When a friend closed on his house, he and his wife celebrated with yummy, salty Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches. • Now they were refinancing and wanted to repeat the tradition. That was before Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, long known to run a tight Christian ship that shutters on Sundays, spoke out against gay marriage — and way before supporters lined up at the fast-food outlets to give the chain its single most lucrative day. Before politicians proposed bans and organized campaigns. Before the chicken conversation spun into a national debate, taking with it wayward Muppets, Palins and Facebook memes. • Average folks? They had to weigh their beliefs against those buttery buns. My friend didn't want to spend money at Chick-fil-A since the company was donating to causes he didn't agree with. But he wanted the food. • "There's a recipe going around online," I told him. "You could make it." • These things always sound easy. If you support a business, go. If you don't, don't. But the marriage of love and taste buds is complicated. Fast food involves corporate speed, secret blends and industrialized cookware. Could people have it both ways? Could an average cook recreate Chick-fil-A at home? I decided to try.
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There are at least half a dozen recipes for Chick-fil-A imitations online, some posted before the hullabaloo, some after. They're fairly similar, because Chick-fil-A posts ingredients online. There's peanut oil, paprika, powdered sugar. There is monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
I went with a recipe from Hilah Johnson, who hosts an online cooking show at hilahcooking.com. She named her mock Chick-fil-A sandwich the Chick-fil-Gay.
Step one was to pound a chicken breast in plastic wrap. Step two was to slice the breast in half and move on. If you're neurotic like me, though, you will flip the chicken and see all nature of white sinewy stuff and blood vessels. Then you will painstakingly perform surgery until the bird is pink and flawless, throwing away approximately half the chicken in the process.
Next, Johnson said to marinate the chicken. In pickle juice. This rocked me to my core. I hate pickles. But most copycat recipes used it to address the mysterious Chick-fil-A moistness. Over at seriouseats.com, J. Kenji López-Alt suspected a sugar and salt brine of some sort. But Johnson advised pickle haters to try the juice anyway. So I poured pickle juice into a bag with the meat, where it would marinate for an hour.
Next was to dip the chicken in egg and milk, then flour and spices, then fry it in oil. Chick-fil-A uses a pressure cooker, but I barely have matching dishes, so I used a pan. It looked pretty, sizzling away, turning that delectable shade of brown-orange we all love.
Johnson advised a couple minutes on each side, which is fine for someone with confidence and skill. But this is where I faltered. The first batch came out fine, but by batch two the oil was hotter. When I fished it out, the inside was pink and raw. Super. A summertime gift of salmonella. The last batch, because I was nervous, overcooked.
It was tasty, but had WAY too much pickle flavor. I guess that happened around hour two of Olympic women's gymnastics.
I battered smaller chicken chunks for nuggets. Yum. It is hard to ruin a morsel of fried meat. By now, it was 1 a.m. The final step was to realize it's called "fast food" for a reason.
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The next morning I bagged the containers of chicken and drove to work, stopping at Chick-fil-A on the way to pick up comparison pieces.
I passed the homemade pieces, now lukewarm, out to co-workers. Some eyed them warily. One person declined and said, "I went to the dentist this morning." Others gobbled them up.
I asked for written critiques.
• Wow! Those nuggets are actually better than Chick-fil-A's. You did great. Where did you get that recipe?
• It doesn't scream Chick-fil-A to me, but if I were wanting to stay away for political reasons but loved a good nugget, or more likely my kids did, I think this would be a reasonable substitute.
• I thought you did a pretty good job of replicating the recipe. But I'm not sure I would go to all of that trouble for a fast-food recipe! (Besides, I am partial to my momma's fried chicken.)
As for that friend? To celebrate his refinancing, he and his wife opted against chicken in either fast or slow forms. They went to a local diner instead and had eggs.