May 25, 2022

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Is Food In You

The 21 Best Fast Food Chicken Nuggets, Re-Ranked For 2022

19 min read


These days it’s always “chicken sandwich this, chicken sandwich that.” But what about the nugget? The chicken nugget is as integral to fast food as the cheeseburger and French fries. When McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget in 1983, it started a love affair with boneless processed chicken that would change the landscape of fast food forever. Now, in 2022, almost every major chain in the vast landscape of fast food has a chicken nugget on the menu and we’ve come such a long way from the nuggets of the 80s, which were full of nerves, skeletal muscle, and who knows what else, that the vintage stuff would fall right out of our top 20 (but not below DQ).

So today we’re celebrating the mighty nugget by ranking every fast food chicken nugget we could get our hands on in search of the GOAT. We took our original nugget ranking from last year, which topped out at 16, and added 5 new nuggets to the list, re-tasted each and re-ranked them. That’s 21 freaking nuggets!

We hit fried nuggets, grilled nuggets, new nuggies on the scene, and even ate some chicken that was in questionable shape — Burger King’s Chicken Fries and White Castle’s very weird Chicken Rings — in order to give the most comprehensive picture of what’s out there and what’s worth eating. Ready? Let’s eat!

21. Dairy Queen — Rotisserie-style Chicken Bites

Dairy Queen

Calories: 160

Rotisserie-style chicken nuggets? This nugget is serving a pretty niche market and we think it’s pretty safe to assume the type of people who love rotisserie chicken aren’t the type of people who want it nugget style. We know this because if they were, Boston Market would’ve done it already.

Rotisserie is all about bone-in roasting, this is predictably dry, with a flavor that tastes of cheap onion powder and salt with a weird hint of rosemary on the backend that tastes oddly artificial and overly fragrant.

The Bottom Line:

Run! You won’t find a worse nugget on this planet. These are aggressively bad.

Find your nearest Dairy Queen here.

20. Burger King — Chicken Nuggets

Burger King

Calories: 482 (10 piece)

Over the couple of years that I’ve been covering fast food, I’ve grown a strange affinity toward Burger King. I’ve roasted this bottom-tier burger chain so hard that they’re one of the only fast food chains that isn’t regularly blowing up my email advertising their newest menu items, but they’re also the only fast food chain that I have Google Alerts set for.

I desperately want Burger King to win one of these rankings. I don’t know why, but I do.

So when I re-tasted this nugget, I had my thumb on the scale, I was laser-focused on anything that might resemble a likeable flavor. Alas, this nugget is truly one of the worst. The meat is strangely wet, almost sweaty, and the batter is never crispy, it’s a soggy mess with mouthfeel that’s akin to a slightly damp sponge. It tastes like someone chewed up a Tyson chicken nugget, spit it out, let it dry in the sun until it hardened, and then breaded it, fried it, and threw it in a box with the BK insignia. You could leave a McDonald’s McNugget on the floor of a Burger King drive-thru, let a bunch of cars run over it, let it marinate in oil stains and — okay, maybe I’ve gone too far. This at least tastes like black pepper.

The Bottom Line

One day Burger King, you’ll make me proud. I just know it. For now, order the Chicken Fries instead!

Find your nearest Burger King here.

19. Sonic — Jumbo Popcorn Chicken

Sonic

Calories: 490 (medium order)

“Jumbo Popcorn Chicken” sounds like it’s going to taste like bad fair food, but this really isn’t that bad and we’d say it’s a significant step up from the entry that came before. The chicken is close enough to being juicy that we’ll call it “juicy-adjacent,” and the batter holds its crispiness even after being dunked in sauce. The nugg features a strong pepper-forward flavor that is heavy enough to cut through when paired with any (or every!) dipping sauce at Sonic.

This chicken lives up to its name, too. These are indeed “jumbo bites” — popping a whole one in your mouth will be too much chicken to chew at one time, sort of defeating the purpose of it being a nugget.

Still, if you’re at Sonic your money is better spent on some of their other sides, like the mozzarella sticks, chili cheese tots, or jalapeño poppers. Measured up against all of the other choices you have for sides, I’m not sure why’d you’d ever order these.

The Bottom Line:

Not bad, but easily one of Sonic’s weaker snack offerings.

Find your nearest Sonic here.

18. Carl’s Jr — Chicken Stars

Carl

Calories 270 (6 piece)

I had to put these nuggets in their proper place. In our ranking last year, I gave this the eleventh place spot and I knew I was doing something ridiculous. This is fast food at its absolute worst. I don’t mean in terms of flavor — I still have a nostalgic love for these weird star-shapped nuggies — but the very fact that these are cut into the shape of stars is quite frankly, disgusting.

