Shredded chicken in a rich broth, a fresh and tangy verde sauce of charred tomatillos and chiles and nutty toasted pepitas, loaded with crunchy and creamy toppings like red onion, shaved cabbage, avocado and sour cream. This hearty chicken tomatillo soup is a version of the classic Mexican celebration stew, pozole verde, made without the hominy.
What is Chicken Tomatillo Soup?
This chicken tomatillo soup is a version of pozole verde, a traditional Mexican stew, made without the hominy that is one of its key ingredients along with tomatillos, chilies, pumpkin seeds, cilantro and a protein (often pork, but green pozole is also made with chicken).
Pozole verde is a celebration food, often made for large gatherings in late summer and early fall when tomatillos and chilis are coming into season. It’s served with a wide range of toppings arranged on the table so everyone can customize their own bowl. Pozole comes in different colors - white is a clear broth pozole and red or green are seasoned with a red or green salsa. What sets the green version, common in the Guerrero region of Mexico, apart from the others is the freshness and green color of the green chilis and herbs and the hulled pumpkin seeds used to thicken the broth.
I’ve left out the hominy in this recipe because it is difficult for me to access where I live, I have a glut of tomatillos from the kitchen garden to use and because, even though pozole isn’t technically pozole without the hominy, it’s still a really delicious chicken tomatillo soup. As a result, this soup is lighter and somewhat less filling than a traditional pozole verde would be, but every bit as delicious and a great option for people like me who can’t get their hands on hominy.
Substitute for Hominy
Hominy is raw dried corn that has had its hull removed in a process called nixtamalization. The kernels puff up to create a chewy texture and a nutty flavor, sort of like popcorn. It is a common ingredient in Mexican or Tex-Mex cooking. If you can access hominy, either in dried or canned form, go ahead and add it to the soup.
If using canned hominy, drain and rinse 2 15oz cans, then (optionally) toast in a 425F oven for 10-20 minutes before adding it to the soup in step 7 of the recipe below.
If, however, you’d like to make a pozole verde without the hominy but don’t want to lose the heartiness it adds to the soup, you can use a substitute. While you won’t find something that replicates hominy’s flavor and texture exactly, but there are a few things you can try that will make your tomatillo chicken soup more filling and possibly give it additional, if not traditional, flavor:
Chickpeas are similar in texture and size to hominy and have a similar nutty flavor. Like hominy, they add heft, with an added bonus of protein.
If using dried, soak 1 cup overnight and cook them (or skip the soak and use an instant pot) or, just make it easy and use canned chickpeas. Drain and rinse 1 or 2 cans and add them to the soup in step 7 in the recipe below. You may need to add a cup or two of additional chicken stock to get the right ratio of broth.
Fresh or Frozen Corn
Although hominy is technically made from corn, fresh corn is very different in texture and size and is a lot sweeter. However, it pairs nicely with the other ingredients, like the tomatillo, and the added sweetness would be especially nice against the heat of the chiles if you’re going for a spicier soup.
If using, add a cup or two of fresh or frozen corn kernels to the soup in step 7 of the recipe below. Add more chicken stock if there is not enough broth.
In the mood for Mexican food? Try these beer-battered Baja fish tacos or these chicken tinga tostadas, another great way to use shredded-chicken.
Hulled barley is a hearty grain with a similar chewy texture (though a smaller size) to hominy. It would add bulk to the soup and will hold up well, without becoming mushy, if you plan to freeze leftovers - unlike some grains and pastas.
If using, start with about 1 cup of dried barley, soak overnight. The next day, simmer in 3 cups of water for 35-50 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the barley is tender enough to chew. Add to the soup in step 7 of the recipe below.
A gluten-free grain that will add heft to your soup and has a chewy texture and nutty flavor, buckwheat can also be used as a substitute for hominy in your soup.
If using, (optionally) toast 1 cup of the groats in the oven or on the stove in a dry pan for about 5 minutes. Transfer the groats to a saucepan with 1 ½ cups of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Add to the soup in step 7 of the recipe below.
