If you missed the release (or re-release) of Popeyes chicken sandwich, you’re not alone. Things got kind of crazy out there, with managers working serious overtime hours, people fighting in the streets, and a woman inexplicably destroying her car trying to pass other cars in the drive-thru line.
All for what: A chicken sandwich? Well, a chicken sandwich you can get on a Sunday, anyway.
Popeyes might have run out of sandwiches (at least in some locations), but you can still get your hands on one — from the comfort of your home, no less. We taste-tested the real deal before heading to the kitchen to try to replicate it. We identified a few key ingredients — the buttery, brioche bun and crispy pickles were pretty easy to figure out — but had to use our culinary investigative skills to determine the rest of the ingredients.
Did our copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich turn out anywhere close to the original? Read on to find out.
Gather your ingredients for the perfect copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich
There is surprisingly little information out there about the Popeyes chicken sandwich.
At the time of this article, the Popeyes Nutrition Guide wasn’t available. So the only information we had to go on was our taste buds, and the description on Popeyes’ menu. It describes the sandwich as a "tender all-white meat chicken breast fillet," so we picked up a few boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They go on to say the chicken is marinated, hand-battered, and breaded in their "all new buttermilk coating," so buttermilk went on our ingredients list, too, along with crispy pickle chips, mayonnaise, and brioche buns.
From there, we had to make some assumptions, so we let our taste buds help us out. For the Louisiana seasonings in the breading, we started with all-purpose flour and added white pepper, black pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper.
Our experience making fried chicken copycat recipes also told us that MSG was almost definitely on this ingredients list, and sure enough the tester batch we made without it didn’t turn out as good. The final ingredient was baking powder, added to the breading mixture to achieve that light, tender breading that doesn’t turn out dense.
You’ll find the full list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions, at the end of this article.
You can’t use any old bun to make a copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich
Fast food hamburgers are often characterized by sesame seed buns, but that won’t work when creating the perfect Popeyes chicken sandwich. Part of what makes this sandwich so damn good is its soft, buttery bun. Sure, any bun becomes rich and flavorful when it’s griddled with butter, but what makes brioche so delicious is that it’s made with butter.
Most bread recipes call for milk, butter, and eggs, but brioche recipes contain a lot of those last two ingredients. According to the Kitchn, brioche dough is enriched with extra butter and eggs, giving it a rich, buttery flavor that’s similar to cake. It’s not sweet, though, which makes it a perfect bread to pair with savory meats like fried chicken. The textural contrast between the soft brioche bun, the crispy chicken, and crunchy pickles is just about perfect, too.
If you can’t find brioche, sweet Hawaiian buns are the closest substitute, but they’re notably sweeter than brioche. You could use a potato bun or a hamburger bun, but the sandwich definitely won’t taste the same.
Spicy mayo or regular mayo for your copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich?
When you order your Popeyes chicken sandwich, you get a choice: classic or spicy mayonnaise. When we made our test batch, we opted for the classic mayonnaise (another way to say regular old mayonnaise). The spicy breading had plenty of flavor, and we wanted to be able to taste the fried chicken as much as possible. That said, their spicy mayonnaise is delicious and easy to make at home.
When Thrillist interviewed Popeyes Vice President of Culinary Innovation and Head Chef, Amy Alarcon, they revealed that the spicy mayonnaise is nothing more than mayonnaise whipped together with the same spices that go into the spicy fried chicken. Easy enough, right?
We put a batch together with cayenne and garlic powder, but we thought it was missing something. After we added a splash of hot sauce and a pinch of paprika, it was perfect. The exact ingredient quantities are listed at the end of this article, if you’re interested in spicing up your Popeyes chicken sandwich with their spicy mayonnaise.
The buttermilk brine is seriously important for the Popeyes chicken sandwich
Okay, now that you have all your ingredients on hand, it’s time to get started. The first step in making Popeyes chicken sandwich is all about the brine. If you’re running short on time, you could skip this step, but your sandwich won’t turn out anywhere close to the original. We’ve fried unbrined chicken breasts before, and they tend to turn out dry and chewy.
You see, buttermilk is a slightly acidic version of regular milk, so it works like the vinegar or lemon juice you’ll find in regular marinades. These acidic ingredients tenderize meat, breaking down the proteins to ensure that each bite is juicy and delicious.
Buttermilk has become a go-to ingredient in Southern fried chicken recipes because it also has a tangy flavor that pairs well with a wide variety of spices. Not only that, but buttermilk will help the flour mixture cling to the chicken, creating a better crust.
