How to Cook Fried Chicken Tenders

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Ready in minutes, chicken tenders should be slender enough to dip.
Ready in minutes, chicken tenders should be slender enough to dip. (Image: mikafotostok/iStock/Getty Images)

Start to Finish: 3 1/2 hours, including marinating Servings: 4 Difficulty Level: Beginner

Frying chicken tenders takes a matter of minutes and gives moist, juicy meat encased in a crunchy coating. The only potential pitfalls are frying in oil that has not reached sufficient temperature, which will give a soggy, oily coating; and cooking too quickly, which could leave potentially hazardous raw chicken in the center.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken tenderloins or chicken breast
  • 3 cups buttermilk or natural yogurt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour or 2 cups crushed crackers or unsweetened cereal
  • 1 teaspoon each of assorted seasoning powders
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 cups cooking oil
  • 3 eggs

Directions

Marinate for Taste Soak the raw chicken strips first in 2 cups of buttermilk and salt. As well as acting as the binder for the coating, the buttermilk contains lactic acid, which breaks down the proteins in the chicken, tenderizing the meat and imparting a pleasant tang to the otherwise bland flavor. Pour the buttermilk and salt mix over the chicken strips in a resealable bag, massaging the bag thoroughly before placing it in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours. If using chicken breasts, slice them into thin strips with a sharp knife on a cutting board.

Combine the flour, spices, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Salty, spicy seasonings, such as cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder and cumin, are best. The baking powder will aerate the coating, giving it extra crunch during frying. Add the remaining buttermilk, stirring gently until the mixture is moist but lumpy.

Bring the oil to 300 degrees Fahrenheit in a deep-fat fryer or heavy, high-sided pan that will maintain a steady temperature. The oil is ready when a fleck of flour mixture or chicken strip sliver instantly floats and fizzes when tossed in.

Transfer the marinated chicken to a bowl and allow it to return to room temperature. Take the chicken strips from the bowl 1 by 1, shake slightly to remove any excess buttermilk and toss evenly in the flour mix until each is thoroughly coated.

Lower each chicken strip into the oil with tongs and fry for 7 to 8 minutes until the coating is golden. Take care not to overcrowd the pan or the temperature will drop and the tenders will not form as crunchy a crust. Instead, fry the tenders in batches.

Remove the cooked tenders from the oil and drain on a rack lined with paper towels.

Make Quick Tenders Skip the marinating stage if time is of the essence. In this case, egg will provide the binder for the coating. While breadcrumbs are the ideal vehicle for carrying the spices, alternative coatings are widespread. Crushed crackers or potato chips, for example, give a salty bite, while even unsweetened breakfast cereals such as cornflakes or bran flakes seem to reinvent themselves during frying.

Whisk 3 eggs in a bowl. Place the flour in a separate bowl and the crushed crackers, chips or cereal in a third. The crackers should be finely pulverized, although a few lumps will lend a little texture.

Heat the cooking oil to 300 F in a deep-fryer or pan. The reason for deep- rather than shallow-frying is to bring the chicken strip up to a consistent heat where the coating fries but the meat inside mostly steams, an essential flourish for strips that are moist rather than oily.

Dip the chicken strips 1 by 1 in the egg mix, shake off any drips, then toss in the flour. Shake off any excess and then roll around in the crunchy third bowl, applying a little pressure to give the coating sufficient purchase.

Lower each strip into the oil and fry for 7 to 8 minutes, then remove and dry on paper towels.

Tips and Suggestions

Use a robust oil suitable for deep-fat frying. Peanut, soybean and grapeseed are all appropriate, and will give the tenders a pleasant finish, whereas olive oil could leave bitter, smoky traces after several batches.

Serve the tenders with a creamy ranch or spicy ketchup dip. Drizzling them lightly with lemon juice also cuts through the oiliness, but left too long the tenders will turn soggy.

Warnings

Check that the internal temperature of the chicken tenders is 165 F with a cook’s thermometer. Any lower, and potentially harmful bacteria can survive in the meat, even though the coating is apparently crispy.

Monitor the cooking oil frequently and use a cook’s thermometer to check that its temperature does not rise above the desired 300 F, even if this is comfortably below most oils' flash point. While most deep-fat fryers have their own thermostat, frying on the stovetop requires awareness of the oil’s particular smoke point, a temperature at which the flavor is compromised.

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