Tomatillos are a tart fruit similar in texture to a tomato. They are a key ingredient in this soup and should not be substituted. The tomatillo fruit itself grows on the plant inside a papery husk that looks similar to a Chinese lantern plant. As the fruit grows, it fills and eventually bursts the husk. Before cooking with tomatillos, you want to remove the papery husks and wash off the sticky residue that’s underneath.
Pepitas are pumpkin seeds. Make sure you purchase raw hulled pumpkin seeds. They should be green in color. They taste best after they’ve been lightly toasted in a dry pan or the oven.
Fresh chilis are another essential ingredient of posole verde but which chilies you use are up to you. Traditionally, this soup is made with a mix of mild chilis, like poblanos, and some spicier chilis like jalapeños or serranos. Green bell peppers work well here as a substitute for the poblanos, if you have trouble finding them.
For this recipe I’ve used bone-in skin-on chicken thighs. In addition to being a cost effective cut of chicken that tends to remain moist after cooking, meat cooked on the bone is more flavorful, and skin-on cuts allow you to get a nice dark sear on the outside. This gives you a richer, more flavorful stock to which you add your verde sauce for the soup base.
However, you can substitute whatever cut of chicken you have for this recipe: legs, thighs or breasts or a mix. If you’re short on time, you can also use leftover shredded chicken, omitting the searing and shredding steps from the recipe.
Make it Faster and Easier
This chicken tomatillo soup is a variation of pozole verde, a traditional Mexican soup that is often served to large groups on special occasions. It is not the fastest soup to make, though I have tried to minimize the number of pots and vessels used and things that have to go in and out of the pot to be shredded or blended. But, ultimately, there are some steps I don’t want to sacrifice, in the name of getting the best possible flavor.
If you’re more concerned with saving time than building flavor, there are a number of shortcuts you can take and flavor-building steps you can skip and, while your soup won’t be as flavorful, it will still be good, and on the table a lot faster.
Use pre-shredded Chicken.
To save yourself from the time it takes to sear and shred the chicken (I’ll admit, it’s a little annoying to keep putting the chicken in the pot and taking it back out). Simply use chicken that is already shredded. The easiest thing to do is to make this chicken tomatillo soup with leftover chicken the day after you’ve made a large roast chicken. Or, you can buy a rotisserie chicken and shred its meat. If you’ve been really clever, you’ll already have shredded chicken you made and froze in advance for speeding up meals like this.
Know that if you do use pre-shredded chicken, you won’t be able to build the same deep rich flavor into the soup base by searing the chicken skin and scraping up the seared bits from the bottom of the pot.
Looking for more recipes that use Tomatillos? Try these nachos with rich pork carnitas and tomatillo salsa or make a batch of this classic tangy & spicy salsa verde.
Don’t toast the seeds.
Put the pepitas and cumin seeds directly into the spice grinder and grind into a powder. Then set them aside to go into the blender with the rest of the green sauce ingredients. Or, skip that step as well and add the seeds to the blender whole. Your sauce may not be as smooth and nutty, but it will still be good.
Don’t sear the chicken.
Rather than work in batches to sear the skin of your chicken, simply put the chicken in the chicken stock raw and poach it from there. If you don’t sear, the chicken will take longer to cook, probably 30 minutes. Start checking the chicken with a meat thermometer at 20 minutes. It will be done when the thermometer reaches at least 165F.
Don’t roast and/or broil vegetables.
Put the tomatillos, onion and garlic directly in the blender. Alternatively, skip ahead to the broiling step and broil the vegetables for 10 minutes, without roasting them first, before putting them into the blender to make the green sauce.
A Note on Spice Level
The recipe for this tomatillo chicken soup is relatively mild as written. But you can customize it to suit your taste for heat. As is always the case when cooking with fresh chiles, the exact level of heat in your dish will depend on the varieties of chilis you are using, how many of them you use and whether you include or discard the seeds and pith. And, of course, there is always the rogue chile that’s way hotter than the others.