Bite into this chicken and stare into that weird webby spongey texture, and tell me you don’t feel just a bit nauseated. Texture aside, the coating is crispy and the star-shape works really well for multiple dippings, you can go star-point at a time until you’re left with a nub of chicken for that final dunk.

Be warned though, the longer. you take to eat them, the harder they’ll get until they eventually become completely inedible.

The Bottom Line

Chicken the way you’ve always wanted it — in the shape of a star. Really? Just me?

Find your nearest Carl’s Jr here.

17. Rally’s — Chicken Bites

Rally

Calories: 760 (half pound chicken bites box)

I think nuggets are best served not as a meal in themselves, but as a side. An additional snack when you’re feeling extra indulgent and the sandwich and fries combo just isn’t enough. The fact that Rally’s considers this a meal — and they do, that’s why they sell a half pound box as the minimum order — is this nugget’s weaknesss because while they’re okay, they’re not good enough to warrant gorging on a giant box full.

They have a crispy-almost-dusty-dry batter that soaks up sauce excellently and the white meat chicken inside isn’t overly processed and spongey, but also isn’t particularly juicy or tender.

By the time you’re done with the box, you’re going to be burnt out from these things. If chicken is going to be your whole meal at Rally’s, we suggest you opt for the Mother Cruncher chicken sandwich instead. If only so that you can say “Can I get a Mother Cruncher, please?”

The Bottom Line:

Good, but not good enough to make it through an entire half-pound order.

Find your nearest Rally’s here.

16. Burger King — Chicken Fries

Burger King

Calories: 429

Wow Burger King, look at you, ranking in at sixteen! That’s… not the bottom! In truth part of me considered not even including this chicken… thing on this ranking because you could easily make the case that this isn’t a nugget. But it’s not exactly what Burger King says it is either, it has nothing to do with french fries except that it’s shaped like one. And what’s in a shape? That which we call a nugget by any other name would taste just as sweet.

Boom, Shakespeare.

Anyway, this fried chicken product that lands somewhere between being a chicken strip and a nugget has an odd overly peppered flavor, but at least it doesn’t taste like roadkill, like the BK Nugget. It has a better mouthfeel and an interesting lingering flavor garlic flavor that pairs well with BBQ sauce.

The Bottom Line:

Burger King’s best chicken product that isn’t sitting between two buns.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

15. White Castle — Chicken Rings

Chicken
White Castle

Calories: 320 (5-piece order)

I can now proudly say that I can finally cross off White Castle from my fast food bucket list (Culver’s and Whataburger, I’m coming for you next) and while I fully expected these to be one of the worst fast food fried chicken products I’d ever eaten, I’m actually surprised to say that White Castle’s Chicken Rings aren’t even close to being as bad as the worst chicken option on this list.

I can’t say that I’m not disturbed that they’re shaped like rings. The batter here is the real star of the show, it’s crispy, well-seasoned (classic pepper, onion, garlic combo), and while highly processed, the chicken inside is 100% white meat. That said, I get that they are a White Castle favorite but I have absolutely no nostalgia for this chain — in that context, these nuggets are good but not even mid-tier.

The Bottom Line:

A classic sure, but you can go your entire lives never eating this chicken and you won’t be missing much.

Find your nearest White Castle here.

14. Jack in the Box — Popcorn Chicken Spicy

Nuggets Ranked
Dane Rivera

Calories: 310 (Full Order)

This month Jack in the Box launched their new Popcorn Chicken in both classic and spicy flavors, making it the fourth fried chicken option at the chain. You’ve now got the choice between tenders, nuggets, a chicken sandwich, and these things, which are essentially nuggets but taste totally different. I never thought I’d say this but, chill out on the fried chicken, Jack in the Box.

These nuggets are pretty good, not great, not at all essential, but you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy an order. Jack in the Box allows you to choose between Spicy and Classic Popcorn chicken, as well as a 50/50 order which allows you to get the best of both worlds. I’d say order the 50/50, the ranking on these nuggets are interchangeable and the only reason I placed the Classic higher was that the spicy flavors here are a bit overpowering.

Not in heat, but in flavor.

The Bottom Line:

Good stoner food, nothing more.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

13. Jack in the Box — Popcorn Chicken Classic

Nuggets Ranked
Dane Rivera

Calories: 310 (Full Order)

They’re the same size, shape, and texture as the spicy version, only with a more balanced flavor of onion powder and black pepper.

