Like many parents, I practically raised my children on chicken nuggets. Babysitter coming over, mom and dad rushing out? Throw a few nugs in the microwave, along with similarly heated-up corn. Quick school lunch? Nuked nuggets then packed in tin foil. I have even been known to make a makeshift “chicken burger” by sticking a few nuggets under a slice of melted cheese on a bun. Chicken nuggets are a bonafide staple in my house, right up there with squeezey applesauce, a bag of Cuties, and a jar of Nutella. But—have I been buying the best kind?
At Whole Foods I found Bell & Evans, while Trader Joe’s now has two types of nuggets: Chicken Breast Nuggets and Chicken Drummellas. Target offers nuggets from Applegate Naturals. Your regular grocery will still have large bags of Tyson or Perdue Simply Smart Organics chicken breast chunks*.
* But is a chunk the same thing as a nugget? According to the National Chicken Council, “Chicken nuggets are in fact typically made of the same meat that you see in the supermarket, that is, broiler meat… The meat is then ground and formed, just like you would form a meatball from a ground meat product.” The chunks seem to be whole pieces of breast meat, but in bite-sized form, so we kept the Perdue chunks in the mix.
To compare various different types of chicken nugget products—and to get out of having to cook Sunday night dinner—I drafted my family members to taste the lineup (without ketchup, the horror). Most all of the packages suggested the oven instead of the microwave as the preferred cooking method, so I lined them all up side-by-side on a baking sheet. Naturally, that method did kick the ass of my last-minute microwaving. There were even remarkable visual differences among the six, which made sense as we tried to parse out the taste variations between them. To organize our notes, we judged based on breading, chicken, flavor, and texture.
Bell & Evans started us off on a high bar, with “nice crunchiness,” according to my son, although my daughter protested that “the breading is sliding off of the chicken,” However, the chicken itself was “tender and juicy,” according to me, “palatable but bland” according to my husband. My daughter was even more of a hard-ass (“Tastes like a hamburger bun”) but once we tasted all the other middling options, our opinion of Bell & Evans skyrocketed by comparison.
“Tastes like McDonald’s,” said my son, which, granted, is considerable praise coming from him. The breading made this nugget a bit chewy, so that the texture was bouncy and springy. For the most part, these oval-shaped chicken discs held together well and were relatively juicy, if a little bland. But most of us were not fans of the texture; my husband called it “scratchy.” My daughter, who was now getting so poetic about chicken nuggets I feel like she should have my job, opined, “it’s kind of like eating gelatin chicken stock covered in sand.” She continued, “Not the most pleasant mouth experience… not sure if I like it.”
Considering that this is the chicken nugget the kids were practically raised on, I am surprised how poorly it fared. Why didn’t I do this taste test sooner? My son, possibly recognizing the food that made up a significant portion of his childhood diet, said that these had a “nice pepperiness” and were “really juicy.” My gourmand husband, on the other hand, was having none of it: “The texture is a nightmare; it’s like Jell-O.” My daughter said that despite “hard bits in the breading,” the nugget was far more soggy than crunchy, “and it seems like it’s supposed to be crunchy.” A shocking failure, though it gained a few nostalgia points.
Perdue’s Chicken Chunks got points for actually looking like chicken instead of oval-shaped chicken disks. Stated our resident adult skeptic: “These are professional chicken nuggets… the fact that they’re different shapes leads me to believe that they’re actual pieces of chicken.” The flavor and texture then, were all superlative, as well as being “juicy as hell.” Again, I’m not sure how much the chunk/nugget differentiation matters here (I have thought way too much about poultry the past few days). The first ingredient was listed as organic boneless skinless chicken breast with rib meat, similar to what the other products listed. But in our blind taste test, Perdue reigned supreme.
Trader Joe’s, what happened? I am enough of a fan to pick up pretty much any of TJ’s frozen products, regardless of whether I’ve tried them before. These new chicken nuggets are one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever tasted from Trader Joe’s. It was so bad we just marveled at it. “The batter actually turns into a paste!” exclaimed my husband. My daughter spat hers out. I even checked the packaging to try to find out what the noxious flavoring was from (it resembled a faint Lemon Pledge), to no avail.
The pale color didn’t help, resembling uncooked batter. To try to evaluate the quality of the chicken, then, we tried to peel the breading off: “That’s gonna take a while,” my husband said. Unfortunately, that made even more of a mess as my son pointed out on his plate: “Look at that! It looks like scrambled eggs.” When my kids hit the therapist’s couch in future years, they should be full of stories about how their mom made them eat six different kinds of nuggets for dinner one night and then expound at length on the experience.
“If you fried these nuggets, they’d actually be amazing,” said my husband, and so he actually went ahead and did just that. They were a lot better fried, having turned an actual brown color, with a nice, crunchy texture. Granted, deep frying nuggets is a bit labor-intensive and not sure how people normally prepare them, so we can’t give too many points for that. But my husband liked the deep-fried version enough that he would consider these as a plan B when he’s making, say, orange chicken. Because otherwise I don’t know how we would use up this whole bag that now lives in our freezer.
Trader Joe’s, take two. Compared to those awful nuggets, the more familiar drummellas (what kind of name is that?) tasted better, but not by much. The kids said they had a “weird taste,” which was strange since this is the second most popular brand of chicken nuggets in our house after the Tyson. The texture seemed oddly rubbery and chewy. By now we despaired of being so hard on the Applegate and Bells & Evans nuggets, which were chicken nugget ambrosia by comparison.
These were like bland chicken ping-pong balls. Airy, but no density and no flavor. Not only did the chicken not taste like chicken, but ever the breading didn’t really taste like anything, like no seasoning was involved in the process of making these. Maybe they would be good for the pickiest of picky kid eaters who don’t like food that tastes like anything. We’re honestly stumped at who else would eat these.
Perdue Simply Organics Lightly Breaded Chicken Breast Chunks
Trader Joe’s Chicken Breast uggets
Don’t go by the old familiar stand-by! Just because most people in the world default to Tyson chicken nuggets in the giant red bag does not mean they are necessarily the best. And it may even be worth that trip to the upscale market or the organic section for your superior nugget find.