Building a Better Chicken Nugget (Gluten Free, Paleo Recipe)

I have always been proud of my Paleo “Chick-fil-A” nugget recipe from a couple years back, and it has definitely been a hit with readers. If fact, I’m sure a few of you stumbled upon my little blog because of them. But to be honest, I’ve never been satisfied with the texture of the nuggets themselves; while they are very similar to the thin coating that you’ll find at Chick-fil-A, I personally prefer a spongier breading around my chicken nuggets. So while experimenting with breading techniques for my Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe, I happened upon my eureka moment – something I like to call “reverse battering.”

You see, I’ve always been taught to bread meats using a liquid-then-flour (or flour-liquid-flour/breading) method. Sounds logical, right? It’d be just crazy to not put flour or breading on nuggets before frying them. But after some YouTube surfing for Chinese recipes, I noticed that sometimes people would bread their food with starch and then egg before throwing it in the oil. Turns out it’s a genius idea for getting a light, crunchy, and satisfying texture for nuggets without having to deal with that whole pesky “wheat flour” or “breadcrumbs” stuff. The trick is in not heating the oil too hot, so as to keep the egg from burning; medium heat works perfectly.

Gluten Free, Paleo Chicken Nuggets

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 30 minutes (plus 1-6 hours to marinate)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup dill pickle juice
1/4 cup arrowroot starch or tapioca starch
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup lard or refined coconut oil, more if needed

1. Combine the chicken pieces and pickle juice in a resealable plastic bag; marinate for at least 1 hour but up to six hours. When the chicken has finished marinating, strain it through a colander to drain out the extra pickle juice. Move the chicken around to make sure it drains properly. As the chicken drains, prepare your breading by combining the starch, paprika, black pepper, and salt. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl and set aside.

2. Preheat your oven to 250F. On your stove, warm the lard or coconut oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. In a mixing bowl, toss the chicken pieces with the starch mixture until evenly coated. With your fingers, dip a starchy chicken piece in the egg, shake off the excess egg (eggcess!), then carefully add it to the oil. Repeat until you have filled your skillet; be careful not to overcrowd the chicken pieces. Fry the chicken until cooked through, flipping every 2 minutes, about 6-8 minutes per batch.

3. As you finish each batch, place the cooked pieces on a plate lined with paper towels; put them in the oven to stay warm. You should be able to cook the chicken pieces in about 3 or 4 batches, depending upon the size of your skillet. The oil should reach halfway up the chicken pieces while cooking, add more oil if needed. Be sure to watch the heat, as the skillet will get warmer over time; adjust heat as needed. You’re looking for an oil temperature around 350F. Use a splatter screen to prevent splattering.

4. Serve warm with ketchup, barbecue sauce, or honey mustard.

** Use this technique as a basis for other nugget-like recipes, like my Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe. Some recipes would taste better without pickle juice; in those circumstances, marinate the chicken in 1/2 cup water mixed with 1 tbsp kosher salt.

** For pickle juice, we prefer the juice that comes with these Bubbies Kosher Dills. These salt-brined, probiotic dills are delicious and made without any added vinegar or junk.

** While I think oven-roasting my older nugget recipe turns out pretty well, this recipe wouldn’t fare well in the oven.


Another cool thing about this technique is that it uses half the starch you’d typically use in a nugget recipe, despite the fact that it feels like you’re eating more breading than usual. Eggs are pretty awesome like that.

144 thoughts on “Building a Better Chicken Nugget (Gluten Free, Paleo Recipe)

  1. That’s how we Italians roll…flour, egg, then breading. Glad you had a eureka moment! I loved your original chicken nuggets but I would like these too as they seem “breadier.” I have actually *never* been able to bring myself to try a McDonald’s McNugget ever…they always seemed like a mystery meat adventure. Not that I’m some kind of purist…I’ve eaten plenty of mystery ingredients coming along in life…it’s just those really scared me for some reason, the same way I won’t try Spam, or scrapple, or Miracle Whip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cathi, you only use the oven for keeping the cooked nuggets warm after frying. You warm the oil on the stove. I can see how those two sentences can be confusing, I’ll fix the post. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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    1. Nina (and Dave), try cooking with refined coconut oil. It doesn’t have the coconut taste you’re likely experiencing from extra virgin coconut oil. Spectrum makes a high quality refined oil. Personally, I use refined oil for frying and western-influenced dishes, and extra virgin oil for Asian dishes.

