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We've been hearing an awful lot about Chick-Fil-A—the Atlanta-based fried chicken sandwich fast food chain—in the news recently, and it's not been about how awesome their chicken sandwiches are, which is somewhat unfortunate, because those sandwiches are awesome. But we'll get back to that in a moment.
Chick-Fil-A's got quite a bit in common with California burger chain In-N-Out burger. Both serve reasonably priced tasty food of a markedly better quality than your typical fast food establishment. Both harbor a cult-like following of zealots. Both hire and retain extremely upbeat and friendly staff—you can't help but feel just a little more gay after stepping into a Chick-Fil-A. And of course, both restaurants were started by families with extremely conservative Christian principles.
The difference is that while In-N-Out limits its proselytizing to inconspicuous bible verses referenced on the bottom of its cups, the higher-ups at Chick-Fil-A are a little more outspoken in their stance, actively speaking against equal marriage rights for homosexuals and donating millions of Chick-Fil-A dollars to organizations with strong anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-abortion histories.
I don't normally like to mix my food with my politics, but the thought of where my chicken sandwich dollars might be going is enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how crispety-crunchety, spicy-sweet and salty that juicy chicken sandwich may be.
So in the interest of keeping my Chick-Fil-A consumption at a reasonable level, I did the only logical thing: figured out how to make them at home. Here's how it's done. And yes, you can even make 'em on a Sunday.
The classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich is a thing of simple beauty. A juicy, salty, crisply fried chicken breast. A soft, sweet, buttered and toasted bun. Two dill pickle chips. That's all there is to it.
What makes it great is the perfection of each of the elements. That crisp golden brown crust spiced just right with a perfect sweet-salty-savory-hot balance. The way it coats that breast underneath; a chicken breast that defies all we know about chicken. This is no dry, stringy, bland chicken bosom, this is a breast of unparalleled juiciness, with a dense, meaty texture and deeply seasoned flavor.
Bring all of the elements together, and you've got a sandwich that is nearly impossible to improve upon.
I began my quest for chicken sandwich perfection with the easiest elements: the bun and the pickles.
Bun and Pickles
With some of these reverse engineering project, getting the condiments and sauces just right are as much of a challenge as working on the main ingredient (see my In-N-Out clone recipe, for example). Not so with a Chick-Fil-A.
The bun is your typical hamburger-style bun. Soft and slightly sweet, with a fluffy, Wonderbread-like texture. It measures up at around 4 1/2-inches in diameter, which puts it right in the range of Arnold Hamburger Rolls. Toasted in a skillet in just a bit of melted butter, they're a perfect taste-alike to the real Chick-Fil-A buns.
As for the pickles, I tried out a few different brands of dill crinkle-cut chips. Heinz had the right flavor, the but chips were too small—I could've added a few extras, I suppose, but I feel like the two-pickle-per-Chick-Fil-A-sandwich rule is an unbreakable law. Instead, I turned to Vlasic Ovals Hamburger Dill Chips, which have a larger surface area and the same salty-vinegary-garlicky flavor.
Now, on to the hard part: the chicken.
Don't Forget Your Coat!
So what exactly goes into that uniquely flavorful Chick-Fil-A coating? It's obviously a standard breading procedure of some form or another—chicken dipped into a thick liquid followed by a dredging in seasoned flour before being deep-fried.
My normal course of action in a situation like this would be to pull off some high-level espionage, playing both sides of the game, perhaps wooing a particularly woo-able employee into a romantic tryst in an attempt to get her (or him!) talking about breading while we're bedding.
But alas, the higher-ups at Chick-Fil-A have obviously foreseen this potentially scandalous scenario and nipped it in the bud by listing their ingredients on their website, making the whole process far less titillating, but far far simpler.
