We Tasted 6 Frozen Chicken Tenders & This Was the Best
Thick, hefty slabs of solid, juicy chicken, bright and pure under a coat of golden crust that envelopes the meat. The crust is like a salty bronze armor, keeping the chicken it enrobes moist until you crack its surface open to a glorious eruption of steam and juice escaping suddenly from its shell, a shell whose brittle garlic, pepper, and paprika-spiced crumbs leave trails of telltale evidence of satisfaction achieved.
That is a perfect chicken tender, the kind you get hot out of a deep fryer and eagerly bite into anyway, burning the roof of your mouth as you whisper quietly, "worth it."
But can this be emulated at home? We embarked—with shameless delight—on a mission to find out.
What this task became, though, was as much of an Eat This, Not That! lesson in food manufacturer deception as any. With the dearth of options available in the frozen, breaded chicken aisle, we thought that narrowing our test subjects down to five would be the hardest part.
We were wrong. In fact, finding true chicken tenders themselves proved to be the greatest challenge of this tender taste-off.
What we learned was that a significant amount of what is marketed or perceived as chicken tenders aren't the fat, oblong chunks of naturally occurring meat we assume them to be. You see, true chicken tenders are the piece of separable meat found beneath the chicken breast, the pectoralis minor or inner filet. And on any other animal, the tenderloin—hence its more commonly known name.
The USDA defines a tender as "any strip of breast meat from the kind of poultry designated" and a tenderloin as "the inner pectoral muscle which lies alongside the sternum (breast bone) of the kind indicated."
With that said, the vast majority of what seem to be tenders are actually chicken strips, fingers, or, overseas, goujons, from the more ample chicken breast, which is firmer, larger, and cut down to size. Or, worse still, they're made from breast and rib meat, but processed in a fashion only slightly better than nuggets—which may also contain dark meat—as the protein is pounded together with binders, extenders, water, or other additives before being shaped in a roughly tender-like form. These are discreetly labeled as tender-shaped, as opposed to chicken strips—which isn't often labeled as tenders but technically allowed to be, per USDA definitions, provided they are solid pieces taken directly from the chicken's breast region before breaded in some way and fried.
So much like all Kobe being Wagyu but not all Wagyu being Kobe, the humble chicken tender reveals itself to be a precious rarity. All chicken tenders are made from chicken breast, but not all chicken breast meat qualifies as chicken tenders, and not all "tenders" are straight-up whole meat cuts at all.
With all that being said, we tasted the tender-iest nationally available, breaded, crispy white meat chicken in the frozen food section, baked them in the toaster oven per the directions, then ranked them right here. If you're looking for the best-tasting frozen chicken tenders, read on.
And for more, don't miss these 15 Classic American Desserts That Deserve a Comeback.
Perdue Chicken Breast Tenders
One of the most recognizable brands in chicken production, Perdue is second in frozen chicken products only to Tyson, the second-largest processor and distributor of chicken in the world. So you'd think that Perdue would have a pretty good leg (and thigh) up on the competition. Their blue and yellow packaging is instantly recognizable and trusted for a variety of chicken products.
Unfortunately, that trust is mislaid as their classic, basic "tenders" ranked dead last in this taste test. We kept to strict criteria of testing only breaded chicken products explicitly labeled as tenders, which is how these "tender-shaped chicken breast patties with rib meat" made it through. These tenders are actually just noticeably processed chicken pieces incrementally bigger than your standard nugget—which is to say, pretty darn small. They're breaded in fine bread crumbs that powder down easily, so their initial crunch is a short burst … that is, for sections that aren't kept from crisping up properly. Many pieces had residual oil from their factory frying trapped within, which weighed the breading down.
Beyond the surface, they're not dry, but they're not juicy, either. In fact, they're just kind of spongey in a way that makes you wonder why, if there are no preservatives nor fillers holding the gummy chicken together. This texture and the salty, mild flavor and strange stale aftertaste brought us right back to school cafeteria lunches, smacking of mass production, sodium, and probably a little bit of existential angst.
Our final verdict? Go for these if you want bigger versions of nostalgia-inducing chicken nuggets, but buy the superior line of chicken breast strips if you want whole cuts of chicken.
