Southern Pickle-Brined Crispy Chicken Sandwich Recipe

Gather your ingredients

The ingredient list for the Chick-fil-A grilled chicken sandwich just might raise some eyebrows. You need a chicken breast, multi-grain bun (or wheat if you can’t find them), green leaf lettuce, a tomato, apple cider vinegar, water, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, orange juice, grape juice, chicken stock, molasses and salt. The full ingredients list is at the end of this article, along with a step-by-step recipe.

Chicken with sauce

So this is the chicken we soaked in our from-scratch marinade, served with our handmade sauce. The Sweet Sriracha has quite a kick to it, and so does this sauce. The color is off, that’s for sure. There are two things I learned: Yes, it tastes just like it, and yes, that’s crazy hot. Let’s just say some tasters were not prepared for the spice the sauce brings. But if you like it hot, this sauce is boss.  

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Fixing Surface Issues

So why was my breading so wimpy? It could have been a number of factors. My first thought was that the milk dip was simply too loose—it needed more body in order to be able to hold more breading. I tried lowering the ratio of milk to eggs by a few tablespoons at a time until I was basically dipping my chicken in straight up beaten egg before flouring them.

The resulting fried breasts got thicker and thicker coatings, but just plain thick is not what I was after: I wanted extra surface area, and that meant more crags and crevices.

My next thought was to go double dipping. That is, dipping my chicken in the milk mixture first, followed by the flour, followed by another trip to the milk and a final trip to the flour before hitting the fryer. This worked marginally better—that second coat definitely developed more crags than the first coat did. It also made for an extremely thick breading that had a tendency to fall off of the breast because of its heft.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

That ain't good.

But then I noticed something: the reason that second dip into the flour was giving my chicken so much more surface area was not just because I was doubling up on breading. It was also because the second time around, there were already moist little nuggets of breading in the flour mixture.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

It was these nuggets that stuck to the outside of the chicken, increasing its crunch factor. The easiest way to get 'em?

Simple: Just add some of the milk mixture to the flour mixture and work it around with your fingers before you dip the chicken into it. This creates an extra crisp coating that fries up with enough nooks and crannies and make an English muffin hide with embarrassment.*

*A number of readers have pointed out that this technique is not novel and is used at quite a few fried chicken outfits as well as being presented in Cook's Country magazine. True enough!

Check out the difference. Same exact chicken, same exact ingredients, slightly different process, very different results:

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

This is a technique I plan to use for all of my breading and frying projects.

Ingredients to make a super crispy chicken sandwich:

  • chicken: you have a few different options here, you could use boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or even boneless skinless chicken thighs. This recipe uses 1 pound of chicken (or two hefty chicken breasts) that were cut down the middle and pounded using a meat mallet into an even thickness.
  • buttermilk: because of its low pH, buttermilk helps tenderize the chicken without toughening it. I don’t usually keep buttermilk on hand. So instead, I used powdered buttermilk and reconstituted it for this recipe. I use ⅓ cup of buttermilk powder with ¾ cup of water for this recipe, instead of the amount written on the package. I find it tastes much better this way!
  • pickle juice: used as a brining liquid that helps tenderize and flavor the chicken.
  • sugar: sugar is used both in the brining mixture as well as the crunchy coating to create a well-balanced flavor
  • all-purpose flour: the base for our dredging mixture. I use a 50:50 mix of AP flour and cornstarch to add a better crunch to the chicken.
  • cornstarch: used 50:50 along with the flour to make the chicken breasts extra crispy.
  • seasonings: we use a combination of smoked paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and cayenne pepper to create an ultra flavorful flour coating and brining liquid.
  • oil for frying:  You want to use high heat oil for frying, such as peanut oil. Using oil that has a high smoke point and a neutral flavor is essential. If you didn’t want to use peanut oil, you could also use canola or vegetable oil.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Chris

    I used bread and butter pickle juice – also delicious.

  2. Linda

    Loved this idea. I let the chicken sit in the pickle juice while I was at work. Came home and grilled – YUM!

  3. sarah

    Great Idea! I always hesitate before I pour the pickle juice down the drain. What can I use this for? The answer was always “nothing”. Not anymore. I can’t wait to try this!

Why is Pickle Juice Used?

Pickle juice has a lot of salt. It has often been used to brine chicken because salt will help carry moisture throughout the chicken to produce juicy chicken breasts. Have you ever wondered how the breast gets so juicy?!

Coupled with an air fried breast, you truly can’t go wrong.

How to Make Air Fryer Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich

  1. Drizzle the chicken breasts in buttermilk and pickle juice. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  2. Add paprika, Confectioner’s sweetener, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to a bowl large enough to dredge the chicken, along with all-purpose flour.
  3. Remove the chicken from the liquid and dredge it in the flour and place the chicken breast in the air fryer. (Optional to dredge the chicken in a beaten egg first).
  4. Air fry.

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Directions

Instructions Checklist
  • Whisk pickle juice, brown sugar, kosher salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1 pinch cayenne pepper together in a large bowl until sugar dissolves. Submerge chicken breasts in brine, using a plate or bowl to sink the breasts into the brine; refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

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  • Preheat an outdoor grill for medium-high heat and lightly oil the grate.

  • Remove chicken breasts from brine, discard the brine, and dry chicken breasts with paper towels. Brush each breast with olive oil and season each with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.

  • Cook chicken on the preheated grill until no longer pink in the center and the juices run clear, about 5 minutes per side. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read at least 165 degrees F (74 degrees C). Transfer chicken to a plate, tent the plate with aluminum foil, and let chicken rest for 5 minutes.

Bun and Pickles

With some of these reverse engineering projects, getting the condiments and sauces just right are as much of a challenge as working on the main ingredient (see my In-N-Out clone recipe, for example). Not so with a Chick-fil-A.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The bun is a typical hamburger-style bun. Soft and slightly sweet, with a fluffy, Wonderbread-like texture. It measures up at around 4 1/2-inches in diameter, which puts it right in the range of Arnold Hamburger Rolls. Toasted in a skillet in just a bit of melted butter, they’re a perfect taste-alike to the real Chick-fil-A buns.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

As for the pickles, I tried out a few different brands of dill crinkle-cut chips. Heinz had the right flavor, but the chips were too small—I could've added a few extras, I suppose, but I feel like the two-pickle-per-Chick-fil-A-sandwich rule is an unbreakable law. Instead, I turned to Vlasic Ovals Hamburger Dill Chips, which have a larger surface area and the same salty-vinegary-garlicky flavor.

Now, on to the hard part: the chicken.

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