Easy, Frugal Cooking | Chicken Tacos

A couple of months ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to make Chicken Tacos. I poked through Cook’s Illustrated’s website and found nothing (only a steak taco recipe), so I decided to search some other online cooking sites. The wealth of chicken taco recipes was overwhelming, and I had no idea which recipe would be good and which would be horrible (ratings and reviews aren’t all that helpful because of the variance in opinions. How can a recipe be both fabulous and disgusting at the same time??).

So, I decided to go with the Cook’s Illustrated steak taco recipe and just modify it for use with chicken. Happily, the tacos were a great success. They’re sort of like a no-grill-required wintertime version of fajitas, and they’re really easy to make.

Also, they use up cilantro, which will appeal to all of you out there who, like me, struggle to use up an entire bunch of cilantro before it goes bad.

You start by making a pesto-like herb paste, which includes cilantro, garlic, scallions, a jalapeno, cumin, and some vegetable oil. Put all of that into a food processor (a blender would probably work as well), and pulse until it’s all finely chopped.

With the machine running, add 1/4 cup vegetable oil and process until the mixture is fairly smooth.

Remove 2 tablespoons of the herb paste to a bowl. Squeeze in 1 tablespoon of lime juice, and set it aside (this is for use as a taco condiment later).

The rest of the paste is going to go on the chicken, but first, you need to rub some coarse salt on the chicken.

Because I’m not that good terrible at cooking whole chicken breasts, I always cut mine in half lengthwise so that they’re turned into thin cutlets. This makes it easier to cook the chicken all the way through without scorching the outside.

Spread the herb paste over the chicken, then cover and refrigerate the chicken for 30 minutes to an hour. If you’re worried someone in your family won’t like the herb paste, you can always leave a breast or two plain.

Scrape the herb paste off of the chicken (as you can see, I never get all of it off, but it seems to be fine!) and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a 12-inch skillet (I use my cast-iron skillet) over medium high heat. Add chicken.

Cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, or until cooked through (this will vary depending on how thick your chicken pieces are). Let the cooked chicken rest for 5 minutes.

Slice rested chicken into narrow strips and season with salt if desired. Place several strips in the middle of a warmed flour tortilla, and top with cheese, tomato, avocado, sour cream, chopped cilantro, reserved herb paste, or whatever else you wish (I sometimes saute onion slices before I cook the chicken and add those in my tacos).

Chicken Tacos (printable version)

Herb Paste
1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
3 medium garlic cloves , roughly chopped
3 medium scallions , roughly chopped (about 1/3 cup)
1 medium jalapeño chile , stemmed and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced lengthwise into thin cutlets
1 tablespoon coarse salt or 1.5 teaspoons table salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Combine cilantro, garlic, scallions, chile, and cumin in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped, and with machine running, add 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Process until smooth.

Remove 2 tablespoons of herb paste to a bowl, whisk in lime juice, and set aside.

Rub salt over both sides of the chicken, and spread with remaining herb paste. Cover and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes.

Scrape herb paste off chicken and sprinkle with sugar and pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy 12 inch skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken and cook 4-5 minutes on each side or until cooked through. Let cooked chicken rest for 5 minutes, then slice into strips. Season with salt if desired. Serve in warmed flour tortillas and top with cheese, chopped tomato, chopped cilantro, sour cream, sauteed onions, and reserved herb paste.

Need more dinner ideas? Browse my other main dish recipes.


  1. says

    That herb paste sounds wonderful. I’m definitely going to try it next time I make chicken tacos.

    I found a crock-pot recipe for chicken taco meat years ago that I make regularly. It makes a large batch so I typically freeze half of it for later use; makes for an easy meal on a busy night.
    3# boneless skinless chicken breast (thighs work fine too)
    1 can chicken broth*
    1 packet taco seasoning*
    Place chicken in crock-pot. Mix taco seasoning in chicken broth and pour over chicken. Cook on low for 7-8 hours. (*I use equivalents of homemade.)

    thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    Kristen these look amazing! I love the idea of the herb paste and have never seen that before. Do you think it can be frozen for later? I agree the whole bunch of cilantro can be tricky to get rid of. I tend to add it to things like rice and use it to top strained (greek style) yogurt on crackers or as tea sandwiches. Thanks again for your yogurt recipe. It came out perfectly and since i have a smaller family, my neighbor was blessed by it to.

