Why Costco food court's chicken bakes are so delicious

You can count on two things when you visit a Costco food court: ridiculously tasty eats, and ridiculously cheap prices. The only difficult part of eating at the food court is making the agonizing decision of what to order. Is it the iconic $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, the cheesiest cheese pizza you ever laid eyes on, or the shiny and new BBQ beef brisket sandwich? And let's not forget the chicken bakes. You simply can't talk about Costco's food court without mentioning the chicken bake — one of the menu's most beloved items. 

But exactly what is it about the chicken bake that makes it so good? It is a fairly simple recipe with fairly basic ingredients, after all, but there's something about that tube of dough that keeps us coming back for more. Let's dissect this amped up Hot Pocket, bit by bit, to get to the bottom of why it's so darn delicious. 

Is there any better use of random food court ingredients?

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and we can only assume that the invention of the chicken bake came about because there were a bunch of random, leftover ingredients sitting around the food court kitchen, and a worker who was sick and tired of eating nothing but pizza and hot dogs, day in and day out, just needed something, anything to break the monotony. So they cobbled together a calzone of sorts — according to one former food court employee, the ingredients are nothing more than pizza dough, Caesar dressing, chicken breast, bacon bits, and pizza cheese — and voila, the chicken bake was born.

Maybe Costco put a little more thought into it than that, maybe not, but the fact remains that the chicken bake is, essentially, just a conglomeration of other food court staples. If it weren't for the pizza and the Caesar salad, we may have never gotten to taste the our beloved chicken bake. To whomever invented it, we thank you.

They're made with the pizza dough, which we already know is delicious

If you're a Costco food court connoisseur, you're no doubt familiar with their amazingly delicious pizza offerings. Whether you get cheese, pepperoni, or combo, you know that each slice is going to be served up with the same perfect crust every time — not too heavy, just the right amount of chew. And that perfect crust is the same dough that's used to make the chicken bake.

But what makes it so good? According to Kaiwen Zhao, a supervisor at Costco, it's all about handling the dough properly. Zhao explained on Quora, "We spend a lot of time on dough management, it normally takes 24–27 hours for a dough to be ready to press." Anybody who's ever baked bread or made homemade pizza crust knows the importance of letting dough rest — the result is a softer dough that's easier to work with, which in turn lessens the chances of overworked, tough dough. That rest period also gives the dough a chance for it to develop some yeasty flavors and air pockets — both good things. 

All of this is to say that the pizza dough is a big part of the chicken bake's appeal, and given how well-cared for it is, it's no wonder it makes such an ideal crust. Plus, there's a bunch of cheese on top.

It's basically a Caesar salad minus the worst part of a Caesar salad

Let's say you're perusing the Costco food court menu and that nagging voice in your head is telling you to order sensibly. "Skip the super cheesy pizza and go for the salad," it says. But you don't want a salad. Who wants all that boring lettuce, and anyway, is it even advisable to eat after the great romaine recall of 2018? You'd better play it safe and skip the Caesar salad, you decide — you know, for your health. 

What that inner voice isn't telling you, though, is that a chicken bake is practically a Caesar salad. It's got the chicken and the cheese and the dressing from the Caesar, and the crust fills in for the croutons. All you're missing is that lettuce you didn't want to eat anyway. And here's the kicker: That chicken bake might set you back 100 more calories than the Caesar salad, but it will save you 15 grams of fat. That's right — the chicken bake has less fat than the salad. It's basically health food, is what we're saying. And bonus, no risk of romaine-induced E. coli.

You can, and should, get extra dressing to up the delicious factor

What is the best part of any salad? The dressing, obviously, and the creamier the better. Which is why you should get extra Caesar dressing for your chicken bake. It turns out that dressing not only improves salads, but it also seriously ups the deliciousness factor on chicken, cheese, and bacon enrobed in pizza dough. (Never mind those extra 67.5 calories per ounce.)

