You tried it in the restaurant, now make it at home. Re-create your favorite restaurant dishes with copycat recipes you won't find anywhere else from America's most trusted food hacker, Todd Wilbur.
Barney's Beanery Classic ChiliRead more
Barney's Beanery, the self-proclaimed "third oldest restaurant in Los Angeles," has a long history of celebrity patrons dropping by for a hot bowl of chili and a beer or three. John "Barney" Anthony opened the first Barney's Beanery in Berkley, California in 1920, and seven years later relocated the restaurant to its current location on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
Barney's soon became a popular watering hole for film stars from the 1920s and '30s, such as Clara Bow, Clark Gable, and John Barrymore. In the '50s and '60s Lou Costello was a regular, and so were Donald O'Connor, Charles Bukowski, and Dennis Hopper. Jim Morrison and his Doors bandmates were frequent customers since the offices of their record label, Elektra, were nearby. Janis Joplin was said to have had a drink there the night she died. The Brat Pack of the '80s—Charlie Sheen, Rob Lowe, John Cusack, Emilio Estevez, and Demi Moore—would often come in to play pinball and video games. And Quentin Tarantino wrote most of his screenplay for Pulp Fiction while sitting at his favorite booth at Barney's.
This original chili was a favorite of Peter Falk's character on Columbo, who ate it often at the restaurant on the TV show. But the show wasn't filmed at the actual location. The Barney’s Colombo viewers saw on their TV was a sound-stage replica.
I found the secret to the flavor in Barney's chili comes from two chili powders that were popular in the West over 100 years ago, around the time Barney's first opened: Gebhardt and Mexene. Chili powders were new at that time, and there were very few on the market, so it's highly likely these ingredients were used in the recipe that made Barney's Beanery famous. Find those two chili powders, and you're well on your way to making Barney's Beanery classic chili at home.
Cheddar's Monte CristoRead more
Menu Description: "Smoked ham, smoked turkey, two cheeses, battered and fried until golden with raspberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar."
When pondering casual chains with the best Monte Cristo sandwiches, two come to mind: Bennigan's and Cheddar's recipes. At each chain the sandwich is built with turkey, ham, and cheese, then it’s battered and fried, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with raspberry preserves for dipping. It probably sounds strange if you've never had one, but Monte Cristo alums know it all tastes pretty darn great together. I hacked Bennigans' version years ago for my cookbook Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2, and recently, on a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, I was able to get my hands on Cheddars' signature version of this famous sandwich.
I planned for the mission by bringing along a cooler of ice so that I could get a fresh sample safely back home. Once I was back in the lab in Vegas, I subjected the sandwich to a series of tasty tests, burned through several versions of batter, and eventually assembled this new Cheddar's Monte Cristo copycat recipe that I think is even better than my previous Bennigan's hack. The better batter is the big secret here—it's light and crispy and perfectly golden brown, and the sandwich features two kinds of cheese, both white and yellow American. Will this be the best Monte Cristo you've ever had? You’re about to find out.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) Chicken Pot Pie (Improved)Read more
KFC's Chicken Pot Pie is a classic. It's packed with lots of shredded white and dark meat chicken, potatoes, peas, and carrots; all of it swimming in a delicious creamy gravy and topped with a tantalizing flakey crust. It seems more like homemade food than fast food. And now it can be made at home better than ever before with this improved hack of my original recipe (found here). The crust now has a better flavor (more butter!), and the gravy tastes closer to the original with the addition of more spices.
You can make my KFC Chicken Pot Pie recipe using ramekins or small oven-safe baking dishes, or get some recyclable aluminum pot pie pans you can find in many supermarkets. Those pans are the perfect size for four single servings, and they make cleanup easy after the feast.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) Nashville Hot ChickenRead more
It was only a matter of time before the spicy fried chicken made famous in Nashville, Tennessee at shops like Prince's Hot Chicken Shack and Hattie B's would find its way into the mainstream. A dish this good is never contained forever, and KFC became the first fast food chain to give the recipe national exposure. A test run of the new spicy chicken in Pittsburgh was the most successful product test in KFC's recent history.
The original dish from Nashville is made with crispy fried chicken that's doused with a top-secret spicy chili sauce and served on sliced white bread with dill pickles on top. KFC's version is served with just pickles, no bread (a biscuit on the side instead), and is made by soaking the chain's Extra Crispy Fried Chicken with the oily chili sauce from a squirt bottle. Since there isn't any water in the sauce, just oil, the chicken stays crispy, regardless of how much sauce is applied.
To make a home version of KFC Nashville Hot Chicken, you first need to prepare the chicken, either using my KFC Extra Crispy Chicken recipe included below, or by baking or frying some of the pre-breaded chicken pieces you can find frozen in just about every grocery store. While the chicken is brining, make the sauce and pour it into a squirt bottle or spouted measuring cup. Apply it to your chicken when it's done (shake it or stir it first!), then top it with dill pickle slices.
McDonald's Caramel FrappeRead more
McDonald's contribution to the frozen coffee drink battle is a concoction that’s similar Starbucks super popular Frappuccino, but the Caramel Frappe is a much creamier creation. Many would say that’s a big plus. Starbucks doesn't use cream in their trademark beverage, but the McDonald’s drink includes both cream and milk: aka half-and-half.
For my McDonald's Caramel Frappe recipe below, you'll want to hunt down some caramel that comes in a squirt bottle (Hershey or Starbucks is good) so that you can easily drizzle it over the whipped cream topping.
Find more of your favorite famous drink recipes here.
Shake Shack Frozen Vanilla CustardRead more
What started as a single food cart in Madison Square Park in New York City in 2000 has become one of America's fastest-growing food chains. In 2014, Shake Shack filed for its initial public offering of stock, and shares rose by 147 percent on the first day of trading. The chain’s success can be attributed to a simple menu of great food that makes any bad day better, including juicy flat-grilled burgers, thick shakes, and creamy frozen custard.