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Caulipower All-Natural Chicken Tenders
One could call cauliflower the new kale, but that'd be understating the impact this vegetable's rapid rise has had on mass food production. It seems that everything is being wrapped in, set on top of, or mixed with cauliflower today, so we had to try Caulipower's entrant into the chicken tenders game, especially because theirs is made with real tenderloin. Festooned boldly at the top of the bag is a boast that these aren't made with just any real tender—they're made with all-natural Naked Truth chicken, free of antibiotics and cages both. Other healthy claims they're proud of are that they're baked and not fried, and their formula is gluten-free, with rice and brown rice flour to supplement the vegetable. Chicken tender aficionados may raise an eyebrow at this, but with many major players offering gluten-free and cauli-ful options, we decided to give it a shot.
Upon opening the bag, it was easy to see how they make the claim that you can eat the whole thing for only 490 calories—these chicken chunks are not big, and there aren't very many to the pricey, non-resealable bag. They're pounded to a uniform medium thickness and bake up hard, like an exoskeleton over the boneless meat. The chicken itself was good—soft and tender as it ought to be, with a meatiness whole-cut white meat ought to have. But the grainy breading, inconsistently applied, was a bitter disappointment, chewy while also feeling very dense and solid, likely due to the yellow corn flour they don't highlight. There are flavors of pepper, paprika, and old garlic and dairy mixed into it with a vaguely Asian flavor (perhaps from the tapioca starch?), but it finishes with a vaguely vegetative aftertaste, and not in a fresh way.
Perdue Simply Smart Organics Whole-Grain Chicken Breast Tenders
If you're buying this product, be aware of the packaging: The "25% less fat" claim on the bag doesn't compare apples to apples vis-à-vis their own classic product, but rather against "USDA data" for breaded fried boneless chicken.
When you do hold it against Perdue's own Chicken Breast Tenders, you'll find that despite having a less salty taste to its bread crumbs, it actually has 2% more sodium per serving of three tenders, a handful more calories than their original line, and a longer ingredient list. The benefits are the use of organic ingredients, the two grams of fiber you get from the whole grain breading, and three grams more of protein.
The taste experience is pretty much the same as the OG blue-bag product. The pieces are also trapezoidal, tender-adjacent shapes, pressed to the same size and processed to nearly the same degree of bouncy sponginess. The fry-basket indentations are pronounced on these, in case you had any doubt of how it's produced, and they also extrude oil upon baking—but definitely not as much as Perdue's classic line. Although it's not as greasy, it's also not as crunchy, despite the breading feeling a little more substantial due to the use of whole grains. It's a lighter coat of bread crumbs, though, and the seasoning feels lighter as well, even though there's more salt. If you want to channel those cafeteria vibes, this is at least a marginally better choice.
Top Chick Breaded Boneless Chicken Tenderloins
Now we're talking. Forget flashy branding and modern marketing—this brand focuses its energy more on its product. Top Chick is a retail brand by OK Foods and is also known as equally retro-looking TenderBird on the West Coast. Inked on the no-frills, food service-reminiscent packaging, a resealable clear bag, are its top pride points: They've been making chickie tendies since 1988, and their Breaded Boneless Chicken Tenderloins are restaurant-quality and made with whole muscle white meat. But most importantly, the chicken ingredients straight-up say "chicken tenderloins."
These genuine tenders come to you in pounded out, sliced cuts of inconsistent thicknesses and sizes—much like if you were to make them from scratch yourself from undoctored tenders. Unlike the rest of what's out there, these aren't fully cooked and ready to eat. Every tender in the bag is actually still raw, but pre-browned in oil—mostly soy but also some palm, unfortunately. However, thanks to being on the thinner side and breading that isn't in copious amounts, they actually bake up in about the same amount of time as their cooked-then-frozen brethren, and they deep fry in minutes.
From the oven, this is the closest thing to what you'd look for in a breadcrumb-coated chicken tender. It tastes, feels, and looks like chicken fingers from a local diner or greasy spoon, including the grease. While baking, it sizzles and pops more than any of its competitors, the oil from its pre-browning process sizzling out under the heat. You'll need to dab or press it more than any of the others we tried, but once you do, despite the oiliness, you'll end up with a juicy tender with a thin, well-adhered crust that offers a dry crunch that doesn't crumble. The flavor is simple: meaty, lightly salted chicken takes the lead, and salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and buttermilk meld together in a classical blend of generic fried chicken tender taste.
It's crunchy, moist, and tastes and feels like the real chicken it is—firm as a whole cut ought to be. However, because it is real, natural chicken, pick your pack with care. The clear bags make it easy to check that the batch you take home has more big, intact pieces than smaller ones or clusters of breading.
