In a recent post, we shared how to make a staple of Costa Rican cuisine: homemade beans. In this post, we’ll teach you about another mainstay of traditional food, arroz con pollo. This dish, which translates to “rice with chicken,” is on just about every menu in local restaurants. It is popular at events and holidays too, and we’ve been served it at several birthday parties. The dish itself is simple, but hearty and delicious. Below we’ll share our easy recipe for making Costa Rica’s famous arroz con pollo.
There are many ways to prepare arroz con pollo. Traditionally, the broth is cooked from scratch using the chicken breast, then added to the rice and vegetables and all cooked together. This method takes longer because you have to make the broth the same day (about an extra 1.5 hours). We think doing it this way also makes it more likely that you’ll under- or overcook the rice, since you add the broth in at the very beginning with everything else.
Our method, described below, is also commonly used and will result in a delicious dish. Even better, it takes only 30-40 minutes to prepare. All you do is cook the rice separately in broth, then combine it with the sautéed vegetables and chicken.
You can use your own homemade broth that you have on hand or just buy some premade to make it really easy. We usually have some stored in the freezer. If you buy the broth, get something that is good quality since a lot of the rice’s flavor will come from that.
If you’d like to make this recipe the traditional (long) way, here’s a link to a great video. It’s in Spanish but easy to follow along with.
A couple of important notes on the ingredients:
1. Achiote: Anyone who has seen arroz con pollo has noticed its signature orange color. This color comes naturally from achiote. Achiote are reddish-orange seeds of the annatto tree, which grows in Central and South America. To make achiote paste, the seeds are ground and combined with some thickeners, like oil or corn flour. Sometimes the final achiote product you buy in stores has salt, other times it doesn’t, so be sure to check.
You can find achiote paste in Latin American grocery stores and sometimes in regular grocery stores too. It’s also available online on Amazon. This is one option for a product from Mexico. Amazon also usually has the one we use here in Costa Rica – get this one if you can because it’s a little easier to use.
2. Salsa Lizano: This is Costa Rica’s signature sauce that is used in flavoring all kinds of things, especially beans. It’s a mix of vegetables and spices. Some grocery stores have it outside Costa Rica and you can get it on Amazon too. Salsa Lizano is an important staple to have in your kitchen if you are preparing Costa Rican food.
2 cups chicken breast, shredded (about 1 large or 2 small chicken breasts)
2 cups white rice
4 cups chicken broth
Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 red pepper, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
Prep the Chicken
First, you will want to prepare your chicken. Normally chicken breasts are used for this recipe, but dark meat is delicious too if you prefer that.
An easy way to get flavorful, browned meat is to pan fry it. You will want the chicken breasts to be somewhat thin (no more than about an inch thick), so you may need to cut them or pound them out. Get the skillet nice and hot on medium high heat and add about 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Cook the chicken on each side, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Only flip it once and make sure to wait until the chicken releases itself from the pan. Don’t force it – if it’s sticking, that means it’s not ready yet. Once the outside starts to brown nicely, it should be fairly easy to flip. Don’t overcook it. Usually a few minutes on each side is all you need.
Remove the chicken from the pan and allow it to rest for a few minutes. It will continue to cook some. Once it cools, shred it into bite-size pieces. Set aside until the last step.
Prep the Vegetables and Cook the Rice
After you’ve prepared the chicken, chop the onions, pepper, celery, and carrots. Then mince the garlic. The next step, sautéing, goes quickly so it’s nice to have everything ready in advance.
After you’ve prepped the vegetables, start cooking your rice. Many Costa Ricans use a rice cooker, but we’ve always just used the stovetop and it has turned out well. Here’s the method we use.
Add the chicken broth to a medium saucepan with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil. Skip the salt if you’re using prepared broth that is already salty. Bring to a boil on high heat, then add the rice and stir. Reduce heat to medium and cook uncovered (it should be at a low boil), stirring only every few minutes. You shouldn’t have to stir much more than that. The rice does best when left alone.
When the water starts to lower so that it is barely covering the rice, give it a good stir. This is when you want put on the cover and reduce heat to very low. This slows down the cooking and helps the rice soften and absorb the last little bit of liquid without becoming overcooked.
In a minute or so, check and stir to make sure that the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Do a taste test. The grains should be soft but still slightly firm in the middle. If it’s too hard, add a little water, starting with 1/8 cup. Check back often to make sure it’s not sticking.
When the rice is done, remove from the heat and take off the lid. Aim to have the rice done around the same time as the vegetables are cooked (see below).
Sauté Vegetables and Combine Everything
While the rice is cooking, heat a medium skillet on medium high and add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil. Add the onions, sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the pepper and celery. After a couple of minutes more, add the carrots. Be sure to season everything with salt and pepper. Once the carrots begin to soften, add the garlic and cook for a minute more.
When the veggies are al dente (cooked but still firm), add the achiote paste. You’ll need to work it around a bit to get it evenly distributed in the pan. Then add the shredded chicken and mix.
Next, you’ll add the cooked rice, Salsa Lizano, and fresh cilantro. Mix well until everything is coated in the achiote. Season with salt and pepper as needed.
Arroz con pollo is typically served with French fries and a green salad, but it’s also delicious on its own!
We hope you enjoy making arroz con pollo and discovering some of the interesting ingredients used in Costa Rican cooking. The achiote really makes this dish have that authentic Tico taste so be sure to include it.
Have a question about making arroz con pollo? Leave a comment below.
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Looking for more recipes or to learn about Costa Rica’s culture? Check out these posts:
Cooking Homemade Costa Rican-Style Beans: Our recipe for making red or black beans from scratch.
Traditional Foods of Costa Rica: Learn about six other authentic (and delicious) foods in Costa Rica.
Life in Costa Rica: Our Life in Costa Rica section covers lots of topics related to moving and living here, including packing, buying a car, getting residency, house sitting, having a baby, and more.