After a confounding waiting period, Popeyes has finally unleashed its new chicken nuggets on the U.S., promising a fast food poultry landscape that will never be the same again. Building off the success and hype of its insanely popular chicken sandwich, which sparked the phenomenon now fondly recalled as the “chicken sandwich wars” back in 2019, the company made the next logical step—double down on hype with a new breed of nuggets. “Didn’t Popeyes already have nuggets?” you may be understandably asking, but the answer is no—true “nuggets” are actually not quite as common as you might expect. Many chicken chains, such as Zaxby’s or Raising Cane’s, don’t actually serve nuggets at all, instead focusing entirely on bone-in chicken or tenders. Others such as KFC have blurred the lines over the years with “popcorn” chicken, which is close enough that you almost have to lump it in with the true “nuggets” of the world.
Given that the arrival of Popeyes’ new nuggets will no doubt reignite feverish internet debate on whose fast food chicken is best, we thought this was the perfect time to truly get empirical in terms of providing an answer. To that end, we rounded up every major fast food chain’s chicken nuggets that were available to us, and did a proper tasting, weighing the pros and cons of each. Along the way we suffered through some bad nuggets, and confirmed a few that are classics of the genre.
Here are the actual best fast food chicken nuggets, as determined by Paste’s tasting, ranked from worst to best.
It is telling that Burger King routinely runs promotions where they give these things away at the rate of 10 for $1, and evidence of just how few people must want to eat them. Even if they made them free with every purchase, we’d still pitch them out. Of course this is all extremely appropriate for BK, who we have long labeled the saddest chain in fast food by far.
These nuggets are uniquely soft and flabby—the polar opposite of crispy—with a texture that feels like it was rendered via gentle cooking for hours under the twinkling lightbulb of an Easy Bake Oven. The breading is a fairly plain, salt-and-black-pepper affair, but the spongy interior dominates one’s attention. Many nuggets favor a similarly spongy texture, including the progenitor McNuggets, but never is it so insipid and artificial seeming as it is here. The flavor actually isn’t terrible, as the nugget is decently seasoned on the exterior, but there’s just nothing going on inside. It is so soft and spongy, it becomes the absolute pablum of chicken nuggets. A 90-year-old with no teeth would have no trouble gumming these down. It ultimately makes them the least interesting nugget to eat of the whole bunch, because there’s no crunch, no real meat, and nothing to engage your interest. You take one bite and then wish you had better nuggets.
“Jumbo popcorn chicken” is an amusing oxymoron, given that taking popcorn chicken and making them “jumbo” would seemingly just produce “chicken nuggets,” but whatever you want to call these guys they’re pretty terrible. They arrive from your carhop as big, irregular pieces that look either like multiple pieces of popcorn chicken fused together, or chunks or chicken tenders that have been chopped up at random. The more I look at them, the more convinced I become that they’re actually the chain’s chicken tenders, just cut into pieces, which does them no favors.
In a word: Dry. We’re talking Sahara dry here. “Mouth full of Saltines” dry. Texturally these ones are awful, being the driest and most rubbery of all the nuggets and quasi-nuggets we sampled. The funny thing is, many of the pieces here are big enough to be meaty and juicy in theory, but somehow none of them are—they taste like they were made 24 hours earlier, and have just been sitting around desiccating since. The bigger pieces have a somewhat more legit chicken texture inside, but it’s so badly overcooked that it has become completely stringy and fibrous. The breading is solid, meanwhile, but not particularly crunchy, seasoned fairly simply with salt, pepper and maybe a bit of garlic. There’s a flavor like cornmeal/slight sawdust as well, and each bite leaves a powdery sensation on the tongue. The irregular shapes means that each piece also tends to have knobby bits of breading sticking out that contain no chicken. This one desperately needs dipping sauces for the sake of lubrication. It’s no wonder that these don’t seem to be terribly popular as a result.
For many years, this menu item was simply labeled as “popcorn chicken,” having been an innovator in that particular corner of the poultry world. In the last few years, though, KFC discreetly added the word “nuggets” to the end, seemingly wanting to reinforce that “yes, this item is meant to compete against the McNugget, et al.”
In practice, though, little has actually changed. KFC’s popcorn chicken has the same advantages and downsides it’s always had—the pieces vary wildly in size, dimensions and quality. In any given order of Popcorn Chicken, many of the pieces are still tiny and literally consist entirely of breading without any chicken in them whatsoever. The larger pieces, on the other hand, tend to be better, but it’s such a direct correlation that it automatically begs the question of why you wouldn’t just order the company’s bone-in chicken instead. Regardless, Popcorn Chicken is clearly for those obsessed with KFC’s breading, and you do get a decent dose of the garlic, onion powder and black pepper. Inside, the chicken tends to be moderately dry and somewhat spongy, although a great piece of moist popcorn chicken is possible—it’s just likely to pop up in like 1 piece in 10. Like the Sonic chicken, these leave something of a powdery residue in the mouth, and they’re intensely thirst-raising. Some of the bites are decent, but even at its best KFC’s Popcorn Chicken still leaves us thinking that the company should just dispose of the “popcorn” gimmick entirely and design some new nuggets with well-cooked chicken in mind.
Cook Out’s menu is so sprawling and dedicated to frenetic randomness that I would never fault one of their workers from entirely forgetting that the even sell chicken nuggets on any given day. I would have written “make” or “produce,” but I’m not entirely sure the company even creates these factory-form nuggets themselves. Noticeably darker in color than other nuggets in this list, they’re pretty uniform little lumps without any distinguishing characteristics—they look very much like they came out of the frozen section of your local grocery store.
