as it simmered or not. With the chicken shredded, I added it back to the pan and simmered it just long enough to reduce the mixture to a moist, but not watery or wet, texture.

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Chicken tinga makes an excellent filling for tacos or tostadas—it's got a built-in salsa that's already hot, bright, and smoky, so it barely needs any accoutrements to shine. A little squeeze of lime juice, plus a scattering of chopped white onion and cilantro for freshness, is more than enough.

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Could this chicken tinga be improved by adding a little bit of chorizo to the sauce, as Bayless and Stupak suggest? Probably. But when it's in your mouth, it's hard to shake the feeling that, at least for those few brief moments, everything in the world is exactly where it should be.

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