Custard is made just like ice cream with many of the same ingredients, except custard has egg yolks in it for extra richness. Also, custards are made in ice cream machines with paddles that move slowly so minimal air is mixed in. Home ice cream makers work great for custard, and will churn out a thick, creamy finished product. Using the right ratio of cream to milk and just enough egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla, you can now make an identical hack of Shake Shack frozen vanilla custard, which is great on its own or topped with syrups, fruit, and candy bits.
And don’t forget that custards taste best when they’re fresh. Shake Shack serves the custard within a couple of hours of making it, so consume your homemade Shake Shack vanilla custard as quickly as you can after it’s churned.
If you're a fan of Shake Shack Vanilla Milkshake, you can duplicate it at home using this custard recipe as a base. Use my recipe here, and re-create the juicy Shake Shake Burger with my hack here.
Panera Bread Baked Potato SoupRead more
Since Panera Bread makes all its ingredients known, it's not hard to find out that there’s no chicken broth in the original recipe, yet every copycat recipe I located online calls for chicken broth, as well as other ingredients clearly not found in Panera's version. Unlike those other recipes, I use the same or similar ingredients to those listed on the company’s website in my Panera Bread Potato Soup recipe, so you can make the closest replica at home.
One of the ingredients in the soup, according to the posted list, is yeast extract. This tasty ingredient adds an MSG-like savoriness to Panera’s soup, and we can duplicate it by using nutritional yeast—often called "nooch"—now found in many stores, including Whole Foods. A little bit of nooch will provide the umami deliciousness that replaces chicken broth or bouillon.
Panera keeps its soup gluten-free by thickening it with a combination of rice flour and cornstarch, rather than wheat flour. I’ve included those ingredients as well so that your clone is similarly gluten-free. Use the steps below and in about an hour you’ll have 8 servings of a soup that is a culinary doppelganger to Panera Bread's Baked Potato soup, and at a mere fraction of the cost.
Find recipes for more of your favorite Panera Bread dishes here.
Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch BagelRead more
Panera Bread’s product information pages refer to a long proofing time when describing the sour characteristic of the chain’s phenomenal bagels, but there is no mention of how long. After several weeks of trying different approaches to proofing these cinnamon bit–filled bagels, I decided the best solution was to form the bagels and proof them overnight in the cold. The next day the bagels came out of the refrigerator not much bigger, but after sitting for several hours at room temperature they more than doubled in size and had a light sourdough flavor like the original Panera Bread bagels.
The cinnamon drops that go into the bagel were also tricky. I needed to come up with a way to make bits of cinnamon/sugar that were crunchy, but not so hard as to break a tooth. I found the best way was to make oven-cooked cinnamon candy bound with cornstarch and milk and tenderized with oil. This sugar mixture is baked in a loaf pan until no longer bubbling, then cooled and shattered into tiny pieces. When the candy is broken up, much of it gets pulverized into dust, which you separate from the crumbs with a sieve. The crumbs are the cinnamon drops used in the bagel, and the cinnamon/sugar powder is used to dust the tops of the bagels just before baking.
I also found that kettling (boiling the bagels) with just a tablespoon of sugar in the water produced a browner bagel than kettling with no sugar, so that’s the technique I’m sharing here in my Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch Bagel recipe. Some techniques call for malt in the water, but sugar works just fine and makes the perfectly shiny, blistered crust you see in the photo.
Panera Bread has amazing soups too! See if I hacked your favorite here.
Starbucks Banana Nut BreadRead more
It’s about time for Top Secret Recipes to hack one of Starbucks all-time bestselling baked snacks. For this banana bread knock-off, I settled on a blend of both baking powder and baking soda for a good crumb and dark crust that perfectly resembles the original. And I decided it best to go big on the dark brown sugar, not only for flavor but also because the extra molasses in the darker brown sugar triggers a helpful leavening boost from the baking soda. It’s also important to know that an accurate clone must have both walnuts and pecans in the mix, because that’s what’s really in it, according to the official Starbucks website ingredients info. All other copycats I saw got it wrong when it came to the nut blend, so if you want a true knock-off, this is the Starbucks Banana Bread recipe to bake.
I've cloned a ton of drinks and treats from Starbucks. See if I hacked your favorite here.
Denny's Hearty 9-Grain PancakesRead more
My favorite new Denny’s pancakes are these tasty whole-grain-filled buttermilk flapjacks, peppered with healthy flax seeds. At the base of the formula is my hack for Denny’s buttermilk pancakes, and to that I’ve added whole wheat flour, a little flax seed, and a hot cereal blend with nine different grains in it. Okay, mine had ten grains in it, but who’s counting?
Regardless of how many grains are in the cereal blend you use, I find it best to give the grains a quick soak to soften them up before making the pancakes. Just let the cereal and flax seeds rest for a bit in the liquid before mixing them into the dry ingredients, and you'll end up with a perfect copy of Denny's Hearty 9-Grain Pancakes.
Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch SconeRead more
After the success of Panera Bread’s Cinnamon Crunch Bagels, the popular sandwich chain went back into the development kitchen and came out with these incredible scones, filled with the same crunchy cinnamon drops found in the bagels and drizzled with cinnamon icing.
When first released, these scones were cut as triangles and frosted, but in 2018 the shape was changed to more “rustic”-shaped round blobs with drizzled or piped icing on top. I like to hack the newest version, so my Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch Scones recipe here re-creates that scone.
These are cream scones, so cream is the main wet ingredient that holds the dough together—but keep the dough crumbly as you mix it, and try not to compress it much, or you risk making the final product too dense. The best way to form the scones is to use both hands and shape the dough like you’re making a loose snowball. Then use one hand to place the dough onto the baking sheet and form it into a rough dome shape. The scones will flatten and spread out a little bit as they bake, creating the same rustic shape as the original.
Try my Panera Bread Cinnamon Crunch Bagel recipe here.
Panera Bread Autumn Squash SoupRead more
The weather’s cooler, the days are shorter, and pumpkin spice lattes are back in style. When fall arrives, it brings with it the traditional edibles we have come to expect. Usually, that’s something warm and/or orange and/or with squash in it. Panera Bread's Autumn Squash soup is all of the above. And its great taste inspired this new hack.
