If you blinked you may have missed it, but about a month ago Popeyes released a fried chicken sandwich, 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 fast food chicken sandwiches: Chick-fil-A. Now, there are plenty of non-culinary reasons to avoid Chick-fil-A, and it’s true that you’ll never be able to get it on a Sunday. But flavor wise, the competition isn’t quite the blowout that Twitter made it out to be. These are very different sandwiches, and they could learn a thing or two from each other.
Chick-fil-A is known for two things: surprisingly addictive chicken and problematic politics. To…
This is my sandwich take: The Popeyes sandwich 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 flavor. Popeyes’ sandwich, 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 sandwiches with methods already available to us on the internet. The less-good news is that it’s a little labor intensive. There’s a reason why charging people $5 to fry chicken for them is an extremely profitable business model, but it’s also the reason they ran out of sandwiches.
(* Throughout this blog I am referring to the spicy Popeyes sandwich. If you need to put vile mayo on a chicken sandwich to make it work, then you don’t have a sandwich at all. But nominally spicy mayo? Sign me up.) [Editor’s note: How dare you say such hurtful things about mayo.]
Both Chick-fil-A and Popeyes use a full chicken breast for their sandwiches, but anyone who’s had both knows that the Popeyes version is a considerably chonkier boi. That’s a point in its favor, 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 sandwiches, take two normal, medium-sized chicken breast (roughly 8 ounces) and butterfly them. Trim off any super-thin remnants, lest they turn into drywall when you eventually fry them.
A not-insignificant portion of Chick-fil-A’s flavor comes from its brine, keeps the chicken tender and juicy while also giving it a salty, sugary flavor 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 flavor.
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.
This is where Chick-fil-A packs the rest of their flavor into their sandwich. 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.
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 sandwich 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 sandwich. 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 sandwich, 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.
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 340 degrees. 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 355 degrees, 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.
All that’s left now are the bun, pickles, and sauce, none of which need too much in the way of overthinking.
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.
To me, this is one of the bigger differences between the sandwiches, 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 sandwich 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 ¼-inch 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.
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 color 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 sandwich 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 sandwiches 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, savory, 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 sandwich, one without compromise, and available whenever you’re willing to make it.
Better Than Popeyes Sandwich (makes four)
For the chicken:
- ½ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 quart 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
- 2 quarts 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
Brine the chicken: Dissolve salt and sugar into 1 quart 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 350-355℉ on a thermometer, drop the first chicken breast. Fry for 5-6 minutes, or until chicken is golden brown and at least 160 degrees at the thickest part (carryover should bring it up to the recommended 165 degrees). Transfer breast half to a plate lined with paper towels, and repeat with rest of chicken.
Assemble sandwiches 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.