How can something at Chick-fil-A be underrated? Known so well for their traditional fried chicken sandwich, the grilled chicken is sometimes an afterthought on the menu. You should certainly consider it; grilled chicken is healthy, low in calories, and quite refreshing. The steps may seem daunting, but making Chick-fil-A’s grilled chicken is pretty simple and quite delicious. So can you make it? You bet you can!
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.
What’s the deal?
When you bite into a Chick-fil-A grilled chicken sandwich, there’s something unmistakably juicy about it. There are a ton of copycat recipes online, and most add milk, buttermilk and pickle juice — three things not in the official ingredients. So what’s the deal? What is that unique flavor going on with the Chick-fil-A grilled sandwich? And how do you get those awesome grill marks on the chicken?
Time to butterfly
The key ingredient to the grilled chicken is… chicken. Okay, well, you probably knew that, but unlike Chipotle, Chick-fil-A uses chicken breasts. The average cooked Chick-fil-A grilled chicken weighs four ounces — and your average chicken breast doesn’t. We need to do two things to get the chicken ready: butterfly it and flatten it. A knife and a meat mallet will get it done. To butterfly, lay the chicken flat and run your knife through the middle splitting the top and bottom into petty equal parts.
Grab your meat mallet
No meat mallet? No problem. I don’t have one either. There are plenty of ways to actually flatten a piece of chicken. The easiest way is the ole "double cutting board" trick. Place your piece of chicken between two cutting boards (lined with foil, if you prefer), and press. If you don’t think you have the strength to press the chicken down flat enough, you can gently use a regular rubber mallet on the cutting board for some added pressure.
Now we need to get that special flavor into the chicken. Most people will tell you that Chick-fil-A marinates their chicken in pickle juice. Well… kinda. If you read the actual ingredients for the grilled chicken sandwich, it’s not too far off from a pickle brine, which is equal parts water and vinegar. But there are some other things in there that don’t seem right — like orange juice, grape juice, and molasses, to name a few. There’s only one way to get to the bottom of this, and that’s to try them both.
If you accept that all that water, apple cider vinegar, etc, is just pickle juice, and that’s the flavorful, unique taste you get in the sandwich, then just get a jar of dill pickles, and pour the juice from it over a piece of chicken and marinate for a minimum of four hours. It’s not the prettiest sight in the world, but that will lock the pickle flavor into the chicken for sure.
The hard way
If you’re a bit more adventurous, try the ‘from scratch’ brine. The base is a basic pickle brine — half cup each of apple cider vinegar and water, and to that add a half tablespoon each of onion powder, garlic powder, and smoked paprika. Then comes the things that make this undecidedly not a pickle brine: a quarter cup of orange juice, and a tablespoon of grape juice, along with a quarter cup of chicken stock. Finish that off with a tablespoon of molasses and salt each, and we just created something kinda crazy that just might work. The chicken goes in the brine for a minimum of four hours.
Chick-fil-A used iceberg lettuce until 2013, when they switched to a more nutritious green leaf. The grilled chicken gets "green leaf lettuce" — and yes, that’s a thing. Take a look around at your local supermarket in the veggie section and you’ll find it there.
Some restaurants like telling you what kind of tomato they use, some don’t. Chick-fil-A is in the don’t family. It’s big and round, so a beefsteak or vine-ripe will do the trick. Just make sure the tomato is large enough to cover most of the bun — you should end up with tomato in just about every bite of the grilled sandwich.
If you can find a multi-grain bun, like Chick-fil-A uses, you’re better than me. I looked high and low and nigh a multi-grain bun appeared. You can substitute in a wheat roll here — it won’t be the same, but beggars can’t be choosers.
You don’t have to fire up the grill to make this — providing you have a grill pan. If you don’t have one and grilling is not an option, just live with the fact that you won’t have those cool sear marks on the final product. It’ll still taste great, I promise.
We need a pretty hot grill pan to get the product we want — about 425 degrees, or medium-high setting on your stove top. It’s hot, but we’re cooking quickly so it’ll be fine.
Drop a little oil onto the grill pan. I’m using flavorless safflower oil, because I don’t need any additional tastes in there besides the marinade, and safflower oil is great in high heat. Place your chicken onto the heated oil and let it cook for about three minutes. It’s going to be hot and make a lot of steam and noise — it’s supposed to.