On Panera’s ingredients statement for this soup, there is no specification for which types of squash are used. The ingredients mention only “squash,” so it’s possible there is more than one type of squash in it. Butternut squash has a great taste and rich orange color, so that’s an obvious choice, but I added another flavorful squash to my recipe: acorn squash. Its flesh is golden in color and tastes like pumpkin, but it’s sweeter and more buttery. I found the blended color and flavor from the combination of both butternut squash and acorn squash worked perfectly for my Panera Bread Autumn Squash Soup recipe.
The flavor of the soup is created with several spices including cinnamon, curry, and cardamom, plus ginger purée, honey, apple juice, and Neufchatel cheese. Just a little cream at the end gives the soup body and a smooth richness you will love.
When the soup is thick, serve it hot with freshly toasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top, and taste the season.
Want more awesome Panera Bread recipes? See if I hacked your favorite here.
Olive Garden Braised Beef BologneseRead more
Braised Beef Pasta Menu Description: “Slow-simmered meat sauce with tender braised beef and Italian sausage, tossed with ruffled pappardelle pasta and a touch of alfredo sauce—just like Nonna’s recipe.”
It’s a mistake to assume that a recipe posted to a restaurant chain’s website is the real recipe for the food served there. I’ve found this to be the case with many Olive Garden recipes, and this one is no exception. A widely circulated recipe that claims to duplicate the chain’s classic Bolognese actually originated on Olive Garden’s own website, and if you make that recipe you’ll be disappointed when the final product doesn’t even come close to the real deal. I won’t get into all the specifics of the things wrong with that recipe (too much wine, save some of that for drinking!), but at first glance it’s easy to see that a few important ingredients found in traditional Bolognese sauces are conspicuously missing, including milk, basil, lemon, and nutmeg.
I incorporated all those missing ingredients into my Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese recipe, tweaked a few other things, and then tested several methods of braising the beef so that it comes out perfectly tender: covered, uncovered, and a combo. The technique I settled on was cooking the sauce covered for 2 hours, then uncovered for 1 additional hour so that the sauce reduces and the beef transforms into a fork-flakeable flavor bomb. Yes, it comes from Olive Garden, but this Bolognese is better than any I’ve had at restaurants that charge twice as much, like Rao’s where the meat is ground, not braised, and they hit you up for $30.
As a side note, Olive Garden’s menu says the dish comes with ruffled pappardelle pasta, but it’s actually mafaldine, a narrower noodle with curly edges (shown in the top right corner of the photo). Pappardelle, which is the traditional pasta to serve with Bolognese, is a very wide noodle with straight edges, and it’s more familiar than mafaldine, so perhaps that’s why the menu fudges this fact. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which pasta you choose. Just know that a wide noodle works best. Even fettuccine is good here.
For the little bit of alfredo sauce spooned into the middle of the dish, I went with a premade bottled sauce to save time. You can also make this from scratch if you like (I’ve got a great hack for Olive Garden’s Alfredo Sauce), but it’s such a small amount that premade sauce in either a chilled tub from the deli section or in a bottle off the shelf works great here.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
And browse my other Olive Garden clone recipes here.
Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken MarsalaRead more
Menu Description: “Creamy marsala wine sauce with mushrooms over grilled chicken breasts, stuffed with Italian cheeses and sundried tomatoes. Served with garlic mashed potatoes.”
My Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala recipe includes a marsala sauce that even marsala sauce haters will like. My wife is one of those haters, but when she tried this sauce, her eyes lit up, and she begged for more. That’s great, now I won’t have to eat alone.
Not only is Olive Garden's delicious marsala sauce hacked here (and it’s easy to make), you’ll also get the copycat recipe for the chain's awesome Italian cheese stuffing that goes between the two pan-cooked chicken fillets. Build it, sauce it, serve it. The presentation is awesome, and the flavor will soothe your soul.
Try this dish paired with my recent clone of Olive Garden’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes for the complete Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala experience.
Roscoe's Chicken and WafflesRead more
Forty-five years ago, chicken and waffles sounded like an unusual combination to most people, but not to Herb Hudson. He loved the dish so much when he lived in Harlem, New York, where it was created, that he brought it west in 1975 to Long Beach, California, and turned the concept into a chain of seven legendary Los Angeles restaurants that were successful for decades.
But Roscoe’s has recently fallen on hard times. Eater.com reported in January 2018 that the chain had declared bankruptcy and owed $27 million. Snoop Dogg, known over the years for claiming Roscoe’s as his favorite restaurant, told TMZ that he was going to buy the chain and call it Snoop Dogg’s Chicken ‘N Waffles. That deal never happened.
I’m not sure what’s in the cards for Roscoe’s, but I thought it might be a good idea to head out to the Roscoe’s on Gower in LA and do a little hacking, and the sooner, the better. Once there, I ordered plenty of extra chicken and waffles to go, popped them into the cooler, then headed back to Vegas and got to work.
The chicken at Roscoe’s is Southern-style, which usually means the chicken is soaked in buttermilk, but several workers there insisted that wasn’t the case. So instead, I brined the chicken in a simple salt solution and was pleased to discover that it tasted like theirs. By peeking into the kitchen I observed that Roscoe’s chicken is pan-fried, which is a very Southern thing to do with chicken, so we’ll do the same with our chicken clone. My waiter claimed they use canola oil.
As for the waffles, they’re made special with a secret combination of spices added to the batter. I noted a strong taste of cinnamon and vanilla, with just a dash of nutmeg. To be sure, I confirmed these three ingredients with a very helpful server from another table who was proud to talk about the recipe, and even high-fived me when I called out the correct secret ingredients.
Try my Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles recipes below, and find more of your favorite famous entrées here.
Pei Wei Wei Better Orange ChickenRead more
This 220-unit downscaled version of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro targets the lunch crowd with a smaller menu that features bento boxes, bowls, and small plates. Obviously, a clone is needed for this one, stat.
The name “Wei Better Orange Chicken” is a competitive callout to Panda Express's signature orange chicken, which is made with pre-breaded and frozen chicken. Pei Wei claims its orange chicken is prepared each day from scratch with chicken that is never frozen, so we’ll craft our clone the same way. But rather than assemble the dish in a wok over a high-flame fast stove like they do at the restaurant, we’ll prepare the sauce and chicken separately, then toss them with fresh orange wedges just before serving.