Yes, there's already some Caesar dressing in the chicken bake, but if we're being perfectly honest, the one knock on this menu item is that it can be a little doughy. Don't get us wrong, the crust is delicious — it's just a ratio thing. But don't worry, we've got a hack for that. According to one former Costco food court employee on Reddit, all you have to do is ask for a container of extra dressing and you'll get it. If that's not proof that the best things in life really are free, we don't know what is. 

They're never frozen

Have you ever purchased the Kirkland Signature Chicken Bakes from the freezer aisle, only to be completely disappointed when you heat one up at home and realize that is tastes nothing like the glorious tube of stuffed dough that you get from the food court? But how can that be? Surely those Costco employees aren't back there whipping up fresh-made chicken bakes on the daily, are they?

Turns out they are, according to one Costco food court worker who confirmed on Reddit, "The ones in the food court are made fresh every day from scratch." And why not? As we've already learned, all the ingredients are already in the kitchen anyway, and Costco isn't known for slinging sub-par, freezer eats. 

Sure, the frozen option is fine in a pinch, but most will agree that they just don't taste as good. As far as ingredients go, they look to be about the same as fresh, with one obvious addition: green onions. Do green onions really have the power to throw off that food court perfection? Maybe they do. Or maybe it's Costco's 600 degree ovens that give the fresh-made chicken bakes that little extra something. We may never know.

They're super high in sodium (and salt equals flavor)

Salt is a wonder seasoning. Typically, if a dish doesn't have enough flavor, or doesn't taste quite right, a healthy pinch of salt will do the trick to bring all the best flavors forward and act as a magical correcting potion. And that, friends, is exactly why there's so much salt in fast food — it makes everything taste better.

It definitely won't shock you then, since the chicken bake tastes so darn good, to learn that it comes complete with 2,310 milligrams of sodium. To put things in perspective, it's recommended that healthy adults consume between 1,500 – 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. (2,300 milligrams just happens to be one full teaspoon of salt, in case you need a visual.) In other words, you're taking in more than your day's worth of sodium (and more than a teaspoon of salt) with just one chicken bake. Of course it's going to taste amazing.

They're super cheap

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the chicken bake is reasonably priced, considering that Costco's $1.50 hot dog and soda combo has not changed in price since its inception in 1985. But for something with the heft of the chicken bake, it remains a shockingly good deal. 

For just $2.99 (depending on your location), you get the equivalent of about five measly Hot Pockets. The chicken bake is practically as long as your forearm, for goodness sake. For most of us, it's a two-meal event. It's what we order when we're starving and also have our three starving children in tow. What we're saying is: it's cheap. Even with the addition of a soda, you're looking at lunch for about $3.58. Where else can you get that kind of quality for that price? It's not McDonald's, where (according to their app) a medium Big Mac meal will run you about $8.59, we'll tell you that.

But not all bakes are so delicious

It turns out that not all bakes are created equal. Though we may be starry-eyed over the chicken bake, Costco's attempt at a carne asada bake did not go over so well.

Sometime in late 2010, the carne asada bake debuted, and it sounded promising. According to Costco Connection, it boasted "seared USDA choice beef seasoned with a combination of lime, cilantro, and seasonings; fresh pico de gallo; guacamole; and a blend of six cheeses — all wrapped in a crispy dough shell." Tasty, right? Not so much…

The beefy bake didn't even last two years, according to OCWeekly. By April 2012 it was being replaced, and the reviews shed some light as to why. Costco Insider blog gave it a tepid six out of 10, saying, "There was not that much flavor. I didn't feel like there was very much cheese in it." SFWeekly, on the other hand, unleashed, deeming it "nasty," and saying, "…the Carne Asada Bake gets it all wrong… Who likes warm pico de gallo and guacamole? Anyone? Anyone? Our thoughts exactly. The results are a face-scrunching mess of mealy salsa and pale green liquid that sprays with every bite, plus a taste that can only be described with a reference to salty dirt." Okay, then. We'll stick to the tried-and-true chicken version.