If you really want the sear marks
Are you worried the chicken won’t have those awesome sear marks? Just take a small saucepan and put it on top of the chicken. You don’t have to press down hard, but that will assure that you’ll get some pro-style sear marks. About 10-20 seconds of force will do the trick here.
After three minutes, give the chicken a flip. Wow, look at those sear marks! It worked! We’re shooting for another three minute cook here.
Toast that bun
The chicken flip is the perfect time to start toasting the buns. We’re going to put this in a pan set on low for three minutes. That’ll get us the crisp we want for the bun.
If we timed this correctly, the buns should be done as the chicken finishes up. The build is fairly straightforward. To your toasted bun, add a piece of lettuce on the bottom, with two thinly sliced tomatoes on top — to cover the entire bun. Put the grilled chicken on top of that, and throw on the top bun. Simple, yet tasty.
We’re putting a sauce on, right?
You’re not eating any Chick-fil-A without sauce. You’re just not. The Chick-fil-A family of sauces is amazing, and we need one of these to complement the grilled chicken. We could make a CFA sauce, but the idea of the grilled chicken is that it’s healthy, clocking in at about 310 calories. If we piled on a Chick-fil-A sauce, at a whopping 140 calories a serving, we’re defeating the purpose. We need a lighter sauce that’ll work well with the grilled chicken.
Chick-fil-A introduced Sweet Sriracha in 2015. It’s the perfect mix of heat and sweet to make it irresistible, amazingly easy to replicate — and it’s only 45 calories a serving! In a bowl, combine a quarter cup of water, a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar, and a half tablespoon each of onion powder, garlic powder, ground ginger, and sugar; and a half tablespoon each of soy sauce and Tabasco sauce. The official recipe calls for red pepper, and the Tabasco will provide that heat. For the Sriracha, add two tablespoons of garlic chili powder.
Ideally, sauces come together a little better with heat, so put all that in a small saucepan and heat at low for a few minutes, and then add 1 ½ tablespoons of cornstarch. That’ll get this to tighten up. Plop that in the fridge for 20 minutes to cool it down, and you have a sauce that tastes exactly like the one from Chick-fil-A.
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.
The pickle juice sandwich
This is the one we soaked in just pickle juice. It sure looks pretty. The chicken looks bright and white, and when it sits on the bun like that the whole thing looks like it just came out of a Chick-fil-A box.But how’s the flavor?
How close are we?
So, between the two, which one is actually the way to do it? Chick-fill-A doesn’t use pickle juice; that’s for sure. The pickle flavor is almost overwhelming; it’s very tasty, and there’s nothing wrong with using pickle juice as a chicken brine, but it doesn’t taste like Chick-fil-A; it tastes like a Vlasic. The homemade marinade… wow! That worked! I had to make a few adjustments to get the flavor right; the key is controlling the grape juice, which can overwhelm the chicken if you’re not careful, but the kick that Chick-fil-A has to their grilled chicken is the OJ. This is super close to the grilled chicken from Chick-fil-A. You’ll be hard pressed to find one out there that tastes this close.
- 1 chicken breast, butterflied
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup water
- ½ tablespoon onion powder
- ½ tablespoon garlic powder
- ½ tablespoon smoked paprika
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 1 tablespoon grape juice
- ¼ cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 multigrain buns (or wheat if you can’t find them)
- 2 pieces green leaf lettuce
- 4 slices tomato
- Butterfly the chicken breast.
- Combine apple cider vinegar, water, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, orange juice, grape juice, chicken stock, molasses, and salt.
- Add chicken to in marinade and refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours.
- Heat grill pan to medium-high.
- Add safflower oil (or light flavorless oil) to grill pan.
- Cook chicken for 3 minutes on grill. To assure sear marks, lightly press the chicken with a small sauce pan. Flip chicken and cook other side for an additional three minutes,
- Add multi-grain (or wheat) buns to a separate pan, split-side down, set on the low, and cook for three minutes.
- To the toasted bottom bun, add green leaf lettuce, two tomatoes to cover the entire bun, and chicken. Follow with optional sauce, and the top bun.
- Eat and enjoy!