While I was studying to become a dietitian, I lived in Miami for three years. Moving to Miami can cause some serious culture shock, even for a Florida native, but I have to admit that crazy town has some perks.
Some of the best perks were getting to know Cuban friends and their Cuban FOOD. In Miami, I met some of the world’s nicest people who got me very well acquainted with Cuba’s rich culinary traditions. Cafecitos. Maduros. Picadillo. Pastelitos. And one of my personal favorites, ropa vieja, a classic comfort food that makes you feel at home whether you grew up eating it or not. It’s a flavorful stew made with peppers, tomatoes, and flank steak cooked low-and-slow until the meat is tender enough to effortlessly pull apart into long shreds that resemble the fibers of threadbare cloth, hence the name (ropa vieja = old clothes).
Most of the time, I love to cook. But some nights, I wish dinner would just cook itself.
Thankfully, I finally figured out the solution to my problem. And knowing myself, I really shouldn’t be surprised that it involves Instant Pot, my loyal kitchen companion. I’ve learned that with the magic of pressure-cooking, I can effortlessly cook chicken breasts from frozen. Yes, STRAIGHT FROM THE FREEZER! Each pound yields enough shredded meat for dinner + leftovers for 2. The chicken braises itself into tender, moist perfection with the help of whatever flavorful liquid your heart desires. Along with the rest of my Instant Pot recipes, it’s really been a game-changer for my weeknight cooking. If you’re a fellow pressure-cooking devotee, read on for the simple steps!
Start with about a pound of frozen chicken breasts. It’s difficult to tell, but this photo actually shows a single very large breast that weighs a full pound. Optimal cooking time is affected by the size of your chicken breasts (more on that later).
Then decide what you’d like your chicken to taste like. You’ll want 1/2 cup of something tasty, and 1/2 cup of water to dilute. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, and I’ll share some of my favorite combos below, but for this example I’m keeping it simple: storebought salsa!
After you mix in the water to make a full cup of liquid, pour it over the chicken in your pressure cooker. Close the lid and set the cooking time based on the size of your poultry portions. On the low end of the spectrum, small 4-6 oz. portions of frozen chicken cook through in about 15 minutes, while the large 16 oz. cut above needs 30 minutes; if your portions fall somewhere in the middle, adjust accordingly. I’ve used both the manual setting and poultry program on Instant Pot, and have not observed any real difference in the results.
After the cook time is up, let the pot rest for 10 minutes to naturally release pressure before opening the lid and and removing the chicken to shred it. If by chance you find that your chicken is undercooked, never fear – just shred it as best you can and return it to the pot with Slow Cooker or Saute mode turned on until it’s cooked through.
And tada! It really is that easy. This is a glimpse at the finished product from my post on Chimichurri in a Hurry.
On weeknights, I throw the chicken and sauce into the cooker, and then begin my relaxed 30-minute countdown/meditation of figuring out what else is going into our dinner. I might be reheating leftover brown rice and chopping up fixin’s to top burrito bowls, or I might be toasting buns and tossing a side salad, or whatever else sounds good in the moment!
Or on weekends, I can take a couple of minutes while I’m at home to cook up some healthy protein that I can bank on later in the week. For example, the salsa Insta-Chicken from these photos later went on to play a starring role in a killer taco pie / enchilada bake (you can thank fellow RD blogger at Fearless Flying Kitchen for the recipe).
And the real beauty of this technique: endless flavor possibilities. Variety is the spice of life, of course! Starting with the easy Mexican chicken we walked through in the photos, here are 5 of my favorite flavor combinations that I’ve tried so far:
Simple Salsa: 1/2 cup water + 1/2 cup of your favorite salsa
BBQ: 1/2 cup water + 1/2 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce + a splash of apple cider vinegar for extra tang
Teriyaki: 1/2 cup water + 1/4 cup soy sauce + 1/4 cup orange juice + 1 Tbsp. brown sugar + a squirt of sriracha
Cuban Mojo: 1/2 cup water + 1/3 cup orange juice + juice from 1/2 lime + 1-2 cloves of minced garlic + 1/2 tsp. cumin + salt/pepper
OK, I lied: I can’t stop at 5! I’m going to continue to update this post with more simple sauces whenever I try one that strikes my fancy. Fellow experimenters, I’d LOVE to hear about your successes in the comments!
Honey Dijon: 1/2 cup water + 1/4 cup whole grain mustard + 1/4 cup honey + hot sauce (if desired)
Lemon Garlic Herb: 1/2 cup water + juice from 1/2 lemon + 2 cloves minced garlic + 1/2 tsp. dried basil + salt/pepper
Jamaican Jerk: 1/2 cup water + 1/4 cup molasses + 2 Tbsp. lime juice + 2 Tbsp. orange juice + generous sprinkles of dried thyme/allspice/salt to taste + a handful of fresh sliced garlic and ginger (and hot peppers if desired)
Chile Verde: one 10-oz. can green enchilada sauce (no need to dilute with water)
Thai Curry: 1 cup canned coconut milk + 1-2 Tbsp. Thai curry paste of your choice (no need to dilute with water)
1/2 cup flavorful liquid of your choice (see suggestions above)
In a measuring cup or small bowl, mix together the water and flavorful liquid of your choice. Place the frozen chicken in the Instant Pot liner, and pour the liquid over the chicken. Close the lid (with vent set to sealing position), press the 'Poultry' button and use the +/- buttons to adjust the cooking time. For standard chicken breasts (~4-6 oz. each), cook for 15 minutes; for extra-large chicken breasts (~1 lb. each), cook for 30 minutes. In between these two sizes, scale your cook time accordingly.
After the cooking program completes, allow the pressure to release naturally for 10 minutes before opening the lid. If you're in a hurry, it is not hazardous to manually "quick-release" the pressure - but this may toughen the chicken's texture. Transfer the chicken breasts to a plate and shred into bite-sized pieces with two forks. While you shred the chicken, you can optionally turn on Instant Pot's 'Saute' mode to reduce the sauce if it is too thin for your taste. Return the shredded chicken to the sauce and toss to coat.