By the way, Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken goes very well with white or brown rice, so don’t forget to make some.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Chick-fil-A Chicken Noodle SoupRead more
Like at Wendy’s, where unsold and broken burger patties provide the beef for their famous chili, Chick-fil-A gets the chicken for this delicious noodle soup by chopping up the leftover chicken used on their grilled chicken sandwiches. But grilling isn’t the first step to take when whipping up a home hack of this famous Chick-Fil-A chicken noodle soup. First, you must brine the chicken to fill it with flavor and keep it juicy like the real thing. A couple of hours later, when the brining is done, it’s grilling go-time.
The pasta shape Chick-fil-A uses in their soup is an uncommon one, and you might have a hard time finding it at your local market. It’s called mafalda corta (upper right in the photo), which is a miniature version of the ruffled-edge malfadine pasta used in my hack for Olive Garden Beef Bolognese. It also goes by the name “mini lasagna.” If you can’t find mafalda corta (I found it online), you can instead use your favorite small fancy pasta here, such as farfalle, rotini, fusilli, or whatever looks good at the store.
Looking to make the popular Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich or their Mac & Cheese? Click here for more of my Chick-fil-A clone recipes.
Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin MedallionsRead more
For many years this entrée has been a top menu choice at Maggiano's, the 54-unit Italian chain from Brinker, the same company that operates Chili’s Grill & Bar. The $30 restaurant dish consists of three 2½-ounce tenderloin steaks, swimming in a fantastic balsamic cream sauce with sliced portabello mushrooms—but a home version of Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions is only seven easy steps away, and it won't hit you in the wallet as hard as the pricey original.
Cracking this dish required a perfect hack of the sauce, and that came quickly after obtaining some very reliable information from my incredibly helpful server/informant at a Las Vegas Maggiano’s. Let’s call him Skippy.
According to Skippy, the balsamic cream sauce is as simple as mixing a sweet balsamic glaze with the chain’s creamy Alfredo sauce. So, I first got a sample of Maggiano’s Alfredo sauce and figured out how to replicate it. Once that was done, I measured increments of balsamic glaze into the Alfredo sauce until the color and flavor matched the original. The rest of the recipe was easy.
This recipe will make two servings of the Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions and includes preparation for the tenderloins and sauce. If you’d like to complete the dish the way it’s served at the restaurant (as in the photo), add some garlic mashed potatoes on the side, using my hack for Olive Garden Garlic Mashed Potatoes.
Bojangles' Buttermilk BiscuitsRead more
There’s one copycat recipe for these famous biscuits that’s posted and shared more than any other, and it’s downright awful. The dough is formulated with self-rising flour, baking powder, powdered sugar, shortening, and buttermilk, and many complain that the recipe creates dough that’s much too loose and the resulting biscuits are a complete disaster. Yet there the recipe remains on blogs and boards all over the interweb for unsuspecting home cloners such as yourself to waste time on. But that won’t happen anymore, because I have made a good copycat Bojangles' buttermilk biscuits recipe that works the way it should, guaranteeing you’ll get amazing golden buttermilk biscuits that look and taste just like a trained Bojangles’ pro made them.
In addition to the obvious overuse of buttermilk, the popular recipe I found online has many problems. The author gets it right when calling for self-rising flour, which is flour containing salt and a leavening agent (aka baking powder), but why would any copycat Bojangles biscuit recipe be designed to use self-rising flour and then add additional leaving? Well, it probably wouldn’t. Biscuits are job number 1 for self-rising flour, and the leavening in there is measured for that use, so there’s no need to add more. If you were planning to add your own leavening, you’d probably start with all-purpose flour, which has no leavening in it. And let's just be clear: baking powder tastes gross, so we want to add as little as possible, not more than necessary.
It’s also important to handle the dough the same way that workers at Bojangles’ do. They make biscuits there every 20 minutes, and there are plenty of YouTube videos showing the preparation technique. In a nutshell, the dough is mixed by hand (in the restaurant they use their hands because the quantity is so large, but for this recipe use a mixing spoon), then it’s folded over a few times on a floured countertop before it’s rolled out. This gentle handling of the dough prevents the gluten in the flour from toughening and adds layers, so your biscuits come out of the oven tender and flakey.
For the best results, find White Lily flour. This self-rising flour is low in gluten and makes unbelievably fluffy biscuits. If you use another self-rising brand, you’ll still get great biscuits, but the gluten level will likely be higher, the biscuits will be tougher, and you’ll probably need more buttermilk. Head down to the Tidbits below for details on that.
And I noticed another thing most copycat Bojangles biscuit recipes get wrong. For biscuits that are beautifully golden brown on the top and bottom, you’ll want to bake them on a silicone baking mat (or parchment paper) at 500 degrees F. Yes, 500 degrees. That may seem hot, but this high temp works well with self-rising flour, and in 12 to 15 minutes the biscuits will be perfectly browned.
Counterintuitively, it’s the lower temperatures that end up burning the biscuits, while the higher temperature cooks them just right. At lower temps the biscuits must stay in the oven longer to cook through, which exposes the surfaces to more heat, and they end up too dark on the outside, especially the bottom. For even better results, if you have a convection setting on your oven, use that and set the temp to 475 degrees F. Your biscuits will look like they came straight from the drive-thru.
Try my Bojangles' Buttermilk Biscuits copycat recipe below, and find more tasty Bojangles' copycat recipes here.
Bojangles' Dirty RiceRead more
Bojangles’ signature Cajun rice is always a big seller at the 750-unit fried chicken chain, and a hack has been on my hit list for years now. When I recently found myself in Huntsville, Alabama, I stopped at Bojangles’ and filled up my travel cooler with tubs of dirty rice and buttermilk biscuits and smuggled them safely back to the underground lab in Vegas.
Dirty rice gets its dirty look from the chunks of pork sausage (made from the patties used on the breakfast biscuit sandwiches), and the ground green herbs found in the traditional, and top secret, Cajun seasoning blend. For my Bojangles' dirty rice recipe below, I started with the seasoning, and since I couldn’t see any large herb leaf pieces, I made sure to crush the dried parsley in the palm of my hand before adding it. I figured oregano and thyme would be in there, but they should be in ground form to contribute the proper green “dirtiness” to the rice.
