The chicken concept at Duke University's new dining commons features a down-South chicken sandwich with pimento cheese. Photo: Duke University
The chicken sandwich stole the spotlight in the “fine casual” segment earlier this year when Shake Shack debuted its version, the chick’n shack. When the new sandwich had been released at a few locations months before that, the cool hipster foodie kids in Brooklyn weren’t focusing on cronuts or ramen; they were frantically searching for crispy, golden-brown chicken perched on a soft bun.
That salty, crackling crunch giving way to a juicy interior…the tangy bite that a few thinly sliced sour pickles or vinegary slaw can add… and the bun to keep it all together. Those elements were born in the American South, theorizes Brian Renz, corporate chef with Taher, a foodservice management company that serves mostly K-12 accounts.
“With Chick-fil-A becoming more popular and expansive in the northern states and the Midwest, I think people are just seeking out Southern cuisine more and it’s what chefs are doing now,” Renz says. “A couple years ago, chicken and waffles was the hot item, and this is growing from that.”The best chicken sandwiches balance the fatty crunch of the fried chicken with pickles or an acidic slaw. Or both, as in this Nashville hot chicken sandwich by Carla Hall at the Food Network
Renz, born and raised in Minnesota, “where we think ketchup is a spice,” has a surprising favorite version of a chicken sandwich: Nashville hot chicken, an item that KFC has recently dipped into, and just one variation on the basic blueprint of a chicken sandwich. The spice paste—a mixture of cayenne pepper, lard and additional hot sauce—is what sets Nashville hot chicken apart and gives it a seriously fiery “hurts so good” quality that’s said to be addictive. It’s perhaps not technically a sandwich, per se, but it’s traditionally served atop slices of white bread.
Starting with a plain chicken breast, the seasonings for the marinade, batter and frying technique are all aspects that offer room for chicken sandwich interpretation and riffs galore.
Cameron Thompson, sous chef of catering at Georgia State University, spices up her chicken in the batter phase, building on an aha moment she had at a restaurant in New Orleans.
“Sweet tea chicken drumsticks…that was one of the best dishes I’ve ever tried,” she says. “Black tea leaves were infused in the batter.”
Now, one of Thompson’s fried chicken secrets involves adding smoked paprika and other seasonings to the batter of her signature honey buttermilk fried chicken, which is made traditionally with chicken pieces, but the method carries over to skinless, boneless chicken breasts for sandwiches, too.
“You can soak the chicken overnight or make it the same day,” Thompson says. After the buttermilk bath, she dips the chicken into bread flour with seasonings and lets the magic of fried chicken happen in the fryer.
Lots of other possibilities and flavor profiles emerge in the marinade and batter phase of preparation: A yogurt-based marinade could also include kimchi or Indian spices like cardamom or turmeric. How about Szechuan peppercorns or even pickle juice in the marinade?Photo: Georgia State University
No fryer? No problem
Of course, fryers aren’t exactly the MVP at many school food operations. So, chefs like Renz at Taher look to the breadcrumb…the breadcrumb’s crunchier cousin, panko, to be precise.
“What we do in the schools is we’ll take some type of sauce like honey mustard, something really thick, dip the chicken into that and then into panko breadcrumbs,” Renz says. “We put that on a sheet pan, bake at 350°F and it just kind of works really well. It gives you that idea of frying, but you’re not frying.”
The sandwiches that come from that process are often on the spicy side, especially in the middle school level and up, Renz says.
The students at Hoover City Schools in Alabama are also flocking to the spicy chicken sandwich, according to Tricia B. Neura, MPH, RD, SNS, assistant child nutrition program director.
“We’ve made crispy chicken sandwiches with Buffalo chicken hot sauce, and we also make a sandwich with spicy chicken filet and pepper jack cheese,” Neura says, as she gears up for the next school year.A great option for catering, these Nashville-style hot chicken sliders spice things up in a big way. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images
At the United States Military Academy at West Point, one of the most popular limited-time offers ever was a chicken sandwich that was developed in response to the cadets’ love for chicken tenders. It’s now on the regular menu, and 200,000 wraps are devoured per year.
“Our chicken tender sales have been strong amongst the 17 to 25 age group,” says Kevin D’Onofrio, director of foodservice. “So we decided to explore other menu options using tenders and also the ingredients we currently had on hand.”
D’Onofrio and his team sampled different bread and bun options and then decided to go with wraps for a lower carb sandwich. Then it was onto finding the perfect chicken tenders.
“We sampled different varieties of chicken tenders, cheeses and dressings before deciding on the current recipe,” he says. “Our decision was based on taste, texture and eye appeal. The result, our chicken tender wrap, is an item that you could add to any deli, college and university setting or a fast-casual restaurant easily. And it’s an item that by adding a side salad, fries or fruit will increase your guest check total.”
This wrap has done just that, accounting for 23 percent of sales, making it the No. 1 sandwich ordered by the Corps of Cadets each night.
So, what’s in it? It’s so simple you may just have to try it: chicken tenders, ranch dressing, pepper jack cheese and lettuce.
“It’s the combination of ingredients that makes this sandwich so successful,” D’Onofrio says.
More chicken ideas
Funky chickenPhoto: University of Illinois-Champaign
At the University of Illinois-Champaign, a supervisor on the foodservice team named Andrew Funkhouser came up with a chicken sandwich so great, they named it after him: the funky chicken. It’s a spicy, breaded chicken patty (premade with cayenne seasoning) with pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion with blue cheese dressing to cool everything down. It’s served on a brioche bun as a limited-time offer at 57 North, a c-store on campus. Another, fancier version of a chicken sandwich is served at outdoor events, a chicken slider also on brioche with red onion marmalade.
Many chefs swear by the double-fry method for the crispiest chicken ever. Try it and see: marinate chicken, dip into a flour batter and fry. You could stop there, but take it one step further and dip again into batter, add more seasoning and fry again at a higher temperature. The result is a crispy crunch that will shatter your senses.
This chicken sandwich at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Day School features giardiniere, a mix of pickled veggies that packs a zesty punch. Photo: Lancaster Country Day School
Instead of pickles, try...
“Having acid on a chicken sandwich goes very well; it cuts through the fat,” says Brian Renz, corporate chef with Taher. That can come in the form of pickles, or a classic Southern vinegary slaw, anything acidic, really. Or try one of these fresh ideas:
- shredded cabbage with rice wine vinegar
- kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables)
- pickled watermelon rind
- preserved lemons
- green rapini (cruciferous vegetable) relish
- giardiniera (pickled veggie mix)
- a sauce made with buttermilk (follow Shake Shack’s lead and combine buttermilk with mayo, chives, parsley and thyme)