The History of Chicken Nuggets

Created with Sketch.

The History of Chicken Nuggets

It’s no secret that chicken nuggets are a hot button topic in the world of food. These bite-sized pieces of poultry tout themselves as a healthy option with phrases like “100% seasoned chicken breast”, but the truth is that most chicken nugget brands contain an awful lot of fat.

McDonald’s chicken nuggets came under fire for a while from false claims that chicken nuggets were a product of pink slime that consisted of pretty much a whole chicken sans head and feathers being ground up. These claims were unfounded. The pink slime was explained as a beef product that many manufacturers use, and the chicken nuggets got a remake in 2016 to even exclude mechanically separated meat. Now McDonald’s nuggets really are all white meat.

That being said, I don’t know if I should be ashamed or not, but even when the pink slime rumours were generally touted as fact, I never wavered in my die-hard love of chicken nuggets; McDonald’s version above all else.

But who is responsible for these glorious bits of chicken? How did chicken nuggets find their beginnings? You’d be forgiven if you thought the first chicken nuggets were from a chef. But the history of chicken nuggets actually begins in a lab.

Food + Science

The History of Chicken Nuggets

Food scientist and Cornell university professor Robert C. Baker had a problem to solve. It was the 50s and the USA was producing far more chickens than people were eating. Basically, people were bored with chicken but the chickens kept coming. The new issue to solve in the food world was that of how to get people eating chicken again.

Processed foods were starting to boom, especially with pork and beef. Baker began his new pursuit of creating poultry products. He got his doctorate and began his research at Cornell University.

Eventually the first chicken nugget was born. Called the “Chicken Crispie”, it consisted of ground chicken bound together and coated in batter. This was revolutionary because a processed, edible binding process for ground meats had not yet been discovered, meaning meat could not be held together without some sort of skin, like a hot dog. There also had not been a batter invented that could survive both being frozen and being cooked.

Baker and his team bound the ground chicken by first curing it using salt and vinegar to remove moisture. They then added grains and milk powder to hold it together. The batter for the coating was flash frozen.

The first chicken nuggets were more like sticks than the familiar round bites we call nuggets today. They became quite popular, but didn’t make their biggest boom until adopted by McDonald’s.

The Red Meat Scare

The History of Chicken Nuggets

McDonald’s was struggling at the time due to increased fears surrounding red meat. When people began turning towards chicken, McDonald’s saw their opportunity. A few failed attempts at creating popular chicken dishes lead them to try creating nuggets… but not chicken nuggets… onion nuggets. Thankfully for all of us, the idea was abandoned when someone had the much better idea for chicken nuggets, and voila, McNuggets were born.

There’s no known connection between Baker’s Crispie’s and McNuggets, but it is almost certain that the science used to create Crispies (which was published and available to the public) was helpful in the invention of McDonald’s new dish. McNuggets were a huge success and they’ve never looked back.

Many other fast food chains have adopted chicken nuggets or chicken strips since. Burger King, in an attempt to be original, created long, finger-like versions of the product and called them chicken fries. Many places have created even smaller pieces of chicken nuggets and marketed them as popcorn chicken.

Whatever the shape and whatever the name, people love ground up, battered, and fried chicken. You can easily get frozen chicken nuggets to cook at home. They come in all sorts of shapes. Dinosaur is my favourite.

Unfortunately, Baker’s invention lead to the demise of the farmers he’d wanted to help. He’d started out insistent on helping poultry farmers raise their birds and aimed to help them get more profits out of their efforts. However, the boom of chicken nuggets actually lead to fewer profits for the farmers thanks to mass market farming, and many of them were forced to abandon the business.

Despite the controversies and rallies against nuggets in the past, it’s clear that chicken nuggets are here to stay. The history of chicken nuggets may be widely forgotten, but their legacy, and flavour, lives on.

Interested in food history? Check out the history of Gummy Bears!


Sources: 1 | 2