Flavors in Cajun cooking are often created with what’s known as “the holy trinity,” a combination of onion, celery, and bell pepper. The celery salt in the Cajun seasoning brings the celery flavor to the dish. Adding green onion and red bell pepper to the rice completes the trinity. Be sure to finely mince the red bell pepper before sweating it in the butter with the green onion. And keep the heat medium/low when you cook the pepper and green onion to prevent the butter from burning.
As for the rice, I found converted to work best since it’s less starchy and tends not to be as sticky. Converted rice has been parboiled in its husk, so it’s also a healthier option than regular white rice, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. If you can’t find converted rice (Uncle Ben’s is a good one), you can also use long-grain white rice.
Check out more of my Bojangles copycat recipes here.
Hattie B's Nashville Hot ChickenRead more
It’s hard to say exactly when Nashville hot chicken was born, but most agree the Prince family of Prince’s Chicken in Nashville, Tennessee can take credit for the dish’s creation. Today there are over two dozen different hot chicken restaurants in Nashville and the popularity of the dish is still growing. The 70-year-old recipe from Prince’s may be the original, but the fastest-growing Nashville hot chicken chain in the country right now is a much newer concept called Hattie B’s.
Several years ago, Nick Bishop and his son, also Nick Bishop, observed the growth of Nashville hot chicken concepts and wanted a piece of the action. They opened the first Hattie B’s in Nashville in 2012, and business was good. Today there are six Hattie B’s in three southern states and one in Las Vegas at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where I was able to get my hands on a fresh sample of the real thing without taking a round trip flight to Tennessee.
At the Vegas Hattie B’s I sat at the food counter close to the fryer and watched the chicken being made, which provided some useful intel for my clone. I learned that the fried chicken drenched in the spicy oil paste is the “medium” heat level chicken. For the “hot” chicken an additional dry seasoning blend is sprinkled on the basted chicken.
The oily paste is what makes Nashville chicken special, so I made sure to obtain a sample of the sauce in a small cup for later study. Most of the ingredients were predictable—paprika, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, sugar, and lots of cayenne—but the oil had an unusual taste to it. I recalled reading that the oil used for traditional Nashville hot chicken comes out of the fryer after several batches of chicken have been fried in it. When the chicken fries in the oil it contributes tasty flavors that make the fat a great base for the spicy baste.
So, to properly replicate Hattie B's Nashville Hot Chicken at home, wait for at least one batch of chicken to cook in the oil, then carefully remove a cup, let it cool a bit, and whisk the spices into it.
Now, what delicious side dishes are you going to make? Click here to see my recipes.
Popeyes Chicken SandwichRead more
When Popeyes debuted its new crispy chicken sandwich on August 12, 2019, the company was not prepared for the eruption of social media video posts comparing the new sandwich to Chick-fil-A’s classic chicken sandwich. As a result of the apparently unplanned instant viral campaign in which Popeyes almost always emerges as the winner, customers swarmed the stores and waited in long lines to try the now-famous sandwich. The buzz continued to build day by day, and just two weeks after its debut, the sandwich had sold out—a full month ahead of schedule.
But sold out or not, you don’t need Popeyes to get the great taste combo of the crispy buttermilk breaded chicken breast, soft buttered brioche bun, mayo, and pickles. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on several of the sandwiches before they were gone and cranked out a killer Popeyes Chicken Sandwich copycat recipe, so you can now learn to make the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich any time you want. With these new tricks you’ll be able to make crispy chicken at home that’s flavorful, juicy, and tender, just like Popeyes, coated in a thick golden breading with the same light crunch.
The secret to moist, tasty chicken is to brine it for several hours in a spicy mixture of buttermilk, pepper sauce, salt, and MSG. The buttermilk is slightly acidic, so it will help tenderize the chicken without making it too tough like harsher acids, while the salt enhances the flavor (as does the MSG) and keeps the chicken juicy. The MSG (monosodium glutamate) is an amino acid with a salt-like flavor that at one time was thought to be unhealthy, but is now considered an important culinary additive. Popeyes uses it in their chicken because it provides an essential savory flavor called “umami,” and you cannot make an accurate clone without it.
To imitate the light, crispy breading of Popeyes Chicken Sandwich, we’ll use baking powder in the flour. The baking powder forms bubbles in the flour when the chicken cooks so that the breading is tender and crispy, rather than crusty and dense. I found that self-rising flour works great since it conveniently has just the right amount of baking powder and salt already added. But don't use a low-protein self-rising flour like White Lily. That brand is awesome for biscuits, but its low gluten content makes it not stick well on chicken breasts. I used Gold Medal self-rising flour, and it worked great. If all-purpose flour is all you’ve got, that can work as well. I’ve put measurements for using all-purpose flour, plus baking powder and salt, in the Tidbits below.
If you'd like to kick up your sandwich, clone the spicier version by replacing the plain mayo with my easy hack for Popeyes Spicy Mayonnaise.
Click here for more of my copycat recipes for Popeye's famous dishes.
Chick-fil-A Mac & CheeseRead more
The new Mac & Cheese at Chick-fil-A is baked fresh every day, and the recipe is more complex than you might expect from a fast food chicken chain. According to the official list of ingredients, the formula includes several different kinds of cheese including Parmesan, Romano, and award-winning hard cheese from Wisconsin called BellaVitano. The BellaVitano cheese adds a subtle nuttiness to the mix and all three hard cheeses contribute big umami flavor that nicely complements the blend of white and yellow cheddars.
Those five kinds of cheese combine to make a great flavor, but the blend would melt into a greasy mess if it weren’t for the assistance of one more ubiquitous cheese: American. The benefit of American cheese—which makes up for its lack of flavor—is found in the sodium citrate it contains. This natural sodium salt is an emulsifier that keeps the fat in the cheese from separating (and it also happens to be useful in preventing kidney stones!). By first melting several slices of American cheese in the milk, we don’t need to make a roux to create a perfectly smooth cheese sauce.
