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4 Fast-Food Chains That Actually Grill Their Chicken

There are no artificially created grill marks here.

A perfect fast-food grilled chicken sandwich has a nice soft bun, the perfect amount of mayo or sauce, a crisp piece of lettuce, a juicy tomato, and of course, grill marks that impart a sweet, smoky flavor. The flavor the grill imparts onto a simple chicken breast is unmatched, but many fast-food restaurants have stopped serving grilled chicken or have taken shortcuts that you can taste.  In fact, much of the grilled chicken we're served is pre-treated to appear as though it's been grilled, or it's grilled in advance and reheated. 

If you pick up the bun for a peek at your fast food sandwich, you'll almost always see grill marks, and there's a good reason for restaurants to do this, says Los Angeles-based food stylist, Diane Elander. "Fast food and frozen brands show grill marks on chicken to indicate that the chicken was cooked by grilling, as opposed to baking or boiling," Elander explains. Grilling is perceived to be a healthier and tastier cooking method."

However, all fast food and frozen chicken breast that looks grilled, might not actually be as portrayed, explains Elander, as some restaurants take a shortcut to get that grilled flavor.  "They use a product called 'liquid smoke.' There are more than one of these types of products, but this is the most popular."

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How they fake grill marks

grilled chicken, lean protein part of the best diet for long-distance runners

Most of the time, the pre-marked meats come in from a supplier to the restaurant. The meat is prepped while raw, or par-cooked, and then essentially branded with fake grill stripes. According to Food Republic, the prepping process includes soaking or injecting the chicken breasts with a solution of salt, animal fat, and preservatives to make the grill marks stick to the raw meat.

If you've ever picked up chicken breasts from the freezer aisle at the grocery store, chances are they also feature those blackened-looking fake grill marks. Why bother? Well, as Elander mentioned, it's more visually appealing than a frozen hunk of pinkish-white frozen meat, and we always eat with our eyes first. 

Of course, if you grill chicken at home, you know it takes time and care. You need someone standing at the grill, especially if you're cooking breasts, which can dry out so easily. It's just more cost-effective to buy the pre-marked meat and cook it (or heat it up) in a faster manner, install a whole grill set-up and, of course, hire someone to man the grill all day. Here are some restaurants that still actually grill their chicken and you can taste the difference.


chick fil a grilled chicken sandwich
Chick-fil-A / Facebook

The national chain prides itself on the authentic flavor of its grilled chicken. It uses a unique double-sided grill to cook both sides of the chicken fast while preserving the smoky, just off-the-backyard grill flavor that's so craveable. Chick-fil-A even serves grilled chicken nuggets for a healthier, yet tasty, option for kids.

El Pollo Loco

el pollo loco chicken black bean bowl
Courtesy of El Pollo Loco

This West Coast chicken chain does chicken right, fire grilling their chicken, which is served family style, as an individual meal, in bowls, burritos, and over salads. It even offers under 500 calorie Keto friendly options for those eating healthy.


culvers grilled chicken sandwich
Culver's / Facebook

Our favorite spot for butter burgers also has excellent grilled chicken that is cooked on the grill. The chain says they use natural-cut chicken breast that's hand seasoned with salt and black pepper right on the grill.

 8 Burger Chains That Don't Actually Grill Their Burgers

Carl's Jr. and Hardee's

Carl's Jr. Chicken Sandwich
Courtesy of Carl's Jr.

The restaurants—they're the same, they just have different names in different parts of the country—use a flame grilling machine for their burgers and 800-degree charbroilers for their charbroiled chicken sandwiches. The difference between a grill and a charbroiler is that a charbroiler has its heating element above the item being cooked.

Tanya Edwards
Tanya Edwards is a seasoned food and health journalist, who has held roles at Yahoo Health as Managing Editor and at Food Network as Programming Director. Read more about Tanya