Tyson Southern-Style Breast Tenderloins
The largest producer of chicken raised for meat—a.k.a. "broilers"—in the U.S. and part of one of the largest companies in the world, it's surprising that Tyson only offers one frozen breaded product made of actual tenderloins. The rest are just strips under different variations, from sauce coating to preparation, such as air-fried, lighter, or gluten-free iterations. Or, as with Perdue, Tyson offers some tenders that aren't tenderloins: Beware of the battered ones, which may have "tender" in their title but right beneath that, will say "tender shaped chicken breast."
But more to the point, the Southern-Style Breast Tenderloins wow from the get-go. The high per-tender calorie count may lead one to hesitate before purchasing them, but what the opaque bag doesn't show you is that each piece is easily the size of two or three of their competitors. These behemoth whole tenderloins from enormous chickens are solid, generously thick with meat. The breading is thick and flour-based as opposed to the thinner breadcrumb coating that dominates the market, making the tenders that much more dramatically voluminous, emulating the look and feel of deep-fried fast food joint premium tenders on a grander scale. However, this breading does come off in sheet-like pieces where it's not fully adhered to the chicken. Additionally, underexposed sections of flour, hidden in the tender's crannies and fry-created curvatures, can get rather soggy no matter how long or hot you bake them.
Once you bite into them, there's no question that what you're eating is a solid piece of bona fide tenderloin. It's juicy, tender, and unlike breast meat that can sometimes pull apart in strings, every piece collapses as you chew. A powdery texture is what you're left with, a foil to the shattering crunchies of your last bite of flaky, salty, well-seasoned flakes of breading.
Even from the oven, this contender from Tyson's makes a valiant effort to raise Cane's, get "Louisiana fast" from home, and bring the Colonel into your kitchen. Is it exactly as good as something out of the deep fryers of these reigning chicken champs? Well, no. But it will unquestionably scratch the itch for a chickie tendie and offer a healthier option by virtue of baking on its second go-'round instead of being twice-fried.
Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips
We laid down the law that only chicken tenders clearly labeled as "tenders" would be a part of this taste test, but we had to make mention of at least one chicken strip for comparison's sake. The Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips, the most widely available of their plain chicken strip offerings—which also includes selections from their Naturals selection, the Lightly Breaded version, and the new air-fried collection in addition to flavors like Italian herb, buffalo, and honey BBQ—deserves an honorable mention.
Made of whole breasts and whatever rib meat is around it, these irregularly-cut finger-shaped lengths can be a little woody depending on the chunk used and the way it's sliced. The texture will feel most familiar as most of the "tenders" we eat at restaurants are actually strips, with meat that peels instead of collapses, and, being made of tougher muscle, requires more chewing than actual tenderloins.
All that said, this is the closest ringer to a battered, chain sit-down restaurant chicken tender. There's a rich, fried-tasting flavor to the breading; it's more aggressively seasoned and crunchier than the Southern-Style Tenderloins, and heads and shoulders above breadcrumb crusts. Like its real tender sister, it's also a southern-style breading, but it has a heavier coat of it. Unfortunately, although that gives it a harder crunch on exposed surface planes, it also makes the final layer that's closest to the meat soggy as it congeals as steam emerges from the chicken. Additionally, the nooks and bends created in the factory cooking stage, hold onto breading, too, and become worthless mush and added weight to your package. This particular strip series also tends to have more loose crumbles in the bag, reducing your chicken-to-ounce ratio … but increasing your "bonus crumblies" without having to go to a fast-food spot for them.
Tyson takes the title by a landslide, but for the purposes of this test, it's the brand's Southern-Style Tenderloins that take the proverbial cake. They don't pretend to be anything but what they really are: comforting chunks of authentic chicken tenders cocooned in a decidedly unhealthy, fried-chicken-skin-like shell.
The breading is indulgent, crunchy, and seasoned well, with plenty of crevices to pick up dipping sauces if you're so inclined. The chicken is consistently thick, meaty, and succulent, available in bigger pieces than any of its competitors by far—even compared to its own brand offerings. And it's the only one with that fall-apart, melt-in-your-mouth tenders feel, as the Top Chick Tenderloins sacrifices a softer texture for faster cooking, which can dry out and toughen a tender.
To skip the drive-thru line and feel no FOMO while you're doing so, air fry these babies and crunch to your heart's content. No other tenders will do you better, and chicken strips? Well, that's a story for another day.