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—an entire 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 (and mouth!) 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 mixture of buttermilk, 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 adds 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 to the chicken 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 A.P. flour, plus baking powder and salt, in the Tidbits below.
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- 2 cups buttermilk
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons MSG
- 4 boneless chicken breasts fillets (3 1/2 to 4 ounces, trimmed)
- 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
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/3 cup milk
- Canola oil for frying
- 4 brioche hamburger buns
- Butter (salted), softened
- 12 to 16 dill pickle slices
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
- Do This
Instructions1. Make the brine by combining the buttermilk, kosher salt, and MSG in a medium bowl or storage container. Add the chicken breasts, cover and chill for 4 to 5 hours. Before adding the chicken to the brine be sure to trim off the tapered, thinner end of the chicken breasts (so they fit better on the bun) and make sure the chicken is no thicker than 1/2 inch. Slice bigger, thicker chicken breasts in half through the middle creating two thinner fillets. After 4 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 won't cook properly.
2. Make the breading by combining the flour with the MSG, ground peppers, garlic powder, and onion powder in a medium bowl.
3. Beat the eggs in another medium bowl, then whisk in the buttermilk and milk.
4. Preheat at least 3 inches of oil in a large saucepan, Dutch oven, or deep fryer to 300 degrees F.
5. Bread each chicken breast by first coating it with flour. Dredge the chicken in the buttermilk/egg and 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 on the chicken. 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. Again, gently toss the chicken around 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 that the breading sticks.
6. Sit the chicken on a plate or sheet pan to rest for 5 minutes, then fry the chicken for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden brown and 185 degrees F. in the center. Drain the chicken on a rack or on a paper towel-lined plate.
7. To make a sandwich, lightly butter the faces of a top and bottom bun and toast the buttered sides until lightly browned in a sauté pan over medium heat.
8. Slather about ½ tablespoon of mayo onto the top and bottom bun. 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: 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 of flour (1¾ cups) with 1 tablespoon of baking powder, ¾ teaspoon of salt and the same measurements as above for the MSG, ground peppers, garlic and onion in a medium bowl. Follow the rest of the recipe from step #3.