How to make perfect KFC coleslaw

KFC might be known for their fried chicken, but everyone knows they do sides right. Part of what makes that crispy, crunchy chicken taste so good is serving it with complementary foods. It's nearly impossible to choose our one-and-only favorite on their list of homestyle sides (KFC mashed potatoes and gravy are absolutely in the running). But, it's hard to leave the drive-thru window without a side of coleslaw. It's crunchy, creamy, and delicious, and there's something about the contrast between hot chicken and cold veggies that just works. It's refreshing, especially on a hot day.

Instead of picking up a family-sized side for backyard barbecues and family gatherings, we thought we'd try our hand at making the perfect KFC coleslaw at home. We scoured the internet, looking at copycat recipe after copycat recipe, to find the perfect combination of ingredients. Then, we picked up some coleslaw from the source itself and concentrated on the flavor of each bite. In the end, we found that KFC does a few really specific things to give their coleslaw its signature texture and sweet-and-tangy flavor. Want to know the secret? This is how to make perfect copycat KFC coleslaw.

Gather the ingredients for KFC coleslaw

Making the perfect KFC coleslaw is pretty easy. You only need a handful of ingredients: cabbage, carrot, onion, sugar, mayonnaise, canola oil, apple cider vinegar, celery salt, paprika, and xanthan gum. The first three ingredients make up the coleslaw's veggie mixture, while the remaining ingredients come together to create a sweet-and-tangy dressing. 

You might be tempted to take a shortcut here and pick up a bag of shredded coleslaw mix. After all, these mixes contain chopped cabbage and carrots, and they sometimes have onions, too. If chopping, slicing, and dicing isn't your thing, then go for it! This could be especially useful if you don't own a food processor or a mandoline to help you get the cabbage and carrots to a shreddable size. But, buying a whole cabbage and carrot will be significantly less expensive than that bag of coleslaw mix, so chopping things yourself can save you money.

You can get the full list of ingredients (including quantities) along with the step-by-step instructions, at the end of this article.

Should you use Miracle Whip or mayonnaise?

Some people swear that KFC coleslaw is made with Miracle Whip, and making this dish with mayonnaise simply won't create copycat-worthy results. The claim: KFC's coleslaw is famous because of its sweet flavor and its light vinegar content, which can only happen if you use Miracle Whip. Unfortunately, it's not true.

The biggest difference between the two condiments is their overall vegetable oil percentage. Miracle Whip doesn't meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) requirements for mayonnaise because it must contain "not less than 65 percent by weight of vegetable oil." Miracle Whip also has added sugar, paprika, and garlic powder to create its signature flavor. Put it all together, and people say it's better suited for KFC coleslaw. Unfortunately, the addition of garlic powder is problematic to make it a good fit for our copycat recipe. KFC's ingredients list includes "natural flavor," which could include some spices (like celery salt). But, the FDA requires that garlic is declared on a label if it's used. Since the ingredients list doesn't have garlic, it's not possible that they use Miracle Whip. So, we chose mayonnaise as the base for our KFC coleslaw dressing.

No, KFC coleslaw does not contain milk or buttermilk

If you search for copycat KFC coleslaw recipes, most of them call for milk and buttermilk. While they sound creamy and delicious, they're not technically authentic. Those ingredients are not only absent from the official ingredients list, but we also confirmed they're not included by taking a peek at KFC's Special Diets Wizard. We were curious which allergens are present in KFC coleslaw, and a quick search confirmed that dairy isn't one of them. In fact, the only allergen present in KFC coleslaw is eggs (from the mayonnaise).

There's nothing wrong with making your coleslaw with dairy ingredients. We've made plenty of recipes at home that use buttermilk to give the slaw a tangy edge, or milk to even out the eggy flavor from the mayonnaise. But, you won't find those ingredients on our list here, because using them won't make authentic KFC coleslaw.

Your KFC coleslaw will turn out best if you use a food processor

Okay, enough talk about ingredients. Let's get started making our copycat KFC coleslaw. As we mentioned earlier, you can totally use a bag of coleslaw mix if you don't have a food processor. That said, one of the things that makes KFC's coleslaw stand out is its texture. It doesn't have long, stringy pieces of cabbage or carrots; each piece is very small. You can absolutely use a knife or mandoline to cut up your cabbage and carrots, but a food processor is the easiest and best way to get there.

Start by filling up the food processor bowl with your cabbage and carrots. It's helpful to chop them into smaller pieces to get them to fit into the bowl, and you may have to pulse the cabbage once or twice to get the entire head to fit. The food processor pictured here is an 8-cup food processor, and we were able to fit the whole head of cabbage in at once. If you have a smaller version, you may have to do this step in two stages. Once the cabbage and carrot are in the bowl, pulse the food processor until the veggies resemble small pieces of rice.  

The onion makes a huge difference

Compared to the amount of cabbage we have here, using a couple tablespoons of minced onion might not seem like it will make a difference in this recipe. Resist the urge to omit this ingredient! It's a small quantity, sure, but it totally makes a difference in the overall flavor of the coleslaw. The key here is mincing it really, really well, so each piece turns into a tiny granule. You don't want a huge bite of raw onion as you eat your copycat KFC coleslaw, but you do want the flavor to be there somewhere in the background.

Chop up the onion and toss it with the chopped cabbage and carrot mixture. Two tablespoons of minced onion is about a quarter of a medium yellow onion. That means you will certainly have some leftover onion. If you don't plan to use it in the next few days, toss it to the freezer and pull it out the next time you make chicken stock. Or, store it in an airtight container and add it to soups or sauces over the next few days. 

