What Is a Chimichanga?
This crunchy Mexican-American favorite is the perfect vehicle for all your culinary creativity.
By Carlos Olaechea for Food Network Kitchen
Carlos is a contributing writer at Food Network.
A chimichanga is a fixture at many Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Southwestern restaurants in the United States. Learn what a chimichanga is and what is inside its crispy, crunchy, golden-fried crust. Learn about how to season your chimichanga fillings and the traditional ways to serve the dish. We also provide you with some of our favorite recipes to make these Mexican-American classics at home.
What Is a Chimichanga?
A chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. While some Americans may associate this dish with Mexico, many food historians agree that the dish actually originated in the United States. To be specific, the chimichanga was born in Arizona in the twentieth century. However, where exactly it was born and who created it is still up for debate with several restaurants laying claim to this dish. What all the supposed creators have in common, though, is that this dish originated quite by accident.
In 1922, the founder of a Tucson, Arizona-based Mexican restaurant called El Charro was hurriedly trying to make a burrito for a customer and accidentally dropped it in the deep fryer. She was about to exclaim a Mexican profanity that begins with “chi” but stopped herself midway and added some nonsense syllables, which came out as “chimichanga!” It’s almost the equivalent of starting to drop the “F bomb” but then immediately changing it to fudgeywudgeyfrumpkins.
A Phoenix, Arizona-based restaurant also claims to have invented the chimichanga almost 30 years later. The founder of Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen, Woody Johnson, allegedly also dropped a burrito into the deep-fat fryer by accident and realized that it was actually quite good and added it to the restaurant menu back when it was called Woody’s El Nido. However, some sources believe that Johnson had experimented with frying burritos before adding them to the menu.
There are others who believe that the chimichanga has purely Mexican roots, originating in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, and that migrants brought the dish with them to Arizona.
Regardless of how you believe the chimichanga came into being, few will contest that it is now an integral part of Southwestern American and Tex-Mex cuisines. As well, you’ll be hard pressed to find the dish at restaurants in Mexico (at least the way we eat them in the U.S.).
What Is a Chimichanga Made of?
Essentially, a chimichanga is a fried burrito, and a burrito can have any number of fillings and toppings. A good way to look at it is to consider that a chimichanga is to a burrito what a crunchy taco is to a soft taco. The main difference is the texture of the shell or wrapper. The only real rule is that a chimichanga should be encased in a flour tortilla and that it should be fried. Aside from that, you are only limited by your culinary imagination as far as what goes inside your chimichanga.
Traditionally, a chimichanga is filled with a combination of rice, beans, meat and cheese, similar to a burrito. You can opt for seasoned Mexican-style rice or yellow rice or even plain white rice. As for the beans, refried beans, black beans or pinto beans are traditional. And for the meat, you have a huge selection of traditional taco and burrito fillings to choose from - everything from carnitas and carne asada to barbacoa and birria. The cheese is usually a mild Jack, Chihuahua or cheddar. However, ooey-gooey Tex-Mex queso is also a perfect addition to a chimichanga.
You can get very creative with chimichanga fillings, even incorporating global flavors into your crunchy fried creations. Jerk pork, curried chicken, fried chicken tenders or even teriyaki beef can all work beautifully in a chimichanga. You can replace the rice with other grains, like quinoa or wild rice, or scrap it all together. You can add sweet potatoes or hash browns, and a chimichanga is a great vehicle for a vast array of veggies. If beans aren’t really your thing, you can omit them from your chimichanga. You can even make a vegan chimichanga!
As for the tortilla, you can choose any color or flavor you want, from whole wheat to habanero.
The seasoning in a chimichanga comes entirely from its fillings. You can opt for milder fillings, like shredded poached chicken, or more flavorful fillings like barbacoa. You can even create your own Mexican-inspired fillings with your own seasonings, and you can always adjust the heat to your liking. Many traditional fillings include spices like cumin, cinnamon and allspice along with herbs like Mexican oregano and cilantro. Most traditional Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southwestern chimichanga fillings also include different types of chiles from fiery habaneros to milder pasilla and guajillo.
Below are some recipes for traditional meat fillings:
If you want to quickly prepare a Mexican- or Latino-inspired meat or vegetable filling, you can use ready-made seasonings and sauces. Chili powder is a great addition to meats and is readily available in US grocery stores. If you are looking for something milder, adobo seasoning or Complete seasoning are great, easy choices. You can also look for prepackaged Mexican-style sauces and pastes, like jarred mole and tomatillo salsa. Even a jar of American-made salsa can easily flavor even the most bland meats.
If you are planning on adding rice or another type of grain, it’s always a good idea to season it, too. Mexican-style rice is flavorful but not overpowering, so it won’t detract from the flavors of the starring meat or veggie fillings. It’s traditionally boiled with tomato sauce, onions, garlic, oregano and a handful of other spices. Check out this recipe for Mexican red rice from Marcela Valladolid.
Many times, restaurants will top chimichangas with a flavorful sauce. Sometimes it’s the cook’s own unique creation, but oftentimes it’s a traditional Mexican, Southwest or Tex-Mex sauce. A green tomatillo salsa is always a good option, as is a basic enchilada sauce. And if you’re a fan of all things cheesy and creamy, queso is always a great topping for a chimichanga.
How to Make a Chimichanga
If you know how to make a burrito, you’re more than halfway towards making a chimichanga. The only thing you need to do is fry your tortilla-wrapped creation. Here is a rundown of how to assemble and wrap a burrito to get it ready for becoming a chimichanga.
