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Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe; Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe; Design: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Chicken Tender Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

published Aug 21, 2020
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If there’s one thing Kitchn readers love, it’s chicken. We have an impressive amount of chicken recipes to choose from, and we’ve conducted several chicken showdowns, too — everything from chicken pot pie to chicken noodle soup. Wondering the best way to defrost your chicken? We’ve got you covered.

But somehow chicken tenders — perhaps one of the most beloved preparations of chicken there is — have managed to avoid the spotlight. No more. I’m a child of the McNugget generation, the Costco frozen chicken patty generation, and now, as a parent for over 20 years, the chicken tender generation. They come in different shapes and sizes. They can be bready or crispy, baked or fried. They can be seasoned with just salt or flavored with all the dried spices under the sun. I’m here to find out which style reigns supreme.

Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe | Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe

Meet Our 4 Chicken Tender Con-tenders

By nature, chicken tenders are pretty easy to make, but they can vary greatly in how they’re prepped and cooked. I searched the internet for popular recipes, hoping to find a baked tender, a deep-fried tender, and a pan-fried one, too. I was also curious about the breading. What technique and mix of ingredients would result in the crispiest, crunchiest tender? Ultimately, I narrowed it down to four recipes that each took a unique approach and had an impressive number of glowing reviews: Betty Crocker, Taste of Home, Ina Garten, and The Neelys.

The Betty Crocker recipe, which pops up first in a Google search, was the only one that didn’t utilize the standard breading procedure of flour, eggs, and then a final coating of breading. Instead, the recipe has you shake the tenders in a mixture of Bisquick and Parmesan. It’s also the only recipe that’s baked in the oven. Ina uses seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmesan as her coating, and pan-fries the chicken. Taste of Home calls for an intriguing breading of crushed saltines (how could I not try that?), while the Neelys use panko and plenty of dried seasonings. Both deep-fry their tenders.

How I Tested the Chicken Tender Recipes

To minimize “fowl play,” I made all the chicken tenders on the same day and followed the recipe instructions exactly. I used the same brand of chicken across the board. To even the playing field, I omitted any sauces that were included with the recipes, and didn’t use the sticks that Ina calls for. I judged each one on ease and texture, but most importantly flavor. I tasted them all with my chicken tender experts: my 9- and 21-year-old daughters.

Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe | Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe

1. The Most Disappointing: Ina Garten’s Parmesan Chicken Sticks

I have to say I was a little surprised by this outcome. Ina’s chicken salad was a delight, and rated well in that battle. I felt she would know her way around a chicken tender! But I was wrong — way wrong. These tenders needed a lot more seasonings and a lot more cooking fat. As is, they’re unattractive and bland.

Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe | Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe

2. The One That Proved Baking Isn’t Better: Betty Crocker’s Ultimate Chicken Fingers

This recipe is very highly rated, and was the only one I tested that didn’t dip the tender in flour before the egg. Although I was initially skeptical about the use of Bisquick, it ended up being my favorite part: It gave the chicken a creamy milk-rich essence. But baking rather than frying resulted in moist, rather than crisp, tenders, and they were also very bland. If I made these again, I would increase the seasoning, add an extra layer of panko, and fry instead of bake them.

Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe | Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe

3.  The Not-So-Close Second: Taste of Home’s Fried Chicken Strips

Although I liked the texture of the saltine breading better than most of the other recipes I tested, these tenders needed a lot more salt to make them really shine. The dredging mixture was also way off — it was far too thin and didn’t help the cracker crust stick at all. If I were to make them again, I’d season every step of the way and opt for yogurt or buttermilk for dredging.

Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe | Food Stylist: Amelia Rampe

4. The Clear Winner: The Neely’s Tony’s Chicken Tenders

The Neelys once had one of the most popular shows on Food Network and a famous Memphis BBQ restaurant. Do they know their way around a tender? Yes, yes, they do! This was far and away the best of the bunch — it wasn’t even close. The heavy hand in seasonings resulted in flavorful tenders, the use of panko made them extra crispy-crunchy, and even the leftovers tasted great. This is the only chicken tender recipe you’ll ever need.

Do you have a favorite chicken tender recipe? Let us know in the comments!