KFC Popcorn Chicken is mega juicy, crunchy, exploding with flavor and easier to make than you think – BAKED OR FRIED!
Popcorn Chicken is the BEST way to devour crunchy chicken and is made with pantry friendly ingredients! It can be served as a fun snack or appetizer or as an easy weeknight dinner with mashed potatoes and a salad that will be the highlight meal of the week! To make this easy KFC style Popcorn Chicken, the bite-size chicken gets marinated in buttermilk, double coated in seasoned flour then fried (OR BAKED) to create juicy, crunchy, purely addicting morsels that are way better than any chicken nuggets. You can also make the Popcorn Chicken recipe ahead of time and just cook when ready OR freeze for later so you’re ready for whenever those crunchy KFC Popcorn Chicken cravings strike!
HOW TO MAKE KFC POPCORN CHICKEN VIDEO
Popcorn Chicken recipe
My husband has been having more fun in the kitchen during this shelter-in place; he’ll get a craving and make it! From homemade pasta, McDonald’ French Fries and KFC Popcorn Chicken, it’s our version of “going out.”
Last week he decided to make KFC style Popcorn Chicken so I helped him with the seasonings using my Nashville Hot Chicken recipe and then he set to work. The chicken was SO intoxicatingly delicious; like straight-from-the-pan, no-dip-needed, can’t-stop-at-10, an-explosion-of-crispy-flavor-fireworks delicious. And now I know why it’s called “popcorn” chicken … it’s so addicting, you’ll be eating it like popcorn! I knew we had to make the Popcorn Chicken again – soon – and that I had to share it with all of you!
Why you’ll love this KFC Popcorn Chicken recipe:
- Crunchy! The shatteringly crispy exterior comes from being double coated in buttermilk and flour – and it only takes a few extra minutes because your buttermilk and flour are already ready!
- Tender and juicy. This Popcorn Chicken is not only crispy on the outside but juicy and tender on the inside. The chicken is marinated in buttermilk so it becomes amazingly soft and juicy.
- Baked or fried. We fried our Popcorn Chicken so it most resembles KFC Popcorn Chicken but you are welcome to bake if you prefer to save some calories. I’ve included instructions for both techniques.
- Easy. I’m always amazed at how just how easy fried chicken is! Soak the chicken, bread the chicken, bake/fry the chicken!
- Pantry friendly. Last week we were running low on practically everything but I did have frozen chicken, flour and milk – all the ingredients for Popcorn Chicken! I even made my own buttermilk with milk/lemon juice substitute – DIY instructions included.
- Family friendly. This Popcorn Chicken recipe will be the highlight meal of the week and will become a fond memory and new family tradition. It also makes enough to feed the family at a fraction of the price of takeout.
- Freezer friendly. Freeze Popcorn Chicken for an easy defrost and heat snack, lunch or dinner.
- Versatile. This Popcorn Chicken recipe is perfect for any occasion (once life is back to normal). It’s the most delectable snack, the hero appetizer at game day or any party, or add a salad and potatoes and you have yourself a meal – my kind of meal, Patrick’s kind of meal and most definitely your kids kind of meal.
What is Popcorn chicken and where did it come from?
Popcorn Chicken is a popular American dish consisting of bite size breaded and deep fried chicken pieces that are smaller than chicken nuggets – that you can eat like “popcorn,” are crunchy like popcorn and addicting like popcorn.
Before Popcorn Chicken was popularized by now-famous Popeyes and KFC Popcorn Chicken, it had been popular in the South for centuries. The small chicken bites were common among slaves who had to stretch every last morsel of chicken. All of the small pieces of chicken were fried together, thus creating chicken bites.
Later, these chicken bites were favored among the middle class as well because they were easy to pack in lunches and easier to eat with a fork instead of whole pieces of chicken. KFC Popcorn Chicken brought this favorite to the masses in the early 1990s and remains a trademarked staple of KFC today.
What is the difference between Chicken Nuggets and Popcorn chicken?
Essentially, Popcorn Chicken are smaller and crispier than chicken nuggets. There is a time and place for chicken nuggets but I’m partial to Popcorn Chicken because not only can you pop the entire bites into your mouth one at a time, but the small pieces allow more surface area for extra crispy breading.
If you are dining out, some chicken nuggets are not specific poultry parts but rather, a smorgasbord of poultry parts processed together – so consume at your own risk! Popcorn Chicken, however, is widely understood to be white breast meat.
Popcorn Chicken recipe Ingredients
You are going to love how simple and pantry friendly the ingredients are for this Popcorn Chicken recipe. You will need:
- Chicken: use chicken breasts pounded to an even thickens.
