The absolute best way to make chicken nuggets, according to so many tests

Does the perfect DIY chicken nugget exist?

By Ella Quittner
Published July 1, 2021 11:59AM (EDT)
Prop stylist: Fiona Campbell. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)
Prop stylist: Fiona Campbell. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

In Absolute Best Tests, our writer Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's mashed dozens of potatoes, seared more porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, and tasted enough types of bacon to concern a cardiologist. Today, she tackles chicken nuggets.

* * *

On November 17, 2020 — some nine months into the global coronavirus shutdowns — Leah Shutkever, 31, awoke with a single goal in mind. She donned a Jobsian turtleneck, tied back her hair, and took a seat at her counter in Redditch, England, with only a bottle of water and a large container of processed meat by her side.

For the next 180 seconds, Shutkever used a specially developed double-decker pinch-and-cram technique to jam 60 chicken nuggets into her mouth and down her throat in rapid succession.

"During lockdown, no [Guinness World Record eating] title was safe," she told me recently. "I would scour the internet, weigh up the likelihood [that a given record] could be beaten, and if there was a slight chance to beat it, game on."

She describes Nugget Day in particular as "exhilarating, nerve-racking, fast-paced, and daunting," and says she was hit with "flavor fatigue" around the 20-nugget mark. Still, she persevered, and to this day holds the Guinness World Record for "Most Chicken Nuggets Eaten in Three Minutes."

I got in touch with Shutkever after spending many more minutes cramming significantly fewer nuggets into my own mouth for Absolute Best Tests. I'd been trying for days to determine the perfect combination of chicken blend, breading, and cook method to produce maximally crushable nugs.

Shutkever's take: The ideal chicken nugget should contain both breast and thigh for texture, and no matter how it's breaded or battered, the seasoning should be ample. But despite those preferences, she's not picky. "Nuggets are iconic!" she said. "I will take them in any form."

Not everyone is quite so open-minded, but it's true that a good nugget can be a tiny, golden treat to behold. It elicits the specific pleasure offered only by foods that can be popped into the mouth whole (cocktail meatballs, those little mozz balls) without sacrificing the gratification presented by the sort of properly crispy shell that's more commonly found on larger foods (fried drumsticks, arancini). The ideal chicken nugget meets three criteria: thorough and harmonious seasoning, breading that won't wilt or yield to a gentle poke, and innards as tender as any Jack White lyric.

On the seasoning front, Shutkever is with me. "It would have helped if the McDonald's nuggets I used for the World Record were more flavored, to avoid hitting that flavor wall so quickly," she lamented.

Before I let Shutkever off the hook, I had one more question. Did she puke? "No throwing up," she said. "It was a pretty easy three minutes!"

* * *

Controls

After a few initial rounds of testing, I settled on a 50-50 mix of chicken thigh and chicken breast, pulsed together in a food processor with seasonings until mostly minced. (Specific proportions of seasonings are noted below.)

* * *

Findings

The Best Ways To Cook Chicken Nuggets

Shallow fry your nuggets! The deep fry method worked well, too, though the nuggets in the shallow fry batches were markedly juicier across all breading and battering trials.

Unless you're actively trying to avoid fry oil, you might benefit from benching your air fryer in pursuit of the perfect nugget. Air fryer nuggets were perfectly edible and had a decent level of crispiness and tenderness, but the shells were unevenly cooked, and their interiors a bit dry.

The baked nuggets were much juicier than the air fryer nuggets. That said, the air fryer specimens had crunchier jackets, so, pick your battle.

The Best Breadings & Batters For Chicken Nuggets

Panko produced a cartoonishly appealing tone when tested across most cook methods (except bake), and unlike some of the other breadings and batters, it didn't call for extra cook time to properly darken, which meant the resulting nuggets didn't dry out at the expense of color. The panko-coated nuggets were, as one tester pointed out, "like little pucks of chicken Parm" and would have paired well with marinara.

Italian-style bread crumbs also created golden nuggets, but I can't recommend them over panko in good faith, since the resulting shells were about half as crispy, more like crusty throw blankets than glassy swaddles.

Rice flour batter produced the most enticing exteriors by far. Biting into these nuggets was like driving a Mack Truck over a Zalto glass, and yet each shell still managed to retain the faintest bounce, distantly reminiscent of the texture of tahdig. (All-purpose flour batter did not disappoint — especially with its delightfully golden color and crunch boost from cornstarch — but it offered none of the textural nuance of rice flour.)

* * *

Breading & Battering Recipes

All breading and battering tests shown in the photographs were cooked using the deep fry method, though feel free to mix and match with the cook methods below.

All-Purpose Flour

Loosely adapted from Serious Eats. Note: If the nuggets don't achieve a golden brown shell by the time they're cooked through, remove from the oil and pan sear for just a minute or so in a hot cast-iron skillet.

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. In a large bowl, combine ¾ cup of all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press in the flour mixture until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed. Reserve the flour mixture.
  4. Set a heavy pot over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 3 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Add ¾ cup of water to the reserved flour mixture and whisk until smooth. It should be roughly the consistency of pancake batter — adjust with a little more water or flour if needed.
  6. Once the oil is ready, dip each flour-coated chicken nugget into the batter to coat, letting any excess batter drip away, then transfer to the hot oil. Cook each nugget about 4 minutes, flipping every 30 seconds, until golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

Rice Flour

Loosely adapted from Bon Appétit and Serious Eats. Note: If the nuggets don't achieve a golden brown shell by the time they're cooked through, remove from the oil and pan sear for just a minute or so in a hot cast-iron skillet.

