Behind the Recipes

How to Make Homemade Popcorn Chicken

Movie night at home again?

Published Aug. 28, 2020.

Fried chicken is a labor of love for me, and it always feels like a special occasion when I make it and eat it. But does it have to be so? What about a more casual fried chicken, one you can eat while lounging on the couch watching a movie or a ballgame?

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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.

Enter popcorn chicken, those craggy, crispy, bite-size morsels of fried chicken goodness. The appeal is partly in its crunch and delicious flavor, sure, but also in the sheer fun and immediacy of eating it pretty much hot out of the fryer, when it’s at its absolute crunchiest.

Fun Fact: When Gagliardi Brothers, a family business that sold hamburgers and other meat to restaurant chains in the Philadelphia area, found its sales declining in the mid-1960s, Eugene Gagliardi Jr. got creative. First came his most famous patent: Steak-Umms. Several other novel methods of meat preparation followed—including popcorn chicken, which he sold to Kentucky Fried Chicken for $33 million in 1992.

But the fun was dampened as I cooked my way through a handful of recipes. A few made crunchy chicken bites but called for fussy breading procedures, which was a lot of work for all those little pieces. Some versions were easier to make but had weak coatings (just a thin layer of fried flour) that flaked off. I wanted juicy meat encased in a thick, savory, crunchy coating, and a method that was easy enough to make any time the craving hit.

First, the chicken. I tried boneless thigh meat, but it didn’t seem right here—it was a little too rich and the flesh was a bit too soft—so breast meat was the way to go. While whole boneless, skinless breasts can easily overcook and dry out, the small pieces cooked so quickly that this wasn’t an issue; thus, brining was unnecessary. I found that 1/2-inch pieces were the perfect “popcorn” size, and briefly freezing the raw breasts to firm them up made for easier cutting.

I tried using a batter coating, but the batter’s high moisture content made the chicken pieces clump in the oil unless I floated them in one by one, an immediate deal breaker. And my early tests had shown that simply dumping the chicken pieces into seasoned flour made for a dry, scant, unsatisfying coating.

Needing an easy way to get a substantial coating with plenty of cling, I turned to a trusted test kitchen method for fried chicken: After mixing a dredge of flour and cornstarch (the latter added for extra crispiness), I worked ½ cup of water into the mixture with my hands until it felt like damp sand with tiny craggy bits. To get the flour mixture to stick, I tossed the chicken pieces in beaten eggs before coating them with it. This moist coating clung readily to the chicken, and the craggy bits provided extra mass that fried up supercrunchy. Dredging and frying in two batches helped prevent clumping

Popcorn Chicken

Final refinements: A small amount of sugar added to the dredge helped it brown more quickly while imparting a faint, pleasing sweetness. A little baking powder in the flour mixture enhanced the crust’s crunch, granulated garlic and onion powder provided depth, and a pinch of cayenne put some pop in this popcorn chicken. And finally, augmenting the dredge with a little extra dry flour after breading the first batch kept it from turning too clumpy and made the two batches indistinguishable.

The chicken pieces fried up beautifully golden and crunchy, and my happy tasters quickly gobbled them up—especially once I whipped up a simple honey–hot sauce dip whose flavor was irresistible. Now that’s my kind of fast food.


Popcorn Chicken

Bite-size fried chicken is a big seller at fast-food restaurants. Our recipe makes it just as big a hit at home.
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