In a break from tradition (at least for this site), I’m not listing an abbreviated recipe at the top here, for a couple of reasons. First, while this meal is super easy, it is almost entirely dependent on specific technique, and a couple of important details that, if ignored, will lead to disaster. And, well, that kind of thing gets lost in a quick #RecipeUpTop.
Second, though there aren’t a lot of individual steps, there’s a lot of explaining that’s about to happen for each one. But, stick with me, it’s worth it, and you get to learn from all of the massive errors I’ve made along the way in figuring this one out.
For this post, I’m using twenty four (24) chicken tenders that I butchered from whole birds as part of my last big chicken haul. That said, this recipe works equally well with sliced breasts, but I raise the quantity because it’s going to affect the amounts of the other ingredients. As a side note, whenever I do these, I always make about four times more than I think I’ll need, if only for the leftovers, and because they have a sneaky propensity for disappearing.
- 24 chicken tenders, or 4 boneless skinless breasts sliced into bite-sized nuggets;
- 6 cups all-purpose flour;
- 4 eggs;
- 4 cups buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, you can make some by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of whole milk);
- 1/2 cup corn starch;
- Hot sauce (to taste);
- Salt (to taste);
- Seasonings (variable, to taste);
- Oil (for frying – I like peanut or vegetable);
Let’s talk a little about the overall process before we get to the individual steps. The chicken goes into a bath of buttermilk and egg, then gets tossed in seasoned flour, then fried in oil, then drained. It seems simple, but that’s kind of like saying the steps to playing Freebird are (1) tune the guitar; and (2) play Freebird. We’ll get there.
Step one: get your chicken in the bath. This is probably the easiest part of the whole shebang. Beat the eggs, then whisk them together with the buttermilk, and add a few dashes of hot sauce if that’s your jam (it’s mine).
I’m not adding any seasoning to this other than the hot sauce. I’m also not seasoning the chicken ahead of time. Why? well, one of the huge missteps is getting the nuggets too salty. Unlike traditional fried chicken, the smaller size of the nuggets/tenders means more surface area, which means more breading. As a result, that’s the vector I use to deliver all of my seasoning. I can control it, and I don’t have to worry about three different additions of salt adding up to become unpalatable.
Add the chicken and make sure it’s all submerged:
How long do you let this sit? Well, it kinda doesn’t matter. The whole point of this is to get some milk and egg onto the chicken so the flour will stick, and create a sort of super-thick batter (we’ll get there). Some practitioners of the ancient voodoo of traditional fried chicken swear by an overnight soak, but I’ve tried it and just don’t see a difference with these tenders.
As a result, I usually get the chicken in the bath, and let it sit while I make my seasoned flour. Speaking of:
Step two: make your seasoned flour. Get your flour and corn starch mixed together in a big tub or bowl that’s large enough to handle the next step of dredging the chicken. I use a big Cambro with a lid because I actually shake the whole thing, but you don’t have to.
Of note, the corn starch here is of utmost importance. When I first started down this road years ago, I used plain old AP flour and nothing else. It was fine. The problem with that, however, is using 100% flour (AP or otherwise) can result in gluten development, which means a tough, dense, chewy end product, which is another of those hidden pitfalls. I’m sure we’ve all had a fried chicken product that felt like eating a hockey puck (looking at you, cheap frozen restaurant tenders). The corn starch gets in with the flour and helps knock down that gluten formation, so the end result is light and crispy, with the huge bonus of staying delicious the next day. Win-win.
Once your flour and corn starch is thoroughly incorporated, we can talk about seasoning it, and this is where you can make these your own, and there’s a trick to the whole thing. We’re going to add our salt first, then the rest of the seasonings. For this volume, I’d start with two tablespoons of kosher salt, thoroughly mix, then taste a little of the flour on the tip of your finger. No, it’s not going to be pleasant, but that’s not the point. If you can taste salt, it’s too salty and you should add more flour. If it tastes completely dead, add a little more salt. Of note, you can always salt these a little more when they come out of the fryer, so don’t go crazy. You’re just trying to avoid the completely dead flavor of raw flour and corn starch.
Now, to the seasonings. My family likes spicy food, so we tend to go with cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, dried sage, and dried mustard. I’ve also done them with powdered ginger, Old Bay, etc. If you feel like it, use lemon pepper and nothing else. Completely up to you.
The one constant, however, is cracked black pepper. I like it both because it’s delicious, but also because a lot of the other spices are light in color and the pepper acts as sort of a “tracer round” when mixing. You can tell everything is thoroughly incorporated when the pepper is evenly distributed:
Step three: dredge the chicken in the flour. Here’s another HUGE secret: slop in some of the buttermilk bath during this process. A ton of recipes will tell you the opposite, and they’re either lying or making terrible nuggets on purpose. This is a discovery I made somewhere along the line when I realized the nuggets at the end of the batch were crispier, tastier, and all-around better that at the start. After some rumination and squinting into the distance, I realized it was because the moisture builds up in the flour mixture creating these awesome little micro-crunchies:
So, now I speed up the process by adding that moisture at the beginning of the dredge. Move your breaded chicken to a wire rack on a baking sheet:
This is probably the most important tip: let these sit in the fridge for at least an hour. This is going to let the flour hydrate, but more importantly, it’ll bond the crust to the chicken. No more of that tectonic slide of crispy breading; your chicken and crust will be one unit.
While those are fusing into fried chicken ingots, get your oil on the stove and ready to heat:
I’m using a big, cast iron (surprise) cauldron with a candy thermometer, but any high-sided, heavy pot should work.
If you’re new to frying, couple of ground rules: never, ever, put anything wet into the fryer or it will explode. Don’t overfill the pot with oil as it expands when heated, plus the food itself will cause some displacement, and lastly there is always going to be some amount of fryer-action (meaning bubbling), and you absolutely do not want any oil going over the sides here; that’s instant fire. Lastly, keep an approved-for-grease fire extinguisher around because you never know what’s going to happen, and I’ll admit I’ve had to use one in the past.
The target temp for frying these is 350F, and like anything, the addition of the tenders will drop the oil temp, so I tend to ride a little higher (like 365F) before adding the chicken in batches.
If you’ve got time on your hands, you can make some potato chips:
Once your chicken has done its resting in the fridge, and your oil is up to temp, go ahead and start adding the chicken in batches, keeping an eye on the oil temp. Fry until golden brown, then stick a big one with a probe thermometer to check for doneness (you’re looking for 165F internal):
Remove to a clean cooling rack in a baking sheet lined with paper towel:
While the oil in the pot is coming back up to temp, sneak a taste of one of these for salt content. If you think you need to, go ahead and sprinkle with a little kosher salt.
Once they’ve drained, go ahead and serve while you finish frying the rest: