When you grow up in a household like mine—think whole grain breads, every meal made from scratch, no sugary cereals, nary a fast food visit in sight—you don't exactly walk around thinking to yourself, gee, I'm such a lucky kid whose parents are wisely ensuring that I develop excellent eating habits that will last me a lifetime. No, no. You try to exchange your celery sticks for Dunkaroos (only nobody falls for it), throw temper tantrums in front of the Lunchables display at the supermarket (only nobody falls for it), and develop an alarming habit of sneaking spoonfuls of honey dipped in sugar (only...you don't feel so great). But then genius strikes and you begin scrounging for enough pocket change to slip into McDonald's on your way home from school for some 99-cent chicken McNuggets. And then you do it again and again until forever.
Moral of the story? Any sane child will develop a crazed obsession with chicken nuggets, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop
us them. Why, you ask? The answer is simple: chicken nuggets are the sh*t. The bee's knees. The ultimate intersection of mild, tender meatiness and greasy, salty-peppery crunchtasticness.
Unfortunately, chicken nuggets seem to have suffered a bit of a PR crisis in recent years. And if you've ever stopped short of eating one to wonder what's actually in these things?, then you're living proof. It's not your fault—anyone who's watched Jamie Oliver's widely-publicized chicken nugget fail, in which he demonstrates the supposed production of commercial chicken patties, has likely walked away with two impressions. The first is that your average chicken nugget is made from mechanically separated meat; the second is that children will still want to eat it, no matter what it's made of. Here's the good news: only the second one is true (also, I told you so!).
To the chicken nugget skeptics out there, please, have a seat. It's time for an intervention. Real talk: did those chickens lead the happiest, most fulfilling lives? No, almost definitely not. But their carcasses were also not ground up into a paste and then mechanically strained into nugget-shaped dollops for your dining pleasure.* Of course, "pink slime," the stuff of R. L. Stine and Richard Fleischer-esque mystery meat legend, does indeed exist. In your hotdogs and bologna, that is—it's actually highly unlikely you'll find any of the neon-hued goop in a supermarket-variety chicken nugget.
*Or, in the off-chance that they were, you had a fair chance to steer clear, thanks to the USDA-required language on the package—all products containing mechanically separated meat must say so explicitly in the ingredients list.
So what is in your chicken nugget? The details, of course, depend on who's making it, but many frozen ones contain little more than chicken meat, water, salt, and flour. In fact, of the nine brands we tasted, nearly all contained more additives in the breading than the patty itself. So, myth dispensed (sort of?*). So on to the real questions! Which frozen chicken nugget is the best and can any of them measure up to the fast food versions we know and love?
*Let's be honest—if you're trying to find the best frozen chicken nugget on the market, chances are you're not an additive-phobe.
We tasted nine different brands of frozen chicken nuggets, limiting our selection to nationally available products explicitly labeled as chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, we were unable to acquire one—Pilgrim's—in New York City.
- Applegate Naturals Chicken Nuggets
- Banquet Chicken Breast Nuggets
- Perdue Chicken Breast Nuggets
- Trader Joe's Chicken Drummellas
- Tyson Chicken Nuggets
- Weaver Chicken Nuggets
- Earth's Best Kidz Baked Chicken Nuggets
- Fast Fixin Jumbo 'Nugget-Shaped' Popcorn Chicken
- Bell & Evans Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets
What makes for a great chicken nugget? We like a firm but moist patty with a nice, juicy, chicken-flavored bite. And when it comes to breading, it's all about that crisp, lightly browned salt-and-peppery crust that—and here's the crucial trick—adheres firmly to the chicken. Greasy, but not too greasy, salty but not too salty, tender but not too tender; it should stride proudly along that tight rope best known as finger-licking-good.
Tasters were asked to score the overall quality of each brand on a scale of one to ten, with additional ratings for the moistness of the chicken and the crispness and integrity of the breading. Participants also left detailed written comments about each product's flavor and texture for qualitative analysis.
We prepared the nuggets according to their oven instructions for maximum browning potential, tasting them in two batches to ensure that all were scored at relatively comparable temperatures. Ketchup and mustard were on hand for dipping purposes, though many opted to try their nuggets plain.
