The Absolute Best Fast Food Chicken Nuggets, Ranked
All nuggets are good. But only some nuggets are great.
When the cafeteria served chicken nuggets at school, you were having a great day. Now you’re older, and you’re confronted with the downsides to being an adult (bills, work responsibilities, an acute awareness of your own mortality). But the one big plus is that every day can be chicken nuggets day if you want it to be.
Chicken nuggets have never been more delicious (or more culinarily creative!) than they are right now. To help you decide which drive-thru you should pull into next, we hit up more than a dozen of the country’s biggest chains that serve the humble, satisfying chicken morsels you know and love. More specifically, we judged them on important criteria like juiciness of the chicken, creativity, and overall flavor. Here are the best ones in America.
Do not go to Cook Out for the chicken nuggets. The breading is well-seasoned, but that’s about where the positives end. The meat is squishy and while we know chicken nuggets aren’t typically made with the highest quality chicken at fast food restaurants, Cook Out does a good job of reminding us of that. There are six sauces to choose from—Cook Out Sauce, BBQ, Honey Mustard, Polynesian, Ranch, Buffalo—but it doesn’t matter because they can’t save these nuggets.
It’d be cool if DQ had a rotisserie behind the counter with tiny chicken bites spinning around on it, but sadly not all dreams can come true. In reality, the bites may draw comparisons to Chik-fil-A size-wise, but that’s where the comparisons stop. Here’s the good news: these breading-free chicken morsels are undeniably juicy. But there’s a fine line between juicy and soggy, and they err on the side of the latter. Some bites are all gristle, while others are like eating a nugget that’s been soaking in a vat of cooking oil for hours. DQ deserves some credit for the clever “rotisserie chicken bite” branding, but it’ll make you long for a standard breaded nugget.
“Cardboard chicken nothings” is a more apt description of these popcorn nuggets. The nugget overall lacks any sort of crispness, and the meat itself isn’t juicy at all, though it lacks the gristly quality of an ultra-low quality budget nugget. And the breading features plenty of black pepper seasoning, which saves it from lacking any flavor whatsoever. If you’re pulling up at Sonic, do yourself a favor and grab a burger along with an ice cold slush, blast, or shake. Skip the nugs.
Wendy’s seemingly focused so much on the spicy part of the “spicy nugget” that it forgot the nugget element is equally important. While the spicy end of the bargain delivers (and lingers a fair amount even after you’ve had a couple bites), and most of the nuggets are crispy, the nugget is subpar overall. It’s an uber-thin, dry, gristle-filled item. The heat is its only redeeming quality. You’re better off licking the seasoning from this nugget and eating a satisfying Wendy’s Crispy Nugget instead.
White Castle instantly earns points for taking the basic chicken nugget form factor and engineering it into a ring-like shape, though the execution is a tad questionable. Ours resembled flattened chicken discs with holes in the middle. While traditional nuggets don’t typically inspire philosophical questions, these left us wondering about the point of the ring shape before we dived in for a taste. But upon first bite, it became a little clearer. Our theory is that it’s all about the surface area, though we’re admittedly not great at math. Going with a flat ring shape with a circular punch out in the middle results in more breaded surface, which thereby results in additional crispiness. This extra crisp is delightful, but the chicken within is too dry, flat, and flavorless to satisfy a craving for chicken nuggets.
Ever want to eat a starfish you find washed up on the beach? Us either, but this star-shaped chicken nugget is much tastier anyways. The stars aren’t juicy in the least (and Carl’s should consider adding any kind of seasoning whatsoever), but the chicken to breading ratio is acceptable, each nugget is crisp, and there’s something about the small joy of devouring a tiny star bite by little bite. If you’re someone who eats primarily with their eyes, this is the nugget for you. If you’re super hungry, it might make more sense to supplement these with one of the chain’s massive burgers.
These small pieces of chicken are available to order by the half pound (with fries), and that’s a great thing because their size and crispiness make them delightfully poppable. The breading is well-seasoned and holds up well in the cardboard container in which the bites come packed, leaving you with a mountain of bite-sized vehicles for the BBQ, Honey Mustard, Ranch, and Frank’s RedHot Buffalo sauces you can get on the side. Like with a lot of chicken bites from fast food chains, many of these come with a lot of breading and little visible chicken inside. And the ones that did contain a substantial amount of chicken were often on the dry side and gristly, hence the need for more and more sauce. Get them with the Frank’s Buffalo sauce. You’re gonna need it.
It may seem counterintuitive to say that a chicken nugget tastes like actual chicken. After all, don’t all chicken nuggets taste like chicken? Actually, no. Many fast food nuggets taste like salty, deep fried breading with a hint of black pepper. But not chicken. That’s why this BK nugget is a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about it on the surface—sure, the morsels are suitably crispy, and there’s significantly more chicken here than in skimpier nuggets elsewhere. But this is higher in the ranking because the nugget imparts superior chicken flavors, plain and simple. It’s one of the chicken-ier nuggets in fast food, and in a sea of nuggets, that stands out.
Unlike the chain’s Spicy Nuggets, its Crispy Chicken Nuggets are worthy of having a cult following. They’re much thicker nuggets that pack plenty of chicken into each one. The best nuggets have mastered the perfect chicken-to-breading ratio, and Wendy’s has solved this eternal riddle. The black pepper seasoning is noticeably delicious, and adds a subtle kick. Maybe one day the brand will offer a half spicy and half crispy nugget deal, letting you experience both spicy heat from one and superior chicken from the other.
Let’s put that unpleasantness with the whole “grilled nuggets” thing behind us and focus on what Chick-fil-A does better than any other fast food chain: breaded chicken nuggets. Why are these so perfect? Is it the MSG in every bite? Is it because it’s pressure cooked? The hand-breading? The high quality chicken that’s practically gristle-free? You probably know the answer: it’s all of these things. Chick-fil-A has the best chicken nuggets in fast food.
Each bite is perfectly juicy without being oily. The breading is uneven, and in some spots on the nugget, there’s barely any—a stark contrast to the uniform breading in every other fast food nugget. This should be a ding against the Chick-fil-A nugget, but it’s not. If there’s not a ton of breading in one spot, that’s just dandy because you’re going to get a mouthful of crispy, delicious chicken. It doesn’t even need sauce (though there are solid options).
This is what chicken nuggets should be, but rarely are. It’s why the chain inspires such strong devotion. If you want great nuggets, you can certainly enjoy Chicken McNuggets or KFC Popcorn Nuggets and go about your day. But if you eat these nuggets for dinner one night, by the time you’re done, you’re already planning for when you can eat them again.