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It’s the 1950s. We’re in New York, upstate, Cornell University, some building, downstairs, in the basement. Dr. Robert Baker is running a poultry lab. As Time described it decades later: “Foreseeing the revolutionary possibility of processed foods, which were already reaping big dividends for pork and beef, Baker decided that value-added poultry products would be his life’s work.” And, eventually, his legacy.
Baker developed the recipe for Cornell Chicken and the Chicken Crispie. If you’re thinking, What’s a Chicken Crispie? You might know it by its more contemporary name: nugget. So, ground meat, mixed with a little of this, a little of that, then battered, frozen, and fried. This sounds simple enough, but gets quite complicated, quite fast, when you start asking questions: How does the ground chicken stay together without a casing, like a sausage? How does the breading withstand freezing and frying?
Baker sorted all that out. Fast-forward to the late 1970s and the U.S. government recommended that people “decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.” Which was as bad as it gets for a hamburger-focused franchise like McDonald’s. One thing led to another and, soon enough, in 1983, the Chicken McNugget was born.
Which means little old me has never lived in a world without chicken nuggets. My mom was anti-fast food for most of my childhood, but we always kept a ready stock of dinosaur-shaped chick nugs in the freezer: “Those were your favorite to bring in for Shabbat,” my mom told me. I went to a Jewish preschool. “You weren’t supposed to bring sliced cheese, too, but I did.”
It wasn’t until later that I discovered chicken nuggets don’t have to be made with ground meat and—no offense to my cutie dinosaurs—bonuses like dextrose and guar gum and “flavor.” If you make them at home, it’s just like fried chicken, only boneless and bite-sized. And because the pieces are bite-sized, you don’t have to deep-fry; a shallower layer of oil works great.
Here are the rest of the deets:
- The crust: You could bread these, like chicken fingers. And don’t get us wrong—we’d eat those right up! But, you have to set up various dredging stations—flour, egg and milk, bread crumbs—then take each nug through each station. An easier route: a beer batter.
- Upgrade that beer batter: Most basically, this can be flour and beer. I added in some hot sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, and salt. Peruse your own spice rack and condiment shelf and get crazy.
- White or dark? Since we’re cutting the meat into nuggets—figure a 2- by 1-inch rectangle—we want it to be relatively even and consistent to work with. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts fit this bill. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which had to go through a lot more to become boneless, do not. If you really prefer dark meat, you can adapt this for thighs, but the shapes will be less consistent, which will make the cooking a little trickier.
- What to go with? Say beer batter and I always think fish and chips. But, since we’re already making chicken nuggets from scratch (pats on the back all around), we don’t need to make French fries, too. Enter: tater tots! Bake these while you fry the tots. It’s like you’re in two places at once.
- Dipping sauce? Always. I opted for a homemade tartar, aka, mayo with a bunch of other stuff mixed in: pickles and capers, Dijon and horseradish, dill and parsley. Another option: secret sauce. Another: ketchup and mustard.
Nugs & Tots
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced cornichons
- 2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced pepperoncini
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon minced dill
- 1 tablespoon minced parsley
- 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
- 1 pinch kosher salt, or to taste
Nugs and Tots
- 1 pound frozen tater tots
- 1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning
- 1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 2 cups canola oil, plus more as needed
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 cup pale, not-too-hoppy beer
- 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
- 2 pinches kosher salt, plus more to taste
What are your chicken nugget memories? Tell us about them in the comments!