Crispy, Juicy Air Fryer Chicken Sandwich

published Aug 18, 2021
Air Fryer Chicken Sandwich Recipe

This DIY crunchy, spicy, juicy fried chicken sandwich tastes even better than the deep-fried fast-food versions.

Serves4

Prep20 minutes to 25 minutes

Cook13 minutes to 24 minutes

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fried chicken on sandwich bun with lettuce
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

I live in what we laughingly call “BePo,” a neighborhood situated between two Popeye’s fried chicken restaurants. They lure me with their siren song of spicy, crispy chicken sandwiches every time I drive by, which is all too often. The cravings are strong, but so is my aim to eat (mostly) homemade meals. So, after dozens of delicious experiments with my trusty air fryer, I’ve arrived at a recipe for DIY crunchy, spicy, juicy fried chicken sandwiches that rival the fast food chain’s deep-fried chicken sandwiches. Here’s how. 

A Pickle Juice Brine Is the Secret to Juicy Fried Chicken Breasts

Brining meat by soaking it in a salt solution draws in moisture and flavor, and it’s exactly what fast food restaurants do to make their fried chicken juicy and tender. Instead of starting from scratch, I use the flavorful brine found in jars of kosher dill pickles. The salt, sugar, garlic, and other seasonings in pickle juice are a natural pairing for spicy fried chicken — plus I usually have pickle brine in my fridge, so this step is a breeze!

I recommend using juice from a jar of fresh, refrigerated dill pickles like Boar’s Head Kosher Dills — the brine tastes fresher than shelf-stable varieties. Simply combine the stirred-up pickle brine and pounded-out chicken breasts in a bag or non-reactive container, refrigerate for four to eight hours, and you’re ready to proceed to breading.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

Flour + Panko + Cornstarch = Crunchy Air-Fried Goodness

I’m the first to admit that getting a thick, crunchy coating on air-fried chicken breasts is tricky. Over dozens of attempts, I zeroed in on a few crucial points. First, the breading needs texture. To achieve that, I use a blend of all-purpose flour and crusty Panko breadcrumbs, plus a few tablespoons of cornstarch to weaken the flour’s gluten structure, which makes the coating crispy and tender.  

It also needs flavor. Just about any Cajun seasoning will add a spicy bite, but I highly recommend Kingsford Cajun-Style All Purpose Seasoning. The coarse texture and just-right balance of salt, dried onions, garlic, herbs, and cayenne adds zing to the sandwich. To nail the irresistible umami flavor of fast-food sandwiches, I add a little MSG as well. It’s optional, but it really does round out the lip-smacking flavor.

Breading the Chicken

A three-step breading process, plus a short rest, makes for the best, crispiest air fryer chicken.

  1. Dip the brined chicken in the flour mixture. This initial layer sticks to the chicken and helps create a “glue” that adheres to the meat.
  2. Dunk the chicken in a mixture of egg white and buttermilk. The egg white provides a sticky protein structure that makes the breading stick while crisping beautifully, and the buttermilk coats the meat and adds a tangy flavor.
  3. Return the meat to the flour mixture. Go heavy this time, pressing the mixture to create shaggy bits that will translate into a crunchy crust.
  4. Let the chicken sit. Let the breaded chicken sit for 15 minutes while preheating the air fryer and air fryer basket. This resting/preheating time is crucial to bond the breading to the meat, and make the air fryer basket more nonstick as well.

Frying and Serving the Chicken

This recipe is lighter than deep-fried chicken, but you still need to use some oil. I generously mist oil all over the fry basket and the chicken (there should be no dry bits of flour). The oil helps conduct heat, ensures an evenly crispy coating, and adds flavor. Regular cooking spray or olive oil spray works, but I prefer the buttery flavor of ghee cooking spray. Look for it in the baking aisle where nonstick cooking sprays are sold, and online.  

