Food & Drink

Every Important Chicken Nugget Shape, Ranked

chicken nuggets
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Back in the 1950s, a food scientist by the name of Charles Van Der Nugg (citation needed) came across an innovation, one that allowed him to take a slurry of pureed meat and other animal byproducts and transform it into crispy, fried, bite-sized staples of fast-food restaurants, school cafeterias, and nights when your parents don't feel like cooking. And one of the beautiful things about these chicken nuggets is that they can come in pretty much any shape. Yet throughout the years, a few core shapes have emerged as the most influential, from the mainstays of the McNugget box -- boot, bone, bell, ball -- to more playful variations taking their inspiration from Jeff Goldblum's nightmares. 

Now, at this apex of list culture, we've taken on the hugely important, monolithic task of ranking the most influential chicken nugget shapes, taking into account the breading-to-meat ratio, they evenness of their cooking, juiciness, and overall fun. It was painstaking, but hey, sometimes we have to do the heavy lifting in this world. 

But first, a note: This list is based solely on shape, not the flavor of overall brands. We have excluded shapes based on specific movie characters, because, like many pleasures in life, Winnie the Pooh and Lightning McQueen nuggets are fleeting in nature (you can go ahead and pretend the dinosaurs are your favorite Owen Wilson character if it makes you feel better). We're also excluding tenders, which are full pieces of meat rather than a medley transformed into a pressable goop, and popcorn chicken, which is generally usually a small tender or just a tooth-breaking chunk of overcooked breading. 

9. Letters

Pressing pureed chicken goop into the shape of the alphabet seems like a good enough idea, and it works super well with potato products. But really, it’s compromising everything the chicken nugget stands for. The meaty bits are too thin, so they dry out. The holes in the letters mean that the surrounding parts are getting hit with heat from two sides. And aren’t chicken nuggets supposed to signal a break in learning? The only letters of importance here are n, o, p, and e. 

8. Rings

White Castle has a thing for taking familiar things and making them look funky, like that time they made burgers square, punched them full of holes, then hit them with a shrink ray. So when they decided to punch a big-ass hole in a perfectly good chicken disc, there was potential. But apparently, all the moisture generally found in a chicken nugget got sucked through that hole like some sort of dark vortex. Also… why don’t they sell chicken ring holes, like they do with donut holes? Is it just because a chicken ring hole is simply a nugget? Frankly, any snack that makes me philosophize this much isn’t worth it. 

7. Fries

Yes, this is a chicken nugget. And a long, skinny one that is invariably going to get massively overcooked and become an over-hard toothpick made of meat. Also, let's get real here for the three people who know what I’m talking about: Ever since the Dwight Yoakam's line of chicken fries seemingly disappeared, none -- not even Burger King -- have proven themselves worthy of your ranch dressing. Come back, Dwight. Bring those Chickin Lickin' Fries with you. 

6. Stars

The core of star-shaped nuggets is generally a tender, near-perfect bite, the kind of salty, juicy, plump mouthful that you’d want to anchor something that could, theoretically, explode into a supernova and transform a toaster oven into a vast new galaxy. But to get there, you have to cook it, and the points of the star generally suffer from this. It’s a huge dilemma. Do you cook them according to directions and get one perfect bite surrounded by five jagged, crunchy, dried out points? Or do you undercook it and risk chipping a tooth on the gross, cold center of a dying star? Neither is worth the risk. 

5. Spheres

Perfectly round, geometric chicken nuggets make me uncomfortable. Maybe it has to do with having read that only serial killers can draw perfect circles, but these just don’t sit well with me. Weirdly, the spherical shape seems to be exclusive to the kind of healthy, organic nuggets you generally find at Whole Foods and other high-end groceries where parents mistake things being expensive for being better for their kids. And also weirdly, those ones never taste as good. So the spherical ones lose any points they’d get for being associated with healthier options by virtue of making me think of serial killers and enduring a trip to Whole Foods. 

4. Ovals/bells

This is a chicken nugget at its purest form. Just a hunk of formed chicken with crispy sides and a plump middle. They’re juicy and tender and exist as the platonic ideal of highly processed, one-bite carnivorism. Also, let's go ahead and lump the bone in here, which is a specific McDonald's shape that looks like somebody simply squeezed an oval (AKA the "ball"). It brings nothing new to the table except the though of choking on a bone. 

3. Hearts

They're basically the bells, but with more love. And that goes a long way. 

Flickr/Liza Lagman Sperl

2. Boots

The most influential shape in the original McNugget roster, the Boot is a bridge between nugget tastes. Essentially, it's a standard nugget, with a meaty center and a perfectly crispy perimeter. But the toe of that boot is a revelation, an extra-crunchy little kicker bite that manages to stay juicy while offering a little extra texture. It's now a standard of most nug boxes, and the world is a better place for it. And it's technically Italian food, I think. 

1. Dinosaurs

So, some of that talk about inconsistent cooking and whatnot applies to the dinosaur set of nuggets, but wherein overcooking dries out a fry or star, it makes dinosaurs even more endearing. Part of that has to do with the general girth of the dino appendages, which manages to prevent the overall animal from drying out. They also have fat little bellies that seem to burst with salty juices. Plus, they're dinosaurs. Yes, I'm a grown adult. But you can bet your weight in fossilized amber that just seeing a nugget in the shape of a dinosaur makes it infinitely better. Still, even in the realm of the best nugget shape of all time, there are some subtle differences. So in the interest of science, I've also ranked the individual dinosaur shapes. 

5. Pterodactyl: It's a mess. It's too skinny, the wings and head throw the balance off, and the legs are just sad little wastes of space. 
4. Triceratops: This thing is just too abstract. It's all nubs and appendages -- why are its legs so long?! -- and and inconsistent texture.
3. Brontosaurus: Just a big fat hunk of meat with a bent, miniature chicken fry sticking out of it. Good, but you can do better. 
2. Stegosaurus: The center hunk of meat is perfectly tender, and the back spikes add a great texture. Yes, they dry out a little, but given their relatively small size, they don't ruin the affair like they do with stars, but rather make for a more complex nugget. 
1. T-Rex: He's basically the Boot, but with a tail instead of a toe. Plus, he's the apex predator. And you get to eat him. Which makes you the apex predator. 

Thrillist senior food editor Andy Kryza is a grown-ass man who overthinks processed foods and occasionally enjoys sandwiches made of dinosaur nuggets, white bread, and mayonnaise at 3am. Follow him to a full-blown latchkey flashback @apkryza