After years — years! — of searching, I’ve finally identified the crispiest, juiciest, most flavorful fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever tried. The search was not easy, it took a lot of research and by research I mean, it took a lot of trips through fast food drive-thrus and visits to expensive fast-casual restaurants. And while it was all delicious it was all, ultimately, for naught.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great fast food chicken sandwiches out there. Ever since Popeyes’ sandwich entered the scene in the summer of 2019 every single fast food chain has revamped their own respective chicken sandwiches in the image of the GOAT. In 2022 and for the foreseeable future, if you love fried chicken sandwiches, you’re spoiled for choice.
But as good as the Popeyes chicken sandwich is, it’s not perfect. The bread is dry and flavorless, the sauce — whether you opt for mayo or the “spicy” version — is unimaginative, and the pickles are there, but they aren’t anything special. All the other fast food sandwiches have their flaws, too. So what is this magical and oh-so-tasty sandwich I’ve found? Well, it’s my own. Made from drawing certain elements from all my favorite chicken establishments and combining them.
Here’s my recipe:
PART I — The Recipe
The fried chicken sandwich is actually a pretty easy thing to make. That’s why it’s a fast food staple alongside the cheeseburger — you don’t need a lot of fancy ingredients to make a great one, you just need to balance unctuous and bright flavors and provide a crunchy, audibly pleasing bite paired with a tender and juicy mouthfeel.
For our recipe, I took aspects from all of my favorite fast food chicken sandwiches, the points of reference are as follows:
- Buttermilk Marinade (Popeyes-inspired): As I was developing this chicken sandwich I tried brining it in pickle juice a’la Chick-fil-A but I didn’t like the results. I found buttermilk to give me the most tender end result. If you don’t have buttermilk use milk with a squirt of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar as a substitute (though your milk might curdle).
- Batter (Shake Shack/Chick-fil-a): I hand-battered my chicken in a mix of flour, fresh cracked black pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. For a spicy kick, I took a cue from Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich and added some smoked paprika and cayenne pepper.
- Brioche Bun (Crack Shack-inspired): A lot of sandwiches across the fast food universe utilize the brioche bun. It’s airy and buttery and less dense than a traditional sesame bun or a potato bun, allowing you to taste the meat more. If I had the skills I’d make my own, but for now, any small brioche bun from the market should work.
- Sauce (Raising Cane’s-inspired): You can do mayo but I like a bit more flavor so for my sauce I took inspiration from Raising Cane’s famous Cane’s sauce. It’s your basic comeback-style sauce with a few twists.
- Dill Pickles (Howlin’ Rays-inspired): Dill pickles give you that earthy and brine-y tang that all good chicken sandwiches have. Buy the best, freshest, crispiest pickles you can find.
- Fresh Pepper (Jollibee-inspired): This is an underrated ingredient inspired by Jollibee’s delicious Spicy Chicken Sandwich. Jollibee uses jalapeño — I’m using serrano which is hotter. Feel free to sub in jalapeños if serranos are too hot but make sure they are fresh and not pickled.
Now let’s talk about the chicken…
PART II — Thigh or Breast?
I get it, the chicken sandwiches you’re used to are made with chicken breast and for whatever reason, some people seem to be scared of dark meat but… get over that. Aside from being a juicier and more flavorful piece of meat due to the higher ratio of fat, there are a lot of other advantages to choosing thighs over breasts.
First, thighs are smaller. A chicken breast is way too big for a chicken sandwich. Sure, you can filet a breast, and pound it flat, but then it takes up way too much area and far exceeds the bun (plus that becomes a schnitzel). I know, I know, I used to be team breast too — then I tried Crack Shack’s Firebird chicken sandwich.
Now I’ll never look back.
PART III — Ingredients:
- 1 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 pinch of Kosher salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 4 cracks of fresh black pepper
Season your marinade. You’re going to taste the blend of spices more if the bird has seasoning on it before you dredge it. If you opt not to season the marinade (or forget to) add more seasoning to the flour mix itself.
- 1/2 cup of Kewpie mayo
- 1/4 cup of ketchup. In the picture is a packet of Hunts, I don’t like Hunts, I used Heinz but threw the bottle away after. Team Heinz!