The Bottom Line:

Order the 50/50 and you get the best of both worlds.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

12. Arby’s — Premium Nuggets

Nuggets Ranked
Dane Rivera

Calories: 470

Arby’s launched its new “Premium” Nuggets last year and they landed near the bottom of our old nugget list. I never felt like I gave these nuggets a fair shake, I had only tried them once and it was admittedly a bad batch, so at the urging of a lot of Arby’s heads who swear by this thing I tried this nugget again and… like, what are you all eating that makes you want to tout these are stellar?

I get the appeal, don’t get me wrong. The consistency of the meat here is a cut above what places like Burger King, Dairy Queen, and even McDonald’s have going on, but it’s 2022, the idea of an all-white-meat less processed nugget isn’t exactly novel. I mean Chick-fil-A has that and they marinate their shit. Step up your game, Arby’s.

Texture aside, these nuggets are dry and encased in a batter that is more powdery than it is crispy. Flavorwise it’s fairly standard stuff here, black pepper, salt, and probably a combo of onion and garlic powder.

The Bottom Line:

Arby’s can do better, they’ve got the meats!

Find your nearest Arby’s here.

11. Chick-fil-A — Grilled Nuggets

Chick-fil-A

Calories: 130

I know grilled nuggets aren’t anyone’s first choice, but if you must go grilled, get thee to Chick-fil-A because these are grossly underrated. Chick-fil-A has managed to make a grilled nugget that isn’t in the least bit dry. It’s juicy, flavorful, and pairs well with all of Chick-fil-A’s dipping options — what more can you ask for?

Having said all that, if you insist on going the healty route, as good as these are, they aren’t your best non-fried chicken choice. Ditch Chick-fil-A and go to El Pollo Loco if you really love flavor. There you will find flame-grilled chicken that actually has the charred flavor of fire, unlike these which only look like they’re charred.

The Bottom Line:

If you’re gonna get grilled nuggets, these are solid. But they don’t come anywhere close to being as good as their fried counterparts.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.

10. Wendy’s — Chicken Nuggets (non-spicy)

Wendy

Calories: 222

We probably wouldn’t think twice about whether or not these nuggets are good if their spicy sibling didn’t exist. Without that spicy exterior, Wendy’s non-spicy nuggets don’t have the addicting/lingering heat that helps to mask the weird spongey texture of this chicken meat.

The batter is a slight improvement, it’s lighter than the spicy version and doesn’t have that same jagged texture, and the meat is a little juicer and less dry. But the overall flavor just isn’t nearly as good. I don’t believe that spicy always trumps non-spicy, just check out our other chicken rankings, but in this case, the experience isn’t even close.

The Bottom Line:

Order the spicy nuggets or grab a chicken sandwich over these. Easily Wendy’s lowest-ranked chicken product.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

9. McDonald’s — Spicy Chicken Nugget

Nuggets Ranked
Dane Rivera

Calories: 420 (10 Piece)

We all desperately want these to be great but there is a reason McDonald’s has yet to make this limited-time chicken offering a permanent menu option. McDonald’s is smart enough to know that if they hold this baby back like the McRib, the novelty of being able to order them will boast sales. But when compared side by side with the OG McDonald’s McNugget, these don’t come even close to being as good.

I will say that they are legitimately spicy though, and that surprises me coming from McDonald’s. There is a sharp pronounced cayenne pepper burn on the aftertaste of this nugget and if you haven’t tried them they are definitely worth ordering. Unfortunately, right now they’re only limited to So-Cal McDonald’s locations, so if you live anywhere else you’ll just have to keep dreaming about what these might taste like.

You’re not missing tooooo much, though, trust. The batter here isn’t quite as airy as the OG McNugget, instead it clings to the meat and comes across as overly dried out.

The Bottom Line:

They’re novel, but they have nothing on the mighty McNugget.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

8. Jack in the Box — Chicken Nuggets

Jack in the Box

Calories: 238 (5 piece)

Jack in the Box first dropped their version of the chicken nugget in 2012 and ten years later, it’s the last remnant of JiB’s old chicken recipe. In the last two years, JiB has totally reformulated all of their chicken sandwiches, changed their chicken tenders, and added a new popcorn chicken option to the menu, but I still think JiB’s OG Chicken Tenders (which taste exactly like these nuggets) are the brand’s best attempt at the fried bird.

Please tell me I’m not alone in thinking this. Anyone?

