The best copycat Chipotle chicken recipe

Chicken can be bland and boring. It's quick to dry out, and it has little flavor on its own. But we can't help but love chicken; it's inexpensive and versatile, and it cooks up pretty quickly. We also know it's not impossible to make chicken taste fantastic. After all, the great minds at Chipotle have it figured out. Their chicken is not only flavorful, but the meat is juicy and moist, too. 

We wanted to try to replicate Chipotle's chicken at home, but quickly learned there was no way to get our hands on their signature Chipotle marinade. Could we make our own? It seemed like a daunting task, but we knew we could do it. After all, we pulled off a better-than-Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe, so why not give it a try with chicken?

It took us a few tries to nail the recipe, but we did. The good news is this chicken is good with everything — all the standards like burritos, rice bowls, tacos, and quesadillas, but it's also incredible in queso dip, chicken salad, spicy ramen, pot pie, and more. The bad news is you might need to make a double batch if you're hoping for leftovers. It's so tasty, it's likely to disappear pretty quickly!

Gather the ingredients for this copycat Chipotle chicken recipe

Our first step in creating copycat recipes is to try to figure out the exact ingredients in the original recipe. Chipotle doesn't exactly advertise their recipes, but we were able to piece one together using the ingredients page on their website. We also learned from Chipotle's allergen statement that the chicken is free of dairy, soy, gluten, and sulfites.

For starters, we obviously know this recipe includes chicken. Chipotle sources responsibly raised chickens fed 100 percent vegetarian diets with no antibiotics, so we picked up a package of organic boneless, skinless chicken thighs. From there, all we had to do was figure out what goes in their spicy marinade. A quick browse through the ingredients told us it contains black pepper, cumin, chipotle chilies, distilled vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt, sunflower oil, and water. After a few taste tests, we determined the proportions of each of these ingredients and were pretty happy with the results.

You'll find the full list of ingredients, including quantities and step-by-step instructions, at the end of this article.

What type of chicken does Chipotle use for their grilled chicken?

Chipotle doesn't specify which cut of chicken they use on their website, so we had to do a little digging. We found a post on their Facebook page that confirmed our suspicion — they use dark meat — so we used boneless, skinless chicken thighs for our copycat Chipotle chicken recipe. Can you use chicken breasts? Yes, but it won't turn out the same.

Chicken is composed of two types of meat: white meat and dark meat. The white meat is found in the breasts and the wings, and it contains mostly white fibers (as opposed to the dark meat's red fibers). It has very little fat content, which makes it taste dry if it's overcooked. Dark meat, on the other hand, contains more than twice as much fat as the white meat, and the red fibers keep it juicy and moist as it cooks. That means you can cook the chicken thighs and drumsticks longer, and they'll still taste great.

Using dark meat is essential to the perfect copycat recipe because, as you'll find out later, we cook the chicken twice. The first time, it's whole. The second time, we cut it up and crisp up the smaller pieces. This cooking method wouldn't be possible with white meat because it would dry out during the process.

Which is better for this copycat Chipotle chicken recipe: Dried chiles or chiles in adobo?

We found several copycat recipes for Chipotle chicken, and they all use slightly different ingredients. Some use chipotles in adobo, while others soak and puree dried chilies. Others yet just use chili powder. It's impossible to really know what Chipotle uses. Former Chipotle employees on Reddit have confirmed that the marinade comes pre-mixed in giant bags, so we can't even turn to the line workers to share the secret.

We used chipotles in adobo when we developed a Chipotle barbacoa copycat recipe, and we were super happy with the results, so we used them again here. The can contains dried, smoked jalapenos, which have been marinated in a mixture of vinegar, tomato paste, garlic, and spices. It's also much easier to use than rehydrating dried chilies. Simply dump the can into a food processor or blender and combine the contents into a smooth paste. If you happen to have any leftovers, pop them into an ice cube tray and freeze them in one tablespoon portions for later.

Can I make a copycat Chipotle chicken recipe without a grill?

If you've ever been to a Chipotle, you've probably seen the cooks grilling chicken on the flat top grill behind the line. While you might not have one of those fancy gadgets at home, you may have a cooking tool that works almost exactly the same way: a cast-iron skillet. These flat cooking surfaces hold heat well, so they'll stay hot once they're preheated. That's good for something like grilling chicken thighs for copycat Chipotle chicken because you want to get a subtle char and a lightly caramelized surface.

If you have a grill, you can take your copycat Chipotle chicken recipe to the next level by infusing a smoky flavor into the meat. But, don't fret if you don't have one. Cooking chicken inside on the stovetop is easier because it doesn't require any preheating time. Simply turn on the burner, wait a few minutes, and get cooking. You can also make Chipotle chicken in the oven, if you like. You'll want to preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the chicken in a baking dish for 30 to 40 minutes. It won't have the same crispy exterior, but it will still taste great.

Do we need grill marks for the copycat Chipotle chicken?

While it's possible to get grill marks on chicken thighs, we actually don't recommend it for this recipe. The reason Chipotle's chicken tastes so fantastic is because it's charred on a flattop. That means that the entire surface of the chicken gets browned and caramelized. If you're going for grill marks, you'll only mark the pieces of meat that are in contact with the hot grill grates, sacrificing tasty flavor for a beautiful presentation. Considering that we'll end up chopping this chicken in the end anyway, the presentation doesn't really matter here.

Getting grill marks requires letting the chicken sit in one position until the marks are set. Then, for diamond grill marks, you'd rotate the chicken a quarter turn and let it set again. Instead of doing that, we'll skip all the waiting. It's better to turn the chicken several times during the cooking process, ensuring that it doesn't burn in any one spot. It will brown all over, resulting in the tastiest chicken imaginable.

