Before I joined The Takeout, neither air fryers nor chicken sandwiches were a big part of my life. Yet here I am, a couple years later, a veritable maestro of air fried delights and a leading authority on fast food chicken sandwiches. To celebrate this personal growth, I’d like to bestow upon you the greatest air-fried chicken sandwich you will ever have in your entire life.
In fact, I’ll go ahead and say it: this recipe is better than the deep-fried chicken sandwiches you can get from any fast food chain. I understand how unbelievable these claims sound, but please remember that they are coming from a professional consumer of chicken sandwiches.
This Ultimate Air-Fried Spicy Chicken Sandwich uses chicken thighs, not breasts, because thighs are indisputably the tastiest part of the chicken. The thighs are marinated in a mixture of buttermilk and pickle juice, which makes them meltingly tender and flavorful and keeps them from drying out in the air fryer.
After a nice, long soak, the chicken is breaded in a mixture of panko and crushed sour cream and onion potato chips, which contain just enough oil to create an ultra-crispy golden brown crust—something notoriously hard to achieve when using a convection oven to “fry” chicken.
Brioche buns should be used to make this sandwich, since their buttery richness is part of what makes Popeyes’ chicken sandwich so good. Keep the toppings simple: mayo, pickles, maybe some red onion, and as much hot sauce as you think you can handle.
Of course, you can use any buns, toppings, or flavored potato chips you want, but I beg you to try my recipe as written, because it would be a shame not to benefit from all of this writer’s hard work and expertise. Perhaps this sandwich will be just the thing to finally snag me that Honorary Doctorate in Chicken Sandwich Studies I so deserve.
Homemade Air-Fried Spicy Chicken Sandwiches
Makes 8 sandwiches (see note below)
For the chicken:
- 4 boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 1.5-2 lbs.)
- 3/4 cup buttermilk (or a good substitution)
- 3/4 cup brine from a jar of dill pickles
- 1-3 Tbsp. hot sauce, depending on how spicy you like things
For the breading:
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 2 eggs
- 3 cups pulverized sour cream & onion potato chips
- 1 1/2 cups panko
- 1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper (add more or less as desired)
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 2 tsp. annatto, for color (optional)
- 8 brioche buns
- Hot sauce (I use Cholula; use your favorite)
- Butter (optional)
- Sliced pickles
- Sliced red onions
Step One: Marinate the chicken
Trim any excess fat off the chicken thighs, then cut them in half so you have eight bun-sized pieces of chicken. Put them in a ziptop bag with the buttermilk, pickle juice, and hot sauce, then press out any extra air and seal tightly. Massage the bag for a little bit to get everything inside good and coated. Refrigerate the chicken for at least four hours, or overnight.
Step Two: Bread the chicken
Set up a breading station with three shallow bowls or pie pans. In the first bowl, add the flour. In the second bowl, pour in 1/4 cup of the buttermilk marinade from the chicken, add the eggs, and whisk until smooth. In the third bowl, mix the potato chip crumbs, panko, cayenne pepper, paprika, and annato (if using) until uniformly colored. Beside these three bowls, place a platter or baking sheet.
Remove one piece of chicken from the marinade, giving it a little shake to help the excess drip off. Dredge the chicken in flour, dip it into the egg mixture, coat in the crumb mixture, and set on your platter or baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining chicken, then discard the marinade.
Step Three: Air-fry the chicken
Preheat your air fryer to 400 degrees. Place as many pieces of chicken in your air fryer as will fit without overlapping. Cook on high for 8 minutes, flip, and continue cooking for another 5-7 minutes until the thighs reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (The timing will vary depending on the model of air fryer.) Continue air-frying in batches, keeping any raw chicken refrigerated until it’s ready to cook.
Step Four: Make the sandwiches
If desired, melt a little butter in a hot skillet and toast the buns. Slather the bun with mayonnaise, then top with chicken and drench it in as much hot sauce as you please. Top with red onion and slice pickles as desired, then go to town on that tender, crispy bad boy.
Note: Once cooked, the air-fried thighs can be frozen to be used in future chicken sandwiches. Allow to cool completely, then tightly wrap each piece of chicken individually in wax or parchment paper, or in plastic wrap. Put all the thighs into a large freezer bag, press out the excess air, seal tightly, and freeze for up to four months. To reheat: unwrap frozen chicken patties and air fry at 375 degrees for 4-6 minutes until hot and crispy.