THE MOST TRUSTED COPYCAT RECIPES
THE MOST TRUSTED COPYCAT RECIPES
I'm Todd Wilbur, Chronic Food Hacker

For over 30 years I've been deconstructing America's most iconic brand-name foods to make the best original copycat recipes for you to use at home. Welcome to my lab.

This Week's Big Secrets

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    Taco Bell Avocado Verde Salsa

    In March 2024, Taco Bell debuted the Cantina Chicken menu, featuring 2 types of tacos, a burrito, a quesadilla, and a chicken bowl, each starring the chain’s new slow-roasted chicken. The Mexican chain also introduced avocado salsa made with peppers, tomatillos, lime, cilantro, and avocado as a companion to the latest items. But unlike all the other hot sauces, extra packets of the new sauce cost 20 cents each. And the 2½ teaspoons of salsa they hold doesn’t go very far. But 3½ cups sure does.

    For my Taco Bell Avocado Verde Salsa copycat recipe, I found there was no need to go through the extra time-consuming step of roasting fresh tomatillos and peppers when canned ingredients worked so great. The avocado, lime juice, and cilantro will be fresh, and the dry ingredients, namely the onion and garlic, will rehydrate nicely as the salsa rests.

    The first ingredient in Taco Bell’s version is oil, but for our purposes, we can reduce the ratio. Taco Bell chefs most likely add all that oil to their salsa to prevent the avocado from oxidizing and turning brown, thereby extending its shelf life. The oil has the same function in my version, but I call for ½ cup, which is much less percentage-wise than the real thing. The oil will indeed extend the life of your salsa, but feel free to reduce the amount substantially if you plan to eat the salsa within a couple of days and prefer to avoid the added fat.

    Followed as written, this recipe makes 3 1/2 cups of salsa or the equivalent of 67 Taco Bell blister packs. 

    Try more of my Taco Bell copycat recipes here.

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  • Score: 5.00 (votes: 1)
    Cracker Barrel Buttermilk Pancakes

    A great buttermilk pancake recipe will produce fluffy, tangy, and slightly sweet pancakes—the same qualities as the popular pancakes served at Cracker Barrel restaurants nationwide. But Cracker Barrel’s flapjacks have a secret ingredient that sets the chain’s morning stack apart from other restaurants. And this Top Secret Recipe will reveal it.

    To create my Cracker Barrel Buttermilk Pancakes copycat recipe, I first purchased a box of the chain’s pancake mix at the restaurant’s store to examine the list of ingredients on the package. In the list were the ingredients you'd expect, like wheat flour, sugar, salt, and leavening. But there was also a surprise: yellow corn flour. When added to the mix in the right ratio, the yellow corn flour contributed great cornbread-like flavor and gave the pancakes a unique crumbly texture that many seem to love.

    Does this special ingredient produce buttermilk pancakes which are superior to a more traditional recipe? It's easy to find out. Once you have corn flour and just a handful of other common ingredients, it takes just minutes to produce enough pancakes for you and everyone else to get a taste and decide if these are indeed the best buttermilk pancakes in the biz.

    Try more of my Cracker Barrel copycat recipes here.

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    Charms Blow Pop

    The fruity lollipop with gum inside is Charms' bestselling product, but the cool combo candy was the brainchild of a different candy company. Thomas T. Tidwell of Triple T Co. invented and patented his method for encasing gum inside candy in the 1960s, and sold his new lollipop, Triple Treat, for a short time. In 1973, Tidwell sold the product idea to the Charms Candy Company who renamed it Blow Pop, and for over 50 years the famous pop has been enjoyed by millions of happy mouths.

    I’m not privy to the details of Tidwell’s method, but I can see by the vertical seam on a real Blow Pop that it's probably made by sealing two halves of the pop together, one half with gum and one half without. I tried various silicone lollipop molds for my Charms Blow Pop copycat recipe with little success and decided instead to create a technique using half of a slightly altered cake pop mold. I first poured half of the pop into the molds, added the gum on a stick, and when it hardened I removed it, poured the other half of the candy into the mold, and added the hardened first half on top. When all was set, I had perfectly spherical pops with seams just like the original. And it didn’t seem to bother anyone that my pops were more than twice as big as the real thing.

    I designed my recipe to call for 1 dram of LorAnn Oils which you can find online. The original Blow Pops come in five flavors, and I’ve got four of them for you here: cherry, grape, watermelon, and sour apple. I also made a batch of cinnamon pops just for fun and added those instructions to the Tidbits below. Real Blow Pops don’t come in cinnamon flavor, but after tasting these, you might wish they did.

    Click here to make more famous candy at home. 

