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I recreated 3 popular fast-food chicken recipes in my air fryer, and one was better than the original

Lucien Formichella   

I recreated 3 popular fast-food chicken recipes in my air fryer, and one was better than the original
  • I tried replicating fried chicken from Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, and KFC in my air fryer.
  • The recipes were all easy, but one of them was pretty time-consuming.

Ever since I got my air fryer, I've loved experimenting with different recipes, from crispy bacon to perfectly browned Brussels sprouts. But the thing I love making the most is chicken.

I wondered if my beloved countertop appliance could go head-to-head with a fast-food deep fryer, though, because keeping the food moist enough for the batter to stick is a tall order

After scrupulous research, I found three promising fast-food-inspired recipes — replicas of fried chicken from Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, and KFC — and decided to put them to the test in my air fryer.

Here's how each recipe turned out.

Popeyes is my favorite chicken chain, so I wasn't confident that I could recreate the recipe

Popeyes is far and above my favorite of these three chains, which made me feel like it might be the worst replica recipe.

Actually, I kind of hoped it was. I'm not sure what I'd do if I knew I could make Popeyes chicken whenever I wanted.

The first few steps were pretty simple

I cut a recipe from the cooking blog Restless Chipotle in half. As great as Popeyes is, I don't need to eat for six. I also sliced the chicken along a diagonal to get that classic tender look.

Next, I combined the buttermilk with the Louisiana hot sauce and put the mixture and chicken into a sealable plastic bag to marinate for 30 minutes.

While the chicken was marinating, I prepared the dry component of the dredge (the batter) by combining all-purpose flour, smoked paprika, salt, and chipotle chile powder.

The dredging process went well, though I definitely should've made more.

It was relaxing to drop the chicken into the flour mixture, then the eggs, then back in the flour.

I followed the instructions, and my strips ended up burning

After putting the chicken in the air fryer, I genuinely wondered how the tenders would turn out because Popeyes chicken has such a distinct flavor.

The air fryer beeped after 10 minutes, and they looked pretty good, though not quite like the golden tenders I'm used to.

If I was going by my own recipe, this is when I'd take them out. But I stuck to the instructions and flipped the strips, adding a dash more oil to the fresh side.

The fryer beeped again, and I opened it to find some very burnt chicken strips that didn't look much like Popeyes. I decided this couldn't be how it ended, so I made more dredge and resolved to cut down the cooking time.

I also decided to dip the strips in the egg first, then the flour, before dropping them in the basket for 15 minutes.

At the 10-minute mark, I checked my second batch of tenders, and they were perfectly done.

My second batch ended up better than the first, but nothing beats the chain's product

First I tasted the original (burnt) batch. The finished product wasn't bad, though it was too salty and had too much flour.

That said, the smokey chipotle and paprika were fantastic. There's a good recipe in here somewhere, but I needed to experiment a little to find it.

I expected these to be much drier, but the marinade really did wonders.

The single-dredge, 10-minute tenders were much better.

They weren't burnt to a crisp or dry, and they still contained the delicious chipotle and smoked paprika flavors. There was too much salt, but that's a fixable problem.

Still, there's no comparison to the deep-fried original — I'd still pick the chain's version any day of the week. Popeyes tenders just have a better layer of batter without sacrificing any of the juice or crispiness.

The Chick-fil-A recipe seemed more manageable

Right away, the Chick-fil-A dupe recipe I found on cooking blog My Forking Life felt much more manageable and intriguing than the Popeyes-inspired one. All I needed to do to start was cut the chicken and place it in a bag with pickle juice.

The brine smelled excellent and seemed like something I'd be willing to make again.

I had much higher hopes for the cooking process, too. The recipe called for 12 minutes at 360 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by two minutes at 400 F.

The instructions were easy to follow

While the chicken was brining for 30 minutes, I whipped up the dredge mixtures.

The dry component was a straightforward combination of all-purpose flour, cornstarch, powdered sugar, salt, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder.

From there, I dipped the chicken pieces between the flour mixture and the egg mixture until they were well coated.

I was hesitant because the instructions only said to spray the pieces with oil after they were flipped, but I was comforted by the fact that my chicken looked like the pieces in the pictures from the recipe page.

