My Goals

  • Rich, savory depth

  • Complex smoky-spicy sauce

  • Flavorful, tender chicken

  • Cohesive taco filling

I ’ve long been a fan of pork tinga, a taco filling hailing from the Puebla region of Mexico that features supertender shredded pork (and often chorizo) bathed in a boldly flavored sauce anchored by tomatoes and smoky-spicy chipotle chiles. Fresh toppings such as cilantro, salty cotija cheese, and a squeeze of lime provide a perfect contrast to the rich, meaty filling. But since it’s usually made with cuts that take several hours to turn tender, pork tinga can be hard to make on a weeknight. I’d thought about adapting a recipe to work with chicken, but after a little research I realized there was no need: Lots of recipes for tinga de pollo already exist.

I gave the most common—and speedy—approach I found a test run. Similar to the recipe for pork tinga, it called for poaching the chicken (I chose boneless breasts) in water in one pot as you prepare the sauce in another. This was as simple as softening some chopped onions with oil before simmering them with canned diced tomatoes, chicken broth, and—of course—a few tablespoons of minced chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. As soon as the chicken was poached, I shredded it and stirred it into the pot with the sauce. After cooking the mixture briefly to give the flavors a chance to meld, I gave it a taste. Fast? Yes. But as I had suspected, the time savings just weren’t worth it. The chicken was bland, and the sauce was thin in both flavor and texture. Could I deliver the full-flavored smoky, spicy, hearty filling that I craved while keeping the recipe on a weeknight time frame?

We discovered in our five-recipe test that toppings are just as important as the chicken tinga itself. These may include crumbled cotija cheese, crema, lime, tomatillo salsa, and avocado.

A Savory Boost

I began by making three immediate changes. First, I swapped out the breasts for more flavorful boneless thighs. This was such an obvious improvement that I couldn’t believe more recipes didn’t call for it, particularly since the thighs took only about 15 minutes to cook through, barely longer than the breasts I’d used in my first attempt. Second, I ditched one of my pots. By cooking the chicken and sauce in separate pots, I had missed an opportunity to infuse both components with more flavor. Instead, I simmered them together from the start. And third, to address the sauce’s watery consistency, I dialed back on the tomatoes and chicken broth, going from a 28-ounce can of tomatoes to a 14.5-ounce can and from 1 cup to ½ cup of chicken broth.

These changes helped, but they weren’t enough. Most tinga de pollo recipes didn’t call for browning the meat, but this would certainly give the chicken more flavor as well as leave behind flavorful bits of fond in the pot that could be stirred into the sauce (and wouldn’t add much more time). I also wondered if browning the onions instead of just softening them would make a difference. After browning the chicken on both sides and setting it aside, I added the onions to the pot and let them go several minutes longer before introducing the other ingredients and proceeding with the recipe. I also decided to cook the chicken a little longer, until it reached 195 degrees. Though we typically cook thigh meat to 175 degrees, we’ve found that longer braising allows even more of its collagen to break down, delivering meat that’s more tender. For my purposes, this meant the meat was even easier to shred. Tasters approved of all these changes: The chicken was more tender, and the thicker sauce now boasted savory flavor and depth. But I had higher ambitions: I wanted the dish to have even more complexity.

Fired Up

In the search of complex flavor for this dish, we tried versions of the recipe incorporating cocoa and Worcestershire sauce, but in the end fire-roasted tomatoes, chipotle chiles adobo sauce, and warm spices gave the tinga the perfect balance of earthy, smoky sweetness.