Since tongs tend to mar the breading, I use a 2-pronged meat fork (the kind that comes in carving sets) to gently nudge the chicken to loosen it where it may have stuck to the fryer basket and to flip it halfway through cooking. This way, you’ll retain more of the crispy bits you worked so hard to create.

When the chicken is crisped and cooked through, it’s time to assemble the sandwiches. Place the chicken on bottom brioche buns, top with green leaf lettuce and a few pickle slices, spread some spicy mayonnaise on the cut side of the top buns, then close the sandwiches and dig in.

Air Fryer Chicken Sandwich Recipe

This DIY crunchy, spicy, juicy fried chicken sandwich tastes even better than the deep-fried fast-food versions.

Prep time 20 minutes to 25 minutes

Cook time 13 minutes to 24 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the chicken:

  • 2

    (10- to 12-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts

  • 1/2 cup

    garlic dill pickle brine

  • 1/2 cup

    plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1/3 cup

    panko breadcrumbs

  • 2 tablespoons

    Cajun seasoning that contains salt, such as Kingsford Cajun Style All Purpose Seasoning

  • 2 tablespoons

    cornstarch

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    MSG (optional)

  • 2

    large egg whites

  • 1/2 cup

    buttermilk

  • Cooking spray

For the sandwiches:

  • 1/2 cup

    regular or Kewpie mayonnaise

  • 1 tablespoon

    white miso paste

  • 2 teaspoons

    hot sauce, such as Cholula

  • 4

    brioche burger buns or rolls

  • 1

    large dill pickle

  • 4 leaves

    green leaf lettuce

Instructions

Make the chicken

  1. Cut 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts in half crosswise. Working with 1 piece at a time, place between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and gently pound with the flat side of a meat mallet until 1/2-inch thick. Transfer to a quart-size zip-top bag.

  2. Add 1/2 cup garlic dill pickle brine (include some of the garlic and spices) to the bag. Flip the bag around to coat the chicken with the brine. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least 4 or up to 8 hours.

  3. Place 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, and 1/2 teaspoon MSG if using in a shallow bowl or pie plate and whisk to combine. Place 2 large egg whites and 1/2 cup buttermilk in a second shallow bowl and whisk to combine.

  4. Working with 1 chicken cutlet at a time, remove from the marinade, dredge in the breadcrumb mixture until completely coated, then shake off all the excess. Dip in the egg white mixture until coated, then let the excess drip off. Return to the breadcrumb mixture and press gently so the mixture adheres to the chicken. Place on a plate. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes while you heat the air fryer and make the spicy mayo.

  5. Heat the air fryer and air fryer basket to 390°F for 15 minutes. If you’d like to toast the buns, heat a regular or toaster oven to 350ºF. Place 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon white miso, and 2 teaspoons hot sauce in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

  6. Spray the top of the breaded chicken thoroughly with cooking spray. Working in 2 batches if needed to leave space between the pieces, place the chicken in the air fryer basket sprayed-side down. Spray the top of the chicken with more cooking spray.

  7. Air fry for 6 minutes. Flip the chicken with a meat fork or two regular forks and air fry until the chicken is crisped, cooked through, and registers 165ºF on an instant-read thermometer, about 6 minutes more.

Assemble the sandwiches:

  1. Split 4 brioche buns and place directly on the oven rack. Bake until lightly toasted, about 4 minutes. Meanwhile, cut 1 large dill pickle crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds.

  2. Place a piece of chicken on each bottom bun. Top each with a green leaf lettuce leaf and a few pickle slices. Spread the spicy mayonnaise on the cut side of the top buns, then close the sandwiches.

Recipe Notes

Cajun seasoning: If you can only find a salt-free Cajun seasoning, add 1 teaspoon kosher salt to the breadcrumb mixture.

Storage: The air-fried chicken can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 400ºF air fryer until heated through, about 8 minutes. The spicy mayonnaise can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Baking in the oven: If you don’t have an air fryer, bake the breaded chicken on a rack set in a foil-lined baking sheet in a 400ºF convection oven, if you have that setting, about 25 minutes.