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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 1

    Panera’s top soup pick in the summer is a creamy vegetarian chowder that’s full of flavor and easy to copy at home once you know an important flavor secret. I started my hack using a vegetable broth, since that’s what all the other “copycats” call for, but I found its strong vegetable flavor dominated the soup, so I quickly bailed on that plan.

    Starting over, I referred to the soup’s ingredients posted online by Panera Bread and noticed there is no broth in the soup, which means every copycat recipe online is wrong. I didn’t want to make the same mistake in my recipe, but without the broth my soup would be lacking some important flavor components, and that’s no good either.

    In many soup recipes, the broth or stock is important for the umami quality provided by the yeast extract added to the product. Yeast extracts are one of the many ways food manufacturers add an MSG flavor-enhancing effect without adding MSG. Panera does in fact list “yeast extract” as one of the ingredients in the soup, so I needed to find a readily available ingredient that would provide the same savory quality.

    Enter nutritional yeast—or “nooch” as it’s often called—a flakey, nutrient-packed, vegan ingredient that’s growing quickly in popularity thanks to the savory, cheesy flavor it adds to a variety of foods (it’s great on popcorn). Nooch is also popular with vegans and vegetarians since it’s fortified with vitamin B12, an essential nutrient that's mainly found in animal-sourced foods.

    Now, with nooch in there, along with yellow corn, red-skin potatoes, poblano peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and other tasty things, no broth is required. Just give it water and a little patience.

    Find more of your favorite Panera Bread recipes here

     

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 1

    Spinach dips are a great finger food appetizer and just about every chain has its own version, but Cheddar's has one of the best in the business with a unique, slightly spicy southwestern twist. Four different kinds of cheese are used in this recipe: three are blended into the spinach, then mozzarella is melted over the top just before serving.

    And for speed, we’ll use a microwave oven to quickly defrost the box of frozen spinach so that you’ll have a delish spinach dip on the table in just 20 minutes.

    This way to more cool copycats from Cheddar's.

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 2

    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’s top fall-release 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 am also adding another flavorful squash to our pot: 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 here.

    The flavor of the soup is created with several spices including cinnamon, curry, and cardamom, plus ginger puree, 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.

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 1

    “Don’t call them fries,” says KFC about its popular side made with sliced, skin-on russet potatoes. What sets these potatoes apart from all the others is the secret breading made with a similar seasoning blend to the one used for Colonel's Original Recipe Fried Chicken. To achieve the proper crispiness, the potatoes are par-fried, frozen, then fried again until golden brown.

    One important ingredient that completes the flavor is MSG. Monosodium glutamate is a food additive derived from glutamic acid, which is an important amino acid found in abundance in nature, food, and in you right now. Over the last 60 years of study and use, MSG has not only been found harmless in normal amounts, but tests have shown glutamate to be a chemical messenger that benefits gut health, immunity, and brain functions such as memory and learning. In addition to all of that, it imparts a unique savoriness that enhances flavors in other ingredients and makes your food taste amazing. Using MSG in your food is, literally, smart cooking.

    Another important ingredient is ground Tellicherry black pepper, a select black pepper from India. Winston Shelton, a friend of Harland Sanders who invented the first high-volume pressure fryers for KFC, confirmed this. Shelton recalled seeing the ingredient when Sanders showed him the secret formula for the fried chicken seasoning he had scribbled on a piece of paper.

    While we were shooting the first episode of my TV Show, Top Secret Recipe, Winston pulled me aside and whispered to me that Tellicherry pepper is crucial to creating the unique KFC aftertaste. It was a great tip, and fortunately, we caught that moment on camera and you can see it in the show. Later, I conducted a side-by-side taste test with common black pepper and Tellicherry black pepper and discovered Winston was right. If you want the best taste for your clone you'll need Tellicherry pepper, which you can find online and in some food stores. Be sure to grind it fine before using it.

    For this recipe, just two russet potatoes are all it takes to make the equivalent of a large serving of fried potato wedges, which will be enough for at least four people.

    Get more of my KFC copycat recipes here.

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    Score: 4.75. Votes: 4

    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.      

    If you like this copycat Chick-fil-A mac and cheese recipe, click here for more Chick-fil-A clone recipes.