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  • Score: 5.00 (votes: 1)
    Marie Callender's Coconut Cream Pie

    For a delicious slice of your favorite iconic American pie, Marie Callender’s is the place to go. The chain serves tasty breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees, but it's mostly famous for great homestyle pies, and the classic coconut cream pie is no exception. Like many other pies I’ve hacked from Marie Callender's (Pumpkin Pie, Double Cream Blueberry Pie, Chocolate Satin Pie), the Coconut Cream Pie is sold in your store’s freezer section. But none of these frozen pies are as good as a fresh one you make from scratch. 

    The filling for my Marie Callender's Coconut Cream Pie copycat recipe takes just 10 minutes to make, and if you use a premade pie crust, this becomes a very low-impact recipe. I recommend you make the whipped cream topping from scratch using the recipe here that will produce much better whipped cream than anything from a can, and it's also quick. The most time-consuming step is making the dollops of whipped cream that cover the top of the pie, but even that’s pretty fun.

    If you’d like to make your pie crust from scratch, I’m including a recipe from my previous Marie Callender’s pie hacks. It’ll add time to your build, but the extra effort will be worth it.

    Try more of my Marie Callender's copycat recipes here.

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  • Score: 5.00 (votes: 1)
    Cheesecake Factory Shrimp Scampi

    This top entrée pick from Cheesecake Factory is a classic dish, but its preparation is far from traditional, and perhaps that's why it's so popular.

    The creamy scampi sauce is flavored with a handful of whole roasted garlic cloves, plus shallot, basil, and tomato. The shrimp are lightly battered and fried until golden, then arranged upright around the plate to keep their crunching coats from sogging.

    In addition to all the secrets you’ll need to assemble two servings of my Cheesecake Factory Shrimp Scampi copycat recipe, I’ve also included a cool technique for easily roasting the garlic cloves in just 15 to 20 minutes, and you won’t even need to peel the cloves. After your garlic cools, the skins will slip right off.

    Now, how about dessert? Find my copycat recipes for Cheesecake Factory's signature cheesecakes here.

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  • Score: 5.00 (votes: 3)
    Cheesecake Factory Steak Diane

    Fans of Cheesecake Factory’s Steak Diane don’t seem to care that the dish isn’t a traditional take on the classic dish. The restaurant chain’s version is indeed served with mushrooms and medallions of beef tenderloin just like the old-school recipe, but you won’t find any Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cognac, or cream that one would expect in a true Steak Diane. Instead, the chain douses steak with the same Madeira sauce served with its Chicken Madeira entrée, and it's delicious.

    I hacked the chain’s Chicken Madeira many years ago in Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2 but was happy for the chance to go back and improve the great sauce. After some fiddling, I came up with an improved formula that calls for less wine and uses a more thorough reduction to intensify the flavors. When shopping for ingredients for my Cheesecake Factory Steak Diane copycat recipe, it's okay to pick the least expensive Madeira wine on the shelf. Just know that Madeira wines have different characteristics, so your final flavor may slightly vary from the restaurant version.

    For your tenderloins, start with thick steaks, since you’ll be slicing the portions in half through the middle, making them thinner. You’ll need 7 to 8 small steak portions to be sliced in half for 14 to 16 medallions. 

    Now, how about dessert? Find my copycat recipes for Cheesecake Factory's signature cheesecakes here.

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    McDonald's Mambo Sauce

    One of two new sauces McDonald’s debuted in late 2023 is inspired by the famous Washington D.C.-area sauce originally offered at chicken wing restaurants and Chinese takeout joints in the 1960s. The sweet, sour, and spicy mambo sauce—also called mumbo sauce—is used as a dip for all kinds of finger foods including fried chicken, chicken wings, chicken nuggets, French fries, and eggrolls.

    But McDonald’s only offered the sauce in small blister packs, which were available for about a month. So, if we want to bring back the great flavor of the limited-time-only sauce we'll need a handy home hack. Fortunately, I got my mitts on enough of the sauce before it went away to whip up this exclusive knockoff.

    My McDonald's Mambo Sauce copycat recipe is super easy, requires only common ingredients, and will make 1½ cups of the versatile stuff you can use for dipping anything that needs to be perked up.

    You might also like my clones for McDonald's sweet and spicy jam, hot mustard, sweet and sour, honey mustard, and Szechuan dipping sauces. Find all my McDonald's copycat recipes here.

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    KFC Georgia Gold Honey Mustard BBQ Sauce

    After the success of KFC’s Nashville Hot Chicken, R&D chefs explored other sauce variations that could be drizzled over the chain’s Extra Crispy Fried Chicken and breaded tenders. The beauty of the Nashville chicken sauce is that it’s made without any water in the formula, just oil, so the crispy fried chicken that gets doused with it stays crispy.

    But I had to make this sauce another way that includes water in the mix. With moisture in the blend, chicken coated with this clone of Georgia Gold sauce doesn’t stay crispy as long as Nashville chicken, even though it still has the same great taste as KFC’s version—sweet, tangy, spicy, and slightly smoky. 