  3. Amanda says

    We LOVE tacos/fajitas. Once you figure out what your tastes are it is so easy to tweak things. (Take away chicken and use pork chops. Throw in some wrinkled red peppers to avoid food waste.) I have often not seasoned my meat due to lack of time but add the seasoning to sour cream or in the sauted (sp) peppers and onions. Like I said there are so many variations that it really depends on the family and tastes. (My husband adds hot sauce or chipotle to his and I can’t stomach the heat lately.)

    Another tip is to put an additional shell on your plate so the drippings from the one you are eating go there. When you are ready for seconds one is already half loaded for you. ;)

  4. says

    Love the use of cilantro! I am going to make some paste this weekend and put it in the freezer. I alway miss it in the summer when it has gone to flower in my garden. This way I will have some to use with ripe tomatoes! Love all the pictures too! Thanks,

  5. Jeanine says

    Great pictures. I’ve got to find that blog where you give instruction on how to photograph cooking food without the steam blurring the shot.

    I have a question that is kinda off the subject. Didn’t I see in a previous blog that you have a glass top stove?

    If you do, how do you cook with cast iron on that type of stove?

    I have an complete 40 year old cast iron skillet/griddle set that has been handed down to me that I was advised not to use on a glass top stove.

    I have a glass top stove. :*((

    In my book, this a waste of another kind. My skillets ( which are FABULOUS for all types of cooking) are just sitting around unused.


  6. BarbS says

    I’m so glad to hear that I am not the only one who is terrible at cooking chicken breats. They’re always overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside. Blech.

    Like you, I often slice the chicken breats in half to make two thinner pieces. Depending on the recipe, sometimes I slice the breasts into strips and just cook them that way. For these tacos, that method might work well because you are going to slice them at the end anyway. Just a thought. :-)

    Thanks for sharing the recipe, Kristen. It looks delish!

  7. says

    I love tacos of all kinds! Austin, where I live, is famous for breakfast tacos…scrambled eggs, home fried potatoes, catsup, sausage in a flour tortilla. I also make a delicious corn, onion and black bean taco. I saute frozen defrosted corn and sliced onions until caramelized, add black beans, cumin, salt and pepper, Place in warm flour tortilla, sprinkle grated cheese on top and eat!

  8. says

    I notice you talk about the task of using up cilantro frequently. Have you ever thought about growing your own or subbing parsley? You can grow cilantro in a pot, probably on a window sill, and just snip off the portion you need when you need it. It will continuously grow back, and if you keep it trimmed back enough, it won’t go to seed.

    And, I know parsley and cilantro aren’t the same thing, but when you’re mixing them into stuff they can kind of taste similar enough. We use which ever one we have on hand at my house. Since we started a pot of parsley on the back porch last summer, we haven’t bought cilantro at all. We kept it by the window and it lived through the winter just fine.

  9. Andrea says

    Have you tried using your plain yogurt in place of sour cream? I’ve been doing this recently with no detectable difference in taste (it works in Beef Stroganoff, too), and I know you have plenty of yogurt around!

  10. says

    I think this sounds delicious! As Spring comes forth we begin eating lighter and this will fit the bill! I can tell you that we also like to use tilapia (we generally have some of this inexpensive fish on hand) tastes good with Mexican flavors, and would probably work well in this too (baking instead of grilling, though). Yum!

    • Jamie says

      We love tacos with tilapia. My husband was a little skeptical at first, but he loves them now. I usually blacken some in a pan with a little chili powder, salt and then when it’s cooked I squeeze some lime juice over the top. Yummy!

  11. WilliamB says

    Most of the time I cheat when I make meat for Tex-Mex. I simmer the meat in a good salsa. As long as the heat is really, really low you can’t overcook the meat. (If the simmer doesn’t get above 170F then the chicken can’t get above 170F, and so it’s never overcooked.) Thanks for the post. I am reminded that I have leftover turkey in the freezer and half a jar of salsa to use up. I see some TexMex in my near future.

    BarbS, have you tried brining your chicken? That’s soaking it in salty water for 30 min to a day (depending on how much time you have and how salty the water is). It makes the meat jucier and less likely to cook badly.

  12. says

    Wow, your chicken tacos look good. I usually just cook the meat with some salsa. Feeling really lazy now. ;-) I often add a can of black beans to the meat to stretch it further.

    I love making tacos, chicken or beef, because then I can use the leftovers later in the week to make taco salad.

  13. says

    This is a bit random, but recently I was researching metal toxins (don’t ask) and some information I came across cited cilantro as helping to flush those toxins. Apparently, they will bind to the cilantro and go out with the, er, rest of the trash. Who knew? And people thought herbs were just for flavor. Pshaw.

