People go bonkers over freshly fried chicken tenders, as evidenced by the crowds that flocked to the recent opening of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, a fast-food eatery that only serves chicken tenders (plus a few sides and drinks). The parking lot was overflowing, requiring three off-duty police officers to manage the traffic several days in a row.
The eatery’s recipe is proprietary, of course, so we decided to try to create a restaurant-quality knockoff for home cooks. We even tried to create a less fatty option using an air fryer.
Kathy Anderson, a personal chef, had some ideas to get started.
To ensure chicken tenders stay moist, she suggests using a buttermilk marinade a few hours before cooking.
“I’ve had very good luck with marinating in seasoned buttermilk,” she said. “It’s a very simple mixture of buttermilk, salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Let them soak in the marinade at least four hours or overnight.”
So set up a three-stage breading station, Anderson advised:
• Fill a pie plate with all-purpose flour. Pat the marinated tenders dry with paper towels and then dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. The flour helps create a barrier between the breading and the meat.
• Fill a second pie plate with egg wash to dip the tenders in. You can use several well-beaten eggs — or use an egg wash: a mixture of eggs and milk, eggs and cream, or eggs and water, measuring about 1 tablespoon of liquid per egg. As long as the mixture contains eggs and is mixed well, any of these combinations will work. If you’re going for extra-spicy chicken, add a few drops of hot pepper sauce. Just be sure the egg wash coats the entire surface of the fowl so the seasoned breading will stick.
• Fill a third pie plate with flour seasoned with baking powder, salt, black pepper, garlic powder and paprika, and coat the food in the breading. Gently press the chicken firmly into the breading so clumps adhere to the meat. It’s messy, but this outer breading is where the crunchy magic happens during frying.
From there, the chicken is dropped into a deep skillet with hot oil (350 degrees) and fried for 10 to 12 minutes.
But what’s a fried chicken tender without dipping sauce? For fun, we also wanted to try to duplicate Cane’s tasty “secret sauce.” A Google search delivered several copycat recipes containing mayo, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and spices. We found one that was darned close to the sauce we bought at the eatery. You be the judge. We’ve also included another popular dip, honey mustard sauce.
For our healthier option, we were not at all satisfied with the results from the air fryer. The tenders cooked just fine but didn’t brown or get crispy. The breading remained white and tasted doughy. In the past, the chicken we’ve cooked in an air fryer has come out much better — but the skin was left on. That’s not an option for making chicken tenders.
Anderson came to the rescue with a couple of ideas to get better results with the air fryer.
“I haven’t had Raising Cane’s yet, but I’d try using a mix of all-purpose flour and rice flour,” she said. Dip them the same way, three times, but after that make sure the breaded fingers “are dried on a rack over a sheet pan for about 45 minutes. Then spray with canola oil and air-fry in a single layer, turning over halfway through cooking time.”
We also tried a recipe for tenders found in “Air Fryer Perfection” by America’s Test Kitchen, which used toasted panko crumbs. The results were excellent. The chicken was moist, and the outside was crunchy, toasty golden.
Restaurant-style Fried Chicken Tenders
Yield: 4 servings
2 pounds chicken tenderloins
1 cup buttermilk
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 heaping teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon paprika
3 to 4 cups vegetable oil, for cooking
To marinate the chicken: In a large sealable plastic bag, combine the chicken tenders with the next five ingredients from buttermilk to paprika. Seal the bag tightly and massage the chicken until it is evenly coated with buttermilk and seasoning. Place in a bowl (in case of leakage) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
To make the breading station: Place 1 ½ cups flour in a pie plate. In a second pie plate, whisk together egg and milk. In a third pie plate, combine remaining 1 ½ cups flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Remove the chicken tenders from the marinade a few at a time and dredge in flour. Dip floured chicken tender in egg-milk mixture. Then place in third pie plate, pressing the chicken firmly into the seasoned flour so clumps adhere to the meat. Set breaded tenders on the prepared baking sheet.
To fry the chicken: Line another baking sheet with a few layers of paper towels and set next to the stove. Add oil to a large, high-sided pot until the level reaches about 3/4-inch. Heat over medium-high heat until oil is shimmering, about 350 degrees. If a cube of bread sizzles when you drop it in, it's ready. Using tongs, place several chicken tenders in the hot oil without crowding the pan. Cook until golden brown on the bottom side, a few minutes, then flip and cook until the second side is also golden, a few minutes more. Set the cooked tenders on the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Fry remaining tenders in batches adjusting the heat as necessary (if the tenders are browning too fast, lower the heat). Serve hot.
Air Fried Chicken Tenders
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound chicken tenderloins
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Toss panko with oil in bowl until evenly coated. Microwave, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer to shallow dish and set aside to cool.
Preheat your air fryer to 350 degrees.
Season chicken tenderloins with the salt and pepper
Break the egg into a bowl and beat. Dip chicken tenderloins (one by one) in egg, coating both sides. Roll each chicken tenderloin in panko bread crumbs, ensure a full and equal covering. Brush the air fryer basket with oil. Add the coated tenders to the basket and cook for approximately 10 minutes or until chicken is done.
Source: Adapted from “Air Fryer Perfection”
Copycat Raising Cane’s Sauce
Yield: 1 ½ cups
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Heinz ketchup
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Mix all ingredients until blended. Store in an air-tight container for a few hours before serving. Will stay good in a container for up to 2 weeks.
Honey-Dijon Dipping Sauce
Yield: ¾ cup
½ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup honey
Salt and pepper
Whisk mustard and honey in a bowl until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Source: Cook’s Country