As for cooking the macaroni, here’s another secret: don’t follow the directions on the box for al dente pasta, because you don’t want the pasta to be al dente, or slightly tough. You want to cook the elbow macaroni for 20 minutes so that it absorbs as much water as possible. This will ensure that the pasta won’t suck up liquid in the cheese sauce when they are combined, and the sauce will maintain a perfectly creamy consistency.
Try my Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe below, and click here for more Chick-fil-A copycat recipes.
Carl's Jr. Fried ZucchiniRead more
For decades, Carl’s Jr. has effectively cornered the market on fried zucchini at major fast food chains by serving a great crispy breaded version that’s flavorful all the way through. Now you can make zucchini that tastes just as good, as long as you know the secret step that other fried zucchini recipes miss. It makes all the difference.
The secret is a brine. I found that this fried zucchini tastes best when it takes a salted water bath before breading. In 60 minutes, the salt in the brine is absorbed by the zucchini, spreading good flavor all the way through. After the brine, the zucchini is rinsed, coated twice with flour and once with seasoned breadcrumbs, and fried to a beautiful golden brown.
I’m giving you a couple choices here. You can make the recipe all the way through and serve it immediately, or if you want to serve it later, you can par-fry the zucchini and freeze it for several days. After that, when an occasion arises, a couple minutes is all it takes to finish off the dish and serve it. My Carl's Jr. Fried Zucchini recipe makes enough for a small gathering, but you can easily cut it in half for a more intimate hang.
Click here for more amazing Carl's Jr. copycat recipes.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
Domino's Loaded TotsRead more
Domino’s oven-baked starter, which debuted in early 2023, reveals a great way to transform a boring bag of potato tots into a dish with pizzazz. The pizza chain’s new Loaded Tots are built with a delicious pile of crispy potato tots, topped with cheese, a secret sauce, and other good stuff that I probably should have been stacking on potato tots years ago.
For my Domino’s Loaded Tots recipe, I picked the two bestsellers of the three versions offered at Domino’s for you to clone: Philly Cheesesteak and Cheddar Bacon. The Philly Cheesesteak version includes onion, green pepper, steak, and Alfredo sauce, and the Bacon Cheddar is topped with crispy crumbled bacon and garlic Parmesan sauce. Which one will you be making?
Once you decide, simply arrange a couple of dozen cooked tots on a baking sheet and smother them with the mozzarella/cheddar cheese blend, a few toppings, and the secret sauce hack, then bake for just 8 minutes until it’s melty and magnificent.
Find more of my Domino's copycat recipes here.
Chipotle Chicken Al PastorRead more
A dish traditionally made with pork is redesigned for chicken in this Mexican chain’s limited-time-only sweet-and-spicy variation. All the key ingredients for good al pastor are here: pineapple, lime, achiote, and morita chipotle peppers, which come together to make a bright orange sauce used here for basting marinated chicken thighs.
The TV commercial for Chipotle’s new offering claims the morita peppers are seared and shows wild flames dancing around a pan filled with fresh green and red peppers. That is perhaps not an accurate depiction of the preparation process considering that morita peppers are made by smoking red jalapeños, not green ones. And smoked jalapeños do not look like fresh jalapeños, so I'm not sure what's going on there.
Regardless of the confusing clues in the TV ad, to make my Chipotle Chicken Al Pastor recipe, you'll want to find dry morita peppers, then remove the seeds and toast the peppers in your oven before making the secret sauce. Baste the sauce on your chicken just before it's done cooking, then chop it up and use it to make delicious tacos, burritos, salads, and bowls.
Applebee's Brew Pub Pretzels & Beer Cheese DipRead more
The chain’s popular appetizer brings three secret recipes together in one dish: the pretzels, the beer cheese, and the honey Dijon mustard dip. And I’ve got original hacks for all three formulas that will make enough for lots of bellies.
Bavarian pretzels are traditionally bathed in a lye solution before they’re baked to give them a dark shiny brown skin. Food-grade lye, when cooked, is safe to eat, but it’s not an ingredient usually found at the corner food store. So, to make my Applebee’s Beer Pub Pretzels recipe more convenient, I’m opting for a baking soda bath to darken these pretzels. They don’t have the same shine as lye-bathed pretzels, but if you use enough baking soda, your pretzels will come out beautifully caramel brown, just like the real thing.
For my Applebee’s Beer Cheese Dip recipe, I had to come up with a good way to melt white cheddar, which can be tricky since it’s hard to find mild (softer) white cheddar. Most white cheddar I found was either sharp or extra sharp, and when I made a sauce using a roux, the finished product came out much too grainy. On my next attempt, I tried a different approach by melting a chunk of Velveeta Queso Blanco in some milk before adding the shredded white cheddar. Thanks to sodium citrate, a cheese melting aid that’s in Velveeta, the sauce came out smooth as silk, and I was thrilled.
After your pretzels and beer cheese are done, mix up the easy honey Dijon mustard dipping sauce in a small bowl, and you’re ready to serve a gang of pretzel lovers with 12 Bavarian pretzel sticks and plenty of beer cheese and mustard sauce for dipping.
Check out more of my cool copycat appetizers here.
Subway CookiesRead more
The chewy, fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies sold at Subway are baked daily at the sandwich shop with frozen dough pucks provided by Otis Spunkmeyer. So, I guess you could say that this copycat recipe for several of Subway’s most popular cookies is also a clone of several of Otis Spunkmeyer’s most popular cookies.
Perhaps the biggest secret revealed here is the butter/oil blend. Most cookie recipes call for just softened butter as the fat component, but that can add too much butter flavor. According to the ingredients list for these cookies, they contain a blend of oil and butter, which worked best as a 2-to-1 ratio of butter to oil after baking through a number of test batches. This fat blend helped improve the texture with crispier edges and a chewier middle, and the butter flavor was perfectly muted. Also, just one egg is added here—most cookie recipes like this add two—to make the cookies less cakey.