The diced tomatoes in the sauce were fine, but what if I swapped them for a can of the fire-roasted kind? One test confirmed that their lightly charred flavor noticeably enhanced the smokiness of the chipotles. I also opted to add some of the adobo sauce from the can of chipotles; just 2 teaspoons added a layer of vinegary, smoky complexity. I continued to experiment with other ingredients I’d seen in tinga recipes. Tasters thought that oregano made my recipe taste like an Italian pasta sauce, so it was out. Tomatillos, thyme, and bay leaf didn’t offer enough flavor to justify their inclusion. However, garlic and cumin, plus a little sweet warmth from cinnamon, earned a thumbs-up. I also found that stirring in just ½ teaspoon of brown sugar had a surprisingly big impact, lending a necessary balancing sweetness. A little acidity and floral flavor from fresh lime juice and zest brightened the dish just enough. With just these simple pantry ingredients, I had the richly smoky, spicy, tomatoey sauce that I’d been hoping for.

Perfect Saucy Shreds

Integrating Sauce and Chicken

After cooking the chicken in the sauce, removing it, and shredding it, we return it to the sauce to simmer for a full 10 minutes before serving. This thickens the sauce so it coats the meat better; plus, the simmering action and frequent stirring loosen the chicken’s muscle fibers, which in turn allows the sauce to work its way into the meat and take hold. The result is a cohesive taco filling with sauce and meat that are fully integrated.

There was just one thing I still wasn’t happy with: The shreds of chicken and the sauce seemed like separate entities, with much of the sauce dripping from the chicken as I dished it out of the pot. But I had an idea. Thanks to the fact that I was cooking the chicken to 195 degrees, its muscle fibers were looser than they would have been at 175 degrees. So instead of briefly warming the shredded chicken in the pureed sauce before serving, as I’d been doing, I let it simmer for a full 10 minutes. As I’d hoped, the simmering action loosened the muscle fibers even further and gave the sauce a chance to really take hold of the meat. It also allowed the sauce to thicken further. The upshot: a more cohesive taco filling with sauce that clung to the meat.

With a simple yet flavorful recipe for chicken tinga under his belt, test cook Steve Dunn whipped up some homemade tortillas, flattening the dough with a tortilla press (a pie plate also works) and then frying the rounds in a nonstick skillet.

All I had left to do was iron out the toppings. Minced fresh cilantro and scallions, some avocado pieces, crumbled cotija cheese, and fresh lime juice added the right amount of contrasting fresh, cool flavors. For some textural interest, I also whipped up a quick escabeche, a traditional quick-pickled Mexican condiment, as the chicken cooked. All it took was giving some sliced red onion, jalapeño, and carrots a 30-minute soak in a spiced pickling brine. With that, I had tacos that satisfied all my cravings—plus a simple recipe that also had deep, complex flavor.

Keys to Success

  • Rich, savory depth

    Browning the chicken on both sides before building the sauce in the pot not only gives the chicken more flavor but also leaves behind savory browned bits that can be scraped up and stirred into the sauce. And instead of simply cooking the onions until softened and golden, we cook them longer, until they are brown, for even more flavor in the pot.
  • Complex smoky-spicy sauce

    Chipotle chiles—smoked and dried jalapeños that have been reconstituted in tomato-and-vinegar sauce—are the backbone of tinga’s smoky, tomatoey sauce. In addition to several tablespoons of the chipotle chiles, we use some of the adobo sauce from the can to lend complex, fruity, vinegary brightness. We swap in fire-roasted tomatoes for regular diced tomatoes to boost the chipotles’ smoky flavor without adding any more work. A little brown sugar and lime juice and zest further boost the complexity.
  • Flavorful, tender chicken

    Most recipes call for boneless, skinless chicken breasts and for cooking the chicken and sauce separately. We swap in more flavorful (but still quick-cooking) boneless thighs, and we cook the chicken through in the sauce, which infuses both components with more flavor without adding time. Cooking the chicken to 195 degrees instead of the more commonly called for 175 degrees delivers meat that’s more tender and even easier to shred.
  • Cohesive taco filling

    Letting the shredded meat simmer in the pureed sauce for a full 10 minutes gives the sauce a chance to reduce and thicken; the simmering action and frequent stirring also loosen the chicken’s muscle fibers so the sauce can really work its way into each shred of meat. This gives us a cohesive taco filling—think saucy meat instead of meat that’s just been sauced.