- Flour: I use all-purpose flour but I’m sure gluten free flour, almond flour, etc. would also work.
- Seasonings: elevate this Popcorn Chicken recipe above the rest! Chili powder, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper infuse the Popcorn Chicken with flavor so they are stand-alone delicious.
- Baking powder: is added to the flour breading for extra crunch – DON’T use baking soda!
- Buttermilk: tenderizes the chicken as its acidic enzymes break down the protein in the chicken. You may also substitute with DIY sour milk.
- Hot sauce: is used in the marinade to flavor the chicken but will not make your KFC Popcorn Chicken spicy. I use Frank’s Original Hot Sauce but you are welcome to use your favorite.
WHAT CHICKEN IS BEST FOR POPCORN CHICKEN?
I recommend chicken breasts for Popcorn Chicken. The breasts will emerge buttery tender from the buttermilk bath, will give you the characteristic flavor of Popcorn Chicken and are easier to cut into uniform pieces than thighs. If you only have thighs on hand during this lockdown, you can certainly use them, but be aware the pieces will be thinner so watch the cooking time.
Do I have to add baking powder?
I promise you won’t taste the baking powder! Baking powder creates extra crispy chicken as it reacts with the oil and produces tiny air bubbles which causes the breading to rise and create a lighter and airier batter AKA crunchier chicken!
HOW TO MAKE DIY BUTTERMILK
If you do not have any buttermilk on hand – don’t worry, I rarely do! You can make DIY buttermilk or sour milk for this recipe by adding 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice to a measuring glass. Add enough milk (not nonfat) to equal 2 cups. Give it a stir and let sit 5-10 minutes in order to activate and slightly curdle.
How long to marinate popcorn chicken?
If you plan ahead, it is best to marinate your chicken the morning you are going to make your KFC Popcorn Chicken – this will create the juiciest melt-in-your mouth chicken. The absolute minimum of marinating should be 30 minutes – which will still produce delicious chicken because the chicken is so small. To that end, don’t marinate longer than 12 hours or the chicken will turn to mush.
WHAT OIL IS BEST FOR FRYING KFC POPCORN CHICKEN?
Our goal of deep frying the KFC Popcorn Chicken is to create a deeply golden, crunchy exterior. To do this, you need an oil with a high smoking point (around 450°F/232°C) and neutral flavor. If you select an oil with a low smoking point, not only will you have an incredible amount of smoke, but the oil will break down creating an unpleasant odor and unappetizing taste.
Vegetable oil is my go-to oil for frying because it has a smoking point comfortably above frying temperature and is very neutral. Other oils suitable for frying (although some aren’t as neutral as others) include:
- Peanut oil
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
- Canola oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Corn oil
- Sunflower oil
How to Make Popcorn Chicken
Step 1: Marinate chicken
- Whisk buttermilk and hot sauce together in a large bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate up to 12 hours.
Step 2: Bread chicken
- In large bowl, whisk together the Flour Breading ingredients: flour, baking powder, chili powder, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.
- Remove the chicken from the buttermilk using a slotted spoon or spider strainer (letting excess buttermilk drip off) and add to the seasoned flour. Toss to evenly coat.
- Remove the chicken from the flour mixture using a DRY slotted spoon or spider strainer and transfer back to buttermilk. Remove chicken from buttermilk and transfer back to seasoned flour and toss to evenly coat for a second coating. You may need to get in there with your hands to break pieces up. Transfer chicken to a baking sheet and let rest while your oil heats up.
Step 2: Fry chicken
- Add vegetable oil to a deep frying pan until it reaches 1-1 ½ inches up the sides. You may use less oil, you will just have to flip the chicken half way through frying. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees F.
- Working in batches, fry the chicken until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes.
- Transfer cooked chicken to a baking sheet lined with paper towels.
Tips for MAKING Popcorn Chicken Recipe
- Partially frozen chicken. Using partially frozen breasts and a sharp knife will cut your chicken into beautifully even pieces.
- Uniform size. Try and chop your chicken into uniform size pieces so they cook evenly.
- Don’t chop chicken to small. The chicken should be chopped 1” thick, erroring on the side of larger so that it doesn’t overcook and dry out.
- Remove excess buttermilk. It is important to remove excess buttermilk so the flour breading doesn’t become a goopy mess which in turn will make your Popcorn Chicken less crunchy. I like to use a spider strainer so it’s easy to shake off excess buttermilk but a slotted spoon will also work. You can also plop the chicken on a wad of paper towels before adding to the flour mixture to remove excess buttermilk.