It was far from a close race, with Bell & Evans coming out a solid two points higher than any other brand. Interestingly, it turned out that the moistness of the chicken had a relatively low correlation to the nugget's overall rating—where we'd anticipated an abundance of dried-out chicken, we instead found a number of cases where excess moisture pushed the nuggets into mushy (even squishy) territory; a far cry from the juiciness we were looking for. Ingredient lists played a limited role in our findings as well, with chemical and additive-packed products evenly interspersed with the more 'natural' brands.
Tasters seemed inclined to judge flavor rather generously—complaints of blandness were commonplace but had little effect on the actual ratings. Texture was the real Achilles heel for most of our lower-ranked brands, many of which suffered from an unpalatable sponginess (...assuming that there's such a thing as palatable sponginess).
N.B. Cost was determined by grocery store prices at local NYC supermarkets and will vary by location, distributor, and package size.
Bell & Evans (7.3/10)
Though these nuggets emerged from the oven looking pale and greasy, or in the words of one taster, "deeply unsettling," they were a favorite across the board. They also had a major leg up on the competition, thanks to a dirty little secret known as packaging raw, whole pieces of frozen breaded chicken and calling them "nuggets."
With real chunks of chicken, which cooked for nigh on 30 minutes in the oven (to other brands' 10-15), the competitors never really stood a chance. Hence the exclamations of, "Finally, real chicken!" and, "It's actually chicken!" and, "Score! It tastes like real food!" (And my personal favorite, "The only one that didn't make me feel like I was eating space food.") The one consistent complaint was the breading, which—despite the longer cook time—remained pale and proved too greasy and sparse for most tasters.
Alas, how the Bell & Evans nuggets would rank alongside other products labeled as breaded breast pieces remains a mystery that we are regretfully resigned to tackle another day.
Cost: $8.49/12 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken breast meat, water, salt. Breading: Unbleached wheat flour, water, salt, evaporated cane juice, dried yeast, spices, paprika. Flash fried in soybean oil to set breading.
It turns out that even the most questionable of taste memories are powerful. Not one but two participants favorably compared these nuggets to cafeteria food, while others celebrated the crispness of the breading and the "springy," "bouncy" texture of the patty. If anything, Tyson seemed to benefit most from our collective indifference; the chicken was judged bland and somewhat artificial tasting, but ultimately a more-than-adequate nugget fix.
Cost: $4.39/32 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken, water, salt, natural flavor. Breading: Wheat flour, water, wheat starch, white whole wheat flour, salt, yellow corn flour, corn starch, dried onion, dried garlic, dried yeast, brown sugar, paprika, and spices.
Fast Fixin' (4.9/10)
This brand got the most comparisons to fast food, likened to Popeye's popcorn chicken and McNuggets (possibly thanks to the MSG-related effects of hydrolyzed soy protein tucked into the ingredient list). Many tasters were pleased with the compact, dipping-friendly size and quality breading, which was complimented for its peppery, "sweet and spicy" flavor and decent crispness. "A good firm texture" but "not really chickeny" seemed to be the consensus, though a number of participants knocked off points for dryness.
Cost: $5.29/20 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken breast with rib meat, water, textured wheat protein, isolated soy protein, 2% or less of modified cornstarch, carrageenan, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, flavor, sodium phosphates, lecithin. Breading: Bleached wheat flower, water, wheat flour, flavor, salt, 2% or less of wheat starch, buttermilk, whey, potassium chloride, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, cornstarch, monocalcium phosphate, dextrose, paprika.
"Strange" was the overarching theme here. Many noted something unusual about the crisp "kind of tough" breading, an "interesting 'different' taste that reveals itself slowly." The chicken, on the other hand, was notably "dull" if moist, or, in one commenter's words, "so soft!" Suffice it to say that its most positive evaluation was that "its lack of substance makes it not totally repulsive."