I cranked up the heat on my air fryer and waited.

There were a few sticking issues, but the chicken seemed to crisp up nicely

When it was time to flip the chunks after six minutes, a few stuck to the pan.

The next time I make this recipe — and I plan to follow it again — I'll be sure to put more oil on the basket.

They still looked fantastic and were pretty close to Chick-fil-A.

I thought these nuggets were even better than the real deal

These were delicious and very juicy. The sweetness and tanginess of the pickle juice threw them over the top.

They clearly aren't deep-fried, but the flour mixture was much better than the Popeyes-inspired recipe.

I loved that there was less salt and that the other seasonings actually worked in concert with the pickle juice, which gave the dish life.

I was pretty delighted with this recipe. It would've been perfect with a bit more oil, and I think the finished product was better than the real thing.

The only downside is that you have to eat these nuggets quickly. They started to lose their juiciness after a little while.

I'm not the biggest KFC fan, so I wasn't holding out much hope for this recipe

I saved a recipe from the blog Dine Dream Discover for last because KFC is my least favorite of the three major chicken chains.

Things got off to a rough start when I realized I needed to soak the drumsticks in buttermilk for up to 24 hours. The recipe definitely lost points in the ease department.

Still, I had hopes that this would be better than traditional KFC.

Once the drumsticks were soaked, it was time to prepare the dredge

I ended up soaking the chicken in too much buttermilk because I forgot to half the recipe, but I didn't think a little extra would hurt, especially if I shook some off before dredging.

The number of spices felt unnecessary, but I dug into my pantry to look for flour, salt, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, black pepper, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ground ginger, and white pepper.

This dish could become expensive if you, like me, have to buy a couple of extra spices. So, to save a little money, I used Italian seasoning instead of basil and oregano.

Once again, the actual dredging process was pretty easy. But I prepped each 24-hour soaked drumstick a little differently because the recipe wasn't specific about what I should do.

I wiped the first one down, which helped to get rid of some of the excess buttermilk that I accidentally added to the recipe.

I left the second precisely as it came out of the bowl, figuring more of the flour mixture would stick to it.

And for the third piece, I patted it down to what felt like a reasonable amount of buttermilk — somewhere between the first two.

I was curious how the 3 versions would compare after air-frying

Instead of using oil to prevent sticking, this recipe called for parchment paper. I've never used parchment paper in the air fryer, and I was extremely wary.

After learning my lesson from the Chick-fil-A-inspired recipe, I decided to spray the third drumstick with oil to see if it turned out better.

The instructions also said to cook the chicken for 13 minutes on each side at 390 F, which seemed too long. I took the experimental, oiled drumstick out after only 13 minutes to test my theory.

As expected, the chicken was fully cooked after 13 minutes. The ones without oil also had a lot of flour showing, which didn't seem good.

I spritzed them with oil and pondered my next move. I decided to follow through with the recipe as written, wondering if the added time would help the skin stick better.

I wasn't a fan of these drumsticks

I knew the piece I took out early would get cold, so I ate that one first while the others finished cooking. The main issue was that the skin kept falling off the chicken.

The seasoning was OK, but I didn't get much of the ginger flavor I was hoping for. I didn't really get the buttermilk flavor either, though the chicken itself was reasonably smooth.

This didn't feel like it was worth the effort.

The skin, which fell off, was quite good, but I didn't really get all the flavor I wanted. The paprika dominated.

After trying the others, I concluded the over-battered one turned out best. The buttermilk-soaked drumstick remained pretty juicy, and the skin was less burnt than the others. But I still wouldn't have cooked it quite as long.

The breading also had too much flour. Even though I added oil, it never quite got moist.

I hate to say it, but the real KFC is more enjoyable. The chain puts a lot of pepper in its chicken, which I personally would've liked to do here.

Overall, the Chick-fil-A recipe was the best

Of the three, the Chick-fil-A replica recipe was clearly the best. Not only was it the most straightforward, but it was actually even better than the original product.

Popeyes is too good to try and imitate at home, and, for me, trying to copy KFC isn't worth it.

This story was originally published in May 2021 and most recently updated on April 8, 2024.

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