Popcorn chicken is nothing more than bite-sized pieces of breaded white meat chicken made extra tender with a secret, simple step, and baked to crispy perfection. Don’t forget the spicy sriracha mayo!
*Keep reading for a how-to video just above the recipe.*
I remember when KFC first introduced popcorn chicken in the 1990s in the U.S. served in a tall, striped container. Like movie popcorn.? So naturally, I assumed that it was chicken covered in popcorn. ?
Now, I love me some tender, juicy, deep-fried KFC chicken. But what if you could have spicy KFC-style popcorn chicken that was just as tender, and make it naturally gluten free—in the oven?
The secret to tender chicken
When I was a kid, we used to go to this greasy spoon restaurant in New York City’s China Town. The meals were epic, but my favorite part was always the incredible tenderness of the boneless chicken pieces. Well, that and the rice candy we’d get at the Chinese grocers after dinner.
I never thought I could make chicken as tender as that at home. That is, until now. The secret to making the most tender boneless chicken is a super simple technique called “velveting.” All velveting requires is soaking the chicken in a mixture of liquid and cornstarch.
Soaking the chicken in the cornstarch slurry creates a heat barrier that’s similar to what happens in deep frying. It seals the outside of the chicken, protecting it from direct heat. The high heat of the oven (or the oil in deep frying) can then cook the food quickly without drying it out.
Ingredients and Substitutions
Before I even get started on substitutions, this recipe has a sriracha mayonnaise dipping sauce, and if you love spicy foods, you have to try this recipe for Buffalo Tofu Bites from Vegetarian Mama. It looks amazing—and I need one of those tofu presses!
Now, I have some ideas about substitutions. Some are just an educated guess, others I’ve actually tried:
Dairy: You can replace the sour cream in the Sriracha mayo with more mayonnaise. It still tastes quite good, but the flavor is just a bit flat. Try adding a teaspoonful of mild vinegar for some tang. The chicken is already dairy-free.
Eggs: The cornstarch slurry in this recipe is made with egg whites, which is the traditional way to “velvet” chicken. It helps the cornflake crumbs to stick to the chicken, and helps seal in moisture. If you can’t have egg whites, try aquafaba (or chickpea brine) in its place. Let us know how it goes!
Corn: If you can’t have corn, the cornflakes are out and so is the cornstarch. Try using potato starch in place of cornstarch, and crushed baked potato chips (they’re not greasy like traditional fried potato chips; I like Lay’s brand) in place of the cornflakes.
And before you head off to the kitchen to make this, your new favorite way to make chicken, press play ▶️ below and watch me make it! Then you…
For the chicken
1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces) skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 egg whites (50 g)
1/4 cup (36 g) cornstarch (or try potato starch)
1 1/2 cups (144 g) cornflake crumbs (gluten free if necessary)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Cooking oil spray
1/2 cup (112 g) sour cream
1/2 cup (112 g) mayonnaise
2 to 4 teaspoons sriracha chile sauce (to taste)
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
Cut the chicken into 2-inch square pieces and set it aside. In a medium-sized bowl, place the egg whites and cornstarch, and whisk until smooth. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl, toss to coat and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the chicken to soak at room temperature for at least 15 minutes (or up to overnight in the refrigerator).
In a medium-sized, shallow bowl, place the cornflake crumbs, garlic powder, paprika, chili powder and salt, and mix to combine. Remove the pieces of chicken from the bowl one at a time, allowing the excess egg white mixture to drip off, and place in the bowl with the cornflake mixture. Do not crowd the bowl. Toss the pieces of chicken in the cornflake mixture, pressing gently to coat evenly on all sides, and place about 1/2-inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces.
Spray the prepared chicken pieces on the baking sheet evenly but lightly with cooking oil spray. Place the baking sheet in the center of the preheated oven and bake until just cooked through and lightly golden brown all over, about 12 minutes. Do not overbake.
While the chicken is baking, make the Sriracha mayonnaise. In a small bowl, place all of the ingredients and whisk to combine well. Serve the chicken hot, with the spicy mayo for dipping.