Trying to Make Popular Fast-Food Chicken Recipes in Air Fryer + Photos

Amanda M. Rye

Ever since I got my air fryer, I’ve loved experimenting with different recipes, from crispy bacon to perfectly browned brussels sprouts.

But the thing I love making the most in my air fryer is chicken.

I wondered if my beloved countertop appliance could go head-to-head with a fast-food

deep fryer
, though, because keeping the food moist enough for the batter to stick is a tall order

After scrupulous research, I found three fast-food-inspired recipes that seemed promising — replicas of fried chicken from Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, and KFC — and decided to put them to the test in my air fryer.

Here’s how each turned out:

Popeyes is my favorite chicken chain, so I wasn’t confident that I could recreate the recipe

popeyes air fryer recipe 1

I started by marinating the chicken.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

Popeyes is far and above my favorite of these three chains, which made me feel like it might be the worst replica recipe.

Actually, I kind of hoped it was. I’m not sure what I’d do if I knew I could make Popeyes chicken any time I want. 

The first few steps were pretty simple 

I started by cutting this recipe from the cooking blog Restless Chipotle in half. As great as Popeyes is, I don’t need to eat for six. I also cut the chicken along a diagonal to get that classic tender look. 

Next, I combined the buttermilk with the Louisiana hot sauce and put the mixture and chicken into a sealable plastic bag to marinate for 30 minutes.  

popeyes air fryer recipe 2

The flour-and-spice mixture was fairly simple.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

While the chicken was marinating, I prepared the dry component of the dredge (the batter) by combining all-purpose flour, smoked paprika, salt, and chipotle chile powder.

popeyes fried chicken recipe 3

Dredging the chicken involved dipping it in an egg mixture and the flour mixture.

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The dredging process itself went well, though I definitely should’ve made more.

It was relaxing to drop the chicken into the flour mixture, then the eggs, then back in the flour. 

I didn’t trust the cooking instructions, and my strips ended up burning

popeyes air fryer fried chicken recipe 4

I popped the strips in my air fryer.

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After putting the chicken in the air fryer,  I genuinely wondered how the tenders were going to turn out because Popeyes chicken has such a distinct flavor.

The air fryer beeped after 10 minutes, and they looked pretty good, though not quite like the golden tenders I’m used to.

If I was going by my own recipe, this is when I’d take them out. But I stuck to the instructions and flipped the strips, adding a dash more oil to the fresh side. 

popeyes air fryer fried chicken recipe 5

I was tempted to pull the strips out early, and I wish I did.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

The fryer beeped again, and I opened it to find some very burnt chicken strips that didn’t look much like Popeyes. I decided this couldn’t be how it ends, so I made more dredge and resolved to cut down the cooking time. 

I also decided to dip the strips in the egg first, then the flour, before dropping them in the basket for 15 minutes. 

My second batch ended up better than the first, but nothing beats the chain’s product

popeyes air fryer fried chicken recipe

The strips got a little burnt.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

First I tasted the original (burnt) batch. The finished product wasn’t bad, though it was too salty and had too much flour.

That said, the smokey chipotle and paprika were fantastic. There’s a good recipe in here somewhere, but I need to do some experimentation to find it.

I expected these to be much drier than they ended up being. This marinade really did wonders. 

At the 10-minute mark, I checked my second batch of tenders, and they were perfectly done.

popeyes chicken test

I tested my batches against real Popeyes chicken.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

Upon a thorough taste test, I determined the single-dredge, 10-minute tenders were the best of the bunch.

They weren’t burnt to a crisp or dry, and they still contained that delicious chipotle-and-smoked paprika flavor. There was too much salt, but that’s a fixable problem. 

Still, there’s no comparison to the deep-fried original. I’d still pick the chain’s version any day of the week. 

Popeyes tenders just have a better layer of batter without sacrificing any of the juice or crispiness. 

The Chick-fil-A recipe seemed more manageable 

chick fil a air fryer recipe 1

The Chick-fil-A recipe called for a pickle-juice brine.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

Right away, this Chick-fil-A dupe recipe I found on the cooking blog My Forking Life already felt much more manageable and intriguing than the Popeyes-inspired one. All I needed to do to start was cut the chicken and place it in a bag with pickle juice. 

The brine smelled excellent, and it seemed like something I’d be willing to make again. 

I had much higher hopes for the cooking process, too. The recipe called for 12 minutes at 360 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by two minutes at 400.

The instructions were easy to follow, and I was expecting good results

chick fil a air fryer recipe 2

I assembled the flour mixture for the dredge.

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While the chicken was brining for 30 minutes, I whipped up the dredge mixtures.

The dry component was a straightforward combination of all-purpose flour, corn starch, powdered sugar, salt, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder.

chick fil a air fryer recipe 3

I made sure to coat each piece nicely.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

From there, I dipped the chicken pieces between the flour mixture and the egg mixture until they were well coated. 

I was hesitant because the instructions only said to spray the pieces with oil after they’re flipped, but I was comforted by the fact that my chicken looked like the pieces in the pictures from the recipe page. 

 I cranked up the heat on my air fryer and waited.