    To make the sauce, I mixed dry ingredients into the mustard, then drizzled the oil into the mustard blend while whisking to form an emulsion, locking everything together into a smooth baste. Since mustard is such a great emulsifier, the process produced a very thick sauce. At the end, I added a little water to thin it out so that when the sauce is drizzled over fried chicken or strips, it coats just right. You can use my recipe for KFC Extra Crispy Tenders here, or cook pre-breaded crispy frozen chicken pieces.

    Get this recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Raising Cane's Sauce

    This chicken finger chain makes a big deal out of its "secret" dipping sauce recipe, even requiring employees to sign a confidentiality agreement to protect any details about the recipe. As far as I can tell, it's a very simply recipe made with just a handful of pretty obvious ingredients. All you do is mix everything together and let it sit for a bit in the fridge. This may not be the exact recipe the chain uses, but it tastes the same, and that's all that matters. 

    Get the full recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Step-by-Step".

    You might also like my bottled Chicken Tender Sauce, inspired by the sauce at Zaxby's and Raising Cane's.

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    Nothing Bundt Cakes White Chocolate Raspberry Cake

    While sharing a Bundt cake one day in 1997, amateur bakers and close friends Dena Tripp and Debbie Shwetz realized they could do better. After much experimentation, the duo discovered a batter that produced a moist, delicious cake, which was a huge improvement over the dense, dry cake usually associated with Bundts. But they weren’t done yet.

    The next step was to decide how to best frost their new Bundt cake. Traditionally, Bundt cakes are glazed by drizzling warm icing over the top, which drips down the sides and dries there. But the pair didn’t want to use glaze. They had a cream cheese icing they thought tasted better than any glaze, but it took some time to figure out how to apply it. They eventually settled on frosting their Bundts with large piped vertical ropes, so the icing looks like it’s dripping down the outside of the cake.

    To make a Bundt cake that matches the moistness and crumb of the real Nothing Bundt Cake, it’s important to start with the right flour. The cake has more bite to it than one made with only cake flour, but it isn’t as tough as one made with all-purpose flour. That’s why I settled on pastry flour, like the one from Bob’s Red Mill. Pastry flour contains more protein than cake flour, but not as much as all-purpose flour, so it works perfectly here. If you can’t find pastry flour, no need to worry. I’ve got a way for you to hack it by combining cake flour with all-purpose flour in a 2-to-1 ratio.

    The raspberry puree is made from scratch using frozen raspberries and it’s swirled into the batter before the cake goes into the oven. While the cake cools you can make the cream cheese buttercream icing. Get a 1A tip, which is a wide, circular tip for a pastry bag or gun, to make ropes of icing over the top and down the sides of the cake all the way around, just like the original.

    Get this recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Leonard's Bakery Malasadas

    “Biting into a cloud” is how many describe the lightly crisp browned shell and fluffy, custard-like middle of Leonard’s malasadas. Hawaii has become known for the best malasadas in North America, but the hole-less doughnuts aren’t originally from Hawaii. Malasadas were brought to the islands in the late 1800s by Portuguese immigrants who worked on the sugarcane plantations, and today malasadas are sold in bakeries all over Hawaii. But for the best malasadas, everyone knows you must brave the long lines that always go out the door at Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu. And that’s okay because it’s always worth the wait.

    Leonard’s has been making malasadas since 1952 using a well-protected secret recipe that many have unsuccessfully tried to duplicate. The chain will ship malasadas from Hawaii to your house on the mainland for a pretty hefty fee (nearly $100), but even after following strict reheating instructions, eating a two-day-old malasada is not the same heavenly experience as consuming a fresh one. A fluffy, fresh malasada turns into a tough and chewy malasada in just a few hours. That’s the nature of fried dough. It quickly became clear that if I were ever to properly clone these, I would have to experience them fresh, from the source. So, I hopped on a plane to Hawaii.

    I visited two Leonard’s locations in Honolulu: the original brick-and-mortar bakery and a Leonard’s Bakery food truck parked in a shopping mall lot. I watched them make malasadas in big vats of oil, lowering dozens of doughnuts at once into the oil with a metal screen pressing down on them so that they were fully submerged in the hot fat. I observed the process, noted the temperature, watched the malasadas come out of the oil and get sugared, and timed everything.

    Back home I made malasadas for weeks, using intel gathered in Hawaii. Dozens and dozens of versions later, after altering variables such as proofing methods, mixing methods, flour types, fat types, sweetness, saltiness, and many others, until I landed on this one. I believe it was number 92 out of 93 attempts.

    Before you begin making my Leonard's Malasada recipe, let me offer a few tips about equipment you’ll need. It’s best to have a stand mixer. The dough starts loose but it eventually gets too tough for a handheld granny mixer. I’m sure it’s possible to mix and knead the dough by hand when it gets too tough for the little mixer, but a big mixer is much better.