If you want a mild soup:
Use jalapeños rather than serranos or omit the spicier chiles altogether and add a 3rd bell pepper to the green sauce instead. Taste-test the chilis you are using as you cut them for your mise en place, to make sure none of them are very spicy, and cut out and discard the seeds and pith, which contain a lot of the pepper’s heat.
If you want a spicy soup:
Use poblano peppers instead of green bell peppers and serranos instead of jalapeños, if you can source them, or simply add more jalapeños to the green sauce than the recipe calls for. Be sure to include the seeds and the pith in the sauce. Include some spicy ingredients as toppings: extra raw chili slices, crushed chilis and/or hot sauce.
If you’re serving heat lovers and heat haters:
Make the soup itself with mild chiles for diners who want a mild soup (use jalapeños instead of serranos, use green bell peppers instead of poblanos) but provide a variety of spicy topping options for spice lovers to add heat to their own bowls: crushed chili de arbol, sliced raw serranos or jalapeños and maybe some Mexican hot sauce, like cholula.
A Note on Toppings
All of the topping ingredients listed in the recipe are optional. Choose whichever and as many as you like. The base of this soup is flavorful, rich and a bit tangy from the tomatillo. It’s delicious on its own, but it’s made exponentially better by adding a variety of fresh toppings and accompaniments like shredded cabbage, red onion, avocado, sour cream, a squeeze of lemon and a side of crunchy tortilla chips.
The toppings are equally important as the soup base for adding creamy and crunchy texture and a lot more flavor. Whatever toppings you choose to serve with the soup, don’t treat them as a garnish to lightly sprinkle over the top of the soup, add them generously to each bowl.
The toppings double the ingredients for the soup, but don’t add much more time to the cooking process. They’re all served raw so all you need is a bit of extra chopping to prepare an assortment of toppings for serving.
After you make this chicken tomatillo soup, keep the soup season going with this vegetarian curried carrot soup or this creamy chowder-like Finnish salmon soup.
Make-Ahead, Storing & Freezing
Yes, you can make this soup in its entirety (or any green white or red pozole, with or without hominy) ahead of time. In fact, like many soups and stews, its flavor only gets better after sitting overnight - or up to 4 days ahead - in the refrigerator.
Another option for saving time the night you’re serving the soup if, for instance, you plan to serve a group of guests, is to poach and shred the chicken and blend the green sauce (up to step 6 in the recipe below) the day before, store the chicken and broth and green sauce separately in the fridge, then finish the soup shortly before serving the next day. You will need more than the 5-10 minutes called for in the recipe to heat the soup up from the fridge.
Store any soup leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Store any leftover toppings in a separate container.
To reheat: If reheating multiple servings of soup, transfer it to a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot set over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the soup heats through. If reheating individual servings, transfer the soup to a microwave-safe bowl covered with a paper towel or lid and reheat in the microwave at 1-2 minute intervals, stirring between each one, until the soup is heated through.
Freezing leftover soup
- Wait for the soup to cool down to room temperature. You can safely freeze it from room temperature, but for the best texture after thawing, transfer it to the fridge to cool down further - to about 40F or 4C before freezing.
- Transfer the cooled soup to either large freezer-safe bags or containers or individual serving-sized containers. If using bags, press them flat to remove as much air as possible and freeze them flat, either on the bottom of the freezer or stacked on a cookie sheet, so that they are easy to stack and save space in the freezer once fully frozen.
- Always leave at least 3/4 inch of space in your container for the liquid to expand - especially if you are using glass containers.
- Label your containers and store them in the freezer for 1-3 months.
- Freeze leftover soup as soon as possible and always within 3 days of making it.
- Toppings should always be prepared fresh before serving.
To prepare the soup from frozen
The day before you plan to serve the soup, fully or partially thaw it in its bag or container in the refrigerator overnight. The day you plan to serve it, transfer the soup to a pot on the stove and heat through. As the soup heats, prepare the fresh toppings.
