Just to get it out of the way: chicken tenders are not the healthiest food in existence. But you know what? Chicken tenders are delicious. They need no excuses or apologies, and the fact of the matter is, I wanted to learn how to make restaurant-quality chicken tenders at home. So I did. Since this involves both raw meat and pan-frying, I’d rate it a bit more complicated than last week’s French onion soup, but still, the first time I made these, they turned out amazing.
Essential implements include a large frying pan and tongs, as well as two bowls, (one shallow, one deep) a knife, and a few forks. The tongs are super important, because hot oil can spit and that is no fun at all.
So. Pour a cup and a half of whole milk into a largeish bowl, and add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Boom, you just made buttermilk! Or close enough. Plus, the lemon juice gives the chicken a tiny bit of citrusness, if you’re looking for it. It’s awesome. If you don’t have lemon juice, white vinegar works as well. Let the milk and lemon juice chill out for 5 minutes, giving it time to… ferment? Curdle? I don’t know exactly how you get buttermilk from milk, but that’s what’s happening in your bowl. While that magic is occurring, take either a package of boneless skinless chicken breasts, or chicken tenders, and rinse and slice them. I think there’s some school of thought that says you’re not supposed to rinse chicken anymore, but as long as your sink is otherwise empty, and you too have an aversion to fresh-from-the-package chicken sliminess, give the chicken a rinse and cut it into strips. It’s entirely up to you to decide how big you want your chicken tenders, but do try to be consistent with the size, it makes things easier later.
Now that your chicken’s prepped, the buttermilk should be ready, so measure out a fourth of a cup of buttermilk, put it aside, and dump the chicken into the bowl of buttermilk. I always find something slightly gross about this step, but I try not to focus on it. Instead, I de-chicken my kitchen, making sure everything’s either cleaned up or in the garbage. Cleaning as you go – a trademark of people who are good at their jobs – has never been a natural talent of mine. The chicken needs to chill out in the buttermilk for 20 minutes or so, so this is a good time to prep whatever else you may be having for dinner.
Once your 20 minutes are up, it’s frying time! Take your big frying pan and pour in a half inch to an inch of vegetable oil, over medium heat. In your shallow bowl, add 1 ½ cups flour, and then some spices. If you have an all-purpose seasoning salt, this is a good place for about a tablespoon of it, otherwise, a bunch of salt and paprika and pepper and garlic powder and whatever else may suit your fancy will do. Mix the spices and the flour, and then drizzle in that ¼ cup of “buttermilk” you reserved earlier, so there are clumps of almost-dough, which will soon become bits of fried deliciousness.
Now, this is the tricky part. You want to create an assembly line for yourself, consisting of 4 items: your chicken in its buttermilk, the breading-to-be, the pan on the stove, and then a plate or cooling rack covered in paper towels. (Keep the paper towels away from the flame on the oven! My, uh, friend had a minor accident once.) If you, for some reason, have 2 pairs of tongs, that would be super right now. If you only have one pair, put it between the frying pan and the cooling rack, and get a fork for the first step of the procedure. Thought it will be tempting, as this goes quickly, DO NOT use the same tongs for the raw chicken and the cooked chicken. Okay, you ready? Great. Take the tiniest bit of chicken from the buttermilk, dredge it in the flour and spice mixture, and using the fork, put it in the frying pan. Does it immediately start to bubble (but not spit– if it’s spitting oil, turn it down a bit)? If the bubbling is immediate, your oil’s hot enough. If not, wait a bit. Once that piece is frying happily, start prepping a few more tenders.
So, to repeat: take a piece of chicken from its buttermilk bath, coat it in the enhanced flour, and gently lay it in the hot oil, and do this enough times so the pan is pretty much filled. The oil should be hot enough that it only takes a minute or two for the edges of the chicken tenders to start looking golden-brown. When that happens, flip them over with the tongs, and give them another minute or two, until they’re evenly lovely and delicious-looking. Once they look finished, take them out, slicing the biggest one in half to make sure there’s no visible pinkness inside, and put them on the drying rack. Then start your whole process over again, until all of your bits of milky chicken have been turned into scrumptious chicken tenders. You may need to add more oil at some point, but be careful! Hot oil can be dangerous, and is painful (tomato sauce is more painful, but that is, most likely, next week’s post). Also, raw chicken is dangerous – because of the buttermilk, these guys are super-moist, so err on the side of overcooking, if you’ve got a fear of raw chicken. It should be obvious, now that you’ve read this far, that I definitely have that fear.
Repeat as necessary until they’re done! I usually get 3-4 meals’ worth out of one package of chicken, and these keep in the fridge reasonably well for a few days. Serve with barbeque sauce or honey mustard sauce (honey mustard sauce, in a pinch, can be made from equal parts mayonnaise and mustard, with a bit of honey to taste) or just eat them on their own, they’re that good. And now, swear you’re never ordering delivery again! You can make your own chicken tenders, dammit, and they taste just as good – if not better – than those you’d get in a restaurant.