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

22 Apr

Gluten-Free, Paleo, Perfect Health Diet

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.

138 Responses to “Building a Better Chicken Nugget (Gluten Free, Paleo Recipe)”

  1. Katherine Briganti Cobb April 22, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    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!

  2. Cathi April 22, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    Not sure if I’m understanding – do you use the uven just to warm the oil then cook on the stove?

    • Russ Crandall April 22, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      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.

  3. April 22, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    Oh these look good.. I am now feeling hungry! It’s a long time since I had ‘breaded’ chicken. thankyou!

  4. Coconut Contentment April 22, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    You are a hero in my book.

    • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

      Wow, I didn’t have to save a cat out of a tree or anything to become a hero! Good deal!

  5. ninaanddave April 22, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    When you fry with coconut oil, do you taste the coconut in the final product? I detest coconut! It’s been one of the biggest challenges since I started trying Paleo recipes.

  6. 76sanfermo April 22, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Sounds and looks a fantastic recipe!
    Thank you for all

  7. Kim April 22, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    I think that might be a southern thing, too! My mom would always coat meat in flour, then egg, and then flour again.

    • Russ Crandall April 22, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

      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.

  8. stephcormier April 22, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Do these taste pickley?! I’m so intrigued by the used of pickle juice…

    • Russ Crandall April 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

      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.

      • stephcormier April 22, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

        Great, thanks Russ! Was a little concerned that it would be really strong!

  9. kathy April 22, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    This is my first time to your site. Is the pickle juice from a jar of dill pickles?

    • Russ Crandall April 22, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

      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!

      • Joe April 23, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

        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?

        • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

          Joe, sauerkraut juice would work fine, and salt water works too. There are instructions on how to use salt water at the bottom of the recipe.

  10. Steve Dombek April 22, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Hi Russ, I’m wondering if potato starch will work. With the growing RS craze it seems like something a lot of people will have on hand.

  11. simondaniel27 April 22, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

    getting hungry now…

  12. Callie / Flour and Fancy April 22, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    Love these! This is on my must-try list!

  13. milk & marigolds girl April 22, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    Russ, I am very excited to try these! I am celiac and find it difficult to find a nugget that tastes…like a nugget. Thanks for sharing. My mouth is watering.

  14. StrongCoffeeBlog April 22, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Sounds awesome. We have tried using almond and flax meal but can never get the texture right.

  15. yabaald April 23, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    I am going to try this for my Tweens who have been fighting our paleo movement. This may make them feel like it’s not so “paleo”. Thanks!

  16. jacbianc April 23, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on Wardrobes, Weight Loss, and the Pursuit of Happiness. and commented:

  17. Adriana April 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    Other options to the pickle juice? We don’t eat pickles. Is it just any acid liquid to marinate and tenderize?

    • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      Adriana, sauerkraut juice works well, and salt water will do in a pinch (salt water instructions are in the bottom of the recipe).

  18. Theresa C April 23, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    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!

    • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      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.

  19. Mark April 23, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    Can these be frozen, and re-heated in the stove?

    • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

      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!

      • Mark April 23, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

        Thanks Russ! I appreciate the reply.

      • Rita June 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

        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.

        • Russ Crandall June 2, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

          Rita, awesome, thanks for the feedback! Glad to hear it worked out.

  20. Susan April 23, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

    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

  21. Steve Dombek April 23, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    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.

    • Russ Crandall April 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

      Steve, good ideas re: kimchi juice and liver!

  22. trotteraaronjames April 24, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    I am so happy right now..You have just made my week with this recipe. You’re an inspiration unto us all haha..Seriously though – GREAT RECIPE!

  23. Lisa La Nasa April 24, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    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!!!

  24. Emily April 24, 2014 at 10:14 pm #

    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.

    • Emily June 4, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

      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.

  25. AgileWriter April 25, 2014 at 3:14 am #

    I love chicken nuggets….Yummzzz
    Try chicken cutlets, unique ones…

  26. Rahul Singh April 25, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    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.

  27. assandbullshit April 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    Love it!

  28. alifemoment April 25, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    Actually it’s a really good recipe, I like it!!! :)
    What kind of sauce would you recommend?

  29. Georgina Chapman April 25, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    This is amazing and works just as well on fish. I think the best coating even and that includes versions with Gluten.

  30. Povonte April 26, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    Love this. Thanks for sharing

  31. Amy April 26, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    I have a near empty jar of pickles just waiting to recycle the juice in this recipe! I can’t wait.

  32. Sarah April 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    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.

    • Russ Crandall April 26, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

      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!

  33. lavienfashion April 26, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    Oh my goooood

  34. rockylemuel April 26, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    Whoah! Can’t wait to have nuggets for dinner. No rice please.