  14. Crystal says

    Hi Kristin! A full proof way pretty much to have chicken breast meat ready for tacos, burritos, tostada’s, etc. is to BOIL IT and then shred it! I do this regularly, whenever I come across some Foster Farms chicken breasts for .99 I’ll buy like 40.00, skin it, boil, shred and freeze in bags that are enough for a meal for my family. THERE IS SO MUCH you can do with this once defrosted;

    1. Sautee an onion, add chicken and a can of Rotel (Mexican style, usually 1.00) salt, pepper, a little lemon juice, garlic if you have it in powdered or whatever form. Good for tacos, burritos, tostada’s on refried beans, yummy with spanish rice and tortillas on the side. We use thick corn tortillas, healthier than flour.
    2. Same recipe above, but add peppers and a little cumin for fajitas.
    3. Same recipe as #1, but ADD 1 can of drained corn and 1 can of drained beans (pinto or black) for a complete bowl meal. On top of rice and a little cheese sprinkled is yummy!
    4. SAME recipe, on top of a bed of lettuce for chicken salad or as wraps.
    3. Add onions (or skip if you don’t like it), broth and rice in a pot w/ seasonings (a little extra chicken boullion goes a long way here for a quick soup).
    4. Sautee onion (if you like) add chicken, and 1/4 to half a bottle of bbq sauce. Use this on rolls, bread for quick sandwiches or as a meal with some mashed potato’s and corn on the side. So YUMMY.

    I work, commute, go to church, etc. with having to cook from scratch every day. All of the above could also be made with lean ground beef too My frozen shred chx and also frozen sliced onions/green onions have saved me many a busy night from ordering pizza!

    Hope you’ll try, I promise it’s yummy, quick and easy and still healthy!

      • ~Michelle~ says

        I, actually, throw frozen chicken breasts in my Crock Pot. Simply add water (barely submerse chicken), a little salt and pepper, put lid on, turn on high, and enjoy your day! :D (No more than 5 hours is my personal rule of thumb.) The chicken becomes so tender, it nearly melts in your mouth! Season mildly when cooking, then season as needed when using for specific dishes, like Mexican or Italian. Hope this helps! I have some in the Crock Pot now, but only enough for the dish I’m preparing for tonight – Chicken Durango (a family fav!).

        • Elizabeth R says

          I do the same kind of thing – I cook a bunch of chicken in the crock pot with canned tomatoes and mild chilis (or sometimes salsa), shred and freeze in 2 cup portions. I think I cook it about 3-4 hours – I just check it to see if it is ready to shred. I use it for enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, tortilla soup….

  15. Erika says

    I’ll let Crystal give her input, but I often boil chicken as well (I like shredded chicken better than chicken in a lot of meals – Mexican, pot pies, soup, etc). You can boil it in plain water (you can imagine, though, that this is fairly flavorless), or you can boil it with some broth/boullion and/or some celery and onions.
    BTW, when I “boil” my chicken I actually do it in a frying pan. You don’t need a whole pot of water, just enough to submerge the chicken. It’s fool-proof!

  16. says

    Looks great! My in-laws in France have been asking me to make Mexican-style food for them . . .and then they bought me one of those ‘tacos in a box’ things at the grocery store, complete with mystery spice pack etc. Yipes! Your recipe looks far better. I may have to steal that so I can cure my in-laws of their strange taste in ‘ Mexican’ food.

  17. says

    I never buy cilantro because I do always waste it, so this may push me over the edge of cilantro consumerism.

    Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

  18. beany says

    We actually manage to eat entire bunches of cilantro without wasting much at all.

    When we bring it home from the store, it gets wrap it entirely in a sheet (or 1.5) of paper towel, then back into the produce bag it came in, and then a paper bag. Actually the thicker paper bags you get sugar in are best for this. Cilantro lasts really well with this method, at least 3 weeks.

  19. Crystal says

    Hi there,

    I add some salt to the boil, but that’s it. This way, it can be used in so many recipes!I am usually boiling a large pot of maybe 8 – 12 breasts at a time…but even so it only takes maybe 30 min on med. high heat after the boil. Just check at 30 min (since it will be be shredded, doesn’t matter if you take a piece out and cut into it at the thick part to see if it’s done). And then 5 or 10 min later should be done.

    The SABOR (Flavor!) gets added at meal time with whatever you are turning it into (salt, pepper, garlic, cumin, lime, Rotel, bbq sauce, teriyaki sauce, etc.. Next time I do this, maybe I’ll send you some pics of everything I make from it.

    OH, I forgot…cornbread pizza! Add #1 on top of cornbread that has been cooked till almost done…sprinkle with cheese in an oven safe skillet and bake.