Time to make the dressing for your copycat KFC coleslaw

Now that the coleslaw mix is finished, it's time to whip up the sweet-and-savory dressing that takes KFC's coleslaw to the next level. The ingredients here are fairly straightforward, and you likely have them all on hand in the pantry. Well, except the xanthan gum (which we'll discuss further in a moment). If you really like to make things from scratch, feel free to make the mayonnaise, too. A single egg yolk and 3/4 cup of canola oil will make the quantity needed for this recipe.

Most of the ingredients for the dressing came directly from KFC's official ingredients list. The only one we had to guess during the tasting process was the celery salt. An ingredient like that is usually listed as "spices" or "natural flavor." We started by whisking together the ingredients we knew — the sugar, mayonnaise, canola oil, apple cider vinegar, paprika, and xanthan gum. But, the dressing was missing something. After adding a few shakes of celery salt, it really came together.

Do you really have to use xanthan gum?

KFC coleslaw definitely includes xanthan gum, a plant-based food additive that helps thicken up sauces and dressings. Does that mean you have to use it? Well, that depends on why you're questioning the addition of this odd ingredient. If you have to make a special run to the store to pick it up, and you're running short on time, go ahead and skip it. The dressing won't be quite as thick as KFC's, but it will be pretty close. You will likely want to follow our step for straining the coleslaw after it rests to remove the extra watery dressing.

If you're worried about this weird-sounding ingredient being harmful to your health, it's worth taking a closer look. Healthline reports that some people don't take well to xanthan gum, experiencing digestive issues and gas. But, at least 15 grams must be consumed to see these negative side effects, and Bob's Red Mill's ingredients list shows that a single tablespoon contains 9 grams. Since we're only using 1/4 teaspoon for the entire recipe, we won't get anywhere close to that 15-gram limit. Healthline goes on to say that xanthan gum may have a slew of health benefits, from lowering blood sugar and cholesterol, to improving bowel regularity.

This step is the biggest secret for KFC coleslaw: Letting it rest

Okay, here's the last — but most important — step for making KFC coleslaw: Once you toss the coleslaw mix with the dressing, you have to let it rest. The whole process up until this moment takes about 10 to 15 minutes. That makes coleslaw sound like a quick-and-easy side dish, and you can absolutely eat the KFC coleslaw at this moment; it's dressed and ready to go. But, if you want it to taste authentic (and, just better in general), place it in a bowl, cover it tightly with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least four hours in the refrigerator. Even better, let it go 24 hours. 

This resting period is the true secret to KFC coleslaw. Former KFC employees have confirmed on Reddit that, after mixing the coleslaw mix with the dressing packet, it goes back into the refrigerator to marinate. It works for the same reason that chili tastes better the next day: The time in the fridge allows the flavors to meld together and become deeper and more complex. We found that the coleslaw was good straight away, pretty good after four hours, and amazing the next day. Basically, the longer you let the coleslaw sit, the more KFC-like it will taste. 

What to do if your copycat KFC coleslaw turned out watery

Okay, there is one draw-back to marinating the coleslaw overnight, and it's watery coleslaw. This is especially true if you skipped the xanthan gum, because the dressing won't have any thickening ingredients to hold it together. You can get around this step by salting the cabbage in a colander before you mix it together with the dressing, but that means you'll miss out on flavor. The juices from the cabbage are part of what makes KFC coleslaw so delicious!  

If the coleslaw is too watery for your liking, simply place it in a strainer before serving it to allow the excess juices to drip out. It only takes a few minutes, and it is an essential step if you're planning to serve the coleslaw on a sandwich or tortilla. You don't have to throw out the coleslaw water, either. Use it to make dressings and sauces (it's the secret ingredient in Chick-fil-A sauce).

How close was our copycat KFC coleslaw to the original?

After we first mixed the coleslaw, it wasn't even close to the flavor of the KFC original. After a 24-hour rest in the fridge, though, it was pretty much spot-on. Using the food processor to chop up the cabbage and carrots was definitely critical to matching the texture of KFC coleslaw. We were pretty happy with the dressing, too. It was sweet — just like KFC — but it had a lightly tangy flavor that absolutely worked.

The coleslaw was great on its own as a side dish, but we also put it on pulled pork sandwiches and used it as a topping on fish tacos. This recipe definitely makes a ton of coleslaw (enough to feed 10 or 12 as a side dish), so you could halve it or get creative with the leftovers. Speaking of leftovers, KFC coleslaw stores super well. Just put it back in the bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, like you did for the resting step. It will only get better with time, so don't be afraid to make the whole recipe.

Copycat KFC coleslaw recipe and directions

Total time: 15 minutes (plus 4 to 24 hours rest time)

Serves: 10 to 12 as a side dish 

Ingredients:

  • 1 head cabbage, finely chopped (roughly 8 cups)
  • 1 medium carrot, shredded (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons minced yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

Directions:

  1. Using a food processor or a knife, chop the cabbage and carrots very finely, until they are the size of rice.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chopped cabbage mixture with the onion and set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the sugar, mayonnaise, canola oil, apple cider vinegar, celery salt, paprika, and xanthan gum. Whisk the dressing until it is very smooth.
  4. Add the dressing to the cabbage mixture and mix well. 
  5. Cover the coleslaw tightly with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or as long as 24 hours.
  6. Before serving the coleslaw, place it in a strainer to remove the excess water (an optional step). Use the coleslaw water to make other dressings and sauces.