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    1. Kim, this recipe is a tad different, because it doesn’t get breaded a second time – you literally add the egg directly into the oil. I had never seen that before, which I thought was pretty cool.

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    1. Steph, there is a hint of pickleyness to them, but it’s not overbearing. Most people wouldn’t be able to identify that it’s pickle juice that gives the nuggets their savory taste.

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    1. Kathy, the pickle juice is indeed from a jar of dill pickles, from a quality vendor preferred. We use the juice from Bubbies dill pickles. The juice tenderizes the chicken and adds a great umami taste at the same time!

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      1. i’m not a huge pickle fan so I don’t really want to buy a jar just for the juice, any recommendations on what else could be used?

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  2. I love this – but, when I use coconut oil to fry – it smokes like crazy and the whole house smells awful – what am I doing wrong? I have Extra Virgin Cold Pressed – organic…. thanks!

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    1. Theresa, when frying in coconut oil, you want to use refined (expeller pressed) oil instead of extra virgin. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point and won’t burn, and also doesn’t have a coconut flavor to it. Otherwise I would use a stable animal fat like ghee, lard, or tallow for frying.

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    1. Mark, I would fry them at a higher heat (med/high) until golden (bear in mind the insides won’t be cooked through), then cool and freeze them. Then I would thaw and bake at 450F for 25 minutes. Should turn out pretty good!

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      1. For those wondering about freezing them, I made a big batch and put in the freezer. I did exactly what Russ suggests above. They kept nicely in the freezer and were perfect after I reheated them! I did let them thaw out a little bit before I cooked them, about an hour on the counter, but that was mostly so I could pull them apart and spread out on a cooking sheet. My son LOVES these!!! Thank you for this recipe.

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  3. My seven grandchildren 12 and under have challenged me to make GF food that tastes “normal.” Perfect timing, Russ!! With much appreciation for you and your test kitchen

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great looking recipe, Russ. I might try brining the chicken in kimchi juice, which I have on hand at the moment. I’m also thinking this would be a good technique for beef liver — battered and lightly cooked, then dipped in a sweet-and-sour sauce.

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  5. Wow. WOW! I made these tonight for dinner and they were incredibly tasty. I didn’t have any pickle juice, so I used a mixture of water along with juice from a jar of green olives. :) It was great! Reminded me of a certain chain restaurants nuggets. My young daughters have never had the ‘real’ ones and are accustomed to non-fried foods, so they didn’t know what to make of these. Oh well. More for me! Yum!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the recipe – we tried them tonight and thought they were great. The pickle juice really does add great umami. I used palm shortening instead of coconut oil – I really need to get a splatter screen because the oil was jumping like crazy. also I needed more of the dry mix for the last batch and that was only with 1.5 lbs of chicken so I think I’ll double the starch when I do a full 2 lbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We just tried it with fish this time and it was excellent as well. We used frozen cod pieces from Trader Joe’s so it was a really frugal meal too! I’m sure it would be even better with fresh fish.

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  7. Seems like freshly pressed and freshly cooked nuggets display pic are in sync. Still haunted by academia and bachelorhood, I do at times attempt to cook and for I all I know this recipe is going in my list. This weekend lets bring on some Gluten Free nuggets shall we :) . Thanks for sharing.

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  8. I love Mcdonald’s chicken nuggets.. BUT.. I’m currently on a healthy journey (semi-Paleo – not a purist. Not yet) This looks yummy, easy and straightforward! I can’t wait to try it.. Now, just a question about using wheat flour for frying, yes or no? I don’t use it often but I sometimes use it to substitute plain flour.

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    1. Hi Sarah, from a Paleo perspective, all forms of gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, and barley) should be avoided since they are disruptive to the digestive system. Hope that helps, and let me know what you think of the dish!

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  9. Just made these, and had to leave a comment right away. My 9 yo son said these exact words: “Mom, in all the time you have been doing paleo, this is my FAVORITE dinner!” They were a definite success. I was a little unsure about marinating in the pickle juice, but there was not even a Hint of that flavor! Just crispy, tender, delicious chicken bites. I made a copycat CPK herb ranch dressing with plain kefir & mayo (an experiment of my own), and that went perfectly with them. Thank you for the recipe!

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  10. These were amazing. A huge hit by all in the household. Thank you for all your hard work and sharing your great recipes!

