October 20, 2021

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The 10 Best Fast-Food Chicken Nuggets, Ranked

The 10 Best Fast-Food Chicken Nuggets, Ranked

The chicken nugget is a remnant of a bygone season; a time when fast food was the lowest quality consumable you could find. Before competition from fast-casual restaurants forced McDonald’s and their ilk to rapidly evolve and quality sourcing became a selling point. I’m talking about the halcyon days of 2003, when we didn’t know exactly what was in a fast-food chicken nugget and we didn’t want to know.

Cheap, easy, and fried were all the dining public asked back then; a plastic toy and a small fry rounded out the meal. Thankfully, we’ve (mostly) moved on from the “pink slime” era and we’re all better for it. But the chicken nugget (almost inexplicably) endures.

Invented in the 1950s, the chicken nugget — then called the “chicken crispie” — was created so that meat processors could clump ground chicken parts together in a breading-based skin that could be deep-fried and frozen without falling apart. Yum. A study conducted by the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2013 and published in the American Journal of Medicine sought to determine the actual contents of chicken nuggets from two national food chains. They found that the chicken nuggets they tested weren’t really chicken, their dominant ingredient was fat, along with epithelium (the lining of all animal organs), bone, nerve, and connective tissue.

Thankfully, most fast-food chains have changed their ingredients over the past eight years. The result is a better product overall, with a few brands sticking to the tried, true, and sorta gross. And seeing as I’ve ranked chicken tenders, explored every fast-food fried chicken sandwich within reach, chatted with the best chicken chefs, and waited in line for multiple hours just to eat some hot chicken, it only makes sense that I turn my attention to these.

Here are the best chicken nuggs in the game, ranked.

10. Burger King Chicken Nuggets

Burger King

Calories: 482 (10 piece)

It only costs $1.89 for a 10 piece order of Burger King’s chicken nuggets? What the hell is in these nuggets that they’re this cheap?

Well, according to the BK website: boneless chicken breast with rib meat, water (so far, so good), isolated oat product (I’ll look past it), potato starch, seasoning, salt, sodium phosphate… so, nothing too out of the ordinary compared to its chicken nugget brethren. Regardless, these aren’t good. The meat has a strange wet and sweaty texture, no matter how fresh you get them. Also, the outer shell never really crusts as much as you’d like them to in order to produce a pleasing audible crunch (a necessity in a good nugget).

They’re always just… slightly soggy. Or perhaps floppy, if you prefer.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

The Bottom Line

Order the Chicken Fries instead, which we contend are not nuggets but more akin to tenders.

9. Sonic Jumbo Popcorn Chicken

Sonic

Calories: 490 (medium order)

Sonic’s Jumbo Popcorn Chicken is a significant step up from BK’s nuggets. The chicken is less processed, the batter is crunchy and keeps its crispiness after being dunked in sauce, and the nugg features a strong pepper-forward flavor that also pairs well with the dipping sauce of your choice.

This chicken lives up to its name, too. These are indeed “jumbo bites” — requiring about two to three bites to finish off.

Still, overall your money is better spent on just about anything else from Sonic. Mozzarella sticks, chili cheese tots, jalapeño poppers. Ordering the nuggets is a disservice to your hard-earned cash.

Find your nearest Sonic here.

The Bottom Line:

Not bad, but one of Sonic’s weakest snack offerings.

8. Carl’s Jr Chicken Stars

Carl

Calories 270 (6 piece)

It seems almost rude to rank Carl’s Jr’s weird star-shaped Chicken nuggets higher than, well, anything. But unsettling shape aside, these things actually have a pretty good flavor. Yes, the chicken inside is spongey, with a webby appearance that is off-putting, but they do have a great crispy outer coating.

(That shell gets harder the longer you wait. So if you order these, eat them first.)

Find your nearest Carl’s Jr here.

The Bottom Line

Chicken the way you’ve always wanted it — in the shape of a star.

7. Rally’s Chicken Bites

Rally

Calories: 760 (half pound chicken bites box)

If you want chicken nuggets from Rally’s, you have to order an entire half-pound box, no exceptions. That doesn’t make this meal expensive, but it does make it excessive. In most cases, asking for a small order of nuggets is a great way to indulge and get an extra side to accompany your fries and burger. At Rally’s, the chicken bites are the meal.

Luckily (considering how many of them you’re stuck with), Rally’s chicken bites are pretty good. They have a crispy-almost-dusty-dry batter that soaks up sauce excellently and the white meat chicken inside is a considerable step up in terms of quality (especially compared to Carl’s Jr’s mystery meat).

Unfortunately, by the time you’re done with the box, you’re going to be burnt out from these things. If chicken is going to be your whole meal at Rally’s, we suggest you opt for the Mother Cruncher chicken sandwich instead.

Find your nearest Rally’s here.

The Bottom Line

Good, but not good enough to make it through an entire half-pound order.

6. Jack in the Box Chicken Nuggets

Jack in the Box

Calories: 238 (5 piece)

When Jack in the Box first dropped their version of the chicken nugget in 2012, I thought to myself, “Wow, this tastes just like Jack in the Box chicken tenders but in a different shape!” But preferring the form factor of the tender (who doesn’t?) I never ordered them again. Then, sometime last year, Jack in the Box quietly changed the recipe of their chicken tenders and now I hate them. This means I’ve since turned to the Jack in the Box nugget to satisfy my JiB chicken needs (I eat a lot of Jack in the Box, perhaps because I write about weed).

