We are living in the Golden Age of nuggets. Entire freezer aisles at grocery stores are now devoted to bags of the pellets (mostly chicken, but an increasing number of plant-based options) in a staggering array of shapes (dinosaurs, Minions, unicorns) and flavors (buffalo, barbecue, Southern style — whatever that is).
Sure, chicken nuggets have had their detractors over the years, as they often stand in as a proxy for America’s twin addictions, convenience and processed foods. But they’re not going anywhere. Sales of processed frozen poultry (the category that nuggets fall into, along with frozen chicken patties) are up 19 percent over last year, according to market research firm IRI. Often a hero for harried families looking for a protein that will go over with picky eaters, they are a staple for many. And given all the options out there, it turns out you don’t have to settle for spongy, leaden nuggets.
To figure out which are worth your time, we grabbed as many of the top-selling brands as possible — Tyson dominates the market, followed by store brands (we included a number of those) and then Perdue, per IRI (specifically, its data came from grocery, drug, mass market, convenience, military, and select club and dollar retailers, and covered the year ending in August) — and added a few other widely available options. We should note the distinction between “nuggets,” usually a product made up of ground chicken, and “tenders,” which are intact pieces of meat, usually from the breast. While a couple of our samples fell into the latter category, we relied on the names of the products and picked those whose brands identified them as nuggets.
We prepared each according to their package directions and served them to a panel of eight tasters, offering only ketchup for optional dipping. The tasting was blind, meaning our panel didn’t know which nuggets were which, and they awarded each a score from 1 to 10, factoring in flavor, texture and appearance, giving each a maximum score of 80.
By the end of our session, we had eaten a lot of mush and plenty of bland bird — even our top scorers cried out for some sweet-spicy-tangy sauce. But not all nuggs are created equal, as we discovered.
10. Good & Gather (Target)
Oof. The clear, overwhelming loser of the bunch, this store brand from Target offered little flavor, our panel unanimously agreed. Make that none, actually: Comments were laced with variants like “flavorless,” “very unflavorful” and “no flavor.” One taster at least held out the charitable possibility that this sad nugg had a redeemable quality, suggesting that it “seems like a vehicle for sauce.”
9. Great Value (Walmart)
We had high hopes for this entrant, after a Great Value barbecue sauce unexpectedly took the crown in our tasting of BBQ sauces. Perhaps the Walmart brand could serve up a winning combo of nugget and sauce to dunk it in? Alas, it wasn’t to be. Our tasters found it slight — “deflated” and “a bit thin,” with a heavier breading-to-meat ratio that many found unappealing. “Very little meat,” observed one. And what little chicken they found, they didn’t particularly like. “A bit stale,” according to one taster.
Perhaps we should have expected more from the brand that indisputably rules the roost in this category. Tyson sold nearly $2.2 billion in processed chicken products over the last year — that’s more than all the store brands combined (private labels accounted for less than $1 billion) and its nearest competitor, Perdue, which did $600 million in sales. But popularity isn’t always the best yardstick for quality.
Many testers found the texture sadly soggy. “Wet,” said one. “Super wet,” opined another. “Is this a nugget or a meat marshmallow?” “Total mush.” But one taster thought of someone it might appeal to. “Would be good for babies new to pick-uppable solid food,” they said.
7. Smart Chicken
Like the Tyson offering, many found this specimen unappetizingly moist. But a couple of tasters picked up on a little seasoning in the coating (that’s a good thing!), with one noting that it was one of the few brands to show appealing black pepper flecks. And it seemed to be the first to veer into the territory of something you wouldn’t mind eating. “Nothing special, but very comforting,” said one. “Tasted identifiably as chicken,” was about as excited as our panel got.
6. Kirkwood (Aldi)
Another brand that our tasters thought suffered from the curse of over-breading. “A tiny bit of chicken in the sea of crust,” as one put it. “Mostly tastes like breading,” said another. Some liked its looks — the crust browned up nicely, according to some — better than its taste, which was described as bland. “I liked the crunch and texture of the coating but then … nothing.”
Those who did detect a flavor were unimpressed. “Like the inside of a walk-in freezer at Costco.”
5. Nature’s Promise (Giant)
Two tasters likened this one to McDonald’s chicken nuggets, which might or might not be a compliment, depending on how you feel about those childhood staples from the Golden Arches (which popularized the term “nugget” to begin with). A softer texture and a circle shape “indicating a level of perfection achieved by manufacturing” were some of the qualities our tasters discerned. “It looks like it’s going to be crunchy but it’s not,” lamented one. And the artificiality was a turnoff to several. “Chuck E. Cheese ball pit vibes.”
We snuck a single faux-chicken nugget into the rotation, opting to go with the winner of our 2019 plant-based nugget taste test, but obviously didn’t inform our judges of which sample was the impostor. Most didn’t peg it as such, although one saw through the subterfuge and declared it “something the old neighborhood hippie co-ops passed off as chicken.”
Several tasters liked the crispy crust on this one. And while some found the interior a little bland, it hit the right marks for several testers. “I love this nugget,” one raved. “Perfectly seasoned.”
This guy seemed to conform to the classic standards of its category and evoked some nostalgia: “the Platonic ideal of a nugg,” “the chicken nugget of my imagination” and “familiar taste,” according to our panel. “Tastes like a chicken nugget more so than chicken itself,” one thought. Several liked that it wasn’t overly breaded and found the interior pleasantly juicy, though for a few it registered as “mushy.” And detectable spices (“pepper lingering on my tongue”) were a selling point.
2. Bell & Evans
This brand differed from the others we sampled in that it was the sole brand we purchased in raw form — the rest came precooked, with the turn in the oven serving to defrost and (hopefully) crisp them up. Bell & Evans required a longer cooking time (25-30 minutes as opposed to the 15-minute neighborhood of the others), which potentially makes them less convenient for the truly time-crunched.
Our tasters, though, might tell you it’s worth the extra wait — they nearly unanimously praised the texture of real breast meat this brand offered. To many it read more like chicken chunks than nuggets, partly because of the minimal breading. Though the natural texture drew raves, many tasters said the nugget cried out for something to dip it in.
1. 365 (Whole Foods)
Whole Foods’ store brand had a texture similar to the Bell & Evans product — rather than most nuggets’ processed interiors, it too is made up of whole breast-meat chunks. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Our judges clearly liked the style, awarding this one kudos for its apparent high-quality, moist and flavorful meat. “You don’t feel as if you’re getting something that’s machine cut,” said one. One downside of the natural style is that the nuggets were irregular — one taster who got a smaller specimen dubbed it “popcorn chicken.”
One taster envisioned herself — not usually a nugget consumer — keeping a bag of these in the freezer. “Would chop these up and throw in a salad or tacos!” And while they might not be the nuggets of a 5-year-old’s dreams, that’s part of their charm. “Would be more likely to appeal to an adult palate.”