The History of King Ranch Casserole

I remember quite well where I first saw the mention of King Ranch Casserole. It was in a Harlequin romance novel. My younger sister went through a phase with them when we were younger. My aunt used to have a room with shelves filled with them. My forever nosy and bookworm sister was intrigued by the sight of all these books of course was drawn to the shelves. My aunt would take immediately take them away at any attempts of my teenage sister trying to read one as the contents could be quite spicy. This just added to the allure and it started my sister on purchasing them for a while. To see what all the fuss was about, I read one that my sister had lying around. It just happened to be Frisco Joe’s Fiancée the first book in the Cowboys By The Dozen series.

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In the book, an ad is placed for housekeeper for 12 single cowboys in the fictional town of Union Junction, Texas. Somehow Annabelle gets the job despite not have any experience nor being able to cook all while holding a newborn. Frisco Joe, who is most against having the “aggravation a woman brings”, is of course the one who falls in love with her. In the book, Annabelle finds a “recipe from an old file she’d found in the kitchen – and fed what seemed like an army of people”. The recipe was for King Ranch casserole which was served with chicken soup and a large green salad. What I remember annoying me about this when I first read it, was that it made no mention of what actually is in the dish. I remember being thoroughly confused as I had never heard of the dish and being absolutely wrong that it had something to do with Ranch dressing.

What ingredients are in King Ranch Casserole?

It is a casserole layered with cooked chicken, cream of mushroom, and cream of chicken soups, grated cheese, tortillas, and canned tomatoes usually of the Ro-Tel variety. Many modern recipes forgo canned condensed soups in favor of a homemade sauce.

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Who and where was King Ranch Casserole created?

There is a lot of questions regarding the origin of the recipe so let’s start with the universal truths that everyone agrees on. We do know that this dish is from Texas and that due to the use of canned soup it was created after World War II most likely in the 1950s. It is named after the King Ranch which is the best-known ranch in Texas that covers more area than the state of Rhode Island.

The head-scratching part is that the King Ranch, which is in Kingsville, Texas, does not claim this recipe. Many also wonder why it was even named after the ranch as the casserole uses chicken and not beef which is what the King Ranch is known for. No one knows the origin, where, or who created it.

Author Mimi Swartz and many agree, that King Ranch Casserole “owes a deep debt to chilaquiles” which is a Mexican dish that usually consists of chicken, cheese, tomatoes, tortillas, and chiles. It is not a far stretch of the imagination with Texas being on the Mexican border that this was an attempt to recreate the dish in American kitchens with ingredients that were on hand.

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When was King Ranch Casserole popular?

This was a regional dish not widely known outside of the state of Texas for the longest time. This casserole has been mentioned in many cookbooks about the food of the state. Rob Walsh in his book Texas Eats: The New Lonestar Heritage Cook comments that though this recipe has nothing to do with its namesake it “was the comfort food and potluck companion of a generation of Texans”. In How to Be a Texan: The Manual, Andrea Valdez says though “no one seems to know the provenance of this eponymous dish” that no “respectable Junior League Cookbook in the state would be complete without its own variant on the recipe”. Dean Fearing in his book The Texas Food Bible adds to this sentiment by remarking that “some version of this casserole can be found in almost any home kitchen across Texas” and that “each Texan has a favorite version”.

It seems that the 1970s is when this recipe starts to creep its way into the rest of the United States. In a 2004 article, a reader who contributed a King Ranch Casserole recipe told the newspaper that “my mom remembers someone making the casserole and passing the recipe to her in the late ’60s or early ’70s and it became an instant family favorite.” In a 1972 newspaper recipe contest, King Ranch Casserole was the first place winner with an award of $100. Mrs. Tom Paul who submitted the recipe called it a family favorite. While many of the recipes in the 1970s use tortillas, some recipes use Doritos or Fritos (all from areas outside of Texas).

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Why should I make King Ranch Casserole?

There is a whole generation of Texans that swear by King Ranch casserole and they have a lot of food to choose from in Texas. Who am I to argue with them?

How to make King Ranch Casserole?

King Ranch Casserole

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

The classic Texan casserole.

Ingredients

    • 3 tablespoons oil
    • 1 onion, chopped
    • 1 green pepper, chopped
    • 1 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 1 can condensed cream of chicken soup
    • 1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
    • 1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes (or one can petite diced tomatoes and 1 small can chopped green chilies)
    • 1 cup chicken broth
    • 1/2 tablespoon chili powder
    • 1/2 tablespoon cumin
    • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
    • 3 cooked chicken breast, chopped into small pieces
    • 15 corn taco size tortilla, cut into bite size pieces

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.
  3. Sautee the onion, pepper and garlic until softened. Place in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Mix in the both of the canned soups, the tomatoes, chicken broth, chili powder, cumin and 1 cup of the cheddar cheese.
  5. In a 13 x 9 pan, layer the tortillas and chicken. Then pour over the soup mixture and top with the remaining cheddar cheese.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes.


Sources:

Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. Random House: New York, 1997.

Bundy, Beverly. “Chicken a la King Ranch”. Fort Worth Star-Telegram. April 25, 1990.

Chapman, Art. “King Ranch Chicken Rules Celebration Roost”. Johnson City Press. June 9, 1999.

“Cookbook Edition”. Gadsden Times. November 23, 1975.

“Early California Settlers and Immigrants Resources: Encarnación Pinedo”, Santa Clara University Library, December 14, 2020, libguides.scu.edu/c.php?g=459052&p=3148173.

Fain, Lisa. The Homesick Texan. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011.

Fearing, Dean. The Texas Food Bible: From Legendary Dishes to New Classics. Grand Central Life and Style: New York, 2014.

Kerns, Denise. “Church Women Compile Cookbook of Favorite Foods”. St. Joseph News Press. April 18, 1979.

Larsen, Linda Johnson. Knack Chicken Classics: A Step-by-Step Guide to favorites for Every Season. Connecticut: Morris Book Publishing, 2010.

Leonard, Tina. Cowboys By The Dozen: Frisco Joe’s Fiancée. Canada: Harlequin, 2003.

Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Morton, Letty. “Mrs. Tom Paul Takes 1st in Recipe Contest with Chicken Casserole”. St. Joseph News Press. November 5, 1972.

Naylor, June. “Legendary King Ranch Chicken Still Reigns Supreme at Potlucks”. Fort Worth Star-Telegram. October 11, 2006.

Phillips, Valerie. “Potatoes to Die For”. The Deseret News. Jan 15, 2002.

“Old-fashioned Cooking: Readers Seek Recipes Flavored with Nostalgia”. Austin American-Statesman. May 23, 1985.

Rather, Rebecca and Onesman, Alison. The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes from the Texas Hill Country’s Rather Sweet Bakery and Café. Berkeley: 10 Speed Press, 2004.

Read, Nell. “Win Applause with Chicken”. San Antonio Express. June 8, 1965.

Smith, Kathie. “Texas Twist for Super Bowl Fare”. Toledo Blade. Jan 27, 2004.

Swartz, Mimi. “King Ranch Casserole”. Texas Monthly. Jan. 1989.

Valdez, Andrea. How to Be a Texan: The Manual. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Walsh, Robb. Texas Eats: The New Lonestar Heritage Cookbook. California: Ten Speed Press, 2012.

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