I really like the batter here, it’s not as crispy as I’d like it to be but it has a great flavor, with heavy notes of black pepper and subtle undertones of garlic powder, plus a little onion powder that lingers nicely on the palate and cuts through the sauce.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

The Bottom Line

These taste great paired with Jack’s BBQ sauce or Buttermilk Ranch and even better doused in Frank’s Red Hot.

5. KFC Popcorn Nuggets

KFC

Calories: 690

KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets — wait a minute, since when were these things called “Popcorn Nuggets?” Is this a Berenstain Bears Mandela thing? I did the research and no, it’s not. For whatever reason KFC rebranded its Popcorn Chicken as Popcorn Nuggets in 2015. Why? Are nuggets easier to sell than chicken? KFC has since changed its formula from its original ’90s popcorn recipe. The pieces these days are thicker, giving you a meatier bite of white meat chicken in KFC’s extra crispy style batter.

The meat feels pretty high quality here, as far as fast-food fried chicken goes. It looks, smells, and tastes like chicken, and really, what more can you ask for in a chicken nugget (the bar isn’t set too high)? Still, if you’re at KFC, you should probably just get the Original Recipe fried chicken and call it a day.

Find your nearest KFC here.

The Bottom Line

A strong and solid mid-tier nugget, but if KFC offered it in Original Recipe it would be a significantly better experience.

4. McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets

McDonald

Calories: 420 (10 piece)

The Chicken McNugget is arguably why chicken nuggets are even a thing in the fast-food space. The McDonald’s McNugget is every kid’s favorite fast food treat (grown-ass millennials are all over them, too — thanks to Pokemon, of all things) and if this ranking was built purely off of nostalgia, these babies would certainly land in the number one spot.

But we didn’t rank these nuggets based on nostalgia. And even though McNugget has come a long way since its questionable beginnings (these nuggets used to be made with a blend of chicken meats, rather than white breast meat), they’re still not quite to the quality deserving of a position higher than fourth. Don’t get us wrong, when McNuggets are good, they’re great! A fresh McNugget is hot enough that you can’t really zero in on the weird texture of the spongey chicken meat inside and features a crispy batter that is still pretty much unbeatable. It’s airy, flakey, absorbs sauce perfectly, and in perfect ratio to the chicken inside.

Unfortunately, McDonald’s is pretty hit or miss. When you get a bad McNugget the experience is bad enough to turn your off from chicken nuggets for a good grip of time. The texture of a stale nugget is akin to packing material, it’s almost flavorless and will reintroduce its bland aftertaste every time you burp for the rest of the day.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

The Bottom Line

Ordering a Chicken McNugget is a gamble, but when they’re good, they’re great.

3. Shake Shack Chick ’n Bites

Shake Shack

Calories: 300

Shake Shack’s chicken is seriously underrated. These things are noticeably hand-breaded — which we can’t say for any other nugget on this list — incredibly crispy with a cornstarch-based batter that is extra crunchy but keeps the chicken inside moist and flavorful and made with antibiotic-free whole muscle chicken, sous-vide cooked!

They’re easily some of the juiciest, highest quality chicken nuggets in the fast-food universe. Dipping them in Shake Shack’s gochujang dipping sauce will turn these chicken bites into umami flavor bombs, too. And yet… somehow I always forget they are on the menu and end up surprised when I remember how good they are. That mystical “forgettable” x-factor counts against them today.

Find your nearest Shake Shack here.

The Bottom Line

Delicious but forgettable. That says something about these nuggets we can’t quite articulate, but it’s proof they don’t deserve the number one spot.

2. Wendy’s Spicy Nuggets

Wendy

Calories: 470 (10 piece)

It took a viral tweet from Chance the Rapper to convince Wendy’s to bring back the beloved Spicy Chicken Nugget in 2019 and since then it looks the spicy treat has earned back its permanent spot on the Wendy’s menu. We didn’t include Wendy’s regular nugget on this list because the spicy version makes the OG taste like a waste of time, so why were the spicy nugs dropped in the first place? We suspect it’s because these babies are actually pretty damn spicy, with a strong cayenne and black pepper flavor that will have you reaching for a swig of soda to help tamp down that lingering heat, but that sensation is exactly why these nuggets are so damn addicting.

The chicken inside isn’t great. It has that unappealing spongey-and-overly-processed texture, which is why Wendy’s is smart enough to let you pick up an order of just four. Four nuggets won’t give you enough time to bother yourself over thinking about what’s actually inside of them.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

The Bottom Line

The spiciest nugget in the game. So spicy that it masks the nugg’s lesser qualities.

1. Chick-fil-A Nuggets

Chick fil A

Calories: 250 (8 piece)

I’m no great fan of Chick-fil-A. I think their waffle fries are middling, the tenders are terrible, and their fried chicken sandwich, while delicious, is a little overrated. But the chicken nugget is Chick-fil-A’s best contribution to the fast-food space. Made from boneless chicken breast and seasoned with a mix of black pepper, salt, paprika, a dash of chili powder and… we swear we can taste lingering notes of sugar in there, Chick-fil-A’s nuggets pack a great flavor with a crispy hand-breaded batter that locks in the chicken’s juiciness.

What sets Chick-fil-A’s nuggets in another class against the competition is the brand’s use of peanut oil to fry their chicken — which keeps it crispy and golden brown thanks to the oil’s high smoke point but leaves it juicy and perfectly cooked without drying out. If they were a bit crispier or had a thicker batter they’d be even better, but from a pure flavor standpoint, it’s hard to beat Chick-fil-A’s nuggets.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.

The Bottom Line

The best chicken nuggets in the entire fast-food universe and Chick-fil-A’s greatest menu item.