What Exactly Is King Ranch Chicken?

Not every chicken casserole deserves to be crowned the official state casserole.

king ranch casserole
Photo: Southern Living

Kentucky is known for burgoo and Louisiana lays claim to jambalaya and gumbo. And while Texas is known far and wide for its fabulous BBQ, it is also recognized as the birthplace of the King Ranch Chicken Casserole, so much so that many Texans claim that this is the official state casserole (if there really were such a thing). Every family has a favorite casserole recipe, one that was probably passed down through the generations and is made for every church supper, funeral, and family gathering. Chances are that your preferred casserole recipe includes, among other ingredients, shredded chicken, a can or two of condensed soup, and loads of cheese. If the basic ingredients of so many casseroles, such as this classic Chicken Spaghetti Casserole, are the same, then what makes the King Ranch casserole different and worthy of being dubbed the official state casserole?

Shhh…It Isn't Really From the King Ranch

Because of the name, many think this casserole was created at the famous King Ranch in South Texas. This connection, however, seems to be only mythical; the ranch has never laid claim to the dish and its legacy continues to be based in cattle, not the poultry found in the casserole. Most likely this dish was developed the same way many others were – a budget-minded homemaker used available ingredients to feed her family – and this particular South Texas homemaker had a flair for the dramatic when it came to naming her new casserole. The dish became so popular in Texas that it was among one of the recipe staples that Ladybird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, liked to have served at her LBJ ranch in Stonewall, Texas. Regardless of the origin, variations of King Ranch Chicken Casserole appear in almost every Junior League recipe throughout Texas and many community cookbooks around the South.

What Makes it a King Ranch Casserole?

While similar to other casseroles made from chicken and condensed soups, the King Ranch Chicken Casserole is set apart by its Tex-Mex flair, offering the bold flavors of chilis, cayenne and poblano. Corn tortillas, which bake up wonderfully mushy, are layered throughout the casserole and lend the sweet taste of corn while providing a bit of structure to the mixture (think of it as a Tex-Mex lasagna-style dish). Some newer variations instruct the cook to use tortilla or corn chips, but purists swear the only way to make an authentic King Ranch Chicken Casserole is to line the bottom of the casserole dish with tortillas, layer the soup, chicken, and other ingredients, cover with a second layer of tortillas, and repeat the process. As with other classic comfort casseroles, this recipe makes a lot and freezes beautifully.

WATCH: Chicken Spaghetti Casserole

Classic comfort foods like King Ranch Chicken are simple recipes that have stood the test of time. Favorites such as country fried steak, chicken casseroles, and meatloaf were developed from a need to make delicious and nutritious meals when ingredients, time, and or money were scarce.

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