Cost: $5.99/24 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken, water. Breader: Wheat flour, salt, dextrose, spice, soybean oil, yeast, extractives of paprika. Batter: Water, yellow corn flour, cornstarch, dextrose, salt, spices, sugar, yeast extract, modified food starch, garlic powder, guar gum, leavening, textured soy flour, soy flour, 2% or less of soy protein isolate, salt, flavoring, sodium tripolyphosphate, autolyzed yeast extract, dextrose. Fried in vegetable oil with BHT.
Tasters were truly torn over Applegate, and while many gave it middling-to-high marks, it was a few extreme lows that brought its average down. Proponents suggested that it tasted "sort of like real chicken" and remarked that it was "more firm, which is nice." One person elaborated, explaining that "while it is in some ways one of the weaker nuggets so far, it may paradoxically be the most compulsively edible. The taste is average—true finger food."
But those who didn't like it really didn't like it, referring to it as spongy and disturbingly grainy and colorless.
Cost: $7.99/8 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken, water. Less than 2% of corn starch, salt, natural flavor (oregano). Batter: Water, wheat flour, corn starch, yellow corn flour, salt. Breading: Wheat flour, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, salt. Breading set in vegetable oil.
Perdue brought out some serious differences in our tasters' nugget philosophies. A number were emphatically impressed, exclaiming "very tasty seasoning," "distinct, peppery flavor," and "finally, some flavor!" But others focused on the patty, which was alternatively referred to as "mushy," "slimy," and "pasty." If you're a fan of seasoned breading, this may be the nugget for you, but if you're easily turned off by texture, you may want to steer clear.
Cost: $8.99/29 oz.
Ingredients: Boneless chicken breast with rib meat, water. Contains less than 2% of maltodextrin, salt, natural flavors, yeast extract. Breading Wheat flour, water, yellow corn flour, corn starch, dextrose, salt, sugar, natural flavors, yeast. Contains less than 2% of natural extractives of paprika, guar gum.
Tasters were unanimously startled by the texture of Weaver's nuggets, and many seemed more inclined to ask questions than answer them. Why, our commenters wanted to know, "is the breading so loose?"; "is it like a sponge?!"; "does it taste suspiciously like fish?" This brand came up short in all three categories.
Cost: $6.99/28 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken, seasoning (soy protein hydrolyzed, salt, spice), sodium phosphate. Breading: Bleached wheat flour, water, salt, yellow corn flower, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, dextrose, spice, guar gum, oleoresin paprika, annatto. Fried with vegetable oil.
Trader Joe's (3.5/10)
While the meat itself was dry, there was a notable moisture surrounding the nuggets. Said one commenter, "There are juices, but they don't seem to be coming from the meat, which is kind of dry and grainy." Among the more charming descriptions that emerged here compared Trader Joe's Drummellas to "chewed-up paper pulp" and "wet wood." There weren't any fans of these nuggets among our tasters.
Cost: $3.79/16 oz.
Ingredients: White meat chicken, water, whole wheat flour, cornstarch. Contains 2% or less of: Maltodextrin, sea salt, sunflower oil, cream (milk), rice flour, cooked chicken, chicken fat, yeast, caramel color, malted barley flour, spices, natural flavors, soy lecithin. Breading set in vegetable oil.
Earth's Best (3.3/10)
Another case of split numbers draws this ranking into question—a number of tasters seemed unconvinced that Earth's Best did indeed include chicken, likening its flavor to "fake vegan 'chicken'" and refering to the texture as "mushy and pasty." But others remarked on its "really good flavor," "fair texture," "nice spicy-sweet taste" and "good coarse crumb." At the end of the day, though, there was an abundance of low marks that sent this brand to the bottom of our list.
Cost: $8.99/16 oz.
Ingredients: Chicken meat, water. Contains 2% or less of evaporated cane syrup, garlic powder, onion powder, rice starch, sea salt, spice. Batter and Breading: whole wheat flour, water, wheat flour, corn starch, evaporated corn syrup, sea salt, leavening, garlic powder, yellow corn flour, yeast, onion powder, spice, sunflower oil, extractive of turmeric. Breading set in expeller-pressed canola oil and/or soybean oil and/or safflower oil.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.