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ½ pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of white rice flour (not glutinous rice flour!) and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press in the flour mixture until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed. Reserve the flour mixture.
  4. Set a heavy pot over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 3 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Add 3/4 cup of water to the reserved flour mixture and whisk until smooth. It should be roughly the consistency of pancake batter — you can adjust with a little more water or flour as needed.
  6. Once the oil is ready, dip each flour-coated chicken nugget into the batter to coat, letting any excess batter drip away, and transfer to the hot oil. Cook each nugget about 4 minutes, flipping every 30 seconds, until golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

Panko

Loosely adapted from Epicurious and Serious Eats. Note: If the nuggets don't achieve a golden brown shell by the time they're cooked through, remove from the oil and pan sear for just a minute or so in a hot cast-iron skillet.

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. On a large plate, combine about 1 cup of panko with a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll about 1 heaping tablespoon of seasoned ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press into the panko until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed.
  4. Set a heavy pot over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 3 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Once the oil is ready, add the chicken nuggets. Cook each nugget about 4 minutes, flipping every 30 seconds, until deeply golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

Bread Crumbs

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and ½ pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. On a large plate, combine about 1 cup of Italian-style bread crumbs with a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press into the bread crumbs until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed.
  4. Set a heavy pot over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 3 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Once the oil is ready, add the chicken nuggets. Cook each nugget about 4 minutes, flipping every 30 seconds, until deeply golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

* * *

Cook Method Recipes

All cook method tests shown in the photographs were battered with rice flour (see above), with the exception of the bake trial, for which we used panko, to avoid carbonizing batter to the bottom of a sheet pan. (Though, again, you can swap in a breading or batter of your choice here.)

Deep Fry

Loosely adapted from Bon Appétit and Serious Eats. Note: If the nuggets don't achieve a golden brown shell by the time they're cooked through, remove from the oil and pan sear for just a minute or so in a hot cast-iron skillet.

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of white rice flour (not glutinous rice flour!) and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press in the flour until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed. Reserve the flour mixture.
  4. Set a heavy pot over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 3 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Add 3/4 cup of water to the reserved flour mixture and whisk until smooth. It should be roughly the consistency of pancake batter — you can adjust with a little more water or flour as needed.
  6. Once the oil is ready, dip each flour-coated chicken nugget into the batter to coat, letting any excess batter drip away, and transfer to the hot oil. Cook each nugget about 4 minutes, flipping every 30 seconds, until golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

Shallow Fry

Very loosely adapted from Bon Appétit. Note: If the nuggets don't achieve a golden brown shell by the time they're cooked through, remove from the oil and pan sear for just a minute or so in a hot cast-iron skillet.

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless skinless, chicken thighs, both sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of white rice flour (not glutinous rice flour!) and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press in the flour until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed. Reserve the flour mixture.
  4. Set a skillet over medium-high heat and add enough vegetable oil until it's about 1 1/2 inches deep. Bring the oil to 350°F. (If you don't own a fry thermometer, you can check the temp by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil begins to bubble steadily, it's ready to go. If it begins to bubble vigorously and crackle, it's too hot — turn down the heat and let it cool a bit before trying again.)
  5. Add 3/4 cup of water to the reserved flour mixture and whisk until smooth. It should be roughly the consistency of pancake batter — you can adjust with a little more water or flour as needed.
  6. Once the oil is ready, dip each flour-coated chicken nugget into the batter to coat, letting any excess batter drip away, and transfer to the hot oil. Cook each nugget about 2 minutes per side, flipping halfway through, until golden and cooked through. Repeat with the remaining nuggets. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate before serving.

Bake

Very loosely adapted from Epicurious.

  1. Heat the oven to 375°F.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor, combine ½ pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into chunks, with 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  3. On a large plate, combine about 1 cup of panko with a big pinch of kosher salt.
  4. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of seasoned ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press into the panko until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed.
  5. Bake the nuggets on a lightly greased sheet pan for 15 minutes total, flipping halfway through, until golden brown on both sides. (If the nuggets become cooked through but not golden to your liking, you can throw them under the broiler for the last minute or so.)

Air Fry

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into chunks, with ¾ teaspoon of kosher salt and a pinch each of onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne. Pulse until the chicken is finely minced and can be pressed into patties.
  2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of white rice flour (not glutinous rice flour!) and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  3. Lightly grease the basket of your air fryer with vegetable oil. Heat the air fryer to 400°F.
  4. Roll 1 heaping tablespoon of the ground chicken mixture into a sphere, then gently flatten into a nugget. Press in the flour until evenly coated on all sides, then set aside. Repeat with the remaining ground chicken until all the nuggets are formed. Reserve the flour.
  5. Add 3/4 cup of water to the reserved flour mixture and whisk until smooth. It should be roughly the consistency of pancake batter — you can adjust with a little more water or flour as needed. Once the oil is ready, dip each flour-coated chicken nugget into the batter to coat, letting any excess batter drip away, ideally over a wire rack.
  6. When the air fryer has heated, add a single layer of nuggets and cook for about 6 minutes total, flipping and spraying with a light coat of vegetable oil halfway through, until golden and cooked through.
  7. Repeat with the remaining nuggets.

Ella Quittner

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