  35. sylviavanpeebles April 26, 2014 at 11:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on My Journey to Wholeness.

  36. herraliomartine April 26, 2014 at 11:58 pm #

    Nice. Definitely going to at least attempt it

  37. sweetcherrycoke April 27, 2014 at 5:01 am #

    I am hungryyyyy !:) thanks

  38. Alexander kiorkis April 27, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    Reblogged this on Alexander kiorkis and commented:
    Nice :-)

  39. ceruleanstarshine April 27, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Reblogged this on It's A Complex and commented:
    I am all for gluten free delicious nuggets.

  40. appslotus April 27, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Apps Lotus's Blog.

  41. techgirl April 27, 2014 at 2:44 pm # mouth is watery now..thanks for the share

  42. LiveYoungAbroad April 28, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Im trying this recipe very soon! Looks fab !!!! Xx

  43. Dina Davidson April 28, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    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!

  44. katelinprock April 28, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have a hard time getting my husband to eat healthier versions of his favorite foods. I am going to try this this week :)

    • Russ Crandall April 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

      Katelin, you’re welcome – hope your husband likes the nuggets!

  45. luckyshmucky April 28, 2014 at 11:47 pm #

    great article, I will definitely try. your chicken nuggets look amazing!!

  46. skdarvesh April 29, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    Very nice article. Thanks

  47. AJoyFace April 29, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on Joy(Full)Face and commented:
    I am so excited to try this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  48. The Curious Needle April 29, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    I made these for dinner yesterday and they were amazing! Thanks so much for a great recipe!

  49. Mette April 30, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    Thank you for this. I used the principle for battering fish and it was excellent

  50. bellasan20 May 2, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    Reblogged this on bellasan20.

  51. lisamthurmond May 3, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on inner self.

  52. aerolinda May 4, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Reblogged this on ~Aero~ and commented:
    If there’s a better way to eat chicken, I’m definitely going to try it! 😆✨

  53. emmadol May 4, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    Reblogged this on emmadol's Blog.

  54. Amanda May 4, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

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

  55. permissionfornutrition May 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Permission for Nutrition and commented:
    Wow, this looks like a great recipe!

  56. mariekenoppen May 7, 2014 at 6:26 am #

    looks good!

  57. atenn4 May 8, 2014 at 12:38 am #

    Reblogged this on surroundedbygirls and commented:
    I’m going to have to try this out…I love chicken nuggets but being gluten free it’s not easy nor cheap!

  58. AHA! May 11, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    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.

  59. froufrouetvous May 13, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    Wowsa! They look INcredible!

  60. Allison May 16, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    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.

    • Russ Crandall May 16, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      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.

  61. Trish May 21, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Would this freeze and reheatt in the oven nicely?

  62. Designers & Diamonds (@bling_blog) May 22, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    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.

    • Russ Crandall May 23, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      I think it’d be okay if you marinated longer, it would just have a stronger pickle flavor. Hope it works out for your friend!

  63. Kristen June 2, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    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! :)

  64. kfeezee June 7, 2014 at 5:34 pm #


  65. Lorissa June 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    What would be a good subsitute for paprika? I’m following AIP and can’t have paprika. thanks!

    • Russ Crandall June 17, 2014 at 6:06 am #

      Hi Lorissa, I would just omit the paprika. It’ll still taste great!

  66. qubbieg June 20, 2014 at 11:39 pm #

    I like this post and thought i would share it with you.

  67. Lisa June 22, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    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!!

  68. Meg July 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    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;)

  69. lauren August 6, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    I’m inspired!

  70. Lynn Alomar August 31, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    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.

  71. Dana October 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

    I LOVE this nugget recipe so much, I just tried it with spiraled zucchini. Amazing!

  72. chris October 14, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    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!!!

  73. Andrea October 24, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    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…

    • Russ Crandall October 24, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

      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.

  74. Kristie November 17, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    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. :)

    • Kristie November 17, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

      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. :)

    • Russ Crandall November 17, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

      Kristie, cool, thanks for the feedback!

  75. Allison November 19, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    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.

  76. Andrea Tougas December 10, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    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!

  77. Elise January 23, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    Will potato starch work as well?

  78. Kristie January 28, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Sounds yummy, I am allergic to eggs and dairy. Could I use almond milk instead of eggs to dip it in?

  79. Monika March 5, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    I’m allergic to dill (sadly) and I was wondering if there was something I could substitute for the pickle juice?

    • Russ Crandall March 5, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Monika, sauerkraut juice works!

      • Monika March 6, 2015 at 10:11 am #

        Awesome. Thanks for your quick reply! Really excited to make this. Cheers.

  80. Maria March 12, 2015 at 11:58 am #

    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 :)

    • Russ Crandall March 12, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

      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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