- Use dry utensils for breading. Don’t pick up the breaded chicken with a wet slotted spoon/strainer – dry first. This helps prevent the breading from becoming gummy breading.
- Thoroughly bread chicken. If you notice any of the chicken pieces aren’t fully coated in the breading, give them another toss or use your hands to press the breading into the chicken. You might need to use your hands to separate pieces of chicken that are sticking together.
- Remove excess flour. Even if you shake the chicken as you remove it from the breading, a lot of flour can end up in the pan or on the baking sheet. To remedy this, I like to place the chicken in a strainer after dredging to help shake off any excess.
PRO TIPS FOR FRYING KFC POPCORN CHICKEN
If you aren’t familiar with frying, it is easy! Here are some helpful tips and tricks for crunchiest KFC Popcorn Chicken every time:
- Use an instant read thermometer. I highly recommend an instant-read thermometer to ensure you have the correct temperature not only at the beginning of frying, but throughout the entire frying process. It will save you a few “test chicken pieces” and ensure all your chicken is fried to golden perfection. If your oil is too hot, then the chicken will brown quickly on the outside but the inside won’t be cooked. If the oil is too cold, the chicken will never reach peak crispiness. You can still fry without a thermometer, but it may be more trial and error.
- Test oil. If you don’t have a thermometer, medium-high heat should be about right, but every stove is different, so you will want to test the oil before frying the chicken. Test the temperature with a pinch of flour or better yet, an extra piece of chicken. If it boils, your oil is ready but if it boils and the test piece turns dark within a minute or so, your oil is too hot. You will have to remove from the heat, wait a few minutes, return to heat and try again.
- Don’t overcrowd pan. Fry the Popcorn Chicken in about three batches depending on your pan size. This allows the chicken to cook evenly without touching.
- Adjust heat. If you find your Popcorn Chicken is cooking too quickly and surpassing the golden brown before the chicken is cooked through, then lower the heat.
- Cook evenly. You can either use enough oil so the Popcorn Chicken is completely submerged, in which case they are extremely easily to cook evenly, or use less oil and take care to flip the pieces over halfway through frying.
- Keep an eye on the chicken. Don’t walk away from the chicken while it is frying because it can turn from crispy to burnt in a flash!
- Line on paper towels. Use a spider trainer, fine mesh sieve or slotted spoon to transfer KFC Popcorn Chicken to a paper towel lined baking sheet or serving platter in a single layer without touching. You don’t want the pieces touching or they will steam; you also don’t want them sitting in oil or they won’t be as crispy.
- Don’t stack. Resist the urge to stack the Popcorn Chicken or they won’t be as crispy. I know I didn’t follow my own advice in the photos so I can speak from personal experience that stacked Popcorn Chicken will steam and you will lose that shatteringly crispy coveted exterior. It is best to serve the Popcorn Chicken lined in a single layer with a little breathing room in between each one.
How to Make BAKED Popcorn Chicken
Baked Popcorn Chicken is delicious, flavorful and crispy – but not as crispy as fried and it doesn’t taste fried. To me, it is a different tasting recipe altogether however it’s still a tasty option if you’re looking to save some calories. To replicate some of the crunch of fried, panko and cornmeal are substituted some of the flour. I use this technique in my Oven Fried Chicken and it is fabulous. For the breading, you will need:
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup fine cornmeal (may replace with panko)
Step 1: Prep baking sheet
- Line two baking sheets with foil. The foil isn’t essential but it makes for super easy cleanup.
- Place baking racks on top of the foil. The baking rack allows the hot oven air to circulate underneath the chicken so you get crispy chicken on all sides.
- Don’t forget to spray your racks with nonstick cooking spray!
Step 2: Marinate Chicken
- Whisk buttermilk and hot sauce together in a large bowl. Add chicken, stir to coat and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate up to 12 hours.
Step 3: Bread chicken
- In large bowl, whisk together the flour, panko and cornmeal.
- Remove the chicken from the buttermilk using a slotted spoon or spider strainer (letting excess buttermilk drip off) and add to the breading. Toss to evenly coat. You may need to get in there with your hands to break pieces up.
Step 4: Bake chicken
- Line chicken on the baking racks, and spray with cooking spray.
- Bake at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes then flip chicken over. Return chicken to the oven and bake an additional 5-10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through (internal temp of 165 degrees) and golden. Broil to desired crispiness.
PRO TIPS FOR BAKED POPCORN CHICKEN
To help promote the crispiest baked Popcorn Chicken, here are a few tips:
- Dab off excess buttermilk. We don’t want extra buttermilk clinging to the chicken as it dives into the breading because it will cause gooey pockets instead of a thin binding layer. So, take care to remove the chicken with a slotted spoon then dab with a wad of paper towels if needed before adding to the breading.
