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Now reading A Chicken Nugget Taste Test

A Chicken Nugget Taste Test

All of your store-bought and fast food nuggets tasted and ranked.

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This comes from our Chicken issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

What are chicken nuggets?

I know that chicken nuggets are eaten mostly by children and adults who eat like children. Each is a bite-size hunk of mechanically separated and pulverized chicken meat that is then breaded, deep-fried, and frozen for later. Some parts of the Internet say nuggets usually contain a lot of fat and sometimes bits of bone and connective tissue mixed with additional hormones, additives, and chemical compounds; others say binding agents aren’t even needed because frying holds them together.

I wanted to know more, so I visited the website of the National Chicken Council, which has an article called “What’s Really in That Chicken Nugget?” with a section entitled “What the experts are saying.” Their expert simply says, “There is no ‘pink slime’ in chicken nuggets.” K, I didn’t even know that was going to be a concern! If you want to investigate that quote, they provide a link to an interview their doctor gave to a site called Best Food Facts. I clicked the link… folks… the page was… not found. I’m assuming this guy agreed to be a mouthpiece for the Chicken Council in exchange for a lifetime supply of nuggets, got caught, and now they’re trying to scrub him off the Internet entirely. (Note: Can we insert a .gif here of this doctor turning around all surprised, and his face is covered in nugget crumbs and ranch dressing?) Wait, am I a conspiracy theorist now?

Moving on, I Googled “who invented the chicken nugget” and learned about a poultry scientist named Dr. Robert C. Baker who first proposed the idea of a breaded “chicken stick” to his colleagues at Cornell University in 1963. If I was a chicken scientist and I invented, like, the holy grail of chicken technology, guess what, dawg—I’m retirin’. But not this guy! He dedicated his entire life to playing God of Chicken. In fact, he and his team pioneered over fifty chicken abominations, including chicken dogs, chicken hash, chicken baloney, chicken steak, and chicken ham. They also helped to develop chicken deboning machines and different mixtures to help bind pulverized chicken into different shapes. I’m assuming by this point that the man once saw his one true love pecked to death.

Turns out Dr. Baker did grow up on a chicken farm, and seems sincerely traumatized! He told the New York Times, “We’d chop the head off the chicken and it would bounce around the yard and lay there for a while before we picked it up; then we’d scoop it into a pail, and it would lie in the house a bit before my mother would get around to cooking it. Probably it did taste different. But do you want to put up with that to get the taste?”

I’ve never cut off the head of a chicken, nor seen it happen in real life. Anytime I’ve even dealt with a whole store-bought chicken, it’s been impossible for me to not look at its sad dead body with its sad dead skin and imagine the life it led, and how it kind of reminds me of my cute little dog, especially when I cradle it in my arms. Pretty soon I’m like, Is it really right that we kill these noble creatures just to cook and eat them? I’m in a full-blown existential panic over the nature of man and right and wrong. Dr. Robert C. Baker wanted to spare us all from that, so he thought, To hell with it, man, let’s shape these things into dinosaurs.

You can probably guess the other key player that helped shape the nugget as we now know it: McDonald’s. The McNugget is likely the world’s most visible nugget. It started as an experiment in their test kitchens in the late ’70s as a response to our nation’s nascent concerns about eating beef, and with supply coming in from Tyson Foods, the nuggets were introduced to menus and Happy Meals in 1983. Tyson still supplies McDonald’s with their nuggets today, though in 2015 Tyson had to sever ties with one of its poultry farmers after a video leaked of workers stabbing and crushing chickens to death.

I called Tyson’s consumer service line, where I asked a woman named Emily about what exactly goes into these morsels. “We’ve always used whole muscle in our nuggets,” she told me. A representative from Perdue Foods (Regina) stuck to the company line as well, and said that if I was calling to report finding a bone or something in my chicken, they would have to find out which plant it came from, then that plant would be investigated. When I asked her about the possibility of other chicken companies maybe using that weird stuff, she decisively told me that she couldn’t speak for other companies. Then I said “Damn it, Regina, put me on the line with someone who can! Hell, get me the president of the Chicken Council if you have to! I need to know how far thing thing goes!”

Just kidding. Anyways, let’s start the taste test. About half were eaten dry, to get a clear sense of the flavor and quality of breading. The rest were eaten recreationally with a variety of sauces and preparation styles.