Here's what we've got:
100% natural whole breast filet
seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika]
seasoned coater [enriched bleached flour, sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening, spice, soybean oil, color]
milk wash [water, whole powdered egg and nonfat milk solids]
peanut oil [fully refined peanut oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness and dimethylpolysiloxane an anti-foaming agent added])
The ingredients confirm it: they start with a chicken breast, season it, dip it into a milk and egg-based wash, dredge it in a flour-based "seasoned coater," then fry it all in peanut oil
The salt, MSG*, sugar, and paprika in the basic seasoning and seasoned coater are easy. The problem is with that catchall term "spices." We all know that the Colonel uses a secret blend of 11 different herbs and spices, but Chick-Fil-A makes no such claim.
I pulled out my spice drawers and got to concocting.
*MSG—monosodium glutamae—gets a bad rap. This is simple fear of the unknown. It's a purified chemical product originally harvested from giant sea kelp and has many analogues that occur naturally in foods we eat. When used in reasonable quantities, it is about as dangerous for you as regular old table salt. It's the chemical that triggers the sense of savoriness (or umami) on our tongues, and as such, is a great flavor enhancer in any sort of meaty dish. I keep a jar of it right next to my salt cellar.
Clearly black pepper forms the bulk of the backbone, and I'm fairly certain there's a touch of cayenne in there as well. Paprika is listed, so in it goes.
Did I detect some garlic in there as well? I wasn't positive, but a quick look at the FDA's labeling rules answered the question for me. According to the FDA, "Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried or dehydrated onions and garlic are not considered to be spices. When used as an ingredient in foods they should be declared on the label by common or usual names."
No garlic listed on the label? No garlic in the food.
I tried various combinations of celery seed, dried oregano and basil, mustard powder, even coriander and cumin. In the end, I found the simplest mix was actually closest in flavor to the real deal. Salt, sugar, MSG, black pepper, cayenne, and paprika it is.
I've heard it on good authority that each Chick-Fil-A sandwich uses an entire chicken breast half. I don't know where the heck they're getting those tiny chickens from, but in order to get my massive 8-ounce supermarket chicken breast halves down to the right size, I had to split them in half horizontally. (Perhaps next time I'll go with a Cornish hen breast).
With my spice mix assembled, I fried off my first batch of chicken: I seasoned a chicken breast cutlet with my spice mix, dipped it into a whisked mixture of milk and eggs, dropped it into a bowl of flour to which I'd added some nonfat milk powder, baking powder (the leavening), and a couple tablespoons of my spice mixture, pressed on the breading until it adhered, then carefully lowered it into a wok-ful of hot peanut oil and fried it until it was golden brown and crisp, about 4 minutes total.
What emerged was distinctly... meh.
There were two major problems.
First, the coating lacked major crispness. Thanks to my carefully concocted blend of spices, the flavor was all there, but take a look at a Chick-Fil-A chicken cutlet, and its got big, crisp nuggets of breading with tons of surface area for extra flavor and extra crunch. Mine, on the other hand, had a smoother texture and a sandier look.
The second problem? Welcome to dry-city, population 1: chicken.
So why was my breading so wimpy? It could have been a number of factors. My first thought was that the milk dip was simply too loose—it needed more body in order to be able to hold more breading. I tried lowering the ratio of milk to eggs by a few tablespoons at a time until I was basically dipping my chicken in straight up beaten egg before flouring them.
The resulting fried breasts got thicker and thicker coatings, but just plain thick is not what I was after: I wanted extra surface area, and that means more crags and crevices.
My next thought was to go double dipping. That is, dipping my chicken in the milk mixture first, followed by the flour, followed by another trip to the milk and a final trip to the flour before hitting the fryer. This worked marginally better—that second coat definitely developed more crags than the first coat did. It also made for an extremely thick breading that had a tendency to fall off of the breast because of its heft.
That ain't good.
But then I noticed something: the reason that second dip into the flour was giving my chicken so much more surface area was not just because I was doubling up on breading. It's because the second time around, there were already moist little nuggets of breading in the flour mixture.
It's these nuggets that stuck to the outside of the chicken, increasing its crunch factor. The easiest way to get'em?