- Garlic powder to taste (start with a teaspoon)
- Fresh black pepper to taste (start with four cracks)
- 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire Sauce
- 1/2 tsp of hot sauce (optional, any hot sauce will do, I used a Sriacha for some brightness)
Combine ingredients in a small bowl until well incorporated. Taste and adjust along the way, the best sauce you’ll ever have isn’t a recipe, it’s your recipe. Refrigerate overnight or at least one hour before serving.
This should yield enough sauce for two to four sandwiches (meaning you can save some sauce for fries!). There are several copycat Cane’s sauce recipes across the internet that read the same but none really come close to the savory magic that is the real thing. My guess is Cane’s uses a proprietary blend of seasonings. We can spend a whole week trying to figure that out or we could just use Kewpie mayo instead of whatever cheap brand Cane’s uses and we’ll be left with something altogether richer in flavor and much thicker and more luxurious, no special spice blend needed.
If you’re not familiar with Kewpie Mayo, it’s a Japanese style of mayonnaise that is made using egg yolks (rather than the whole egg-like American mayo) and rice vinegar and/or apple cider vinegar (rather than white vinegar). If you haven’t tried it yet, immediately remedy that for this recipe. Kewpie Mayo will change your life, it brings an umami-backed richness to mayo that’ll make you wonder why anyone in the world, even the staunchest mayo fans, ever bothered to eat something like Hellman’s when this savory godsend has been around since the 1920s.
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 pinch of kosher salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 8 cracks of fresh black pepper
Whisk spices and flour together. Again, the above measurements are a ballpark. This should yield enough batter for two chicken sandwiches, whether you use breast or thigh. After the chicken has marinated for at least an hour — up to 24 — dredge the chicken through the flour and place it on a wire wack until frying.
- Sliced Monterey Jack cheese
- Brioche Buns
- Dill Pickles
- Fresh Serrano (Or Jalapeño) Pepper
- Chicken Thigh/Breast
PART IV — Method
- Cut dill pickle into equal 1/4 inch slices, enough to cover your bottom bun.
- Thinly slice serrano pepper into wheels.
- Slice Monterey Jack (or use pre-sliced cheese if you like wasting money). Chick-fil-A’s Spicy Deluxe uses Pepper Jack, but I find that to be too earthy and dry compared to Monterey Jack which is creamier, nuttier, and just more interesting. Use pepper jack if you don’t have fresh peppers.
- Set aside.
- Dredge marinated chicken thighs in flour mix thoroughly, and set aside.
- Heat half a pan of neutral cooking oil in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat (I used peanut, which Chick-fil-A uses, it’s not neutral but is one of the best cooking oil options for anything fried)
- Fry chicken until golden brown or about four minutes per side. Once flipped, spoon oil on top of the chicken to even browning. Chicken should be cooked to an internal temp of 165 Fahrenheit. Don’t do as I did and over-fry it, remember that the chicken will brown further after it is done cooking.
- Remove chicken from oil and place on a wire rack or baking sheet. I don’t have either so I threw mine on a napkin-lined plate.
- Place a slice of cheese immediately and evenly space out the peppers on top of the cheese.
- In a separate pan with butter, toast brioche buns.
- Once toasted, set aside and generously apply sauce to the bottom bun.
- Place pickles evenly across the bottom bun until the entire surface is covered.
- Add chicken and assemble the sandwich.
PART V — The End Result
If you used serranos prepare yourself to get smacked in the face with some serious heat. You should now be chomping on a chicken sandwich that is as every good chicken sandwich should be: tender, satisfyingly juicy, and audibly crunchy, but with this recipe, you’ll also find a lot more. Every bite is bursting, let me repeat, bursting with flavor — the breading will be well balanced between the earthy and distinct qualities of black pepper and the fragrant mix of onion and garlic powder with a smokey finish and a spicy kick. And that’s just the chicken.
When those flavors combine with the sumptuous and luxurious umami-packed sauce, the salty briny flavor of good pickles, and the fresh vegetal burst of serrano all wrapping it together it’s the closest thing your mouth will ever have to an orgasm. Popeyes who?
It was so good, I ate two back to back.