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 clone recipe so you can now re-create the hit 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, 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.
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- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper sauce (such as Louisiana or Frank's RedHot)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons MSG
- 1 pound boneless chicken breasts fillets (1 to 2 large fillets)
- 9 ounces (1 3/4 cups) self-rising flour (not White Lily)
- 1 teaspoon MSG
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/3 cup milk
- Canola oil for frying
- 4 brioche hamburger buns
- Butter (salted), softened
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 12 to 16 dill pickle slices
- Do This
Instructions1. Make the brine by combining the buttermilk, kosher salt, cayenne sauce, and MSG in a medium bowl or storage container. Trim off the tapered, thinner end of each chicken breast (so it will fit better on the bun), and slice the fillet(s) through the middle to make the fillets thinner, then cut the chicken to make four 4-ounce fillets. Make sure the chicken is no thicker than ½ inch. Slice bigger, thicker chicken breasts in half through the middle to create two thinner fillets. Add the chicken fillets to the brine, cover, and chill for 2 to 3 hours. Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse it, then blot it dry. Let the chicken sit out at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes so it's not cold in the middle when it starts cooking, or it may not cook properly.
2. Make the breading by combining the flour with the MSG, ground peppers, garlic powder, onion powder, and thyme in a medium bowl.
3. Beat the eggs in another medium bowl, then whisk in the buttermilk and milk.
4. Fill a large saucepan, Dutch oven, or deep fryer with at least 3 inches of oil and preheat the oil to 300 degrees F.
5. To bread each chicken breast, first coat it with the flour mixture. Dredge the chicken in the buttermilk-egg mixture, then put it back in the flour and coat it well. Gently toss the chicken around in the breading to build up a craggy texture. The breading will expand as it cooks, but if you think you need more breading give it another dip in the wet stuff and then back into the flour. Toss again in the flour to build up a bumpy texture, then let the chicken sit for a minute or two in the flour to make sure the breading sticks.
6. Set the breaded chicken on a plate or sheet pan to rest for 5 minutes, then fry the chicken in the hot oil in batches, for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden brown and 165 degrees F in the center. Drain the chicken on a rack or on a paper towel–lined plate.
7. To make each sandwich, lightly butter both faces of a brioche bun and toast the buttered sides in a sauté pan over medium heat until lightly browned.
8. Slather about ½ tablespoon of mayo onto each bun half. Arrange 3 to 4 pickles on the bottom bun, followed by a crispy chicken breast. Finish off your sandwich by crowning it with the top bun.
Makes 4 sandwiches.
Tidbits: Tidbits: If you want to use flour that sticks a little better but may not be quite as tender, try this recipe with all-purpose flour. For the breading, whisk together 9 ounces (1¾ cups) of flour with 1 tablespoon of baking powder, ¾ teaspoon of salt, and the same measurements as above for the MSG, ground peppers, garlic powder, and onion powder in a medium bowl. Follow the rest of the recipe from step 3.
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.