There were a few sticking issues, but the chicken seemed to crisp up nicely 

chick fil a air fryer recipe 4

I was more comfortable with these cooking instructions.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

When it was time to flip the chunks after six minutes, a few stuck to the pan.

The next time I make this recipe — and I plan to follow it again — I’ll be sure to put more oil on the basket.

chick fil a air fryer recipe 5

Some of the pieces stuck, so I wish I’d gone against the recipe and added oil.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

They still looked fantastic and pretty close to Chick-fil-A. 

I thought these nuggets were even better than the real deal

chick fil a chicken

My chicken turned out better than the real Chick-fil-A nuggets.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

These were delicious and very juicy. The sweetness and tanginess of the pickle juice just threw it over the top. 

They clearly aren’t deep-fried, but the flour mixture was much better than the Popeyes-inspired recipe.

I loved that there was less salt and that the other seasonings actually worked in concert with the pickle juice, which gave the dish life.

I was pretty delighted with this recipe. It would’ve been perfect with a bit more oil, and I actually think the finished product was better than the real thing. 

The only downside is that you have to eat these nuggets quickly because they started to lose the juiciness that made them so tasty. 

I’m not the biggest KFC fan, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for this recipe

kfc air fryer recipe 1

I had to soak the chicken in buttermilk for 24 hours.

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I saved this recipe from the blog Dine Dream Discover for last because KFC is my least favorite of the three major chicken chains. I just don’t like how it makes me feel like a dried-out sponge the next day. 

Things got off to a rough start when I realized I needed to soak the drumsticks in buttermilk for up to 24 hours. The recipe definitely lost points in the ease department.

Still, I had hopes that this would be better than traditional KFC. 

Once the drumsticks were soaked, it was time to prepare the dredge

kfc air fryer recipe 2

This recipe called for the most spices.

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I ended up soaking the chicken in too much buttermilk because I forgot to half the recipe, but I didn’t think a little extra would hurt, especially if I shook some off before dredging. 

The number of spices felt unnecessary, but I dug into my pantry to look for flour, salt, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, black pepper, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ground ginger, and white pepper. 

This dish could become expensive if you, like me, have to buy a couple of extra spices. So to save a little money, I decided to utilize Italian seasoning in place of basil and oregano. 

Once again, the actual dredging process was pretty easy. But I prepped each 24-hour soaked drumstick a little differently because the recipe wasn’t specific about what I should do.

kfc air fryer recipe dipping drumsticks

I dunked each piece a little differently to compare.

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I wiped the first one down, which helped to get rid of some of the excess buttermilk that I accidentally added to the recipe. 

I left the second precisely as it came out of the bowl, figuring more of the flour mixture would stick to it.

And for the third piece, I patted it down to what felt like a reasonable amount of buttermilk — somewhere between the first two.

I was curious how the 3 versions would compare after frying

kfc recipe in the air fryer

I was skeptical of these cooking instructions.

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Instead of using oil to prevent sticking, this recipe called for parchment paper. I’ve never used parchment paper in the air fryer, which my cutting skills can attest to, and I was extremely wary.

I decided to spray the third drumstick with oil to see if it turned out better after learning from the Chick-fil-A-inspired recipe. 

The instructions also said to cook the chicken for 13 minutes on each side at 390 degrees Fahrenheit, which seemed too long, so I took the experimental oiled drumstick out after only 13 minutes to test my theory. 

kfc air fryer recipe cooked

I decided to pull one of the drumsticks out after 10 minutes.

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As expected, the chicken was fully cooked after 13 minutes. The ones without oil also had a lot of flour showing, which didn’t seem good.

I spritzed them with oil and pondered my next move. Do I follow through with the recipe? Or do I save the recipe?

I decided to follow through, wondering if the added time would help the skin stick better.  

I wasn’t a fan of these drumsticks 

kfc chicken

I didn’t really like my drumsticks or the real ones from KFC.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

I knew the piece I took out early would get cold, so I ate that one first while the others finished cooking. The main issue was that the skin kept falling off the chicken. 

The seasoning was OK, but I didn’t get much of the ginger flavor I was hoping for. I didn’t really get the buttermilk flavor either, though the chicken itself was reasonably smooth.

As of right now, this didn’t feel like it was worth the effort. 

kfc air fryer recipe taste test

The skin fell right off the meat.

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The skin, which fell off, was quite good, but I didn’t really get all the flavor I wanted. It was dominated by the paprika.

After trying the others, I concluded the over-battered one turned out best. The buttermilk-soaked drumstick remained pretty juicy, and the skin was less burnt than the others. But I still wouldn’t have cooked it quite as long.

The breading also had too much flour. Even though I added oil, it never quite got moist.

I hate to say it, but the real KFC is more enjoyable. The chain puts a lot of pepper in its chicken, which I personally would’ve liked to do here. 

Overall, the Chick-fil-A copycat recipe was the best, and I probably wouldn’t make the others again

chick fil a final product air fryer

I’ll definitely be making this recipe again.

Lucien Formichella for Insider

Of the three, the Chick-fil-A replica recipe was clearly the best. Not only was it the most straightforward, but it was actually even better than the original product.

Popeyes is too good to try and imitate at home, and, for me, trying to copy KFC just isn’t worth it. 

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