Of course, chicken nuggets have had their detractors over the years, as they’re often a beacon of twin American addictions, convenience, and processed foods. But they’re not going anywhere. Sales of frozen processed poultry (the category in which nuggets fall, along with frozen chicken patties) were up 19% from a year ago, according to market research firm IRI. Often a hero to harassed families looking for a protein that will please picky eaters, they are a staple for many. And considering all the options out there, it turns out you don’t have to settle for squishy, leaden nuggets.
To figure out which ones are worth your time, we’ve grabbed as many top-selling brands as possible – Tyson’s dominates the market, followed by store brands (we’ve included a number), then Lost, by IRI (in particular, its data were sourced from grocery, drugstore, mass market, convenience stores, military, and some club and dollar retailers, and covered the year ending August) – and added a few other options widely available. Note the distinction between “nuggets”, usually a product consisting of ground chicken, and “tenders”, which are intact pieces of meat, usually from the breast. While a few of our samples fell into the latter category, we relied on product names and chose those with markings that identified them as nuggets.
We prepared each according to their package directions and served them to a panel of eight tasters, offering only ketchup for an optional dipping sauce. The tasting was blind, meaning our panel didn’t know which nuggets were which, and they rated each one from 1 to 10, taking into account flavor, texture and appearance. , giving each a maximum score of 80.
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By the end of our session, we had eaten a lot of porridge and a lot of bland birds – even our top scorers were crying out for a sweet-spicy-tangy sauce. But not all nuggets are created equal, as we’ve discovered.
10. Good & Gather (target)
Phew. The clear and overwhelming loser of the pack, this store brand from Target offered little flavor, our panel unanimously agreed. Do none, in fact: the comments were mixed with variants such as “no flavor”, “very tasteless” and “no flavor”. One taster at least floated the charitable possibility that this sad nugget has a redeemable quality, suggesting it “looks like a vehicle for gravy.”
We had high hopes for this entrant, after a Great Value BBQ Sauce unexpectedly took the crown in our BBQ Sauces Tasting. Maybe the Walmart brand could serve up a winning combo of nuggets and dipping sauce? Alas, that was not to be the case. Our tasters found it light – “deflated” and “a bit thin”, with a heavier breading to meat ratio that many found unappealing. “Very little meat,” observed one. And the little chicken they found, they didn’t particularly like. “A bit old-fashioned”, according to a taster.
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Perhaps we should have expected more from the brand that unquestionably rules the roost in this category. Tyson sold nearly $2.2 billion worth of processed chicken products last year, more than all store brands combined (private brands accounted for less than $1 billion) and its competitor the closer, Perdue, which had sales of $600 million. But popularity is not always the best criterion of quality.
Many testers found the texture sadly soggy. “Wet,” said one. “Super wet,” said another. “Is it a nugget or a meat marshmallow?” “Total porridge. But a taster thought of someone who might like it. “Would be great for babies new to solid foods on the go,” they said.
Like the Great Value offering, many found this specimen unappetizing. But a few tasters noticed a bit of seasoning in the coating (good thing!), with one noting that it was one of the few brands to show attractive black pepper flecks. . And it seemed to be the first to veer into the territory of something you wouldn’t want to eat. “Nothing special, but very comforting,” said one. “Identifiably tasted like chicken,” was about as excited as our panel got.
Another brand which, according to our tasters, suffered from the scourge of over-breading. “A tiny little piece of chicken in the sea of crust,” as one said. “Often the breading taste,” said another. Some liked its appearance – the nicely browned crust, according to some – better than its taste, which was described as bland. “I liked the crispiness and texture of the coating but then…nothing.”
Those who detected flavor were unimpressed. “Like the inside of a walk-in freezer at Costco.”
5. Nature’s Promise (Giant)
Two tasters compared this one to McDonald’s chicken nuggets, which might or might not be a compliment, depending on what you think of those childhood staples of the Golden Arches (who popularized the term “nugget” for begin). A softer texture and a circle shape “indicating a level of perfection achieved by the craftsmanship” were some of the qualities our tasters discerned. “Looks like it’s going to be crunchy but it’s not,” one lamented. And artificiality was a diversion for many. “Chuck E. Cheese ball pit vibes.”
We slipped a single fake chicken nugget into the rotation, picking the winner of our 2019 plant-based nugget taste test, but obviously didn’t tell our sample judges who the impostor was. Most didn’t see it as such, although one saw through the subterfuge and declared it “something the old hippie co-ops around the neighborhood passed off as chicken.”
Several tasters liked the crispy crust of this one. And while some found the interior a bit bland, it hit the right notes for several testers. “I love this nugget,” exclaimed one of them. “Perfectly seasoned.”
This guy seemed up to classic standards for its category and evoked a certain nostalgia: “the Platonic ideal of a nugget,” “the chicken nugget of my imagination,” and “the familiar taste,” according to our panel. “It tastes more like a chicken nugget than the chicken itself,” one thought. Many liked that it wasn’t overly breaded and found the inside to be pleasantly juicy, although a few described it as “mushy”. And the detectable spice (“persistent pepper on my tongue”) was a selling point.
Recipe: Baked Chicken Nuggets with Warm Potato Salad
This brand differed from the others we sampled in that it was the only brand we bought in raw form – the rest was pre-cooked, the turn in the oven being used to thaw them and (hopefully) crisp them. Bell & Evans required a longer cooking time (25-30 minutes as opposed to the neighborhood of 15 minutes of others), which potentially makes them less practical for those in a real hurry.
Our tasters, however, might tell you it’s worth the wait – they almost unanimously praised the texture of real breast meat offered by this brand. To many, it looked more like chicken pieces than nuggets, partly because of the minimal breading. Although the natural texture drew praise, many tasters said the nugget was crying out for something to dip it into.
The Whole Foods store brand had a similar texture to the Bell & Evans product – rather than the processed interiors of most nuggets, it’s also made with chunks of whole breast meat. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Our judges clearly liked the style, awarding this one for its apparent high-quality, moist, and flavorful meat. “You don’t feel like you’re getting something machine cut,” one said. A downside of the natural style is that the nuggets were irregular – one taster who got a smaller specimen dubbed it “popcorn chicken”.
One taster imagined herself – usually not a nugget eater – keeping a bag in the freezer. “I would chop them up and toss them in a salad or tacos!” And while they might not be the nuggets of a 5-year-old’s dreams, that’s part of their charm. “Would be more likely to appeal to an adult palate.”