I really like the batter here, it’s not as crispy as I’d like it to be but it has a great flavor, with heavy notes of black pepper and subtle undertones of garlic powder, plus a little onion powder that lingers nicely on the palate and cuts through the sauce. Still, I can’t help but think about how delicious those tenders used to be.

I wish we could have them back. *Sigh.*

The Bottom Line

These taste great paired with Jack’s BBQ sauce or Buttermilk Ranch and even better doused in Frank’s Red Hot. I know the day that these are discontinued is probably fast approaching and, frankly, I’m dreading that day.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

7. Popeyes — Chicken Nuggets

Popeyes

Calories: 225

Popeyes fans are probably fuming that these didn’t rank higher but this stuff just doesn’t deserve top five status. While the batter here is so much better tasting than a lot of the competition, thanks to a seasoning blend of the perfect ratio of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and each nugget supplies a great crunch and the chicken inside is sufficiently juicy and not dry, this has one of the worst mouthfeels in the game.

What holds these nuggets so far back is the awful, and I must reiterate for emphasis, awful texture that the actual meat inside has. It’s cubey, and chunky, providing a straight-up off-putting mouthfeel that totally ruins the experience. The batter is classic Popeyes though, and that’s good enough to rank it higher than most of the competition.

Still, for such a good brand, I expect more. Back to the lab with these one, Popeyes!

The Bottom Line

Yes, these are much better than some of the lower-ranked nuggets on this list, but I’m not sure I’d describe them as “great” and they’re easily one of Popeyes’ weakest chicken offerings. That texture is truly something awful but don’t take this review’s word for it — hit my full review to get a comprehensive understanding of why these majorly miss the mark.

Find your nearest Popeyes here.

6. The Habit — Crispy Chicken Bites

Nuggets Ranked
Dane Rivera

Calories: 410 (5-Piece order)

The Habit is pretty good at everything they do. Their chicken sandwiches are juicy and topped more creatively than all of the other fast food chains, they have juicy burgers in many different forms, and their new Chicken Bites are juicy, tender, and taste like unprocessed white meat chicken breast. I just don’t love the batter.

It’s powdery rather than crispy (very similar to what Arby’s and Burger King are doing) and a little boring in the seasoning department, tasting like little more than black pepper. It gets a mid-tier ranking because the chicken quality is good, but from a place that makes such great chicken sandwiches and salads, I expected a lot more.

The Bottom Line:

Good as a side order never as a meal. If you’re looking for something more hearty and filling, grab one of the chicken sandwiches or salads and you’ll be much more satisfied.

Find your nearest The Habit here.

5. KFC — Popcorn Nuggets

KFC

Calories: 690

KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets — wait a minute, since when were these things called “Popcorn Nuggets?” Is this a Berenstain Bears Mandela thing? I did the research and no, it’s not. For whatever reason KFC rebranded its Popcorn Chicken as Popcorn Nuggets in 2015. Why? Are nuggets easier to sell than popcorn chicken (someone needs to tell Jack in the Box)?

Along with the name change, KFC has also changed its formula from its original ’90s popcorn recipe and while I have no memory of what the OG recipe tastes like, I want to assume KFC is making these better than they ever have. The pieces are thicker than I remember, giving you a meatier bite of white meat chicken in KFC’s extra crispy style batter.

The meat feels pretty high quality here, too — at least as far as fast-food fried chicken goes. It looks, smells, and tastes like chicken, and really, what more can you ask for in a chicken nugget (the bar isn’t set too high)? Still, if you’re at KFC, you should probably just get the Original Recipe fried chicken and call it a day.

The Bottom Line

A strong and solid mid-tier nugget, not top five worthy but pretty damn close.

Find your nearest KFC here.

4. Wendy’s — Spicy Nuggets

Wendy

Calories: 470 (10 piece)

It took a viral tweet from Chance the Rapper to convince Wendy’s to bring back the beloved Spicy Chicken Nugget in 2019 and since then it looks this spicy treat has earned back its permanent spot on the Wendy’s menu. As we alluded to in our breakdown of Wendy’s regular nugget, these are such an improvement over their non-spicy counterparts that it makes Wendy’s other nugget seem like a straight-up waste of money. What makes these spicy nuggets so great is that they actually deliver on the spice with strong cayenne and black pepper flavors that will have you reaching for a swig of soda to help tamp down that lingering heat.

That sensation makes these nuggs pretty damn addicting. Just ask that dude who is eating them for life.

