Pickle-brined chicken nuggets may sound like a dish inspired by the new wave of chef-driven comfort foods, but the origins of this particular dish lie in my grandmother’s kitchen. Superficially, this appears to be a Southern-inspired recipe, but it’s straight out of her European playbook.
My grandmother Helen was born in Czechoslovakia. Her small town was closer to Budapest than Prague, and much of her cooking was more Hungarian in style. Following the devastation of World War II, she emigrated to Australia to begin a new life on the other side of the planet. A new home meant new grocery challenges, and she found ways to incorporate the new ingredients available to her into her traditional recipes.
So, chicken schnitzel lost its breadcrumb coating and was replaced with a generous layer of crushed cornflakes instead. It made for the crunchiest and most divine schnitz-perience. I would sneak into her kitchen every Friday to eat some, blistering hot and fresh from the skillet. A burnt tongue was considered reasonable collateral damage for the reward of the schnitzel.
Thanks to the Hungarian-influenced culinary style, we grew up eating her rich beef goulash, walnut and apricot filled cakes lacquered with shiny chocolate, and incredible sun-fermented pickled cucumbers. Every summer, she would fill an enormous glass jar with pickling cucumbers (always cautioning us not to use any other variety), lay a piece of bread on top to start fermentation, and leave it in the sun for several days. I remember thinking how strange it was to leave food out on the patio for days at a time, but the deliciously garlicky results always allayed any doubts.
Having survived the war, my grandmother was very concerned about food wastage. Nothing was thrown out or discarded unless absolutely necessary. Though, as far as I can recall, she never did use the pickle juice for anything. And while I’m not sure I could sell her on the idea of pickleback shots, I know she’d be thrilled to know all that brine has found a new purpose.
When it comes to keeping chicken breast moist during cooking, brining is always the best answer. The introduction of the saline solution promotes water retention within the muscle, and therefore a juicier bite. When considering this recipe, it made complete sense to me to combine the pickle brine for moisture (with bonus pickle flavor!), with the extra-crisp cornflake crumb coating that made those schnitzels so irresistible.
The trick to mastering these nuggets is to make sure your oil is hot enough, and ensure you are letting it come back up to temperature between each batch. Doing this will make sure you achieve perfect golden crunch, without any soggy spots. Whether you choose to eat them with a dipping sauce, ketchup or just on their own, I guarantee you and your kids are going to want more than just one.
Recipe reprinted with permission from Hardcore Carnivore: Cook Meat Like You Mean It by Jess Pryles, Agate Surrey, 2018.
- 1/2 cup pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups corn flake crumbs
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 6 cups vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Have you ever pickle-brined your chicken? Tell us in the comments below!