How To Make A Killer American-Style Chicken Burger

American fast food chain Popeyes recently released a fried chicken burger, quietly and with little fanfare. As a very cool guy who definitely doesn’t spend a lot of time on fast food blogs, I noticed that they were being tested in my area and managed to get my hands on a couple before they sold out. And you know what? They are (or were, at least) very good!

They’re so good, in fact, that they immediately drew comparisons to the biggest name in American fast food chicken burgers: Chick-fil-A.

Flavour wise, the competition isn’t quite the blowout that Twitter made it out to be. These are very different burgers, and they could learn a thing or two from each other.

This is my burger take: The Popeyes burger makes a big splash with a nicer bun, fresher pickles, a tasty sauce, and of course that crispy, crackly signature Popeyes breading. Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, has a strong, easily-identified flavour. Popeyes’ burger, for all its window dressings, really doesn’t taste like all that much in comparison.

The good news is that we can combine the best aspects of the two burgers with methods already available to us on the internet. The less-good news is that it’s a little labour intensive.

The chicken

Both Chick-fil-A and Popeyes use a full chicken breast for their burgers, but the Popeyes version is a considerably chonkier boi. That’s a point in its favour, the birds supplying the restaurant breasts are not the same as the mutant mega-chickens that sacrifice their pectoral muscles to the grocery store meat counter. I used the smallest, fanciest, organic-est chicken breasts I could find in the name of authenticity, and they were still enormous.

Do not do this! For four burgers, take two normal, medium-sized chicken breast (roughly 230g) and butterfly them. Trim off any super-thin remnants, lest they turn into drywall when you eventually fry them.

The brine

A not-insignificant portion of Chick-fil-A’s flavour comes from its brine, keeps the chicken tender and juicy while also giving it a salty, sugary flavour boost. Popeyes may well brine their chicken too (no one’s ever accused their product of being dry, after all), but I can never identify where it adds any flavour.

I went with a standard wet brine, with salt and half as much sugar dissolved into cold water. If you go that route, leave the bird boobs to soak for no more than 4-5 hours. However, if you wanted to save yourself heaps of time, Claire already had the good sense to combine the salt and sugar with the seasoning blend in a handy dry brine.

That’s also a great way to do it, though I’d let it go longer than 15 minutes (since we’re dealing with breasts, not nuggets). Call it 1-2 hours on the dry brine, if you choose that path.

The seasoning

This is where Chick-fil-A packs the rest of their flavour into their burger. As noted by our own Claire Lower and Serious Eats, Chick-fil-A very helpfully lists their ingredients on their website (Popeyes does no such thing).

By seeing what’s there (and what’s not), we can narrow it down to a simple mix of paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and (most crucially) MSG. Half goes on the brined chicken, and half goes into the flour dredge. And again — if you’re dry brining instead, go ahead and mix it in at that step.

The breading

This is where we hand the baton off to Popeyes, and it required a little guesswork on my part. As mentioned, Popeyes doesn’t seem to list ingredients anywhere on their website. The only hint they give about their burger is a “new” buttermilk coating, so we know that’s involved. The rest I had to work out myself.

Consider this video behind the scenes at Chick-fil-A, and this one filmed in a Popeyes kitchen. A couple of differences are apparent.

Chick-fil-A dips their chicken into a relatively thin egg and milk mixture, and then digs out a new little well in their flour dredge for each piece of chicken. Popeyes, on the other hand, uses a very obviously thicker egg wash, and then tosses the chicken in a bin full of flour that seems to have seen dozens of pieces of chicken already that day.

These are good clues! First the egg wash. I used three eggs plus one extra yolk to make it extra thick. Popeyes says there’s buttermilk, so in go a few glugs of that. The last ingredient comes from a Serious Eats post on homemade General Tso’s chicken: vodka.

Because vodka both inhibits gluten formation and evaporates at a much lower temperature than water, it’s perfect for guaranteeing the crispy, almost shattering crust you find on the Popeyes chicken burger. They almost certainly don’t use vodka at Popeyes, but then we’re not churning these out at approximately the speed of sound. You’ll appreciate the extra staying power of the breading’s crunch while you futz with the next burger, clean up spilled oil, etc.

The last “hack” is an old one: drizzling some egg mixture and mixing it into the flour dredge before breading, thereby simulating a restaurant breading station that’s had lots of egg-dipped chicken come through it. By drizzling in maybe 3-4 tablespoons of the stuff and then mixing it in with your fingers, you get a much craggier, Popeyes-esque crust. By clearing out a new space for each cutlet, Chick-fil-A misses out on this, and their chicken is worse off for it.

Photo: Ian Lang

The rest should all be familiar. Take a seasoned chicken breast and dunk it into the egg mix. Plop it into the seasoned flour, and use your other hand to press plenty of breading on the top. Repeat with the other piece of chicken, and it’s fry time.

The fry

Two other things you may have learned in those videos: Chick-fil-A fries in pressure friers, which — hahahaha — no you do not have one of those. Popeyes, on the other hand, fries in regular deep friers at 170 degrees Celsius. We can manage that! Get approximately, oh, all of the cooking oil you have in your house into a medium saucepan, filling it about halfway. Put it over medium-high heat, and keep an eye on it with an instant-read or candy thermometer. Once it hits about 180 degrees Celsius, in goes one of the breaded breasts.

If you, like me, were dumb enough to use entire breasts, strap in for a while. You’re looking at probably 10-12 minutes, constantly monitoring the oil temperature and adjusting. Oh, and you may also find yourself literally lifting half the chicken out of the oil, in an attempt to keep the thinner part from overcooking.