    Also, a deep fryer is helpful. You can fry these in a pot of oil with a thermometer if you want, but it’s so much easier to regulate temperature with a deep fryer. And you must devise a way to keep the malasadas submerged so that you won’t have to flip them, and they won’t get a white line around the middle where the dough isn’t in the oil. Deep fryers typically have a basket that you can use to put on top of the malasadas to hold them down. Rather than placing the dough in the basket when frying, carefully lower the dough into the fryer without the basket and use the basket on top of the dough to hold it under the oil. If you are frying on your stovetop, you can use a spider or strainer to hold the dough under the oil.

    Get this recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Nabisco Fig Newtons

    In 1891, a baker named Charles Rosen invented a machine that inserted fig paste into seamless pastry dough and was soon mass-producing one of the first commercially baked products in America. Rosen named his creation after the nearby town of Newton, Massachusetts, and eventually sold the recipe to the Kennedy Biscuit Company, which later became Nabisco. Today Nabisco sells over 1 billion Fig Newtons each year.

    It has long been my wish to create a satisfying clone of such an iconic snack, but I was never quite sure how to go about it. The fig filling needs to be sweet with a sour aftertaste, and thick like jam. The thin pastry would need to be tender, not tough, and should smoothly wrap around the figs without cracking. After a week or so of pureeing dry figs and testing pastry doughs, I finally created a Fig Newton recipe that tasted great and looked just like the original.

    Since you likely don’t have a fig bar extruder in your kitchen like Charles Rosen did, we’ll use a dough folding technique to make nicely shaped bars with smooth sides, no cracks, and no visible seam. The trick is to roll out the dough on wax paper, then wrap the dough around the fig filling by lifting the wax paper up and over the filling. You can cleanly manipulate very thin dough this way, and when you flip the bar over, the seam will be hidden.

    Re-hydrating the dried figs will help make them easier to puree, and the dry pectin in the mix will thicken the figs to a jammy consistency and give the filling additional tartness (citric acid is in pectin to help activate it). My Fig Newton recipe will make 48 cookies, or more than twice what you get in two 10-ounce packages of the real thing.

    Get the recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Zaxby's Chicken Fingerz

    Zaxby's is the largest chicken-finger chain in the country, with over 800 units throughout the Southeastern U.S., but it wasn't the first. In the early 1980s, Guthrie's restaurant in Haleyville, Alabama was serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice cream, and Golden Fried Chicken Fingers that became a smash hit with customers. Guthrie's eventually eliminated all the other menu items and began serving just chicken fingers, French fries, Texas toast, and coleslaw, along with a special dipping sauce. You’ll find the same offerings on Zaxby’s menu, and the chain’s Chicken Fingerz are always the star of the show.

    One secret to making great chicken fingers at home is brining the chicken with a lightly seasoned salt solution to add flavor and juiciness throughout the tenderloins. Another secret revealed here is the inclusion of baking soda in the breading. This will make a light, crispy coating with a perfect golden brown color, just like Zaxby's chicken fingers.

    Get the recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Taco Bell Green Tomatillo Sauce

    Taco Bell has two green sauces mentioned on its website. One is a green chili sauce, which isn’t served at any Taco Bell I’ve been to. The other is a green tomatillo sauce, the most popular of the two, which can be ordered on any Taco Bell item or will be provided a la carte for you to pour on as you see fit. The tomatillo sauce, with its mild heat and bright tomatillo flavor, is the one we’re hacking here.

    It appears that Taco Bell uses canned peppers and tomatillos for their recipe, which is great because canned ingredients are ready to use, they add additional flavors and the acidity we need, and they simplify the recipe. Fresh produce would certainly require much more wrangling.

    My Taco Bell Green Tomatillo sauce recipe is easy. Just pop everything into a blender in the order prescribed and blend away, but don’t blend so much that the seeds get pulverized. You want a sauce that isn’t completely pureed, with visible small pieces of peppers and seeds. You’ll end up with 1½ cups of the tasty green stuff to use on tacos, burritos, salads, eggs, and more.

    Be sure to warm up the sauce a little before you use it (they keep it in a warmer at Taco Bell). The flavor of the real thing is fairly mild, so if you want your version hotter than that, just add more jalapeños to the blender.

    Get the recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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    Panera Bread Blueberry Scone

    A great cream scone should include just enough cream to help the dough stick together, but not so much that the inside of the scone is gooey. And the perfect amount of butter is required to keep the scone from being either too tough, or too flakey, like pie crust. 

    After two dozen attempts, I believe I found the right ratios that will give you tender, nicely-browned scones with juicy blueberries buried inside–and very little blue dough from blueberry juice just like the real thing. 

    Get the recipe in my book "Top Secret Recipes Unleashed" only on Amazon here.

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