The best Chick-fil-A nuggets copycat recipe

Chick-fil-A might be controversial, but there's no denying that their chicken is crispy and delicious. It's hard to say no to something that tastes so good! The sweet-and-tangy vibe of their chicken sandwich is a favorite of many, but our go-to menu item is the Chick-fil-A suggets. They have all the crunch of a sandwich without any bun or pickles to mute the flavor of that perfectly seasoned chicken. You can tell they use real chicken in each bite — none of that processed or ground stuff some of their competitors use. Plus, they're handheld, bite-sized, and dunkable — there's nothing to hate about that!

It might sound difficult to replicate Chick-fil-A nuggets at home, but it's actually easier than you might think. You only need a handful of ingredients and a little bit of prep time to make these crispy-fried, golden-brown nuggets a reality. We'll even tell you how to make one of their famous sauces to dip 'em in! Will they taste as good as Chick-fil-A's? Better yet, will they satisfy your cravings on Sunday when you can't get the real deal even if you wanted to? Read on to find out.

Pick up the ingredients for copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets

Our first step in making Chick-fil-A nuggets was deciphering what goes in them. The ingredients list on Chick-fil-A's website contains four components: chicken, seasoning, seasoned coater, and milk wash. The chicken is listed as boneless, skinless chicken breast meat nuggets, so that one was easy enough to figure out. We picked up a pound of chicken breast tenders and cut them into 1-inch pieces. 

Using the ingredients listed on the website, we determined we needed flour, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, kosher salt, MSG, confectioners' sugar, baking powder, and nonfat milk powder for the breading. The milk wash would double as the brine and seasoning for our chicken — egg, milk, and dill pickle juice. Finally, Chick-fil-A uses peanut oil for frying, but we had canola oil on-hand, so we decided to use that. 

You can find the full list of ingredients, including quantities and step-by-step directions, at the end of this article.

Chick-fil-A nuggets taste so good because they use high-quality chicken

There's a reason that Chick-fil-A chicken tastes so much better than their competitors: They're focused on sourcing really good chicken. They hold themselves to rigorous standards, only choosing chickens that are raised cage-free no fillers, steroids, or hormones. By the end of 2019, they also promise to source chickens that are free of antibiotics

It's not just about how the chicken was raised, either. Chick-fil-A makes a point to use whole chicken breasts instead of ones that have been ground or separated. That means that, when you bit into a Chick-fil-A chicken nugget, you'll be able to see real meat instead of ground product. According to Eat This, Not That!, they also choose smaller birds because they "like the texture that comes from the smaller bird." Smaller chickens tend to have more tender meat, which leads to a juicier, more flavorful chicken nugget.

Brine the copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets in pickle juice to make them tender and juicy

We decided to brine the chicken to keep it juicy as it cooks. When Serious Eats interviewed a former Chick-fil-A employee to make a copycat of their fried chicken sandwich at home, they learned that the "chicken arrived frozen... [and] had been brined already." Their team tried dozens of different brine versions to discover the mystery ingredients before settling on a salt, sugar, and water brine. We weren't satisfied with that boring brine, though. We learned when making copycat KFC chicken that a milk brine can be used as both a marinade and a milk wash to bread the chicken, so we decided to soak our nuggets in milk and egg.

The final piece of the brine puzzle came from Taste of Home. They revealed that Chick-fil-A won't confirm the popular fan theory, but most copycat recipes contains pickle juice. This juice adds zesty flavor to the chicken while the acidic qualities of the vinegar tenderize the meat. Lifehacker claims that no pickle juice is used — they say MSG is the secret ingredient. While that hotly debated ingredient is a crucial ingredient in giving the chicken its extra-savory flavor, it's not responsible for the chicken's tender, juicy texture. To find out, we did a side-by-side taste test, and the pickle juice-brined chicken tasted more like authentic Chick-fil-A nuggets.

Put milk in the flour mixture for your copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets

After we brined the chicken in milk, egg, and pickle juice, we set about making the flour mixture used to dredge the chicken. We knew from Chick-fil-A's ingredients list that the mixture contained flour, salt, sugar, MSG, nonfat milk powder, baking powder, and paprika. From there, we had to decipher what made up the "spice" addition to the list. According to the FDA, "spice" can't be garlic or onion powder, so those ingredients were out. We tasted a few Chick-fil-A nuggets and noticed they had a hint of spicy flavor, so we added a touch of cayenne pepper and some black pepper to the mix. It was absolutely perfect, so we kept it simple and didn't experiment further.

