You don’t have to be young, or even young at heart, to appreciate chicken nuggets. At their best, they’re tender, juicy pieces of chicken, tucked in to a well-seasoned, golden, and crunchy batter. At their worst, they’re still pretty good. Nuggets and tenders are usually made with white meat, with tenders making use of the tenderloin, but you can make better-tasting nuggets for less money by choosing thighs over breasts.
White meat isn’t that much healthier anyway
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As our health editor, Beth Skwarecki, has explained before, the “health” differences between the exalted breast and maligned thigh are nearly negligible. You do not have to deprive yourself of fat and flavor to be healthy, but the caloric differences aren’t that great:
A boneless, skinless chicken breast is 142 calories, with 3 grams of fat and 27 grams of protein. A boneless, skinless chicken thigh has 206 calories, 10 grams of fat, and a very similar 28 grams of protein. That’s only a 64 calorie difference.
Very few people’s lives are altered by a mere 64 calories. Also, you’re going to be deep frying—this is not the time to worry about calories. (I never do, but now is especially inappropriate.)
Dark meat tastes better
Breasts can be great, but this is one instance where you have to hand it to the leg guys. Even when you strip a chicken thigh of its bones and skin, you’re left with a better piece of meat. Breasts are almost pure protein, with very little connective tissue and fat; thighs have three times the fat and collagen that melts down into silky gelatin. All that makes for a juicier nugget or strip that’s less likely to dry out when frying, which is what you want, if you’re going to commit to deep frying at home.
You can use thighs with any chicken nugget recipe
Just sub them in, pound for pound, cutting the thigh meat into nugget- or tender-sized pieces, then proceed with the recipe as usual. You’ll save at least a dollar per pound, if not more. You may have to trim some excess, large pieces of fat, but don’t worry about the little bits. I like to use my Chick-fil-A copycat recipe, which has MSG in the brine and the batter, for extra savoriness.
Better Chicken Nuggets Made With Thighs
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
For the brine:
- 3 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon MSG
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
For the breading:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons MSG
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- Refined peanut oil or vegetable oil
Combine salt, MSG, sugar, garlic, and paprika together in one bowl with a whisk. Sprinkle four teaspoons of the seasoning over the nuggets, give them a toss to make sure they’re evenly coated, and let them hang out for 15 minutes on a wire rack set over a plate. (Save the rest of the brine for future nuggets.)
Once 15 minutes has elapsed, blot the excess moisture off of the chicken. Combine the all breading ingredients except the mayo in a medium mixing bowl. Brush the chicken with mayo before tossing it in the flour mixture. Pour enough oil into a Dutch oven (or some other high-walled frying vessel) so that it comes up about three inches, but still has three or so inches of space until it reaches the top of the vessel. (This will keep the oil from spilling over when you add the nuggets.) Heat the oil to 370℉ and, while you’re waiting for it to heat up, give the nuggets another toss in the flour mixture.
Once the oil reaches its target temperature, give the nugs one more toss in the flour, then gently lower them into the hot oil, working in batches if needed. Let them cook for 3-5 minutes, until they are a nice golden brown. Fish ‘em out with a slotted spoon or spider, and let them cool on paper towels. Serve immediately with your favorite dipping sauce.