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    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. This 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. 

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    Crispy cauliflower appetizers are abundant at the chains these days, and not all of them are good enough to be clone-worthy, but CPK’s take on breaded cauliflower in buffalo wing sauce is one of the best I’ve had. The crispy florets are made gluten-free with rice flour and they are beautifully presented in a puddle of ranch dressing, sprinkled with Gorgonzola cheese, and topped with julienned celery and green onions.  

    For the sauce, CPK chefs combine the flavor of traditional buffalo wings with sriracha and then sweeten it a bit. After a few tries, I came up with a hack that’s ridiculously easy, requiring only four ingredients. 

    The batter is even easier, with only three ingredients— rice flour, buttermilk, and salt—and once your oil is hot enough, it takes under 3 minutes to cook the cauliflower to perfection. After a gentle toss in the secret sauce, you’re ready to plate your trendy, tantalizing appetizer.

    For your main course, check out my clone recipes for popular CPK pizzas, soups, and salads here.

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 1

    There are many acceptable ways to formulate good queso, but to make this specific queso the ingredients must be correct, and most copycat recipes seem to get it wrong. A few recipes get one of the peppers and two of the cheeses right, but pretty much every recipe out there is a bit of a mess that I will now save you from.

    Quesos can be made with a variety of cheeses that include queso fresco, asadero, and Muenster, but this particular queso includes a cheese you probably didn’t expect: Swiss. That cheese is slow to melt, so we’ll shred it first, along with the Jack. And you won't need to gum up the queso with flour or cornstarch by making a roux because the white American cheese in the mix contains sodium citrate or sodium phosphate—additives that help the cheese melt smoothly and stay that way. 

    Authors of recipes that call for tomatoes in this dish haven’t looked closely. Those are red bell peppers and they are roasted, peeled, and seeded along with the poblano and jalapenos before they are diced and added to the cheese sauce. The sauce cooks on low heat, never bubbling, so that it stays smooth and creamy.

    When done, the queso might seem thin in the pan, but it will thicken as it cools to a perfect consistency for dipping tortilla chips, or as a topping for tacos and burrito bowls.

    Find my recipes for Qdoba Adobo Chicken and Habanero Salsa here

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 1

    I’ve yet to taste a better habanero salsa at a quick-service Mexican chain than the one made daily at Qdoba Mexican Eats. Yes, it is very spicy, but the simple combo of fire-roasted habanero, tomatillo, and garlic is not as fiery as you might expect from a salsa that includes so much habanero in it.

    And that’s exactly what makes this salsa so good. Because the habanero peppers are roasted, and the seeds are removed, you can enjoy the complex flavor of the habanero without your taste buds being numbed by the heat. A good salsa should enhance your food, not upstage it.

    You can roast the peppers in your oven or by holding them over the high flame of a gas stove with a skewer until the skins have charred to black. Resting the blackened peppers in a covered container for a few minutes will help to steam the skins, and they will wash off easily under cold water. 

    How about using this salsa to spice up some Qdoba Grilled Chicken Adobo? Ger my recipe here

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    Score: 5.00. Votes: 2

    Menu Description: “A baked blend of Italian cheeses, pasta, and our signature five-cheese marinara.”

    Hacking Olive Garden’s famous baked ziti would not be possible without a perfect clone of the chain’s popular five-cheese marinara sauce. I started with my previous hack of the plain marinara for Olive Garden’s Chicken Parmigiana and enhanced it with the addition of five kinds of Italian cheese and heavy cream.  

    Determining which five types of cheese are in a prepared sauce is tough without some insider assistance, so before cooking I focused my efforts on convincing a server to ask the chef for the list…and I got it! The blend of cheese used here in the sauce comes straight from the kitchen of my local Olive Garden. When you taste it you’ll know the intel was legit.

    After the sauce is added to the pasta it’s topped with a cheese-and-breadcrumb mix called “ziti topping,” then it’s browned under a salamander (for the restaurant version) or a broiler (for your version). The result is a beautiful dish with great sauce and a cheesy topping that should satisfy even the pickiest baked ziti fanatics.

    I've cloned a ton of dishes from Olive Garden. See if I hacked your favorite here.

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I'm Todd Wilbur,
Chronic Food Hacker

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

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