Taste Test: The Best Fast Food Chicken Nuggets
- Jack in the Box
For some, chicken nuggets are a rite of passage: a fast-food item passionately consumed for a brief period of time during childhood, then quickly forgotten. For others, those crunchy little tidbits just begging to be dunked in a fatty, spicy, or sweet sauce haven't diminished in deliciousness one iota.
Whether you're a current or former fan, one thing that's important to know is that all nuggets are not created equal—not by a long-shot. In our taste test, some nuggets immediately shot to the top of the pack, while others uselessly sputtered around in a sad cloud of mediocrity, never achieving anything beyond being passably edible.
To get the most straight-forward read on the nuggets, we ate them au naturel (with no sauce)—a painful, but necessary measure. Nuggets were evaluated on texture, both of the meat inside and the coating outside. Was the chicken moist? Was the coating crisp and crunchy? We also considered flavor: Was the seasoning balanced? Did the chicken actually taste like chicken? And value: How many nuggets do you get for your money?
Best Traditional Nuggets: Wendy's
Wendy's serves up two different types of chicken nuggets: regular and spicy. Go with the regular. In fact of all the traditional fast food nuggets we tried, these are our favorite. They have the crunchiest coating and the chicken itself is moist, juicy, and flavorful—just what we're looking for.
You might think the only difference between the two options is the batter itself, but that isn't the case. When compared side-by-side with the regular nuggets, the spicy nuggets were noticeably smaller in diameter and contained a thinner piece of chicken. The spicy nuggets do pack more flavor, but aside from a few sprinkles of pepper, it comes in the form of 230 mg of additional sodium (750 mg in the spicy nuggets vs. 520 mg in the original, based on a 6-piece serving).
Ordering smaller, saltier nuggets doesn't make sense, especially when you're (most likely) going to be dipping the nuggets in sauce—a much better way to ratchet up the flavor. If you want to add some heat, ask for a packet of Hot Chili seasoning and either drizzle it on your nuggets or mix it into the dipping sauce of your choice. Voila! Custom-made condiments.
Summary: The regular nuggets are our favorite traditional nugget. Crisp coating surrounding a thick, juicy piece of meat that really does taste like chicken.
Sauces: Barbecue, Honey Mustard, Sweet and Sour, Buttermilk Ranch
Price: $2.69 for six nuggets
Best Budget Bite: Jack in the Box
Jack doesn't get a lot of props for his nugget game, but let us assure you that he's got bite-sized, crunchy-coated, dippable bits of chicken covered. They look practically identical to what you'll find at Burger King or McDonald's, but flavor-wise, they're far superior, with a slightly spicy bite. The coating is thicker, crunchier, and has more dimension, and the chicken inside is tender and juicy.
At $1.29 for five nuggets (or about 25 cents each), Jack's are also the best value of our favorites, by far.
Summary: These nuggets are a great way to satisfy your nugget craving on a tight budget, without compromising on flavor or quality.
Sauces: Buttermilk, Barbecue, Sweet and Sour, Frank's Red Hot Buffalo, Honey Mustard, Teriyaki
Price: $1.29 for 5 nuggets (cheapest)
Best for Dipping: McDonald's
For those who will accept no substitutes, we're happy to report that the original McNugget still stands up. The coating is on the bland side and isn't quite as thick or crunchy Jack in the Box, and the chicken tastes a bit strange, but if you're a McNugget fan, that uniquely McD's flavor is probably part of the appeal (along with a touch of nostalgia).
While taken by themselves the McNuggets were a bit bland, that neutral flavor works to their advantage because they're suitable for any of the seven options for dip (more than any other of our favorites), from Spicy Buffalo to Sweet Chili. Also, McDonald's is the only fast food chain to offer honey as a dipping sauce option, which deserves some extra points.*
*Your opinion on honey as the world's most ultimate chicken nugget sauce may vary, but I stand firm. Don't even get me started on honey mustard as an acceptable substitute
Summary: A dependable nugget that's a bit bland on its own, but well suited for dipping.
Sauces: Honey Mustard, Tangy BBQ, Sweet and Sour, Creamy Ranch, Sweet Chili, Spicy Buffalo, Honey
Price: $4.19 for six nuggets (most expensive—larger, bulk sizes are a much better overall value)
Best Coating/Best Non-Traditional Nugget: Popeye's
You could make a case that the chicken nuggets from Popeye's aren't in the same class as traditional chicken nuggets and you'd be absolutely right. Unlike most chains, which use a mix of breast and rib meat that's ground, seasoned, and formed into various shapes, the nuggets at Popeye's are made from breaded pieces of chicken breast. Similar fast food items, like KFC's Bites and Chick-fil-A's nuggets (which are so tiny they should really be called "nubbins"), don't even come close.
Popeye's nuggets have a super-thick coating of crisp and flaky batter encasing moist, tender, and juicy bite-sized pieces of chicken. The batter isn't overly salty, but still has enough flavor that it's perfectly delicious all by itself—something that can't be said about most nuggets, which rely heavily on a goopy coating of dipping sauce. The six-piece size was perfect for a quick snack, but if you want to get more creative, order a large box and make Kung Pao Popeye or Popeye Tso's Chicken.
Summary: These tender chunks of chicken had the thickest, crunchiest, most delicious coating.
Sauces: Bayou Buffalo, BoldBQ, Sweet Heat, Mardi Gras Mustard, Ranch, Blackened Ranch
Price: $2.79 for six nuggets