Photo: Ian Lang

Otherwise if you were smart and used halved breasts, they’ll be done in five or six minutes. Get the first one on some paper towels, and drop the next one. Try your damndest to keep from eating them immediately, even if you used whole breasts and they look like giant chicken-fried ribeyes. If you were smart enough not to, yours shouldn’t be quite this dark, either.

Everything else

All that’s left now are the bun, pickles, and sauce, none of which need too much in the way of overthinking.

The bun

Popeyes uses fancy brioche over Chick-fil-A’s plain hamburger bun, which I suppose counts as an upgrade. You can find them find anywhere fancy buns are sold. Toast them in lots of butter.

The pickles

To me, this is one of the bigger differences between the burgers, and not just because Popeyes gives you more than two. Where Chick-fil-A uses the same briny rounds you can buy in a jar at the grocery store, Popeyes’ feel and taste much fresher, almost like they’d been quick-pickled minutes before the burger came out. I wanted to strike a balance between the two, so make pickles. It’s easy and stupid-proof!

The cool thing about pickles is that you don’t need a recipe. The only requirements for pickles are vinegar and cucumbers. Dill is obviously a mainstay, but you almost certainly don’t have that.

Try mixing equal parts water and white vinegar in a saucepan with a tablespoon of black peppercorns, a few crushed garlic cloves, a teaspoon of mustard powder, and a pinch each of salt and red pepper flakes. Bring the mixture briefly to a simmer, then pour over half a cucumber sliced into 5mm thick rounds. Weigh them down with a paper towel to keep them submerged.

These are tasty as hell in as few as 15 minutes, but if you let them chill overnight in the fridge they’ll have a familiar brininess while maintaining a fresh snap.

The sauce

Popeyes’ website describes the sauce as “spicy mayonnaise.” Easy enough. Two teaspoons of cayenne plus one teaspoon of whatever “cajun” seasoning you have lying around per cup of mayo nailed the colour and taste as best I can remember it. See, the sauce isn’t really “spicy” at all — I think it’s just there because Popeyes believes the burger needs mayo, and Popeyes knows there are anti-mayo weenies out there like me who won’t touch the regular, unadulterated stuff. (I’m an easy mark and I’m fine with that.)

At long last, that’s it. Assemble your burgers thusly: bottom bun, big slather of sauce, at least four pickles, chicken, and finally the well-sauced top bun. Now eat that sum’bitch in as few bites as possible, because this whole process took you infinitely longer than you ever thought it could and you’re starving.

Photo: Ian Lang

But in the three or four bites it takes you to hork it down, marvel at what your efforts have wrought: A craggy, defiantly crispy crust. A salty, savoury, distinctly Chick-fil-A-flavored piece of chicken. Bright, fresh, briny pickles. A sauce that is definitely there. These are the makings of the ideal fast food burger, one without compromise, and available whenever you’re willing to make it.

Better Than Popeyes Burger (makes four)

Ingredients

For the chicken:

  • ½ cup kosher salt

  • ¼ cup sugar

  • 1L water

  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, butterflied and trimmed of any overly thin parts

  • 2 teaspoons paprika

  • 2 tablespoons black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1 teaspoon MSG

  • 4 tablespoons buttermilk

  • 3 large eggs + 1 yolk

  • 2 tablespoons vodka

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 2L sturdy cooking oil, like canola or peanut

  • 4 brioche buns, toasted in butter

For the pickles:

  • ½ cucumber, sliced into ¼-inch rounds

  • 1 cup water

  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

  • 3-4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard seed

  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes

  • 1 pinch kosher salt

For the sauce:

  • 1 cup mayonnaise (any variety)

  • 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

  • 1 teaspoon cajun seasoning

Instructions

Brine the chicken: Dissolve salt and sugar into 1L of cold water. Place chicken breasts in freezer bag, and fill with brine. Place in fridge for no more than 4-5 hours.

Prepare the pickles: Mix water, vinegar, peppercorns, mustard powder, garlic, salt and pepper flakes in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, and then pour over cucumber slices. Weigh them down with a paper towel until the mixture cools, at which point they can be eaten or stored in the fridge for about two weeks.

Make the sauce: In a bowl, combine mayo, cayenne pepper, and cajun seasoning until well-mixed. Set aside.

As the chicken finishes brining, prepare breading station. Mix cayenne pepper, black pepper, paprika and MSG in a small bowl. In another, mix eggs, egg yolk, buttermilk, and vodka. In a large bowl or tupperware, mix flour, baking powder and approximately half of the spice mixture. Drizzle 3-4 tablespoons of egg mixture into seasoned flour, mixing with fingers until it resembles wet sand.

Once the chicken is done, pat dry. Season with remaining spice mixture, and then bread it. Dip each breast half into the egg mixture, then transfer to the seasoned flour. Use your dry hand to heap flour over the chicken, pressing firmly. Repeat with other breast halves, and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes so the breading can congeal and adhere.

Meanwhile, prepare cooking oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it reads 170 to 180 degrees Celsius on a thermometer, drop the first chicken breast. Fry for 5-6 minutes, or until chicken is golden brown and at least 70 degrees Celsius at the thickest part. Transfer breast half to a plate lined with paper towels, and repeat with rest of chicken.

Assemble burgers starting with the bottom bun, about 2 teaspoons of sauce, and four pickle slices. Top with fried chicken, then finish with top bun plus another 2 teaspoons of sauce.


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