Chicken tenders are a favorite meal for many, but often store-bought or restaurant chicken tenders can be tough and chewy. The secret to making chicken tender and soft at home is knowing what causes tough chicken and how to prevent it through proper cooking techniques. This article will provide tips on selecting the right cut of chicken, brining, breading and frying to end up with perfectly tender and juicy homemade chicken tenders.
What Causes Tough Chicken?
There are two main reasons chicken can turn out tough:
- Overcooking – Cooking chicken to an internal temperature past 165°F will cause the proteins to tighten and squeeze out moisture, leaving you with dry, chewy meat.
- Using the wrong cut – Chicken tenderloins (located on the underside of breast) are the most tender cuts. Using cuts like breasts or thighs which have more connective tissue will be tougher.
Follow the instructions below to prevent overcooking and use the right tenderloin cuts for soft chicken every time.
Select the Right Cut
For the most tender chicken, you want to use chicken tenderloins, also sometimes labeled chicken tenders. Here are some tips for picking the best package of chicken tenderloins:
- Look for a package labeled “chicken tenderloins” or “chicken tenders.”stay away from packs only labeled “chicken breast.”
- Tenderloins are long, thin strips of meat. Opt for packs with strips that are roughly the same small size.
- Pick tenderloins that are all intact rather than pre-cut or shredded.
- Raw chicken should have a bright pink color. Avoid packs with dry, dull or gray colored tenderloins.
Buying a pack of quality tenderloins is the first step to ensuring soft, juicy chicken.
Brine the Chicken
Brining is the process of soaking meat in a saltwater solution before cooking. It helps season the chicken and makes it more moist and tender by allowing the chicken to absorb some of the liquid.
Here is a simple brine recipe and method:
Simple Chicken Brine
- 1 quart cool water
- 1/4 cup salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- Combine all brine ingredients in a bowl or pan and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar.
- Add chicken tenderloins and refrigerate for 30 minutes up to 1 hour.
- Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels.
- Discard used brine.
Brining for short time of 30 minutes up to 1 hour is enough to add flavor and moisture. Don’t brine too long or the chicken can get too salty.
Bread and Fry the Chicken
For crispy, juicy chicken tenders, coat with a breading and then fry. Here is a simple breading recipe and frying method:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup plain breadcrumbs or panko
- In a shallow bowl, combine the flour and seasonings.
- Place eggs in a second shallow bowl.
- Add breadcrumbs to a third shallow bowl.
- Dredge chicken pieces in flour mixture until fully coated.
- Dip floured chicken into the egg. Let excess drip off.
- Coat chicken in breadcrumbs, pressing to help coating adhere.
- Fill a heavy pot or Dutch oven with 2-3 inches oil. Use a thermometer and heat to 350°F.
- Working in batches, add breaded chicken pieces to the hot oil without overcrowding.
- Fry for 5-6 minutes until golden brown, flipping occasionally.
- Transfer chicken to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Frying at the proper hot temperature of 350°F will cook the chicken all the way through without overcooking the outside. Frying in batches prevents the oil temp from dropping too much.
Check for Doneness
Chicken is safe to eat once it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. To test for doneness:
- Use an instant read meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken. It should read 165°F.
- Cut into a piece of chicken. The inside should not be pink. The juices should run clear.
- The chicken will feel firm when pressed.
Be sure to check the temperature and doneness of each batch since frying times can vary. Pull each batch from the oil immediately once it reaches 165°F to prevent overcooking.
Frying Oil Temperature Chart
Monitoring your frying oil temperature is key to crispy chicken that cooks through without being overdone. Use an instant read cooking thermometer and aim for the temperatures based on oil type below:
|Vegetable or canola oil
|Lard or shortening
Heating the oil to the proper range will get the chicken crispy on the outside while ensuring it cooks through without drying out. If the oil is too hot, the exterior can burn before the inside cooks.
Chicken tenders are versatile and pair well with a variety of flavors. Consider serving them with any of the following:
- Sauces: barbecue, ranch, honey mustard, buffalo, etc.
- Sides: fries, coleslaw, baked beans, rice, etc.
- On sandwiches/wraps: with lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc.
- Over salads: on top of garden, Caesar, taco salad, etc.
Serve your chicken tenders while hot and crispy for maximum enjoyment!
Storing and Reheating Chicken Tenders
For food safety, properly store leftover chicken tenders:
- Fresh chicken: Store in a sealed container up to 3-4 days in the refrigerator.
- Cooked chicken: Store in a sealed container up to 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Can freeze for 2-3 months.
To reheat chicken tenders, use one of these methods:
|Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken on a baking sheet and bake 10-15 minutes until heated through 165°F.
|Heat 1 tsp oil in skillet over medium heat. Add chicken and cook 4-6 minutes per side until heated through.
|Preheat air fryer to 360°F. Cook chicken 6-10 minutes, flipping halfway.
Always use a food thermometer to verify chicken reaches 165°F when reheating. Microwave reheating is not recommended as it can create hot spots.
Cooking Times for Chicken Tenders
Chicken tenderloin sizes can vary, which affects cooking times. Refer to this cooking time chart as a guide when frying or baking chicken tenders:
|Chicken Tender Thickness
|Baking Time (425°F)
|2-3 minutes per side
|3-4 minutes per side
|4-5 minutes per side
Always verify doneness by checking temperature rather than relying solely on cook times for food safety.
What if my chicken tenders turn out tough and chewy?
Overcooking is the most common cause of tough chicken tenders. Be sure to monitor cook times closely and use a meat thermometer to pull them as soon as they reach 165°F. Starting with the right tenderloin cuts and brining also helps prevent toughness.
Can I use chicken breasts instead of tenderloins?
Chicken breasts have more connective tissue and will likely turn out chewier than tenderloins. Stick to using tenderloins or tenders for the most tender results.
How long can I reuse frying oil?
It’s best to discard and replace frying oil after using it 4-5 times. The more it’s reused, the more degraded the oil becomes which can affect flavor and performance. After each use, strain out debris and store oil in an airtight container away from light and heat.
What’s the best oil for frying chicken?
Good choices are peanut, vegetable, canola or corn oil which have high smoke points. Avoid olive oil or butter which can burn. Lard or shortening are also options but add more saturated fat.
With the right technique, you can make chicken tender and moist right at home. Start with chicken tenderloins, brine, bread and fry at the proper temperature for the best texture. Monitor doneness carefully and don’t overcook. Serve your homemade chicken tenders with fun flavors and sides for a tasty meal everyone will love.