KEY:

Tastes pretty good with lots of ketchup on it

I fed a little bit of this to my dog, don’t hate me for that

Vegetarian


Store-Bought Nuggets

Perdue Fun Shapes Nuggets 


I microwaved these in the Lucky Peach office, where the idea of chicken nuggets was well received—their smell alone transported one employee, Joanna, back to her school-yard days—but the eating was not. Some buzzwords I heard from the millennials: mushy, bland, spongy—another employee, Rob, compared the experience to “biting into a wet sponge.”

My main complaint? These dinosaur-shaped nuggets look like clinically depressed and severely overweight Pokémon. I don’t want to body shame, but if you were a scientist at Jurassic Park and you made a T. rex that looked like this, you’d immediately be fired and laughed out of the park. If these dinosaurs had roamed the earth back in the day, I’m sure they would have been bullied by even the smallest dinosaur and later died in an extremely non-badass way, like heart failure.

Perdue Chicken Breast Nuggets 

The flavor of these is okay, but the texture is not enjoyable at all: there’s simply too much not-great breading. So there’s just a lot more nugget area that will become mushy and compromise an otherwise potentially good nugget! And once a good nugget’s gone bad, it’s gone forever.

Perdue Whole Grain Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets 

Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think the color of these reduced-fat nuggets is duller than the others. Does reducing fat change colors of things? I can only barely detect a difference in taste between these and the regular nuggets. So, I’m cool with reducing fat across the board! Let’s get that going! They decided to stick with the same mushiness level as always.

Bell & Evans Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets

Most of the nuggets I eat are “fully cooked,” which means you can leave them out to thaw on your counter and then chow down. (I have done this. Also with Totino’s Pizza Rolls. I am otherwise a productive member of society.) But that’s not the case with Bell & Evans: these are frozen chunks of raw chicken breast meat, and it’s the consumer’s responsibility to make sure they reach a safe internal temperature, which felt like a lot of pressure! They suggested twenty-five to thirty minutes in the oven, but it ended up taking around forty. The results were pretty bland. My girlfriend refused to eat them without a liberal appliqué of salt and pepper. The breading fell off the nuggets as we ate them.

Coleman Organic Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets 

This is a well-breaded nugget. The coating looks like what you’d see at a Popeyes: a nice burnt-umber color, crispy, almost jagged. Their chicken taste lingers in the mouth, and becomes faintly medicinal. The package recommends that you eat this product with fresh fruit or organic applesauce, or consider pairing it with carrots and celery. These recipes sound like they were excerpted from a book called Disappointing Meals for Latchkey Kids.

Tyson Chicken Breast Nuggets 

Over 130,000 pounds of Tyson chicken nuggets were recalled this year due to the possibility of “foreign matter contamination.” But let’s focus on the positives. Their light breading is ideal. For the most part, it’s well adhered to the bird piece, but there are also extra crumbly bits that collect at the bottom of the bag. I always like to pour those crumbs on top of the nuggets. The Tyson coating also remains very crisp during the cooking process, but that’s balanced with extreme greasiness: every bite releases a deposit of oil in your mouth. The package suggests you make a creamy honey-mustard sauce to accompany the nuggets. I’m speaking from experience when I say that no one who is eating nuggets wants to take the time to make their own creamy honey-mustard sauce. They’re happy to dip into whatever liquid is closest to their nuggets during snack time.

Tyson Fun Nuggets

These dinosaurs are much better shaped than Perdue’s. But why does fun = dinosaur? Is the goal to trick children into believing that they’re eating dinosaur meat? I can think of thousands of shapes that are just as much fun, if not more fun, than dinosaurs. Pizza, hearts, turtles, the thumbs-up symbol. Give me a trapezoid! Shape aside, these taste somehow better than the regular Tyson nuggets. A little less grainy. Also: on Thanksgiving night, I cooked some of these in a tray with the drippings from my “bird” and I was like… I am a chef de cuisine.

Applegate Chicken Nuggets

These are very tiny and ball-shaped. The innards are shredded and dry, and the taste is bland. I can’t imagine that anyone likes them. I think most of their sales must come from people who were hoping to buy an entirely different brand of nugget, but their store didn’t have that kind, so they think, Okay, sure, I’ll get these. Then later, that person has a conversation with their spouse and the spouse says, Honey, lets not get those again, okay?

Quorn Chik’n Nuggets

 No, fellow nü-metal fans, these vegetarian nuggets have nothing to do with the seminal group Korn. I’m rooting for this nugget, mainly because I play in a well-regarded Bay Area Korn tribute band, Qorn. These are a bit grayer in color than the other nuggets, but they prominently display their seasoning: little salt bits are visible, and pepper peppers the interior nugget landscape. I take my first bite without reading the label too much. It has an extremely deep vegetal taste to me. Quorn says that their products are made up mostly of mycoproteins. And as soon as I read that, I think, These do sort of taste like fungus! But no chickens died for them that I know of, so… that’s a positive.