- Use panko AND cornmeal. The two ingredients work together to create extra crispy Popcorn Chicken. Don’t use traditional breadcrumbs as they will not give you the satisfying crunch you’re looking for.
- Bake on a wire rack. Elevating the chicken on a baking rack allows the hot air to circulate all around the chicken. If you don’t have wire rack, then lightly grease foil and place in the oven to get nice and hot while you prep the chicken. Take care when adding your chicken because your pan will be HOT!
- Don’t Crowd the Pans. Leave a decent space between your chicken on the baking rack while cooking. Overcrowding the pan will cause steam and make your breading soggy. When nicely spaced, the hot oven air can circulate evenly around the chicken so they can get nice and crispy.
- Spray with cooking spray. Cooking spray mimics deep frying and promotes golden perfection.
- Broil chicken: The chicken will be somewhat crispy after baking but broiling takes it to another level.
- Keep an eye on the chicken. Don’t walk away from the chicken while it is broiling because it can turn from crispy to burnt in a flash!
HOW TO MAKE POPCORN CHICKEN IN THE AIR FRYER
If you want to save a few calories, you can try the air fryer, but I prefer the oven over the air fryer for this Popcorn Chicken recipe. The air fryer is fantastic, however, to reheat leftovers. Please note air fried Popcorn Chicken will not become as “puffy” as fried.
To make Popcorn Chicken in the air fryer:
- Spray the air fryer basket with nonstick spray.
- Place chicken bites in a single layer in the basket without touching, don’t overcrowd.
- Spray chicken with cooking spray.
- Air fry at 400°F for 8-10 minutes or until golden. You can air fry without flipping them over, but for best results, flip halfway through cooking with tongs. Please note Air fryer models can vary in so watch the first batch closely and adjust the time accordingly.
What Dip for Popcorn Chicken?
KFC Popcorn Chicken is delectable all on its own, but absolutely hypnotic once dunked in dip. Some popular Dips for Popcorn Chicken are:
- Ranch Dip
- Barbecue Sauce
- Honey Barbecue Sauce
- Honey Mustard Dip
- Honey Buffalo Dip
- Sweet and Sour Sauce
Here is how to make a few of our favs:
Sweet and Sour Sauce
Sweet and Sour Sauce might not be what you immediately think of for dipping Popcorn Chicken -but it is AMAZING – definitely our fav and SO easy! This Sweet and Sour Sauce recipe is simpler than those served with Egg rolls, rangoons, etc. with a less Asian flair because it doesn’t contain soy sauce or pineapple juice. To make, combine the following in a small saucepan:
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- Whisk until the sugar and cornstarch have dissolved.
- Heat over medium, while often, until it begins to simmer. Simmer until thickened to desired consistency.
Honey Mustard Dip
Honey Mustard Dip is creamy, sweet and tangy with a light kick. To make, whisk together:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise (or half Greek yogurt)
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1-2 teaspoons hot sauce
Honey Buffalo Dip
Honey Buffalo Dip is creamy, slightly sweet and as spicy as you want it. To make, whisk together:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise (or half Greek yogurt)
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon Frank’s hot WINGS Sauce, more or less to taste
Honey BBQ Dip
Honey BBQ Dip is sweet and tangy and you can add hot sauce to spice it up if you wish. To make, combine the following in a small saucepan over medium heat, until it begins to simmer; simmer until thickened to desired consistency.
- 3/4 cup BBQ sauce (I like Sweet Baby Rays Original)
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- Hot sauce to taste
How to Store Popcorn Chicken recipe
Popcorn Chicken should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. When properly stored, it is good for 3 to 5 days. For best results, don’t stack your chicken directly on top of each other as this will make it more soggy. Instead, place a piece of parchment paper in between the layers.
How do I reheat KFC Popcorn Chicken?
- Microwave: the chicken won’t be nearly as crispy if reheated in the microwave but it will still be flavorful. Transfer chicken to a microwave safe plate in an even layer. Microwave for 90 seconds, then in additional increments of 15 seconds as needed.
- Air fryer: place chicken in a single layer in the basket without touching, Air fry using the “snack” setting for 4-6 minutes, checking at 4 minutes to ensure the chicken doesn’t burn.
- Oven: spread chicken on a lightly greased baking rack set in a baking sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes or until heated through. You can also fry the chicken again to reheat.
Can I freeze KFC Popcorn Chicken?