Simple, just do this:
By adding some of the milk mixture to the flour mixture and working it around with my fingers before I dip the chicken into it, I could create an extra crisp coating that fried up with enough nooks and crannies and make an English muffin hide with embarrassment.*
*A number of readers have pointed out that this technique is not novel and is used at quite a few fried chicken outfits as well as being presented in Cook's Country magazine. True enough!
Check out the difference. Same exact chicken, same exact ingredients, slightly different process, very different results:
This is a technique I plan to use for all of my breading and frying projects.
With my flavoring and crust perfected, there was one last issue to address: juiciness.
I know that part of my problem is that I don't own a pressure fryer, the device that Chick-Fil-A (and many other fried chicken restaurants) use to cook their chicken extra fast. But with care and attention, that shouldn't make or break the process in the end. There's something more important at hand here.
Cut a normal cooked chicken breast in half and you expect to see some amount of stringiness—there's a definite grain to chicken meat. Cut a Chick-Fil-A sandwich in half, on the other hand, and you'll be struck by how smooth and grain-free the meat is, with a nearly translucent, pearly white color to it.
Now I wouldn't bet my life on it, but these signs point to one thing: brining.
Brining is the process by which a lean meat (most often chicken, turkey, or pork) is submerged in a salt water solution. As the meat sits, the salt water will slowly dissolve key muscle proteins (most notably myosin, a protein that acts as a sort of glue, holding muscle fibers together). As the myosin dissolves, two things take place.
First, the ability for the meat to hold onto moisture increases. See, you can imagine meat as a series of long, skinny toothpaste tubes tied together. As you cook meat, the tubes of toothpaste get squeezed, pushing out valuable juices. Myosin is one of the key proteins responsible for this squeezing action, so by dissolving it, you prevent a lot of moisture loss from taking place.
Secondly, it alters the texture of the meat by allowing dissolved proteins to cross-link with each other. This is the main principle in sausage making—dissolved proteins can bond with each other, creating a pleasantly bouncy, tender texture. By brining a chicken breast or a pork chop, you're in effect giving it a very light cure—the same process that converts a raw wet ham into a supple prosciutto.
To confirm my suspicions, I spoke with a former Chick-Fil-A employee, who was able to walk me through the process:
We handled a significant amount of the process. The chicken arrived frozen. They had been brined already, but that was it. We defrosted them, ripped the tendons so they would lie flat, and dipped them in the milk wash before dredging them in seasoned flour. The milk wash and the seasoned flour was prepared elsewhere and we just opened the packages.
Unfortunately all that really tells me is that yes, they are brined. The contents of that brine are still up in the air, but it's safe to say that at the very least salt and sugar are part of the mix.
I went through a dozen different iterations of the brine, using both water and milk as my base, as well as using a technique called "dry-brining" (in which the meat is heavily salted, then allowed to sit until the salt dissolves in extracted juices, effectively producing a brine without any added liquid). I tried adding various amounts of spices, changing up the quantity of salt and sugar. (For more on brining, check out this article).
In the end, I found that a milk-based brine offered no real advantages over a water-based brine, and that adding the spices to the briny liquid was largely a waste of time and resources: much better was to just brine the chicken breasts in a salt and sugar solution and to sprinkle them with the spice mixture just before breading them.
My normal brine for chicken breasts lasts for anywhere from half an hour to two hours. In this case, however, a much, much longer brining time was necessary in order to match the saltiness level of a Chick-Fil-A sandwich along with that uniquely smooth, juicy texture.
A full six hours submerged in salt/sugar water produced the beauty below:
Now that, my friends, is positively exuding juiciness. I don't know about you, but I've already had to wipe my computer monitor four times from where I've accidentally found myself licking it. Oops.
So there it is. A thing of simple beauty. A sandwich unparalleled in its chicken-ness. And one worth making any day of the week.
And before the comments devolve into the inevitably political back-and-forth, may I quickly say that this sandwich—the beauty you see right above—is what this is all about. Let's try and see the joy inherent in that concept, alrighty?
Get The Recipe!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.