We ran across an interesting tip from Serious Eats about the best way to make Chick-fil-A's signature crispy, craggly coating. If you add a few tablespoons of the milk wash to the flour, it creates wet pockets in the flour mixture. Those moist flour nuggets help the dredging mixture adhere to the chicken, and the textured coating seemed to crisp up better in the fryer. So, although it might seem like a weird step, don't skip it: Add a few tablespoons of wet ingredients to the dry flour mixture before breading the chicken. 

Choose the right frying oil for your copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets

Now that we've identified everything that goes into the chicken, we had to determine the best oil for making it golden brown and crispy. There are a variety of oils out there, and some of them are better suited for frying than others. It all comes down to something called smoke point: The temperature at which fat starts to smoke. When a cooking oil reaches this temperature, it not only sets off your smoke detector, but its fats also start to break down. That makes whatever you're frying taste not-so-great, and it can also introduce harmful compounds like free radicals into your food.

So what's the best oil for frying? Peanut and canola oils are the most popular choices because of their high smoke point. Peanut oil remains stable up to temperatures of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and canola oil is fine up to 400 degrees. Since we're only heating the oil to 350 degrees, either oil works just fine in this scenario. Chick-fil-A uses peanut oil, but we had leftover canola oil on hand, so we went that route and didn't notice a flavor difference one way or the other.

Heat the fryer oil to 350 for your copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets

Before we got started frying our Chick-fil-A Nuggets, we debated what temperature to set the fryer oil. This is a tricky one because Chick-fil-A uses pressure fryers to cook their chicken nuggets. These gadgets start by cooking the fried food at 350 degrees Fahrenheit before sealing them with a special lid that allows pressure to build up inside the unit. Cooking under pressure increases the boiling point of water from 212 degrees to 250 degrees, changing the way the water evaporates from inside the chicken. 

Unfortunately, pressure fryers are mostly unavailable to the home cook, and it's impossible to cook chicken at pressure-frying temperatures without one. Cook's Country explains that frying food at low temperatures causes greasy fried chicken. On the other hand, cooking it too hot can create undercooked chicken — the coating will brown and crisp up before the insides have a chance to cook through. So, we tried cooking our nuggets at the pressure fryer's starting temperature (350 degrees). The outsides were perfectly crispy while the insides stayed juicy and moist.

Breading copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets is a full-body experience

The other key to making a crispy coating that actually sticks to the chicken is putting your whole body into it, and we worked on that while letting oil heat up. Some copycat recipes suggest placing the chicken pieces in an airtight bag or container and shaking it with the flour. This is a great way to keep your hands from getting messy, for sure, but it won't satisfy your need for crispy chicken nuggets. If the coating isn't pressed well enough onto the chicken, it will fall off in the fryer, or you will have to be extra gentle when handing the cooked nuggets. Neither creates a true Chick-fil-A experience.

In an interview with Atlantic57, one of Chick-fil-A's corporate culinary chefs explain that breading the chicken is a full-body experience. The proper technique? "One must tilt the whole body forward over the flour bin, lifting the heels and pushing down on the [chicken] breast with an athlete's might to ensure the most dense and consistent application of the flour." It was official; shaking the chicken in flour wouldn't be enough. We mustered up our strength and pressed each chicken piece firmly into the flour before (carefully) placing them in the hot oil. 

Cook copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets until they're golden brown and delicious

When you've added about a third of the chicken, stop and let the nuggets fry up until they're golden brown and delicious. It's tempting to keep adding nuggets to the fryer— after all, that would make the frying part go faster, right? Yes, it would finish the task at hand, but it wouldn't make the nuggets taste exactly like Chick-fil-A's nuggets. When you overcrowd the cooking oil, you will unintentionally lower its temperature, which can cause your chicken to turn out greasy and soggy instead of crispy.