Make the marinade for this copycat Chipotle chicken recipe

Okay, now that we've reviewed all the ingredients and cooking methods, it's time to get cooking. Start by placing the water, crushed garlic, sunflower (or canola) oil, distilled white vinegar, chipotles in adobo, chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, salt, and pepper in a blender or food processor. Blend the mixture until it's well combined and there are no visible chunks of garlic. Place the marinade in a large bag or a casserole dish. Add the chicken thighs and turn them until they're completely coated in the marinade.

From here, you have some options. On Reddit, Chipotle employees confirm that the chicken is placed in the marinade and used the next day, so you can certainly marinate your chicken thighs overnight. We did a test batch that marinated for just 30 minutes, and we thought it had plenty of flavor. So, if you're running short on time, feel free to keep the marinade time to a minimum. Just don't marinate for much longer than 12 hours. The vinegar in the marinade will break down the meat's muscle fibers, and long periods of time can turn the meat mushy.

Grill the chicken for this copycat Chipotle chicken recipe

Once the chicken is marinated, we're ready to hit the grill (or skillet, as the case may be). If you want to infuse the chicken with extra-smoky flavor, preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high heat. Otherwise, grab a cast-iron skillet or griddle and preheat it over high heat on the stovetop. To determine the temperature of the grill, hold your hand five inches above the grill grate. When you need to withdraw your hand after four to five seconds, it's ready to go.

Coat the grill grates, skillet, or griddle with a small amount of cooking oil to keep the chicken from sticking. Remove the chicken from the bag and shake it lightly to remove any excess marinade. It's okay if some of it sticks to the chicken; that will add extra flavor to the finished product. Place the chicken on the grill or skillet and cook, turning occasionally, for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

What temperature should you grill the copycat Chipotle chicken?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cooking all chicken to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That includes ground chicken, as well as chicken breasts, thighs, wings, and legs. This temperature kills harmful bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness, including salmonella. But you may have heard that it's best to continue cooking dark meat — like chicken thighs — until it reaches an internal temperature of 175 degrees. These cuts have more connective tissue than white meat, so the higher temperature ensures the meat will be juicier and more tender.

For this recipe, we recommend pulling the chicken thighs earlier, when they reach 165 degrees. As you'll find out in the next step, we plan to continue cooking the chicken after it rests to create crispy chicken pieces. If we cooked the chicken to a higher temperature initially, we would risk drying it out during the second phase of cooking.

Cut the chicken and grill it again to create the perfect copycat Chipotle chicken

If there was a secret ingredient in our copycat Chipotle chicken recipe, it would be this. It's not exactly an ingredient, but rather a secret extra step. Redditors who worked at Chipotle confirmed that they cut the chicken and toss it back on the flat top until it's "good and crisp." You can certainly skip this step if you want to cut the chicken into slices or serve it whole, but authentic Chipotle chicken is cut into 1/2- to 1-inch diced pieces and cooked a second time.

First, it's really important to let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes before moving on. Resting the chicken allows the juices to redistribute within the meat instead of spilling out onto the cutting board as you slice it. Then, when the pieces are nicely cubed, toss them back on the grill or skillet. They'll get coated with the marinade that's on the cooking surface and form an essential crust. After about five minutes, when the pieces are nice and crispy, remove the chicken from the grill and serve while hot.

If you're saving the cooked chicken for later, you can skip the second cooking phase until you're ready to reheat the chicken.

How close did we get to the original Chipotle chicken?

This chicken is nothing short of phenomenal. When we closed our eyes and tried Chipotle's chicken against this recipe, it was really hard to tell the difference. It's not quite an exact replica — we thought ours was slightly tangier and maybe a touch spicier — but it's definitely close enough to satisfy your Chipotle cravings when you don't feel like driving for take-out. It's juicy, tender, and packed full of flavor. The crisp exterior on each bite added a ton of texture, as well as a lightly charred and pleasantly caramelized flavor.

We initially used this copycat Chipotle chicken recipe to make burritos, using our copycat Chipotle rice recipe, canned beans, salsa, cheese, and guacamole. When we still had leftovers, we started trying it in other recipes. It was delicious no matter how we used it, including non-Mexican recipes like spicy ramen. This recipe may have just become our go-to method for cooking chicken!

Copycat Chipotle chicken recipe directions

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Serves: 6

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 3 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil, plus additional for grilling
  • 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons pureed chipotles in adobo
  • 1 tablespoon chile powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken thighs

A quick note about the ingredients: To puree the chipotles in adobo, dump the contents of the can into a blender or food processor. Puree until the mixture is smooth.

Directions:

  1. In a blender or food processor, combine the water, garlic, oil, vinegar, pureed chipotles, chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, salt, and pepper. Blend until the mixture is well combined.
  2. Place the blended marinade in a large bag or casserole dish. Add the chicken thighs, turning the chicken until it's completely coated in the marinade. Place the chicken in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or as long as 12 hours. Do not marinate for over 24 hours or the meat will turn mushy.
  3. Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high heat. Alternatively, you can heat a cast-iron skillet or griddle on the stovetop over high heat. Coat the grill grates with a small amount of oil to keep the chicken from sticking.
  4. Remove the chicken from the bag and shake it to remove any excess marinade. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest for at least 10 minutes.
  6. From here, you can slice the chicken and serve it immediately. For the most authentic Chipotle experience, cut the chicken into 1/2- to 1-inch diced pieces and return it to the grill. Cook until the pieces are nice and crisp, about 5 minutes, turning occasionally.