The year was 1965. America’s love affair with fried chicken was spreading like wildfire across the continent. Kentucky Fried Chicken had opened up over 800 restaurants nationwide, becoming the largest fast-food chain in the country.
Seeking to cash in on the fried chicken craze, the folks at General Foods got to work on developing an at-home fried chicken alternative. It was an era when it seemed as if more and more food was coming out of a can or a box, and a competitor, Swanson, had just claimed a large market share with their new frozen “TV” dinners.
Convenience had become a major factor for home cooks, and anyone who has ever made homemade fried chicken knows that it is anything but convenient. And so, Shake ‘N Bake was born. What could be easier? Open a box, dump the contents into a bag, add some chicken, shake it around, and toss it in the over. Brilliant!
The new product was a goldmine. A box consisting of breadcrumbs, some seasoning, and a cheap plastic bag could be sold at an incredible mark-up. General Mills made a major push to capitalize on the product’s exorbitant margins and launched a huge marketing campaign to get it off the ground. Their original ads claimed it was “crispier than fried chicken,” even though it was not, and highlighted the product’s convenience with taglines like “Just add chicken!”
The rest, as they say, is history. The product was delicious, easy to make, and a much healthier alternative to deep-fried chicken. Sales skyrocketed and Shake ‘N Bake became a household name. Soon after, General Mills came out with versions for pork and fish.
I have fond memories of munching on Shake ‘N Bake drumsticks as a child. Growing up in a household with a single mother who worked a full-time job, it was a staple in our diet. However, for whatever reason, Shake ‘N Bake’s existence has since grown rather quiet. I think the last TV commercial I saw for the stuff was back in the 80s, when Alice from the Brady Bunch bought a box of it from Sam the butcher. It can still be found on the shelves of supermarkets across the globe, but sadly, it seems the glory days of Shake ‘N Bake are over.
And then, last night, with two pork chops in my hands, I began pondering recipes that would make good use of them. I had a flashback to those crispy drumsticks of my childhood, so I took to the internet to look for a make-at-home Shake N’ Bake copycat recipe. I found dozens of them. I chose a simple one and my pantry contained everything required: breadcrumbs, oil, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, sugar, black pepper, chili powder, parsley, basil, and oregano. Hmmm, I thought, sounds about right. I mixed it up, pressed it into the pork chops, and tossed them in the oven.
Twenty-five minutes later, I pigged out on the tastiest pork chop I’ve ever snacked upon. Served, of course, with a big glop of homemade apple sauce, it was divine. It was juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, salty, sweet, and savory, golden brown, and it was one of the simplest meals I’d cooked in a while. As I chewed the last morsels of meat off the bone, it dawned on me. I bet this stuff would work great with fish.
The following day, I went back online to scrutinize the multiple copycat recipes found there. The majority were very similar to the recipe I had used the night before, but I did find several interesting variations. Out of the 12 recipes I dissected, 3 included cornstarch. Interesting. The biggest problem I encounter when baking breaded cutlets is that the breading doesn’t adhere well to the meat. Cornstarch, when it reacts with water, acts as a glue.
Two recipes called for a mix of breadcrumbs and panko, which I felt would result in a crispier crust. One recipe called for crushed corn flakes (but had no added sugar) instead of breadcrumbs. And one recipe included grated parmesan cheese, another useful ingredient I often incorporate to help breading adhere to meat.
The flavor profile of the recipe I used for the pork chops was pretty spot on. The herbs and seasonings were just about perfect, and the addition of sugar really brought everything together. I was now on a mission: develop a homemade Shake ‘N Bake recipe that worked well with baked fish.
Six of the recipes I inspected were almost identical, so that version would be used for sample #1. I decided I would try the crushed corn flakes for sample #2, and I would include panko and parmesan for the third batch, which would also include cornstarch.
A few days later, the taste test went down. I decided to use fresh cod for the protein and whipped up three batches of homemade “Shake ‘N Bake” seasoned breading. I also picked up a box of old-school Shake ‘N Bake at the supermarket to use for a fourth sampling.
There wasn’t a loser in the batch. All the recipes were acceptable. I also made a last-minute decision to cook half of the fish in an air fryer and the other half in the oven. Here, there was a clear-cut winner; the air-fried fish won in a landslide. It came out crispier and had a superior golden brown color.
I was a bit disappointed in the batch that used the crushed corn flakes. While it did produce a slightly better color, the time and effort to smash up the corn flakes into crumbs wasn’t worth the effort. The herbs and spices in the mixture overpowered the delicate corny flavor. The Shake ‘N Bake original was better than I expected, but as far as taste and texture, it was in the middle of the pack. While I can appreciate the convenience of such a product, after reading the extensive list of mysterious ingredients on the box, I would much rather make the stuff on my own so I actually know what’s in it.
The winner? All tasters agreed that the batch made with panko and parmesan reigned supreme. It was the crispiest and the parmesan intensified the flavor. This batch also contained the most cornstarch, which, combined with the cheese, definitely helped the breading adhere to the fish.
Homemade Shake ‘N Bake Fish
- 1 pound catch of the day (cod, tog, sea bass, etc.)
- 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
- 3/4 cup panko
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons buttermilk (or cream)
- Cooking spray
Add all the dry ingredients to a large, shallow bowl (or pie plate) and mix well with a fork. Add in the oil and mix again.
Cut the fish into 1-inch-thick strips. Whisk together the egg and buttermilk in a shallow bowl. Dip each piece of fish into the egg mixture, and then press it into the breading until well coated. (I like to dip one side back into the egg, and then back into the breading, to get a nice thick crust on one side.) Place the breaded fish on a platter and refrigerate for a half hour. (This will help the breading adhere to the fish when cooking.)
If you are using a conventional oven, insert a metal baking sheet and preheat to 450 degrees. Once preheated, remove the cooking sheet, spray it with cooking spray, add the fish, and spray the tops with additional cooking spray. Bake for 8 minutes and then carefully flip the fish. Bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown.
If you are using an air fryer, preheat to 400 degrees. Spray the bottom with cooking spray, add the fish, and then spray the tops with the cooking spray. Cook for seven minutes, flip, and cook for another 7 minutes.
Serve with tartar sauce or another dipping sauce of your choice. So good! And, it’s much lighter and healthier than frying the fish.
Susan’s Scrumdiddlyumptious Tartar Sauce
My lovely wife, Susan, is always in charge of making the tartar sauce in our household. I never seem to get it quite right. Following is her recipe.
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise (or try using homemade mayonnaise)
- 3 tablespoons sweet relish
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Mix everything together and serve.
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