You’ve got to try this Healthy Air Fryer Popcorn Chicken! Tender, crispy pieces of chicken – first marinated to tenderize the chicken, then lightly breaded in a spicy, salty flour mix, then air fried to perfection!
How to serve it:
This popcorn chicken:
- makes a great appetizer with my Healthy Adobo Dipping sauce (recipe coming soon!)
- is a fabulous fried chicken salad with spring mix, cherry tomatoes, red onions and topped with my Skinny Blue Cheese dressing
- perfect in a wrap with lettuce and vegetables
- is great just by itself as a main meal with a side.
I bet you can’t eat just one! Now you might be tempted to just eat the air fryer popcorn chicken by itself but really try to incorporate a salad or a side dish of veggies with it. You’ll be glad you did.
I bet you can’t eat just one!
Healthy and diet vs healthy and delicious
The reason I started my blog is because I found many of the “healthy” and “diet” recipes bland and boring. Sometimes we try to make something so healthy we get away from what we originally wanted to make and it tastes nothing like we were craving. I hate that! Have you ever had that experience?
That’s like cauliflower pizza crust, while it may be good, it tastes nothing like the real thing so don’t try and pass it off to me as “real” pizza. Or non fat cheese, yuck! Why bother? I’d rather just splurge every once in a while on the real thing. Well this Healthy Air Fryer Popcorn Chicken is not one of those “fake” recipes, this is the real thing!
Solution to food cravings
Could I have made it healthier? Most definitely. Without any breading or breading the chicken once instead of twice, it’s definitely healthier but I wanted fried chicken, I didn’t want baked popcorn chicken. Am I going to eat this popcorn chicken all of the time? Probably not. Everything in moderation.
My solution to high caloric food cravings like these: I make what I really want (to satisify the craving) but find a way to make it a bit healthier as in this case “air frying.” Often times the solution is to reduce my portion size and insert more veggies.
For those of you who read my post on intuitive eating, you know I’m following a more reduced portion approach. I only eat until I’m slightly full. I try to eat healthy at least 80% of the time.
Can you freeze popcorn chicken?
Absolutely! Make a big batch. Freeze it for later, then air fry it again for a few minutes to reheat it or place it in broiler for a bit.
Why use chicken thighs?
Again for me, it’s all about taste. Yes I’m sure the chicken breasts are slightly healthier. However after putting this recipe into the Weight Watcher Smart Points app, for this recipe it didn’t matter whether you used boneless, skinless breasts or boneless, skinless thighs – same points. So if it’s the same, then use thighs. They taste so much better! More tender, more flavor. My grandmother was right – thighs are the best! (Now be sure and trim the fat off, you’ll still get the flavor, I promise!)
Is air frying healthier for you?
Air frying is definitely healthier for you. It’s amazing to see the calorie difference! For fried chicken (similar to popcorn chicken) it’s 549 calories for deep fried and 280 calories for air fried. Check out this great article all about air frying.
Why use light cream cheese in the batter?
In many breaded or battered recipes, you will see milk, buttermilk, or egg as the binding agent for the batter. In this recipe I use cream cheese. Why? Not only does the cream cheese help tenderize the chicken but it is thick, and it helps the batter stay on each piece which is essential when you’re using an air fryer. To read more about light cream cheese and how it’s healthier than the regular version, check out this article.
Do I have to dip it twice into the seasoned flour?
Yes, you need to dip it twice if you want it to turn out crispy and look like mine. It tastes ok (more like baked chicken) when you just dip it once in the seasoned flour but it’s so much better and crispier after you dip it in the milk and then back into the flour mixture. If you decide to splurge and deep fry, then only one dip into the seasoned flour is needed.
How to reheat popcorn chicken in air fryer:
To reheat popcorn chicken in the air fryer, if it’s frozen, let it thaw, then spray with olive oil sprayer (paid link) and air fry at 350° for a few minutes until hot.
