Few words strike more fear into our gastronomic hearts than “boneless, skinless chicken breast” — notoriously dry and flavorless, it’s easy to overcook (and under-season) this lean, white meat. Fortunately, there is a really simple solution to this culinary conundrum: science.
There are two main reasons that chicken breast ends up being less-than-tasty:
- The lack of fat (fat carries and produces aromas, which, in turn, contribute to the way we experience flavor).
- High cooking temperatures (meat and poultry dry out when the internal temperature climbs too high).
It seems reasonable, then, that we should be able to make really delicious and juicy boneless, skinless chicken breast if we cook it in lots of fat at a relatively low temperature, right?
That’s pretty much the idea behind carnitas. Carnitas are traditionally made by slow-cooking pork shoulder in lard until fork-tender. Apply this same cooking technique to chicken breast and you end up with juicy, flavorful, Cinco-de-Mayo-worthy chicken that’s perfect the bright and citrusy flavors in these tacos.
Carnitas-Style Chicken Tacos
Ingredients For the Chicken Carnitas
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
¾ cup vegetable oil (or rendered chicken fat)
1 small yellow onion, sliced
2 large cloves garlic, smashed
¼ cup of chicken stock
½ cup of milk
1 small bunch of fresh thyme
Zest of 1 orange
Ingredients For the Tacos
Cabbage, thinly sliced
Pickled red onion, see note below
Radishes, thinly sliced
Cotija cheese (or queso blanco), crumbled
Cilantro leaves, torn
Cut each chicken breast into two or three evenly sized pieces, season with salt and pepper, and then set aside. Avoid the temptation to cut the chicken into smaller pieces; the more you cut the chicken, the more surfaces there will be from which juices can escape.
Heat the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven (or another large pan) over medium heat.
When the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion and the garlic and let it cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and evenly browned, about 8-10 minutes. Then, remove the onion and the garlic from the oil and turn the heat up to medium-high.
Add the chicken to the oil and let it sear. When the chicken is well-browned (and no longer sticks to the bottom of the pan) flip it over and sear the other side. Continue searing the chicken on all sides. Another advantage of cooking larger chunks of chicken is that the outside of the chicken will brown before the center has time to cook. This is good at this stage in the cooking process— the chicken will finish cooking through later, at a much lower temperature, which helps it stay juicer.
When the chicken is browned on all sides, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the chicken stock, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Then, add the milk (the lactic acid in milk helps tenderize the chicken), thyme, and orange zest. Season with salt and pepper and then add just enough water (or more stock) to cover the chicken.
Partially cover the pan and let the chicken simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2 hours. Don’t rush this process; allowing the chicken to cook slowly at a low temperature will prevent it from drying out.
Remove the chicken from the pan and put it on a cutting board. Cover it with foil to keep it warm and then let the chicken rest for 10 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the chicken. If you skip this step you’ll lose lots of juices when you shred the meat.
Then, use two forks to shred the meat. Drizzle any remaining juices from the pan over the meat and toss to combine.
Serve the warm, shredded chicken on corn tortillas, topped with cabbage, pickled red onions, sliced radishes, cheese, cilantro, avocado, and freshly squeezed lime juice.
To make pickled red onions: Cut a red onion into thin slices. Put the slices in a re-sealable jar and cover them with red wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar). Add one teaspoon of sugar and ½ teaspoon of salt and stir to combine. Cover the jar and refrigerate overnight.