Buttermilk is a perishable ingredient, and we always find ourselves with more than we needed after making a recipe that uses it. Luckily, powdered buttermilk works just as well in baking and fried chicken recipes, and it’ll last up to a year after you open it.
Trimming up the chicken breasts for the perfect copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich
Before you pop the chicken breasts into the brine, you’ll want to trim them first. This is the trickiest part of the Popeyes chicken sandwich. It requires a sharp knife and a steady hand to butterfly the chicken breasts, slicing them in half crosswise to create four fillets that are roughly 1/2 inch thick. Then, you’ll want to slice off the thin tail end of the chicken breast, squaring up the breast so it will fit on the bun.
If you buy your chicken breasts from a butcher, you can always ask them to do this step for you. Alternatively, you can slice the chicken breasts in half lengthwise, which is a much easier cut to make at home. Keep in mind that the chicken has to be 1/2 inch thick to mimic the perfect Popeyes chicken sandwich. Leaving the breasts at their original level of thickness will create a very tall sandwich that might be hard to eat.
When the chicken is sliced, place it in the bowl with the brine and cover it with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for up to four hours to let the buttermilk work its tenderizing magic.
What’s in the breading for the perfect copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich
While the chicken is brining, you can get to work making the breading. It’s a pretty simple combination of all-purpose flour and spices — salt, ground white pepper, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder, to be precise.
Then, we add in the two secret ingredients. The first is MSG (monosodium glutamate). This ingredient definitely gets a bad rap, but glutamate is a naturally-occurring substance that’s found in food like tomatoes or aged cheese. Using it gives the chicken a boost of savory flavor, and your sandwich won’t be the same without it.
The second secret ingredient isn’t really that secret — it’s baking powder. Some people use cornstarch in their fried chicken batter, but cornstarch creates a super-crisp crust that just isn’t right for the Popeyes sandwich. Popeyes fried chicken has more of a tender, airy quality, so we added baking powder, which creates gas bubbles to keep the breading nice and light.
Heat up the oil to make copycat Popeyes fried chicken
Before you bread the chicken breasts for your copycat Popeyes fried chicken sandwich, you’ll want to start heating up the oil. It can take 10 to 15 minutes for the oil to preheat, depending on whether you’re using a Dutch oven or wok on the stove or an electric tabletop fryer.
You may notice that we’re cooking lower than most fried chicken recipes, which call for 350 or 375 degrees Fahrenheit oil. For starters, our chicken doesn’t contain bones, so it will cook faster. If we cooked it at a hotter temperature, the insides might overcook and become dry by the time that the outside is nice and crispy.
We also want to replicate that light, tender breading that makes Popeyes chicken so famous. This fried chicken isn’t about a thick crust; it’s crispy but doesn’t feel heavy. Frying at 325 degrees is hot enough to start the browning process and keep the breading from becoming soggy, but not so hot that it will do it quickly and form a hard crust.
Dredge the chicken breasts for copycat Popeyes fried chicken
The next step in our sandwich-making process is to bread up the chicken. You’ve already prepared the flour coating, but you’ll also want to create a mixture of buttermilk and egg that will help the breading adhere to the chicken breasts. Feel free to add an egg to 1/2 cup of the seasoned buttermilk that was used for the brine, or you can mix the egg with a fresh batch of buttermilk.
From there, remove the chicken from the brine and let any excess liquid drop back into the bowl. Place the chicken into the flour mixture and turn it until all sides are lightly coated in flour. Then, dunk the chicken into the egg mixture (sorry, your hands might get a little messy during this step!) before placing it back into the flour mixture. On this second round in the flour, press the chicken firmly into the flour until a crust builds. If you don’t see any craggly edges on the chicken, toss it around in the flour a little bit until the breading becomes nice and bumpy.
We don’t like to let the chicken sit for too long once it’s breaded. Serious Eats author Kenji López-Alt says that you run the risk of creating a tough, brittle crust when you rest dredged chicken. The flour absorbs too much moisture, so we’d just as soon fry the chicken as soon as it comes out of the flour.
Fry the chicken for the perfect Popeyes chicken sandwich
This part’s the easy part: After the chicken has a craggly flour coating, gently drop it into the hot oil using your fingers (if you’re brave) or a pair of kitchen tongs. No matter what you do, be very careful to avoid splashing that extremely hot oil onto your hands. If the oil is hot enough, the chicken should bubble up and float near the surface of the oil.