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  11. Love your pictures. Though, any kind of starches is very bad for health as even if it is gluten free it is increases blood sugar a lot. It is why most of “gluten free” products in stores (made by manufacture) is very bad for our health; there lots of starches in their ingredients.

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  12. Hi Russ!

    Can I sub rice flour with the tapioca starch?

    BTW, I’m getting your book this weekend… so excited you have no idea.
    THANKS!

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    1. Hi Allison, hope you like the book! I would recommend using a different starch (potato or arrowroot) instead of rice flour, but in the end I think rice flour would still turn out okay.

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  13. Hey Russ! Is 6 hours the ABSOLUTE limit on marinating? Like, hypothetically, if one only glanced at the recipe before dinner time, then realized marinating was involved, then wondered if she should save it for tomorrow night or just eat late…would the chicken,say, explode if left to marinate 20 hours? Or just be extra pickly? Asking for a friend.

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  14. I’m chowing down on some of these tonight. Yum! I don’t usually bother to bread my chicken, but these make the extra effort well worth it. Thanks for a great recipe! :)

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  15. I have recently discovered your website. I just tried this recipe tonight. My family loved it including my picky 4 year old ;-) I’m excited to try more of your recipes. So fantastic, thank you!!

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  16. Made these today with almond meal flour…everyone, including a tween and a teen, loved the taste! I am sure it would be even better with the starch, but I was trying to avoid starch…worse thing that happened is the breading was crumbly and didn’t stick to the chicken. No huge biggie since I just piled it on top at the end. CFA is a favorite in our house, hubby worked there for years as a teen…and even he loved it. I ended up marinating the chicken overnight…no complaints that it was too pickle-y. My gluten-free daughter asked me to make this every night for her;)

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  17. Chickity China the Chinese chicken. Sorry, couldn’t resist! Always wondered how they got that chicken so crispy.
    Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out well for me. Mine was greasy and kind of soggy. ;(
    I do still love your chick-fil-a nuggets though.

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  18. These were nothing short of amazing. I am impressed! I didn’t brine my chicken as long and added a little water to my eggs. These were perfect!!!

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  19. Can you use coconut flour for this??? We have made these a million times sense finding this recipe but we are out of tapioca flour…

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    1. Andrea, it won’t bind as well with coconut flour – tapioca, potato, or arrowroot starches would work best. It will still come out okay, but some of the breading may fall off during the cooking process.

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  20. I had the chicken marinated and ready to go only to realize I was out of arrowroot! So I took a gamble and used coconut flour, and it actually did great! The breading held on just fine. But there’s no covering the taste of coconut flour so I’d definitely only use it if needed!

    These are awesome! So much “breadier” and crispier than other recipes; thanks for sharing your experimentation success!! Can’t wait to try them on my 3-year old. :)

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    1. EDIT!! So…in my “oh no the oil is ready and I don’t have any arrowroot-what should I use-coconut flour!” freak-out moment, I completely forgot to add any of the spices! Hahahaha. Good grief. I did another batch with them and they actually do an excellent job of masking the coconut flour. :)

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  21. My family likes your original recipe better. In fact, my daughter pulled off all the batter despite being a major fan of those fake golden arches nuggets. Too bad my mantra of “you will eat healthy and like it” doesn’t always work. Thanks for sharing your experiments to make tasty and healthy food.

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  22. Reblogged this on My Grain Free Kitchen and commented:
    I have been reseraching amazing gluten free recipes, 1 because I have Celiac 2 because I can’t handle cravings right this moment. I am a hungry pregnant woman! So, I made these nuggets and I cried! Yes I cried! They are finger lickin’ good!
    Give it a try! Thanks Domestic Man this desperate pregnant GF mommy!

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  23. Hello again Russ! :D… This recipe is featured on today’s YAHOO food page, and to my surprise… it was your recipe! :D

    I was wondering if Maca Root powder may work as a starch..?
    (Also, FYI… i made the Ital for the fam yesterday and it was a HIT!.. hollaarrr!! lol!)

    ~Thank you :)

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    1. Hi Maria! I’ve never cooked with maca root powder so I’m not sure how it reacts to heat. My worry is that it may burn in the oil. Hopefully someone else will chime in, but since the egg provides a barrier for the powder it may not burn. Maybe try it with one chicken piece and see how it works? Starches work well since they expand and turn golden under heat.

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  24. I’ve made these before and I’m making them again – that’s a rarity for me – they are that good (and easy too!). I’m serving them with sweet potato fries and a spinach salad :- )

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