Homemade Chick-fil-A Sandwiches Recipe

A spot-on copycat recipe for Chick-fil-A's famous fried chicken breast sandwich.

The fried chicken sandwich on a white plate on a yellow background.

Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Why It Works

  • Brining the breast for an extended time period gives the chicken its signature ultra-juicy texture. 
  • Drizzling a bit of a milk-egg mixture into the seasoned flour dredge creates small nuggets of breading, increasing the surface area of the chicken and creating an extra crispy crust. 
  • Placing the constructed sandwich under a bowl steams the bun.

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 bottoms of its cups, the higher-ups at Chick-fil-A are a little more outspoken in their stance, actively speaking against equal marriage rights and donating millions of Chick-fil-A dollars to organizations with strong anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-abortion histories.

Signage indoors at a Chick-fil-A.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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 Archetype

A Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich opened up to show top bun, piece of fried chicken breast, and bottom bun with two pickles.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The classic Chick-fil-A sandwich is a thing of simple beauty. A juicy, salty, crisp 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 is spiced just right with a perfect sweet-salty-savory-hot balance. The way it coats that breast meat—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.

A Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich on a white background.

J. Kenji López-Alt

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 projects, 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.

Using a square ruler to measure the size of a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich bun.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The bun is a 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.

Toasting an Arnold Hamburger Roll in butter in a nonstick skillet to make a copycat Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

As for the pickles, I tried out a few different brands of dill crinkle-cut chips. Heinz had the right flavor, but the 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.

Reverse Engineering Chick-fil-A Breading

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 dredging in seasoned flour before being deep-fried.

Dredging a boneless, skinless chicken breast in seasoned flour to make a copycat Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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:

Chicken:
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 KFC 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 glutamate—gets a bad rap. This is a 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. I keep a container of it right next to my salt cellar.

Deli container of MSG next to jars of paprika and garlic powder.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Splitting a boneless, skinless chicken breast in half horizontally.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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 eight-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 four minutes total.

Adding a piece of breaded chicken breast to a wok full of hot peanut oil to make copycat Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

What emerged was distinctly...meh.

There were two major problems.

An initial test of fried chicken for copycat Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches with a distinctly uncrispy coating.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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 one chicken.

Fixing Surface Issues

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 meant 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.

A test of fried chicken for a copycat Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich where the breading is crisp but too thick.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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 was also because the second time around, there were already moist little nuggets of breading in the flour mixture.

Chicken dredging mixture with added milk mixture to form crisp nuggets of flour.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

It was these nuggets that stuck to the outside of the chicken, increasing its crunch factor. The easiest way to get 'em?

Simple: Just add some of the milk mixture to the flour mixture and work it around with your fingers before you dip the chicken into it. This creates an extra crisp coating that fries 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:

Two fried chicken breasts side by side: the breast on the left is breaded with flour containing a bit of milk mixture and has a crunchier texture, while the breast on the right has been breaded with only flour and has a non-crisp coating.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

This is a technique I plan to use for all of my breading and frying projects.

Brine for Maximum Juiciness

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) uses 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.

A cross-section of a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich to show the smooth texture of the chicken meat.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Boneless skinless chicken breasts brining in two different solutions in two deli containers.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

I went through a dozen different iterations of the brine, using both water and milk as my base, as well as a dry-brine in which the meat was heavily salted then allowed to sit until the salt dissolved in extracted juices, effectively producing a brine without any added liquid. I also tried adding various amounts of spices, changing up the quantity of salt and sugar.

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 brining 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 salt 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:

Two slices of fried chicken breast: the breast on the left was not brined and shows distinct stringiness, while the breast on the right has been brined and is very juicy.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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 we have it. 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 is what this is all about. Let's try and see the joy inherent in that concept, alrighty?

July 30, 2012

Recipe Facts

4.3

(32)

Prep: 20 mins
Cook: 20 mins
Brining Time: 6 hrs
Total: 6 hrs 40 mins
Serves: 4 sandwiches

Rate & Comment

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon (123g) kosher salt, divided (see notes)

  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons (58g) granulated sugar, divided

  • 2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts, split horizontally into 4 cutlets

  • 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 teaspoons paprika

  • 1 teaspoon powdered MSG (optional)

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1 cup (240ml) milk

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 1/2 cups (210g) all-purpose flour

  • 2 tablespoons non-fat milk powder

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 2 quarts (1.9L) peanut oil

  • 4 soft hamburger buns, toasted in butter

  • 8 dill pickle chips

Directions

  1. Dissolve 1/2 cup (120g) kosher salt (see note) and 1/4 cup (50g) sugar in 1 quart (950ml) of cold water. Place chicken breasts in a zipper-lock bag and add brine. Transfer to refrigerator and let sit no longer than 6 hours.

    Chicken breasts and brine in a sealed zipper-lock bag, on a white plate.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  2. Meanwhile, combine black pepper, paprika, MSG (if using), and cayenne in a small bowl. Set aside.

    Spice mix in a glass bowl on a wood surface.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  3. Whisk together milk and eggs in a medium bowl. Set aside.

    Eggs and milk whisked together in a glass bowl on a wood counter.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  4. Combine flour, non-fat milk powder, baking powder, remaining 1/2 teaspoon (3g) kosher salt, remaining 2 teaspoons (8g) sugar, and 2 tablespoons of spice mixture in a large bowl and whisk until homogenous. Drizzle 3 tablespoons (45ml) milk-egg mixture into flour mixture and rub with fingertips until the flour mixture is coarse like wet sand.

    Flour and other ingredients mixed together with a few tablespoons of the egg-milk mixture until the texture is coarse like wet sand.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  5. In a large wok, deep fryer, or Dutch oven, preheat oil to 350°F (177°C).

  6. Remove chicken breasts from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Season on all sides with remaining spice mixture. Transfer to milk mixture and turn to coat. Working one cutlet at a time, allow excess milk mixture to drip off then transfer to flour mixture. Turn to coat, pile extra mixture on top of cutlet, and press down firmly to adhere as much mixture as possible to the meat. Lift cutlet, shake off excess flour, then slowly lower into hot oil. Repeat with remaining breasts.

    A four-image collage showing the chicken breasts being seasoned with spices, dipped in egg wash, coated in flour, and added to hot oil.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  7. Cook, turning breasts occasionally until golden brown and crisp on all sides, and chicken is cooked through, about 4 minutes total. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

    Fried chicken breasts resting on paper towels on a plate.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  8. Place 2 pickles on each bottom bun and a fried chicken cutlet on top. Close sandwiches, then cover with an overturned bowl or aluminum foil and allow to rest for 2 minutes to steam buns. Serve immediately.

    A fried chicken breast on a bun, with two slices of pickles, on a plate above a dish cloth.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Special Equipment

Deep fryer, wok, or Dutch oven

Notes

Just like the real thing, this fried chicken is quite salty. If you would like a less salty sandwich, reduce brining time to 1 hour and decrease salt in breading. I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If you are using Morton kosher salt, reduce the volume by 25%. If using regular table salt, reduce the volume 50%. (If measuring by weight, keep the amounts the same.)

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
508 Calories
15g Fat
60g Carbs
33g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 508
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 15g 19%
Saturated Fat 4g 18%
Cholesterol 147mg 49%
Sodium 976mg 42%
Total Carbohydrate 60g 22%
Dietary Fiber 3g 12%
Total Sugars 8g
Protein 33g
Vitamin C 1mg 7%
Calcium 249mg 19%
Iron 5mg 29%
Potassium 461mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)