Yes, Popcorn Chicken freezes extremely well for a hassle free snack, appetizer, lunch or dinner. To freeze:
- Cook chicken according to directions then let cool to room temperature.
- Space chicken apart on a baking sheet then transfer baking sheet to the freezer.
- Let freeze for 1-2 hours or until the chicken is solid. This prevents the chicken from clumping together.
- Add chicken to a freezer size bag, squeeze out excess air and label.
- Freeze for up to 3 months.
- Bake straight from frozen (so they don’t become soggy) on a lightly greased baking rack placed over a baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes or until heated through.
CAN I MAKE AHEAD OF TIME?
Yes, you can prep this Popcorn Chicken ahead of time! After you coat the chicken in the flour, make sure none of the pieces are stuck together and evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH POPCORN CHICKEN RECIPE?
This Popcorn Chicken recipe can be served as an appetizer or scrumptious main dish your kids will love it! Here are some delicious side options:
- Potatoes. Potatoes and fried chicken are a match made in heaven! Always delectable are classic mashed potatoes but twice baked potatoes, smashed potatoes, slow cooker mashed potatoes, hashbrown casserole, baked fingerling fries. or mashed sweet potatoes are also tasty.
- Rice. Chicken and Rice is a classic combo. You can go as simple as white rice, brown rice, quinoa, or low carb cauliflower rice or broccoli rice with a little butter, salt and pepper.
- Potluck favorites. These sides include your favorite potluck sides that pair fantastically with KFC Popcorn Chicken such as Mac and Cheese, Baked Beans, Corn Casserole, Potato Salad and Rice Pilaf.
- Pasta Salad. Pasta Salad are a welcome side to fried Chicken! Creamy Bacon, Pea, Pasta Salad, BLT Pasta Salad, Cowboy Pasta Salad, Italian Pasta Salad, Greek Pasta Salad, Southwest Orzo Salad.
- Veggies. Of course, every meal needs nutritious veggies! You can go as simple as pre-packaged stir fried veggies or serve with Grilled Corn, Elote, Roasted Broccolini, Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Asparagus, Roasted Carrots, Glazed Carrots, Sautéed Brussels Sprouts, Roasted Root Vegetables or Roasted Squash.
- Salad. Fresh salad is a delicious, vibrant healthy side to this Popcorn Chicken recipe. Enjoy your chicken bites with Strawberry Broccoli Salad, Wedge Salad, Corn Salad, Southwest Salad,or Green Bean Salad.
- Fruit. Sweet, refreshing fruit is always a welcome addition. Try Summer Fruit Salad, Perfect Fruit Salad, Creamy Grape Salad, Tropical Fruit Salad, Winter Fruit Salad, or Berry Salad in Honey Mascarpone.
- Bread. This Popcorn Chicken recipe pairs beautifully with my favorite Moist Sweet Cornbread, Garlic Bread, Dinner Rolls, Parmesan Breadsticks, or Pesto Pull Apart Bread.
Helpful Tools to make Popcorn Chicken Recipe
- Deep Frying Pan: this is the deep frying pan I own and LOVE! (Note that different colors are different prices.) I went a long time without owning a deep frying pan/chicken fryer but I can tell you they make HUGE difference! This pan is the perfect size – high enough to protect you and you’re your kitchen from grease splatters, but low enough you can easily drop food into the pot and wide enough so it cooks a large quantity of food evenly. The cast iron construction also provides superior heat retention and even heat distribution and also doesn’t impart flavors or absorb odors.
- Instant-read thermometer: you need an instant-read thermometer for the juiciest chicken, steak and pork AND for perfectly fried everything! It allows you to cook any protein to the perfect temperature every time and allows you to heat oil to the correct temperature for frying.
- Grease Splatter Screen: is SO helpful! It stops 99% of splashes which keeps you safe and your backsplash and counters free of grease. This multipurpose kitchen tool also doubles as a strainer, steamer, and a cooling rack and is rustproof and dishwasher safe with a lifetime guarantee.
- Spider Strainer Ladle: is a must for frying and also super helpful for breading chicken! It allows you to lower foods gently into the hot oil without getting burned and retrieve them safely while draining off the excess oil. This is my favorite one as it is more solid and durable than the similar products and it has an extra-long handle to keep you safe.
- Quality Knives: a chef’s knife will be your most used kitchen tool by far! Quality knives make prep time much quicker and are important for safety as well. If you’re concerned about moola, please remember that your best chef knives, depending on how hard you use them and how well you take care of them, can easily last 25 years or more. I love my Wusthof but there are hundreds of less expensive knives with great reviews such as this one.
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