Use It or Lose It! Barbecue Chicken Tacos

bbq-chicken-tacosDo you ever overcook chicken breasts? It can happen in a flash, right? Do you like the dark meat, but are not such a fan of the white, or vice versa? I’m not touching that one. Do you have a dozen jars of random preserves in the fridge, each with two or three tablespoons languishing in the bottom? If not, can I come over and borrow some fridge space? Do you like tacos? Who doesn’t? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, have I got the recipe for you. Read on, MacDuff.

I invented this recipe last summer, when I was visiting friends down in Maryland. With both parents working busy full-time jobs and a 2 year-old daughter to raise, weeknight dinners had to be simple: my friend confessed to me that they were living on grilled chicken and salad every night of the week and that she could really use some menu inspiration. I made a huge vegetable curry, an early summer greens frittata, and this clean-out-the-fridge barbecue braised chicken.

Boneless chicken breasts can overcook in the blink of an eye on a hot grill; leftovers continue to dry out in the fridge until they are about as enticing as takeout styrofoam. Similarly, we’ve all, at one time or another, been forced to slightly overcook the breast meat on a whole roasted chicken in order to ensure the rest of the bird is cooked through. In my house, we prefer the white meat to the dark, so when I roast a bird, the dark meat tends to languish in the fridge until I do something with it: add it to a soup or stew, stuff it into pasties, or, make tacos. The good news is that you need not suffer through eating less-than-stellar chicken when you can rejuvenate it through a long, slow braise in a sweet-savory sauce.

The process is simple: start with some onion & garlic, punch up a sweet or smoky BBQ sauce with a bit of vinegar & cayenne, add cooked chicken meat (although it works just as well with raw), and braise, braise, braise away. Dried out white meat will become meltingly tender, dark meat will lose that slightly slimy texture as it shreds, and all of the meat will become infused with the sweet-savory flavor of the sauce, while the sauce itself gains complexity and umami notes from the meat. The best part of this technique? While I specify a basic “pint of barbecue sauce” below, I will actually toss any old thing into the sauce, just making sure to balance sweetness & acidity.

Last night’s version contained a half-pint jar of BBQ sauce (peach guajillo, to be exact), but also a dollop or two each of cranberry chutney, strawberry rhubarb amaretto sauce, spicy plum sauce, cranberry orange sauce, and kumquat habanero marmalade. I didn’t measure: just emptied out jars to my heart’s content, then balanced flavors with red wine vinegar, salt & pepper and ground cayenne. After an hour or two of braising, the flavors all blend & mellow, and you can do a final adjust right before serving. So, not only do you rescue less-than-thrilling chicken from the bin, but you get to clear half a dozen jars out of the fridge, and you’ve made a fantastic dinner. #winning

bbq-chicken-tacosBarbecue Chicken Tacos


Barbecue-braised chicken

  • 2 tbsp olive oil or schmaltz
  • about 1 and ½ lbs cooked chicken, skinless (I pulled the meat off the bone, and reserved bones for stock)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup vinegar (I like red wine or cider)
  • 1 pint barbecue sauce (or combo of sweet & savory preserves)
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  • ½ cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 2 tbsp honey, or to taste


  • corn tortillas
  • 4 Brussels sprouts, shredded
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
  • fresh lime or lemon juice
  • salsa


  1. Make sauce. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or medium Dutch oven, bring oil to a shimmer over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic to the pan, reduce heat to medium-low and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add vinegar, barbecue sauce and a bit of salt and pepper. Mix well, taste and adjust flavors as necessary, and bring back to a simmer.
  2. Braise chicken. Add chicken, which should be mostly covered by sauce (if not, add a bit of water, stock, wine or more BBQ sauce). Cover pot, reduce heat to lowest setting and braise, stirring once every half hour or so, until meat is falling apart tender, about 1 and ½ to 2 hours. Taste sauce, adding honey or vinegar as necessary, adjust seasoning, and if necessary continue to simmer, uncovered, to thicken sauce.
  3. Build tacos & serve. Pile vegetables, herbs and some chicken + sauce onto a tortilla, spritz with a bit of citrus, dollop with salsa as you like, and enjoy.

Yields enough meat for tacos for 6 – 8 people.


  1. Chicken may be white or dark meat, on the bone or boneless, cooked or uncooked. If starting with raw chicken, brown meat in batches prior to adding the onion & garlic. This is an excellent use for breast meat that may have been a bit overcooked, or leftovers that have dried slightly in the refrigerator: the long braise tenderizes the meat and rejuvenates flavor.
  2. You can also leave cooked or uncooked meat on the bone, and simply braise until it is falling-off-the-bone tender, then remove bones and shred meat for tacos. This will add even more savory flavor to your sauce, unless you want to reserve the bones for stock, like I did.
  3. As suggested above, any number of sweet & savory preserves can go into the sauce: simply focus on balancing sweetness and acidity, and taste and adjust.
  4. Obviously, not the most conventional taco fixin’s list on the planet: just the crunchy veg that I had in the house. Feel free to use whatever add-ins you like, remembering that the chicken will already be rather sweet, so balance with something bitter, spicy or acidic.


Refrigerated, for up to 5 days.




  1. majorasue

    Yummy! Chicken, at least the home-grown variety, doesn’t languish long in my fridge, so I may have to go buy a roasted chicken at the store to make these. Great way to use up some of the jams and jellies languishing in my fridge too. It’s that or stir them into greek yogurt (my caramelized pear/ginger was especially yummy there)

  2. I love your style of cooking – and the ‘clean out the fridge’ concept, with such elegant results. Can’t wait to try my own version. Wonder what surprises I have lurking.

  3. Claudia

    I just roasted an entire chicken yesterday to make chicken tacos. After cooling down I picked all the meat off the carcass and put it in a container (juices and all) in my fridge.

    As I was going I wondered though if I was making a bit mistake. What’s your opinion: better to refrigerate the cooked chicken whole or to shred it first?

    • Hi Claudia,

      I think the meat shreds best while warm, but then again, I don’t typically use an entire bird’s worth of shredded meat, and I often change up what I’m going to use the meat for in midstream. I’d probably leave it, as shredded meat will dry out more quickly in the fridge, just in case it takes me a day or two to get around to making tacos. But I think whichever way works for you is fine.

      • Claudia

        Thanks! A whole chicken does sound like a lot, but over here (The Netherlands) they only weigh about two pounds a piece so when cooking for four I feel I need just about one whole chicken.

        Will leave it whole until cooking next time to test it.

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  7. Avril

    And I thought I was the only one who cooks like that…..”I didn’t measure – just emptied out jars to my heart’s content.” It appears that you and I were cut from the same cloth when it comes to cooking. Love it! I’m going to have to try this recipe. Looks great!

  8. What a great way to get rid of all the odds and ends…they do seem to pile up. Looking in our fridge, you can tell that I have an addiction for jams and mustards.

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