Instead, fry the chicken in batches, gently moving the nuggets around with a spider strainer or skimmer. You can use tongs in a pinch, but the spider makes it significantly easier to move the nuggets around without disturbing the breading too much. When the chicken is golden brown and delicious looking — after about 3 to 5 minutes — use the spider to scoop the nuggets out of the hot oil. Place them on a baking sheet lined with a cooling rack, or you can put them directly on a plate lined with paper towels to catch the excess grease. Since the chicken cooks so quickly, there's no need to hot hold the nuggets in a warm oven, but you certainly can if you like. Before adding more chicken to the frying oil, make sure it returns  to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don't forget to prepare Chick-fil-A's signature honey mustard dipping sauce

You can whip up this copycat Chick-fil-A honey mustard dipping sauce while the chicken is frying, or you can make it in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you're ready to eat. Either way, a trip to Chick-fil-A is never complete without a side of dipping sauce, and honey mustard is the perfect accompaniment to these crispy nuggets

There is definitely a surprise ingredient in this honey mustard. You would think that a sauce with two words in its title would have two ingredients, but it also contains mayonnaise. Yes, mayo is what gives the sauce its creamy consistency. Add in regular yellow mustard for some zesty flavor, and honey to sweeten things out. A splash of rice vinegar (or, lemon juice if you prefer) adds a touch of tang to really bring the sauce together.

Psst: Want to upgrade this dipping sauce and make Chick-fil-A sauce? Take 1/2 cup of the honey mustard sauce and add 1-1/2 teaspoons of barbecue sauce to it. Swirl in 1/8 teaspoon buffalo hot sauce and a splash of lemon juice, and voila! 

How close did we get to Chick-fil-A nuggets?

All in all, we really nailed this recipe. Our nuggets look like the crispy, craggly bites we've come to know and love at Chick-fil-A. They smell slightly spicy, and the sweetness from the powdered sugar and milk powder really comes through in the flavor. It's the perfect balance between sweet and savory, and we honestly couldn't stop dipping in for bite after bite.

Speaking of dipping, this honey mustard recipe is definitely going on some kind of frequent flyer program in our kitchens. It. Was. Phenomenal. We only use about half of it for our taste tests, so we used the leftovers on everything for the next few days: salad dressings, sandwiches, power bowls, and even as a topping for scrambled eggs. It's creamy, zesty, and tangy, and while it paired best with crispy-fried chicken nuggets, it tasted pretty fantastic on just about everything. We would totally make this entire recipe again, but we will certainly be making this honey mustard sauce on the regular.

Copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets directions

Prep time: 30 minutes (plus an extra 30 minutes for marinating)

Cook time: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

(For the honey mustard dipping sauce)

  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons rice vinegar

(For the nuggets)

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup dill pickle juice 
  • 1 pound chicken breasts or chicken tenderloins, cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon MSG (optional but recommended)
  • 2 teaspoons confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons nonfat milk powder
  • Neutral oil for frying, like canola or peanut oil

Directions

  1. Make the honey mustard dipping sauce by combining the mayonnaise, mustard, honey, and vinegar in a small bowl. Cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the egg, milk, and pickle juice to create a flavorful brine for the chicken. Add the 1-inch chicken pieces and cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap. Set aside for 30 minutes, or as long as overnight. If you're brining the chicken for more than 30 minutes, place it in the refrigerator. Remove it to the counter 30 minutes before proceeding to let the chicken come to room temperature.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, paprika, black pepper, kosher salt, cayenne, MSG (if using), confectioners' sugar, baking powder, and nonfat milk. Add 3 tablespoons of the chicken brine liquid and mix well to combine. 
  4. In a large Dutch oven, heat about 3 inches of oil. If you're using an electric tabletop fryer, fill the unit to its MAX line. 
  5. Preheat the oil to 350 degrees over medium-high heat, using a deep-frying thermometer to check the temperature. When the oil reaches 350 degrees, reduce the heat to medium-low. 
  6. Remove a chicken nugget from the brine, allowing any excess liquid to drip off. Place the piece in the flour mixture and press down firmly, allowing the flour to adhere on all sides. Shake off any excess flour and carefully drop the chicken into the hot oil. Continue dredging chicken until the fryer is full but not overcrowded; you should be able to fry about a third of the chicken at one time.
  7. Cook the chicken for 3 to 5 minutes, until it is golden brown and crispy. Transfer the chicken to a cooling rack or a plate lined with paper towels to catch excess grease. Hold the chicken in a warm (200 degree) oven, if you wish.
  8. Allow the oil to return to temperature before adding more chicken. Repeat the dredging and frying process with the remaining pieces of chicken.
  9. Serve the nuggets hot with the honey mustard dipping sauce.