MorningStar Farms Chik’n Nuggets  

These nugs are for people who love junk food, then stop eating meat for whatever reason, but who make no effort to introduce vegetables or anything healthy into their diets, so they keep eating vegetarian versions of familiar junk food. Their flavor, much like the cool word they use for chicken, is pretty close to chicken, but a little off. They’re a bit mushy. They’re a little salty. Fooducate, a site that grades food on their health levels, gives them a C minus. (For reference, most of the other nuggets I’ve tried today range from C minus to B minus.) Somebody investigate if Fooducate is in cahoots with the Chicken Council!

Nice! Chicken Nuggets 

This is a brand I know very well. I am getting no money to say this (but I’m open to it, wink wink), but there have been days where I’ve eaten packages of these EXCLUSIVELY. I think they taste great—and thought it might be the comfort of the familiar that made me think that—but my girlfriend (a healthy person) confirmed that they do taste very good. High marks across the board. As I continued to chew, nugget after nugget, I began to forget all about the taste test. Everything melted away, in fact. There was no drama about what might possibly be in the nugget, or any concerns for health risks. For a second, there was no Donald Trump. There was only… beautiful nugget taste. Then I bit into a tiny piece of cartilage-like substance and spat everything out.


Fast Food Nuggets

McDonald’s Chiken McNuggets

You know these nuggets. They’re satisfying to eat—I can plow through six in under a minute and routinely regret not getting a twenty pack. They’re moist, with good
flavor. Also, you have to admit that McDonald’s sauces are delicious. (You have to. Please take a moment and admit this to the nearest person.) As for the shape, I’ve learned that McDonald’s has four precut forms they use for their nuggets: the ball, the bell, the bowtie, and the boot. I’m not trying to be weird but I feel like all the ones I got during my taste test looked like misshapen genitalia.

Burger King Chicken Nuggets 

This might have been a bad batch, but they tasted
like they’d just been defrosted. The breading is too thick. The meat is chewy. The taste varies from nugget to
nugget, from bland to kind of okay. My theory is that Burger King once accidentally placed an extraordinarily large order of nuggets from their nugget factory in
the ’90s—trillions of nuggets—and they’re still trying
to cook their way through that batch today.

Burger King Chicken Fries 

This isn’t high praise, but these are so much better than
the nuggets. The breading is more visually appealing and better seasoned. The flavor is tangier, and the chicken is less dry. My only complaint: why don’t they call these chicken fingers? They look more like fingers made
out of chicken than anything on the planet. I have an
idea, Burger King: take your chicken fries and smoosh them into nugget form. Problem solved. Next! (Also,
this is unrelated but why aren’t pork nuggets a thing?
And pork fingers?)

7-Eleven Chicken Dippers 

Dippers look like fried testicles, and that’s not me trying to be funny, that’s me trying to report accurately. Why don’t we call these Chicken Nutz? Why am I better at naming chicken products than every
brand? These aren’t very good. They’re pretty, pretty dry. But if you’re a frequent customer at 7-Eleven, you’re probably okay with these. As a frequent customer of 7-Eleven, I feel like I should mention that the company sells their own brand of frozen chicken nuggets
that I used to enjoy in my personal life when I worked across the street from one of their stores. I made conversation with the cashier at 7-Eleven about them, and she had no idea what I was talking about. I’m not happy to know more about 7-Eleven-brand products than 7-Eleven employees.

Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets 

The system for picking up my order at this Wendy’s was all over the place. Sometimes numbers were being called out, sometimes names, sometimes initials, and sometimes they would just describe the contents of the order! I can’t manage this kind of chaos in my life! My girlfriend had high hopes for these nuggets and fond memories of eating them in the past. She was disappointed that they weren’t as good as she remembered them. Nothing ever is, folks! They started out tasty and a lot like real chicken, but ended on a bitter note. They are quite juicy. Are you tired yet of hearing about the moistness levels of nuggets?

Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Nuggets 

These are a bit thinner than the regular Wendy’s nugget, but outwardly much more appealing. They’ve got a nice reddish-orange color to them—that’s how you know something is going to be spicy nowadays. Wendy’s claims these get their “kick from a special mix of black pepper, red pepper, chili pepper, and mustard seed.” But these nuggets barely have a lift of the foot!! There’s a hint of spiciness, but overall these aren’t much better than (or even different from) their normal counterparts. I completely covered my final nuggets in ranch, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. Yes, dear reader, it did taste quite good.