Below you'll find my Subway cookies copycat recipes for Chocolate Chip, Double Chocolate Chip, and White Chip Macadamia Nut. I'll show you how to form the dough into pucks that can be frozen and either baked right away or saved for several weeks so that you can serve a batch of freshly baked cookies in just 20 minutes, with minimal effort, whenever you like.
Check out more of my cool Subway hacks here.
Steak 'N Shake The Original Double 'N Cheese SteakburgerRead more
Rather than adding any seasoning, including salt and pepper, to their classic Steakburgers, Steak 'N Shake solely relies on the Maillard reaction for flavor. This is the browning that occurs when amino acids and sugars combine with high heat. I was able to peek into the grilling station at the restaurant to see cooks squashing ground beef "pucks" flat onto the hot grill to trigger the fast browning process. This was good information, but no amount of spying into the kitchen provided me with any information about which cuts of beef are used to make those burgers.
The term "Steakburger" doesn't tell us much, since practically any cut of beef can be a steak until it's ground up, and there are conflicting reports about which cuts up beef are used. One article I found states that the burgers are made with chuck, rib-eye, and brisket, while another claims it's a combination of ground round, sirloin, and T-bone steaks. A waiter at the restaurant told me it's all from porterhouse steak, which is both strip and tenderloin.
Completely confused by my research, I decided to bust out the meat grinder and taste test all three combinations, plus several others. My tests paid off. Follow my Steak 'N Shake Double 'N Cheese Steakburger recipe, and you'll have a perfect match to the eighty-year old Midwest original.
Get the full recipe in Top Secret Recipes Step-by-Step by Todd Wilbur.
Steak 'N Shake Classic Genuine ChiliRead more
Examining the list of ingredients on a can of this 500-unit Midwestern chain's chili reveals a traditional chili con carne formula with beans as the only vegetable ingredient. There is no tomato sauce in the recipe, as stated by Internet copycats. Nor is there any chocolate or cola in the mix, as some recipes claim.
Rinsing a portion of the chili through a wire mesh strainer reveals both small bits and large chunks of tender meat in the chili. But, what kind of met is it? Well, considering the significant amount of fat floating on top of the chili and the tenderness of the chunks, I concluded that it's most likely an inexpensive, heavily marbled cut that braises well. Most likely chuck. Get 8 ounces ground up, and another 8 ounces that you slice into bite-sized chunks. The flour and the cornstarch are added to my Steak 'N Shake chili recipe to simulate modified food starch, and the dry beef bouillon punches up the flavor along with all the spices. After a two-hour simmer, serve this chili in a bowl on its own, or with shredded cheese and onion on top, or on top of spaghetti noodles in traditional Midwestern style.
Get the full recipe in Top Secret Recipes Step-by-Step by Todd Wilbur.
BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse Root Beer Glazed RibsRead more
The secret recipe for BJ’s great fall-off-the-bone ribs requires a specialty moist oven called a CVap, made specifically for commercial kitchens, with a price tag in the thousands of dollars. This controlled vapor oven cooks food with moist heat to braise meats, like ribs, so they're fork-tender. If you want to make ribs like that at home, but don’t have a CVap in your kitchen (or if yours is currently in the shop) you’ll need to incorporate a similar technique using a standard conventional oven. And that’s where I can help.
For my BJ’s Root Beer Glazed Ribs recipe, I first made a hack of the Big Poppa’s rub the chain uses to season the ribs, then I cooked the seasoned ribs on a rack over water mixed with liquid smoke. The liquid smoke infuses the ribs with smoke flavor, and the water in the pan will keep the ribs from drying out. Once the ribs are cooled, they are sliced, sauced, and reheated in a super-hot oven to simulate the pizza oven used at BJ’s.
When buying your ribs, pick the smallest rack of ribs with the least meat to better resemble the real recipe. Also, you’ll want to plan ahead for this recipe since the ribs take several hours to bake and chill before they’re finished in the hot oven before serving. Because of that long slow-bake time, you’ll want to start this dish early in the day, or even the day before.
Find more of my B.J.'s copycat recipes here.
Jason's Deli Irish Potato SoupRead more
Traditional Irish potato soup—a simple formula made with potatoes, onions, stock, and cream—gets an upgrade with cheddar cheese, carrots, green onions, and sour cream in Jason’s Deli's delicious take on the classic recipe. These improvements make a great soup that's still easy to make, but it also may be the best-tasting potato soup I’ve ever hacked.
The secret to this soup recipe is that it starts life as a cheddar cheese sauce, which may worry you if you’ve ever made cheese sauce that wound up “grainy." But that won’t happen here if you're sure to use mild or medium cheddar cheese. Older (sharper) cheddar contains less water and doesn’t melt as well as younger cheese, so the first important step is to choose your cheddar wisely.
Also, shred your own cheese. Pre-shredded cheese won’t melt as well, since shredded cheese is usually drier and often dusted with cornstarch to keep the shreds from clumping. For my Jason's Deli Irish Potato Soup recipe below, I highly recommend that you shred your own cheese to get the best results.
After an hour or so of simmering, you’ll have eight beautiful bowls of soup, all topped with cheddar cheese and crumbled bacon before serving, just like the real thing.
Find more amazing copycat soup recipes here.
Chipotle Tomatillo-Red Chili SalsaRead more
This is my go-to salsa at Chipotle, so it was only a matter of time before I tackled a hack for the famous secret recipe. And now that I can make it at home with just 7 ingredients and about 20 minutes of prep, this salsa replaces several grocery store brands I was previously loyal to.
The process for my Chipotle red chili Salsa recipe is simple: roast tomatillos, Fresno peppers, and garlic under your broiler for a few minutes, then purée everything in a blender with vinegar and seasoning. The trick is to not over-blend the mixture. Once the tomatillos are added, purée the mixture until no chunks of tomatillo are visible, but stop blending while you can still see tomatillo seeds in the sauce.
Add this great-tasting salsa to anything that needs a hit of hotness—tacos, burritos, salads, and bowls. Just know that it's a hack of Chipotle’s spiciest salsa, so be ready for the boom.
You could also use this great salsa on Chipotle's famous barbacoa, carnitas, carne asada, or pollo asado. Find all of those recipes and more here.