How to reheat popcorn chicken in the oven:
Preheat oven to 350°. If it’s frozen, arrange popcorn chicken on a baking sheet (paid link) and let it thaw. Spray with olive oil spray (paid link). Heat until hot about 5-10 minutes depending on your oven.
How to make Crispy, Tender Air Fried Popcorn Chicken in pictures:
Trim off any fat and cut the chicken into bite sized pieces. I love my Santoku knife (paid link), it slices the fat off so easily!
Mix together the cream cheese, lime juice, egg, and 1 tablespoon of the homemade chipotle seasoning (paid link). Mix with a wooden spoon or use a hand mixer (paid link) for best results.
Add the chicken and marinate at least 30 minutes up to overnight in the refrigerator.
In a large Ziplock bag (paid link), add remaining homemade chipotle seasoning (paid link), paprika, flour and salt.
Place a few chicken pieces into the bag and shake. Grab a handful of breaded chicken and use your fingers to remove the excess flour by “shaking” the chicken in your fingers and letting the flour fall through. Do this for all of the pieces and lay them on a baking sheet (paid link) lined with parchment paper (paid link).
For the second breading, with a slotted spoon, dip a few of the breaded pieces into the milk, then back into the flour. Lay them again on a baking sheet (paid link) lined with parchment paper (paid link). Do this for the rest of the breaded pieces.
Preheat air fryer to 375°. Spray the basket with olive oil spray (paid link). Arrange chicken pieces on basket. Spray the pieces heavily with olive oil spray (paid link) and air fry for about 8 minutes. If you have the Breville Smart Oven Air (paid link) you won’t need to flip them over. But spray again and cook another 5-7 minutes.
If you have a different air fryer, experiment to see how long it takes for the first batch, then adjust accordingly. Spray again halfway through total air frying time when you flip the chicken over. Total air frying time about 12-15 minutes. This may take a while depending on how big your air fryer is. I can do mine fairly quickly as the Breville Smart Oven Air (paid link) can hold up to 3 baskets at a time.
Healthy Air Fryer Popcorn Chicken
- 2 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into bite size pieces (trim off fat if visible)
- 8 oz light cream cheese, softened
- 1 egg
- 1 lemon or lime, cut in half and squeezed
- 2 cups flour
- 3 tbsp (divided)homemade chipotle seasoning
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 0.5 cup skim milk
- Optional – Adobo dipping sauce, Skinny Blue Cheese Dressing or any other dipping sauce
- In a large bowl combine softened cream cheese, egg and lemon/lime juice and 1 tablespoon of homemade chipotle seasoning. Use a hand mixer if desired. Add in chicken pieces and stir. Allow to marinate at least 30 minutes up to overnight in the refrigerator.
- In a large ziplock bag, add flour, 2 tablespoons of chipotle seasoning, kosher salt, pepper and paprika.
- Preheat air fryer to 375°.
- Add a few pieces of chicken to bag and shake, and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Do this for all of the chicken pieces. (At this point you could air fry now, but the chicken won’t look like the pictures, it’s best to coat it twice. You can also decide to splurge and deep fry, then it’s fine to deep fry at this stage).
- When finished breading all the pieces, dip the coated pieces in milk and back into flour mixture again-second breading.
- When you have enough ready for one batch, place chicken in air fryer, spray well with olive oil sprayer and air fry for about 8 minutes. Flip over if necessary and spray again, then air fry another 5-7 minutes. If you have the Breville Smart Oven air you won’t need to turn your pieces over. (Times are approximate, each air fryer is different so watch carefully on a small batch so you know when to take them out). Total air frying time is about 12-15 minutes depending on your air fryer. Be sure and serve hot!
- Don’t batter the chicken pieces until you are ready to fry, otherwise you will have to rebatter them. The flour soaks into the chicken and they won’t be as crispy if you bread them too early before frying.
- Shake off any excess flour before air frying.
- Spray the pieces well with the olive oil spray.
- Serve immediately, they lose their crispiness if you try to keep them warm in the oven.
- They freeze and reheat well. Flash freeze on a baking sheet, then transfer to vacuumed sealed bags.