Surprisingly, though, they’re actually not terrible once you get to eating them. The chicken is more moist and juicy than the likes of Sonic or Burger King, with a somewhat dense and springy texture that lands between the classic spongy weirdness of McDonald’s and the “real chicken” interior of Chick-fil-A. The breading is fairly thin, pretty crisp and adheres tightly to the chicken. Flavor is mild overall, not overly salty and with a slight peppery edge. They’re slightly “doughy,” with a flour-type taste that isn’t exactly a feature but also isn’t too distracting. All in all, these are some basic bitch nuggets that are perfectly inoffensive—not unique in any way, but competent.
After all that talk of changing the chicken nugget game, Popeyes ends up in FOURTH? Before you grab your torches and pitchforks, let us explain what these ones do well, and how they simultaneously lead themselves astray. The first thing one notices here is that these nuggets are extremely breaded, with a thick, craggy layer of breading. They’re irregularly shaped, and like the Sonic Jumbo Popcorn chicken, they sort of have the look of tenders that have been chopped into smaller pieces. They’re very inconsistent in size, with some being literally twice the size of others. This is ultimately part of what goes wrong—everything about these nuggets is inconsistent and uneven.
On first bite, one might be excited by these nuggets—the breading is very crunchy on the outside, maybe a bit under seasoned, but most have a nice hint of the brand’s mild Cajun spice. However, the breading is so thick that it tends to get soggy closer to the chicken, even though it’s crunchy outside. This is revealed when large pieces of breading rip off, revealing the soggy interior of those breading chunks. The chicken, meanwhile, is pretty good on an initial pass—it actually tears and shreds like real chicken breast—but the more you return to it, the more oddly fatty and gristly it starts to seem, especially in comparison with the likes of Chick-fil-A. The problem here is ultimately that Popeyes really doubled down on intense breading for these nuggets—it’s overly ambitious and doesn’t really benefit these bites of chicken, which are drowning under a heavy layer of breading that ultimately turns soggy. If they were able to rein it in a bit, these could be a contender.
Chicken McNuggets are obviously the living legend of the field, a menu item that legitimately changed the entire way fast food chicken was served when they were introduced in the 1980s. They’ve at times gotten a bad wrap over the years, and were redesigned at least somewhat in the late 2010s in an effort to make them more healthy, but that hasn’t seemed to dampen the appreciation of devotees to date. McDonald’s still sells an absolutely ridiculous number of McNuggets on a daily basis, and unbelievably they’re almost as unique now as they were nearly 40 years ago.
The thing that makes the McDonald’s nugget unique is that tempura-style breading, which none of its competitors have even attempted to emulate. The effect is a lighter, crispier breading that forms a solid sheet over the chicken, but a fairly thin one. McNuggets are sparsely seasoned in terms of spices, but doused with salt—they have a “pure sodium” flavor that is the distinctive essence of ultra fine table salt. The chicken is of course spongy in texture—it would be genuinely disturbing if a McNugget had a legit chicken texture inside—but typically pretty moist and tender. The McNugget is all about simplicity. It’s well seasoned, child friendly, dependably crispy and moist enough to get by on its own, although most any McNugget fan will tell you that they really benefit from sauce. They’ll never be the most ambitious or purely flavorful nugget, but they’re extremely dependable.
In terms of the quality of chicken inside a nugget, none of the other major fast food brands can hold a candle to Chick-fil-A, which stands on an entirely separate platform in this regard. Unlike so many of the nuggets that are clearly made with ground chicken pressed and formed into shape, these ones are made with actual chunks of white meat, which yields a much more natural chicken breast texture—one that you can shred apart by hand if you want. They tend to be moist, juicy, and everything you want from the interior of a chicken nugget.
The more divisive thing about Chick-fil-A’s nuggets is their style of breading, which is also quite individualistic and distinct. It’s a light, patchy, crumbly breading that evokes breadcrumbs, applied sparsely over the nuggets, often with patches where the breading is almost entirely missing. There’s definitely no “crunch,” and the crispiness is questionable, while the flavor tends to be mild—a bit of warm spice like paprika or chili powder, but these are also noticeably a bit sweeter as well. The overall effect is essentially like “homemade” chicken nuggets, of the sort that your mom might cook in the oven with Shake ‘n Bake. To us, the inconsistent breading is the only drawback—if these nuggets had more of a proper crispy crunch, they’d be very hard to beat. We can understand those who want to go to bat for Chick-fil-A as having the best nuggets, but in our mind it ultimately comes down to whether you appreciate this style of breading.
Wendy’s chicken nuggets aren’t necessarily particularly flashy, or fancy. They get the job done by being extremely well-rounded—well seasoned, moist, crunchy and addictive. They come in uniform, almost circular shapes, flecked with plenty of pepper. Both the regular and spicy chicken nugget variants are delicious, although it should be noted that even the original chicken nuggets at Wendy’s have at least a little bit of heat to them.
The breading of a Wendy’s chicken nugget coats the meat tightly, but is fairly thin and crispy. It’s noticeably crunchy when you take a bite, which also yields moist, somewhat spongy chicken inside. The chicken tends to be a bit more moist and tender than the likes of McDonald’s or Burger King, although it’s very much in the same mold in terms of texture—it’s just a matter of better execution. The spicy nuggets, meanwhile, bring even more of a peppery bite with a mouth-watering acidity that suggests they were brined or marinaded. The Wendy’s chicken nugget is simply a belt-high fastball over the center of the plate—the best version of what you might consider the “standard” style of nugget. The likes of Popeyes may be putting on a marketing blitz right now, but if they could execute like this they wouldn’t need all the advertising.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek, in addition to moonlighting as a part-time chicken nugget taster. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.