IHOP Thick 'N Fluffy French ToastRead more
IHOP upped its French toast game in 2022 with the introduction of a new recipe that suggests your French toast is only as good as the bread you start with, and IHOP’s new Thick ‘N Fluffy French Toast starts with thick specialty artisan bread, rather than the more commonly used Texas toast white bread.
For my IHOP Thick 'N Fluffy French Toast recipe, you can use any thick-sliced bread from your bakery, but there are two national brands that work well: Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted Thick-Sliced White Bread and Sara Lee Artisano. Either of those will do, but of the two, Nature’s Own is shaped more like IHOP’s version.
Adding vanilla and a little cinnamon to the easy batter will set these waffles apart from most others, and in no time, you’ll have 6 beautiful slices of French toast for a total of 3 servings. Dust them with a little powdered sugar, add some butter and maple syrup on the side, and it’s like you just opened a mini IHOP in your house.
KFC Buffalo Ranch SauceRead more
The dipping sauce mashup that KFC debuted in late 2022 combines a smooth and creamy ranch sauce with the sour heat of cayenne pepper sauce. You might expect that a homemade version is as simple as combining ranch dressing with Frank’s RedHot in a bowl, but that did not result in a good clone.
Creating my KFC Buffalo Ranch Sauce recipe from scratch was the way to go. It takes less than 10 minutes to combine these 12 ingredients in a bowl, and after 30 minutes in the fridge, you’ll have ¾ cup of the new sauce for dipping your tenders and nuggets, or as a spread on crispy chicken sandwiches.
The color of this sauce will not be as bright orange as the real one, which is colored with paprika and annatto extractives. If you want your sauce to be more orange like the original, add the optional red and yellow food coloring as specified in the recipe to brighten it up.
I've cloned a lot of other stuff from KFC. See if I hacked your favorites here.
Chipotle Garlic Guajillo SteakRead more
In the Fall of 2022, Chipotle debuted Garlic Guajillo Steak, a variation of the chain’s classic steak made with a new secret seasoning starring the fruity and slightly smokey flavor of dry guajillo peppers, and, surprisingly, prepared using a gourmet French slow-cooking technique.
After an outbreak of E. coli bacteria at Chipotle infected 53 people in nine states, the chain changed the way it cooks steak. Rather than cooking the beef entirely on a Plancha, or flat griddle, Chipotle now pre-cooks the steaks with the sous vide method wherein vacuum-packed seasoned beef is cooked slowly in swirling, heated water. This cooking technique not only eliminates any potentially harmful bacteria before the beef is grilled, but it will also speed up the seasoning process and help tenderize tougher cuts.
But you shouldn't worry if you don’t have a sous vide setup. My Chipotle Garlic Guajillo Steak recipe will also work by simply chilling the seasoned steak overnight in a zip-top bag and later cooking it off in a heavy pan or on a hot griddle. After slicing the cooked steak, toss it with some freshly squeezed lime juice and fresh cilantro, and use it as you see fit for tacos, burritos, bowls, and salads.
If you prefer chicken, head over to my clone recipe for Chipotle's Pollo Asado.
Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que Cracked Out Deviled EggsRead more
The West Coast barbecue chain introduced these creative deviled eggs with the eye-catching name as a limited-time-only offer, but sales were so good that Lucille’s Cracked Out Deviled Eggs is now a permanent fixture on the menu.
For this dish, the deviled egg yolks are combined with a blend of bacon, green onion, red bell pepper, and the chain’s delicious barbecue blend, then arranged on crispy onion straws with seasoned chicken cracklings poked down into the top of each egg. These tasty deviled eggs are unlike any you've had before and all the secrets you need to make a perfect copy at home are "cracked" for you here, including my newly hacked recipe for the delicious onion straws.
Two chicken thighs will provide enough skin for you to make plenty of the cracklings, and I’ll give you all the prep details in the recipe below, along with a couple of good ways to hard cook your eggs. If you steam your eggs as described, and if they’re fresh, you’ll have no ugly green ring around the yolk and the shells will practically fall off.
Find more of your favorite famous appetizer recipes here.
Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que County Fair Corn PuddingRead more
The menu at this 24-unit West Coast barbecue chain features everything you’d expect from a respectable barbecue chain, plus a few unique dishes that recently piqued my food hacker curiosity.
One of the new premium sides is Lucille’s Country Fair Corn Pudding, which seems more like spoonbread than corn pudding custard, which would usually be made with more eggs and milk. But no matter what you call it, it’s really good stuff. After fiddling around with several variations I came up with a simple Lucille's County Corn Fair Pudding copycat recipe using canned or fresh yellow corn, eggs, milk, butter, and Jiffy corn muffin mix.
Once it's out of the oven, the corn pudding is excellent on its own, but the dish isn’t complete until it’s topped with a scoop of the chain’s top secret whipped apple butter. It’s the same delicious butter you get with a side of sugar biscuits when you sit down at your table at the restaurant, and it’s a recipe eaters have been craving. So, I whipped up a Lucille's whipped apple butter recipe that I'm including for you here as well.
Want another cool clone? You might also like my recipe for Lucille's Cracked Out Deviled Eggs.
Burger King French Toast SticksRead more
Many fast food chains have offered French toast sticks over the years, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Sonic, Roy Rogers, and Jack in the Box, but Burger King was first to introduce the morning finger food way back in 1985, and if staying power is any indication of preference, then BK is most deserving of this new top secret recipe.
Burger King French Toast Sticks are a perfect fast food item, since they come pre-battered and par-fried, and workers just need to toss a few frozen sticks into the fryer next to the French fries for 3 or 4 minutes, and they’re ready to go, along with a handy dipper pack of maple-flavored syrup.
But no deep-frying is necessary here for my French toast sticks recipe. Instead, you’ll cook your quartered and battered white bread slices in a combination of butter and oil in a sauté pan for a couple of minutes per side, or until the sticks are nicely browned. Serve them with a side of warm maple syrup, and you can even add a dusting of powdered sugar on top if you want to get fancy about it.
Next time you make breakfast, mix things up with some of these as a sweet, easy-to-eat starter.
Find recipes for more of your favorite items from Burger King here.
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.
Monthly TSR Club