Fried Chicken's Healthy Makeover

Fried Chicken's Healthy Makeover

Can't take fried chicken off your menu? Then satisfy crispy, crunchy cravings with better-for-you recipes.

It's hard to mess with fried chicken — something so many customers hold so close to their hearts. While the Southern comfort food favorite can (and some say must!) be enjoyed occasionally, it's a smart move to create healthier versions for onsite menus.

“Of course you don't have to divorce yourself from fried chicken,” says American Dietetic Association spokesperson Debbi Beauvais, RD, SNS. “It can be a special treat food that's incorporated into an overall healthy eating lifestyle…follow the right portion sizes and maybe pair it with a green salad and a fruit cup.”

Try these techniques and recipes to create a soul-satisfying, golden, crispy piece of chicken that's a lot better for customers' health. From “oven frying” to pan frying to frying with an oil that's high in the “good fats,” it's not difficult to get the bird to lighten up.


“There are a variety of recipes to oven fry chicken and still get the crispy, crunchy breading associated with the product,” says Beauvais, who is also school lunch director of Gates Chili & East Rochester School Nutrition Services, Rochester, NY. “When you season panko bread crumbs, crushed cereal, nuts, crackers or sesame seeds, that will give you the crunchiness factor that is the signature of a good fried chicken.”

Calorie wise, the difference is significant. A serving of “oven fried” skinless chicken, coated with yogurt, egg whites and Dijon mustard, then dipped in crushed salt crackers, cereal and seasoning is just 270 calories. Contrast that with a batter-fried chicken breast, which clocks in at 728 calories per serving.

Kids don't care about calories, but they do care about crunch. That's true at Pflugerville (PA) Independent School District, where absolutely nothing is fried.

Foodservice Chef/Area Supervisor Patrick Sandoval uses a variety of coatings to give students the experience of fried chicken without the frying.

“Since we bake everything, I've figured out a lot we can do with the breadings: zwieback crackers are extremely crunchy; Saltines are great; Corn Flakes work really well and I've done a quite a bit with Fiber One and even Cap'n Crunch (for a sweeter flavor profile) cereal. You combine all these with different seasonings,” he says.

The best crunch-coat Sandoval has tried?

“Panko bread crumbs,” he says without hesitation. What makes them so perfect? The Japanese bread crumbs are coarser than regular crumbs and create a deliciously crunchy crust. (See Sandoval's favorite oven-fried recipes, pp. 48-49.)

Sandoval often uses a “double dipping” method to get even more crunch: “Season the chicken, dredge it in flour, then dip it into egg-wash, then breadcrumbs. Then, dip it back into the egg and once more into the breadcrumbs,” he advises.


At three children's hospitals in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Detroit, a new “fun, family-focused menu” was developed over two years as part of the “Moose is Loose” initiative by Morrison (see Front of the House in this issue for more details on the program).

One item found on the menu, Baked Chicken Fingers Breaded with High-Fiber Quinoa, is oven baked and “really good,” says director of marketing services for Morrison Management Specialists Andrea Woods Flennoy. “It has the same crispiness as a fried chicken tender without all the grease and extra calories.”

In this super-healthy twist, the breading itself is a source of protein, dietary fiber, phosphorus and magnesium.

“We are trying to get away from frying altogether and the children's hospitals are the first step in that,” Flennoy says.

At Southern Maine Medical Center, every Wednesday, a breaded and baked chicken breast is served.

“We used to fry the product, and it was a very popular item,” says Michael Sabo, director of hospitality services at the medical center, and chair of Maine Health's foodservice director task force. (For more on the task force, see “Maine Health Makes Wellness a State-Wide Mission,” Food Management, [3])

The chicken is now breaded with such items as Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, and sometimes oatmeal, “and they still sell very well,” he says.


If you do fry, the oil used for frying can impact nutrition.

“The calories contributed to the food will be the same no matter what oil you use, but the type of fat will change,” Beauvais says. “The best fats are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.

Canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, and peanut oil are the best choices for frying, Beauvais says, followed by olive oil for pan-frying. These oils are low in saturated fat (the bad fat), and higher in monounsaturated fats (the good fats).

Four years ago, after research and testing, dining services at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst began using Omega-9 canola oil.

“The oil retains flavors and produces crispy fried chicken,” says Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises Ken Toong. “The cost is competitive, since it has a longer frying life. We bake our chicken first and then finish it off with quick frying.”

In 2007, Dr. Marilyn Schorin was Yum Brands, Inc.'s chief nutrition and regulatory officer. Yum Brands is the parent company to KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver's and A&W. She crafted a strategy to replace trans-fat containing shortening that was being used at KFC.

“With a company like Kentucky Fried Chicken, we knew it would be challenging to change the recipe for our signature fried chicken and other menu items in order to address the looming trans fat issue,” says Schorin, who now heads Schorin Strategies, LLC.

Schorin says management of the mecca of fried chicken and the other brands “understood the importance of looking out for consumer health.” She got to work looking at many oils to find the best sensory profile, since “with a product like fried chicken, consumers are seeing, touching and tasting their food, and they expect the experience they've always had and loved.”

In a 3-year, multi-million dollar project to switch to a trans-fat-free oil that included consumer testing, soybean oil became the oil of choice, and the switch was met with a positive response from customers, Schorin says.

High oleic soybean oil (low in polyunsaturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat, and stable) is a great frying solution, and new oils are improving all the time (for more oil information, see “Oil Change,” Food Management, May, 2011 [4]).

High oleic/reduced-saturate soybean oils have less than 12 percent saturated fat and high oleic/low-saturate oils have less than 7 percent saturated fat. “Frying in these oils could really help minimize cardiovascular health risk across the American population,” says Tim Wrinn, retired senior director of U.S. Quality Systems at McDonald's Corporation. “Everyone's goal is healthier, more nutritious food products.”

Suvir Saran's Masala Slaw [5] Chef Patrick's Panko Breaded Chicken [6] Chef Patrick's Super Crunch Wings [7] Chef Patrick's Chicken Crunch Tenders [8] Georgia Pecan-Crusted Wings with Hatoula Peach Sauce [9] Peanut Parmesan Spiced Chicken [10]