It’s rare to find an omnivore who doesn’t appreciate chicken. America’s most popular meat is poised to oust pork as the world’s favorite animal protein. When that preference is combined with the the fact that human beings also love our foods breaded and crispy, we can begin to understand why chicken nuggets have become so wildly popular.
Even vegetarians and vegans love chicken nuggets, which explains the recent explosion of fake chicken nuggets onto the food scene. Chicken behemoth Tyson Foods is now selling Raised & Rooted chicken-free nuggets, while several startups, including NUGGS, Daring Foods and Rebellyous Foods, each has its own crispy breaded chicken-esque product. KFC, meanwhile, is tweaking its Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets from Beyond Meat.
Industrial chicken processors love chicken nuggets, too, as they offer a way to use parts of the animal that we don’t normally associate with food. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine tested chicken nuggets from two American fast food chains and found neither contained more than 50% chicken meat, while a Singapore study found the nuggets there can contain as little as 15% meat. These quasi-meatless nuggets also contain nerve tissue, bones and lots of fat, and are augmented by soy proteins that are similar to some the ingredients in plant-based nuggets.
Because it’s gross to think about the true identity of a chicken nugget, many people simply avoid doing so. They taste good, especially when dipped in some tangy, spicy or creamy sauce, so we eat them. But there are signs that the ability to overlook what is in an industrial chicken might be waning. Chicken nugget sales have been falling in recent years, and nobody is quite sure why. Perhaps chicken lovers, as well as meat eaters, are growing wary of mystery meat. Without the mouthfeel to back it up, maybe tasting like chicken isn’t enough. For some, anyway.
The first time I served homemade chicken nuggets to my kids, they informed me that my crispy little creations were not, in fact, chicken McNuggets. “I didn’t say they were chicken McNuggets,” I explained. “Just chicken nuggets.” They remained unimpressed.
In fairness, my first stab at chicken nugget making was a flop. They were potato-shaped, bland in the middle and on the verge of falling apart. But there was no way that I was going to be outdone by Ronald McDonald. So I decided to try to come up with a homemade version that could hold its own against a Happy Meal, without abandoning my principles.
It turns out that making chicken nuggets without bones, cartilage, fat or nerve tissue is not impossible. I read several recipes online and made a few more attempts. Things finally came together when I had the thought — so obvious in hindsight — to add mayo to the mix. The flavor improved and the nuggets held together. My kids agreed.
My nuggets taste like real chicken, and they have the texture of chicken. Because they are, in fact, chicken.
A More Perfect Nugget
Makes 2 servings
• 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast (or chicken tenders)
• 2 tablespoons mayo
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup flour
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup breadcrumbs
• ¼ cup grated parmesan
• 1 teaspoon paprika
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
Mince the chicken as finely as possible, and mix with it with the mayo and salt.
Set up a three-bowl dipping setup, as if making fried fish. In the first bowl: plain flour. In the second: the eggs, beaten. In the third bowl combine the bread crumbs, parmesan and seasonings.
Use your hands to shape the chicken mixture into nuggets. One by one, pass each nugget through all three stations. First, roll it through the flour so the egg will stick. Then roll it through the egg so the breadcrumbs will stick.
When all of the nuggets have been coated, preheat the oven to 450, add the olive oil to a baking sheet and spread evenly to coat. Place the nuggets on the sheet, spaced so that no two nuggets are touching. Bake for 12 minutes and then flip them. When turned, the undersides that now face up should be nicely browned. Bake 12-15 minutes on the other side, depending on how brown the bottoms got after the first 12 minutes.
When browned on all sides, remove the nuggets from the oven and allow them to cool. This step is very important, because some people cannot control themselves around a plate of hot, golden chicken nuggets.
Serve with your favorite condiment.