Cook the chicken for 6 to 8 minutes, flipping it halfway through if you need, until the center of the chicken reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read meat thermometer. Remove the chicken to a paper towel-lined plate or a cooling rack to remove any excess grease from the fryer.
You may be able to fit all four pieces into your fryer at once, but we were only able to fit two comfortably at a time. Overcrowding the fryer isn’t recommended, as it can cause the oil level to drop drastically and prevent the crust from becoming crispy.
You can hold the fried chicken in a 200-degree oven while you finish frying the rest of the batch, keeping everything nice and hot while you wait.
Prepare the bun and build the perfect copycat Popeyes chicken sandwich
While the chicken is frying, you’ll want to toast up the brioche buns. Adding a lightly crunchy edge to these soft buns creates a beautiful textural contrast, part of what makes Popeyes chicken sandwich so irresistible! Because of their odd shape, you can’t exactly pop them in a toaster, but you can certainly toast them on a hot skillet.
You’ll want to make sure to have softened butter for this step because cold butter can tear into the delicate crumb on the brioche. If you happened to forget to pull out the butter, you can grate it on a microplane to make it easier to work with. Spread the butter on the top and bottom bun and place them butter-side down on a hot griddle or skillet (we like using our cast-iron skillet). After about two minutes, the bread should be lightly crispy and golden brown.
From here, it’s finally time for the sandwich build. Add the mayonnaise to the top and bottom bun, lay down a layer of pickles, and top it with the fried chicken. If you’re feeling civilized, you can cut the sandwich in half, but let’s be real; you’re probably going to eat the whole thing in one sitting anyway.
How close did we get to Popeyes chicken sandwich?
Okay, let’s start with the thing that Popeyes did better: their chicken fits perfectly onto the bun, and ours…well, it’s a little large. Even though we butterflied the breasts, our fried chicken still turned out much taller than Popeyes’. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does give our sandwich an "our eyes might be larger than our stomachs" appeal.
Other than that, we totally nailed this thing. The chicken itself was super juicy and tender, and the breading was crispy without being heavy. The spices were there, but they weren’t over the top, and the soft, buttery bun was so good, we could have eaten it by itself.
Finally, although it’s such a simple addition, pickles really do take this sandwich to the next level. After eating this sandwich, none of us were even mad that the sandwich is sometimes temporarily unavailable; we can make it at home, all without having to battle it out in the drive-thru.
- 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1-½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup baking powder
- 2 and ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 and ¾ teaspoons MSG
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 and ½ cup buttermilk
- Neutral oil for frying, like canola or peanut oil
- 4 brioche buns
- 4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
- 12 to 16 pickle slices
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- ½ teaspoon hot sauce
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne
- In a large bowl, combine 1 cup buttermilk, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon MSG and whisk until they’re well mixed.
- Trim off the thin, tapered end of the chicken and butterfly each breast, slicing it in half crosswise to create four fillets that are roughly ½ inch thick.
- Add the chicken to the brine and cover it with a piece of plastic wrap. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for four hours.
- Make the breading in a large bowl by combining the flour, baking powder, remaining salt, remaining MSG, white pepper, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder.
- In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk.
- In a large Dutch oven or wok, heat 3 inches of oil over medium-high heat. If you’re using an electric tabletop fryer, fill the unit to its MAX line. When the oil reaches 325 degrees, reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Remove the chicken from the brine and shake off any excess liquid. Dip the brined chicken into the flour mixture, pressing it lightly until the flour adheres. Dunk the chicken into the egg mixture before returning it to the flour mixture, pressing it down firmly into the flour. Toss the chicken around in the flour mixture a bit to create a craggly, bumpy flour coating.
- Shake off any excess flour and carefully drop the chicken into the hot oil. Be careful not to overcrowd the fryer. Depending on the size of your fryer, you should be able to fry two to four chicken pieces at a time.
- Fry the chicken until it’s golden brown and crispy on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes, and a meat thermometer probed into the center of the chicken registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove the chicken to a paper towel-lined plate and allow the oil to come back up to temperature before frying the rest of the chicken.
- Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Butter the insides of each top and bottom bun with ½ tablespoon of butter. Place the buns butter-side down on the skillet and cook until they’re golden brown and toasted, about 2 minutes.
- Make the sandwiches by coating the bottom and top bun with ½ tablespoon of mayonnaise. For spicy mayonnaise, combine the mayo, hot sauce, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne before spreading it on the bun.
- Add three or four pickles to the bottom bun and top it with the fried chicken. Finish the sandwich by placing the top bun on top of the fried chicken.