The chicken inside, admittedly… isn’t great. It has that same unappealing spongey-and-overly-processed texture as Wendy’s other entry and they’re considerably drier than the OG version, which is why Wendy’s is smart enough to let you pick up an order of just four. Four nuggets won’t give you enough time to bother yourself over thinking about what’s actually inside of them and how dry they are, you’ll be too busy dealing with that heat.

Originally we ranked this nugget number two in all of fast food. That’s kind of ridiculous. They’re good, they have a cult following and a lot of hype surrounding them, but when compared to some of the higher quality birds on this list, this pick just misses the mark. So we had to bump it back.

The Bottom Line

The spiciest nugget in the game. So spicy that it masks the nugg’s lesser qualities in the best way.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

3. Shake Shack — Chick ’n Bites

Shake Shack

Calories: 300

As delicious as Shack Shack’s Chick ‘n Bites are (when they’re good they are amazing) they have to be the least consistent chicken product in this entire ranking. I’m not sure if it’s because each nugget is hand-breaded, but I’ve had orders that range from “mouthwatering” to “soggy, inedible mess.”

When they’re good, they’re astounding thanks to an incredibly crispy and light cornstarch batter that houses moist and flavorful meat made from antibiotic-free whole muscle chicken, sous-vide cooked. On paper, that sounds amazing, but in actuality, if they aren’t piping hot and fresh, they’re soggy with batter that falls way too easily off of the meat.

So somedays you’ll bite into a nugget and find easily some of the juiciest, highest quality chicken nuggets in the fast-food universe. But once the outer batter gets wet from steam they just fall apart, and for that, the best I can give this nugget is top 3 status.

The Bottom Line

Delicious when they’re fresh, inedible when they’re not, which is a real problem if you order delivery.

Find your nearest Shake Shack here.

2. McDonald’s — Chicken McNuggets

McDonald

Calories: 420 (10 piece)

As we briefly touched on in the intro of this piece, the Chicken McNugget is arguably why chicken nuggets are even a thing in the fast food space. The McDonald’s McNugget is every kid’s (in every generation since X) favorite fast food treat and even grown-ass millennials are all over them, too (thanks to Pokemon and BTS, of all things). If this ranking was built purely off of nostalgia, these babies would certainly land in the number one spot.

But we didn’t rank these nuggets based on nostalgia. And even though McNugget has come a long way since its questionable beginnings (these nuggets used to be made with a blend of chicken meats, rather than white breast meat), they’re still not quite to the quality deserving of a position higher than this. Don’t get us wrong, when McNuggets are fresh, like most things from McDonald’s, they have this certain magic to them, but more often than not, you’re going to get a stale nugget.

A fresh McNugget is hot enough that you can’t really zero in on the weird texture of the spongey chicken meat inside and features a crispy batter that is still pretty much unbeatable. It’s airy, flakey, absorbs sauce perfectly, and is layered on in perfect ratio to the chicken inside.

Unfortunately, McDonald’s, with its snake-like drive-thru lines is almost always a hit-or-miss experience. When you get a bad McNugget the experience is bad enough to turn you completely off from chicken nuggets for a good grip of time. The texture of a stale nugget is akin to packing material, it’s almost flavorless and will reintroduce its bland aftertaste every time you burp for the rest of the day.

That doesn’t sit right with us. Literally.

The Bottom Line

Ordering a Chicken McNugget can be a gamble, but when they’re good, they’re great.

Find your nearest McDonald’s here.

1. Chick-fil-A — Nuggets

Chick fil A

Calories: 250 (8 piece)

Chick-fil-A’s chicken nuggets are inarguably great. It is Chick-fil-A’s best contribution to the fast-food space. Made from boneless chicken breast marinated in pickle brine and seasoned with a mix of black pepper, salt, paprika, a dash of chili powder and… we swear we can taste lingering notes of sugar in there, Chick-fil-A’s nuggets pack a great flavor with a crispy hand-breaded batter that locks in the chicken’s juiciness. If all the big brands are looking to Popeyes as inspiration for their new chicken sandwiches, then they need to look to Chick-fil-A when it comes to their nugget recipes. These nuggs are just in another class.

Aside from the pickle brine marinade, which locks in flavor and juiciness, the brand’s use of peanut oil to fry their chicken also sets it apart from the competition. The high smoke point oil cooks the chicken crispy and golden brown but leaves it juicy and perfectly cooked without drying the meat out. If they were a bit crispier or had a thicker batter they’d be even better, but from a pure flavor standpoint, it’s hard to beat Chick-fil-A’s nuggets.

The Bottom Line

The best chicken nuggets in the entire fast-food landscape and Chick-fil-A’s greatest menu item.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.



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