How to Fill a Chimichanga
- Gently warm a large, thin flour tortilla or wrap. Flour tortillas are the most flexible and best for wrapping up all the fillings. You will want to gently warm up your tortilla in a tortilla warmer, on a dry skillet or in the microwave. You don’t want to toast the tortilla, just simply warm it up so that it’s more pliable.
- Add rice to the tortilla. Now, lay your tortilla down flat on a cutting board or large plate. Let’s assume you’re going all the way and filling your chimichanga with rice, beans, meat and cheese. Add about ⅓ cup of rice down in the center of your tortilla and spread it with a spoon so that it forms a rectangle down the middle of the tortilla, making sure to leave a couple of inches bare on each side so you can tuck them into your finished burrito.
- Evenly spread beans, meat and cheese over the rice. Now, add about the same amount of beans, give or take. Be sure to evenly spread out the beans over the rice so that you get some beans with each bite. Now, evenly spread the meat over the beans. You want roughly the same proportions of rice, beans and meat. Finish it off with an assertive sprinkle of cheese.
- Add a little bit of salsa or pre-cooked veggies if you want. However, avoid adding too much salsa, guacamole, lettuce or raw tomatoes. Because you’ll be frying the burrito to make it into a chimichanga, these raw, fresh toppings can become soggy or develop off flavors when heated. Traditionally, these additions are served on the side of a golden-brown, freshly fried chimichanga.
How to Fold a Chimichanga
Folding your tortilla is one of the most important steps for making a perfect chimichanga. If you followed the steps above, you should be looking at a flat tortilla with a rectangle of fillings in a neat pile down the center of it.
- Now, fold in the short sides of the tortilla over the fillings. By "short," we mean the sides that are perpendicular to the rectangular strip of fillings.
- Fold a long side (a side that's parallel to the lenth of the fillings) tightly over the fillings, tucking the end under the fillings. At the same time, you will want to use your hands to tightly roll the tortilla so that the filling forms an almost solid log. If your filling is too loose inside your tortilla, you run the risk of it falling out.
- Roll up the tortilla. Continue rolling in the direction of your first roll and tuck, keeping tension on the loose flap of tortilla as you roll, until you get to the end.
- Secure the seam with toothpicks so that it doesn’t come apart. Use as many toothpicks as necessary. You can always remove them before serving, but it’s better to go overboard on toothpicks than have your chimichanga fall apart in the hot oil.
Frying Your Chimichanga
Most restaurants have a large deep fryer for crisping up chimichangas (along with chips, taquitos, and a variety of other treats). In order to prevent the chimichanga from unraveling in the fryer, cooks usually secure the burrito between two fryer baskets to keep everything in place. Once the tortilla fries, it retains the shape into which you folded it until you cut into it.
At home, it may not be possible to fry up your chimi in a huge vat of oil like they do at a restaurant. The best way to secure your chimichanga for frying is to use toothpicks, as described above. You don’t need a deep fryer, either. As long as you have a frying pan with high sides, you can master a homemade chimichanga. Simply add enough frying oil to come halfway up the side of the pan.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat. To test whether it’s ready for frying your chimichanga, toss a little piece of tortilla into the oil. If it floats to the top and bubbles within a few seconds, your burrito is ready to transform into a chimichanga.
Carefully lay your burrito in the pan, seam side down, using a spatula. Fry it for a few minutes on one side, and then flip it over to fry on the other side. If there are some pale edges on your chimichanga, use tongs to hold that part of your chimi in the hot oil until it becomes golden-brown. The fillings in a chimichanga are all pre-cooked, so as soon as your chimi is browned, remove it from the oil and place it on some paper towels to drain for a few minutes.
How to Serve a Chimichanga
Chimichangas, as opposed to burritos, are often served on a plate and eaten with a knife and fork. There’s nothing saying you can’t eat one with your hands, but since chimichangas are best fresh from the fryer, you may not want to burn your fingers trying to hold one.
All the fresh or cold toppings that go into a typical burrito are served on the side when making a chimichanga, so don’t fret about the lack of sour cream and guac inside your chimi. Simply dollop as much as you want right next to your plated chimichanga. You can also garnish it with shredded lettuce, chopped onions and diced tomatoes.
As previously mentioned, many people like to smother their chimichangas with a sauce. The sky’s the limit when it comes to how you can dress your chimichanga. Queso is an indulgent option, but even some of your favorite jarred salsa will do the trick.
This recipe is for a full chimichanga meal, including a side of Mexican-style rice and refried beans. Instead of making a meat filling from scratch, this recipe calls for rotisserie chicken, which will cut your cooking time in half!
These meaty tacos are filled with grilled steak (carne asada) and veggies. The whole thing gets smothered in a rich homemade queso.
This recipe includes a boldly-spiced braised beef filling. The filling is so moist, you won't really need a sauce to smother over these chimichangas.
You can stuff practically anything into a chimichanga, including Thanksgiving leftovers. This chimi is filling with turkey, gravey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.
This is a lighter, super simple recipe for chimichangas that uses the oven to crisp up the tortilla rather than deep frying. A jar of salsa provides all the flavor you need in this recipe.
Who says chimichangas have to be savory? This sweet version can be the ending to a whole chimichanga-themed meal with its apple and pear filling spiked with tequila.