Soups can sometimes thicken and their flavors can dull after freezing. When your soup is heated through, taste it to check for seasoning. If necessary, add more salt and pepper or fresh cilantro and, if it seems a little thick, add some water or chicken stock until it reaches a consistency you like. This chicken tomatillo soup should be creamy but not thick and definitely not watery.
Chicken Tomatillo Soup (Green Pozole without Hominy) Recipe
For the Soup
- 2 pounds bone-in chicken parts (thighs, breasts and/or legs) (about 4-5)
- 1 large white onion, quartered
- 4 large garlic cloves, papery skins in-tact
- 2 large green bell peppers (or poblanos), halved, cored & seeded
- 3 large jalapeños (or serranos), halved and cored
- 1 1/4 pound tomatillos, husked, washed and halved
- 4 tablespoons oil, divided
- ½ cup pepitas (raw hulled pumpkin seeds)
- 1 1/4 teaspoon table salt, divided
- ½ teaspoon black pepper, divided
- 6 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought (if adding hominy or a hominy substitute you may need an additional 1-2 cups of stock)
- ½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
For the Toppings (Optional but Recommended)
- Finely shaved cabbage
- Sour cream or yogurt
- Chopped avocado
- Diced red onion
- Tortilla chips
- Lime Wedges
- Crushed chili flakes (preferably chili de arbol)
- Roast & broil the vegetables: Preheat the oven to 450F. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, toss the onion, green peppers, jalapeños and garlic cloves (with papery skins intact) with 2 tablespoons of the oil and a pinch of the salt and pepper. Spread them out into a single layer, using a second sheet pan if necessary, and roast for 30 min. Then, turn the broiler to high and broil for 4-5 minutes, watching carefully to avoid burning. Remove from the oven, turn off the broiler, and set aside.
- Toast the seeds: Meanwhile, set a dry Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the pepitas and toast for 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until they begin to pop, then add the cumin seeds and toast for another 2 minutes until fragrant and browning. Transfer the toasted seeds to a spice grinder and grind them into a powder. Set aside. (You can omit this step and add the seeds to the blender in step 6 if you don’t have a spice grinder, though the green sauce may not blend as smoothly).
- Sear the chicken: Return the dutch oven to the stove over medium high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. When the oil is smoking hot or a splash of water sizzles in the pan, work in batches to sear the chicken parts by carefully laying each piece in the pan, skin side down, and cooking, untouched, until a thin spatula easily lifts the chicken from the pan and the skin turns a deep golden brown, flip and do the same to the other side. This should take about 4-5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the dutch oven and set aside.
- Poach the chicken: Remove the dutch oven from the heat and carefully add about ¼ cup of the chicken stock (the oil is hot so the liquid will spatter a bit). With a spatula, scrape up whatever brown bits from the chicken have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken to the dutch oven and pour in the rest of the chicken stock. Return the dutch oven to the heat and bring the stock to a boil, immediately reduce to a low simmer and poach the chicken until cooked through to an internal temperature of at least 165F - about 20 minutes.
- Blend the green sauce: Transfer the reserved roasted vegetables to a high-powered blender (Be sure to squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins and discard the skins before blending). Add the reserved pepitas and cumin, the oregano, cilantro and another pinch of the salt and pepper. Blend until smooth, adding some of the chicken stock if necessary. Set aside.
- Shred the chicken: Remove the chicken from the dutch oven and transfer to a cutting board. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the chicken. Discard the skin and bones (or, better yet, transfer them to a freezer bag and freeze for making homemade chicken stock some other time).
- Combine soup components: Add the green sauce to the stock, then add the meat and the remainder of the salt and pepper. (If using a hominy substitute, add it and 1-2 additional cups of chicken stock to the soup here.) Bring to a simmer and cook until heated through, 5-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Serve: Serve with generous helpings of toppings - including avocado, shaved cabbage, red onion, and a squeeze of lime for each bowl. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, storing any leftover toppings in a separate container. Alternatively, freeze the broth and chicken together for up to 3 months.