    And Teriyaki, just sautee in skillet with some soy & teriyaki sauce…on top of rice, w/ veggies.

    I’ll stop..but this has inspired me to add this to my dd’s cookbook I’m making for her, she’s 14…not too long before she’s moving out :~( sniff sniff!

    When I freeze my onions (reg. & green), I will buy on a great sale 6-8 lbs for 1.00 and then put on GOGGLES! Yes, I look funny, but it’s okay! haha Then chop, slice and mince…freeze on a cookie sheet, then put in ziplocs – so you can take out a cup at a time without it being frozen in a big clump. THIS tip alone saves me TONS of time and mascara all over my face every night!

  20. says

    Great recipe…makes me think of summer flavors! You could also use your cilantro chicken in quesadillas with my bean salsa…YUM YUM YUM!!

  21. says

    This looks delicious and easy to do too. I may just give this a go and substitute the chicken with quorn which is like chicken for veggies.

  22. Jennifer says

    So glad I’m not the only Cook’s Illustrated addict out there! haha I’ve been dedating whether I should spend the money to renew…I’m thinking it’s a must. =)

  23. says

    That sounds awesome. I’ll have to try it soon. I love Mexican food but not ground beef, so this will be a great alternative.

    I also love your idea of cutting the chicken thinner. I always over-cook chicken breasts because it takes forever to get all the pink out of the middle.

  24. Scott says

    Boiled chicken:
    I dont use the cilantro, I add garlic sliced, and onion, and boil.

    Pollo Deshebrado (Mexican Poached Chicken)
    “¢6 cups chicken broth
    “¢1 sprig of oregano
    “¢3 sprigs of cilantro
    “¢2 chili peppers, sliced and NOT seeded
    “¢4 chicken breasts, each cut into four separate pieces
    Place a stockpot or Dutch oven over low heat. Add the broth, oregano, cilantro, and peppers to the pot. Add the chicken and bring the broth to a simmer (185 degrees F). Cook for 30 minutes. Turn off heat and allow the chicken to cool within the broth, approximately 30 minutes. Separate the chicken from the broth and pull the meat off of the bone. Shred the meat and/or pull apart.


    When I use leftover shredded chicken, I spice it up by heating in saute pan, a choped small amount of onion, garlic, then chile powder, add shreaded chicken a little chicken stock to moisten it.

  25. Dawn says

    This recipe is amazing!!! I served it to my compan, we were all impressed, its delicious! thanks for sharing! :-) the herb paste is awesome!!!!

  26. Annette says

    I’m hispanic and cilantro is used often in our recipes. Pico de gallo (Diced tomatoes,diced onions, lime juice and cilantro) can be added to tacos and eggs. I also add cilantro to chicken soup, beef soup, tortilla soup and lentil soup. I have many family recipes that include cilantro if you ever want to try any.

  27. Dawn says

    I have a question for you about this herb paste-have you ever tryed freezing it?? i was thinking of making some ahead with my cilantro i have not used this week. What do you think- i have frozwen my basil pesto and it works really well so was thinking maybe this would do just about as good????
    Thanks! :-)

  28. Hydra says

    Thanks for the recipe. I made this the other night. It turned out well. I combined it with a black bean salsa recipe i found on Food Network’s website (Black bean, corn, tomato salad by Giada DeLaurentis if you’re interested). By the way, Kristin, I’m also not good at cooking chicken breasts without burning them. My tip is to either use the George Foreman grill – it’s PERFECT for chicken breasts (that and paninis are all i use it for). Or what I did when I made the chicken tacos this time, was to cut all the chicken into strips before marinating it. Thus the chicken cooked quickly and easily.

  29. Susanna says

    sounds good! growing up we had tacos from the ‘kit’ – where it came with seasoning and had shells and you added ground beef. I usually eat them with flour tortillas now but with chicken breast I honestly have a hard time distsinguishing between fajita and taco! mine are sort of a blend I guess – I disklike a strong ‘chili’ flavoring and some seasonings have this though with ground beef it doesn’t bother me. when I do chicken breast I like onion slices cooked and sometimes bell pepper and add avocado and pico de gallo usually(if I have them) same with the ground beef version on a flour tortilla.

    • Kristen says

      Hi-I shoot primarily with a Canon 7D and a 50mm 1.4 lens, although I think this post is old enough that it would have been taken with my old Canon Rebel body.

  30. Desinia says

    I made these chicken tacos tonight and they were Delicious!!!!! I have enjoyed all of your recipes! Thanks for posting.


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