Chicken tenders are one of those foods that have a great deal of notoriety, but often get a bad rap. There's a sort of unspoken stigma around chicken tenders that they're a last-ditch effort meal at home, a default order at a restaurant, or worse, that they are really just meant for kids. That's why some adults may order them in hushed tones, or slyly slip them into their carts at the grocery store.
But I say, let them eat chicken! These breaded pieces of poultry are so much more than they're made out to be. And, when made correctly, they can actually set you up with a nice dose of protein and other nutrients.
But, what constitutes a well-made chicken tender? To answer that, you must first understand what a chicken tender even is, anyway. I'll be the first to admit that for years I have believed chicken tenders, chicken strips, and chicken fingers were all just clever names for the same thing. Wrong.
As I've now come to understand, chicken tenders are made from a specific part of the chicken, the tenderloin, which is located underneath the breast. Strips and fingers, on the other hand, can come from any part of the chicken breast. Food companies and restaurants certainly take some creative liberties when it comes to the naming of their own chicken delights, though—Texas Roadhouse calls them "Chicken Critters," for crying out loud–which probably helps to explain the confusion.
For the purpose of this frozen chicken experiment, I kept the invite list pretty tight to offerings labeled explicitly as "tenders" or "tenderloins." However, a few strips also made the cut—mostly because there was virtually no discrepancy in how they were described compared to the tenders. "Boneless white meat chicken breast with rib meat" is the nearly word-for-word description you will find on the majority of chicken products included here, both tenders and strips alike (with the exception of a few meatless options, of course).
So, after rounding up ten different brands of frozen tenders from four different grocery stores, the taste test began. I wasn't asking for much from these poultry products. My top criteria was for the shape to be long and chunky. The breading had to exhibit that all-important crispiness while also elevating the flavor with some spice and pepper—but, without being overpowering. And, above all else, the chicken had to resemble real, juicy chicken. A little added rib meat was okay with me (mostly because it was found in nearly all offerings). But, a nugget-like consistency would just not do.
I cooked all the chicken in a conventional oven to even the playing field. About half called for a cook temperature of 425 degrees while the other half couldn't take the heat and were dialed down to 400. Each also had their own unique cook time, ranging from eight minutes all the way up to 25, and just a few required intermittent flipping.
I certainly didn't walk on eggshells and here you will find my raw and honest assessment of each frozen tender, listed in order of my least to most favorite.
Trader Joe's Chickenless Crispy Tenders
I'll admit these chickenless tenders are a bit of a wildcard. But, since Trader Joe's unorthodox products are notoriously top notch, I decided to include them in the taste test. In lieu of real poultry, these tenders are comprised of both soy and whole grains, making them 100% vegan. I will also say that this was by far the smallest bag of chicken (or wannabe chicken) I purchased–just over eight ounces or 230 grams. And, also the cheapest at just $3.79.
The Look: Undoubtedly the smallest of all the chicken contestants, and probably a better fit for the nugget family. The breading is browner than you would typically expect and it even graduated to another shade darker while in the oven. Real oat flecks can also be seen stuck to the outside of each piece. As for the inside contents, it's definitely darker than real chicken meat, and looks more like some kind of bread-based product–which, judging by the ingredient list, may not be too far off.
The Taste: For me, these do not come anywhere close to capturing the essence of a chicken tender. The texture is off. And, more importantly, the taste is way off. My first thought was that it tasted like I was eating a handful of Wheaties–overall a very dry and bran-like experience. The one good thing I can say about these, however, is that the breading does achieve a nice, pleasant crisp.
If you're a vegan and this is your only viable tender option, I'd advise you to have an extra boatload of dipping sauce at the ready. And, for anyone else, I would recommend avoiding this bad egg, altogether.
Caulipower All Natural Chicken Tenders
Just to be clear, these tenders are real chicken–just the breading is cauliflower-based. And, as a fan of cauliflower wings, cauliflower rice, and even cauliflower pizza crust, I was curious to see what these were all about. They are made with whole, white meat chicken and are one of few options represented here which do not use rib meat–an important distinction. The naturalistic packaging also makes sure to proudly call out the fact that they are "the only baked (never fried) chicken tenders". And yes, they are gluten-free thanks to cauliflower and rice flour coating.
The Look: A tad pitiful, carcass-like, and not at all like a traditional tender. The thickness is just not there and the apparent dryness does not make them look very enticing. I even squirted a little extra ketchup on my plate before digging in just in preparation. The hunks do appear to be covered in some form of seasoning in spots–possibly the paprika or other generic "spices" included on the ingredients list.
The Taste: Before we jump into the taste, it's important to note that the cauliflower aroma on these bad boys can be detected from a mile away–before, during, and after the cooking process. But, that all seems to fizzle away when it comes to the taste. Instead, they give off a synthetic-type flavor and the meat reminds me more of turkey than chicken. As suspected, the breading is rather dry, and the short supply of juice from the chicken isn't enough to make up for it. Maybe that's just the price you pay for such a low-calorie, low-fat choice.
Realgood Foods Co. Lightly Breaded Chicken Strips
Real Good's allure is that it's striving to make nutritious food more accessible to everyone. That's the company's whole shtick and its Lightly Breaded Chicken Strips follow suit. While the strips are made from white meat chicken, they do, in fact, include rib meat (as disclosed in the ingredient list). The list also reveals that the product is coated in chickpea flour, salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper, before it is fried in four types of oil: grapeseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and non-GMO canola oil. These cost me $9.99.
The Look: The darkest piece of chicken I have ever laid my eyes on. I even double checked the packaging to make sure I didn't accidentally buy some kind of flavored variety (it must be those added spices at work). Because of the coating, they almost give off a sort of toasted marshmallow look, but they do look downright appetizing straight out of the oven, exhibiting a nice sizzle. In terms of size, they are right around the middle of the pack.
The Taste: Smokey and unexpected. I would venture to guess that Real Good uses more of a smoked paprika rather than a sweet version to give these strips their unique flavor, and it threw me off guard. I would also describe the breading not as crispy, but crackly–definitely the only strips I've ever tried that match that description. The meat itself is pretty standard, but on the dryer side. Overall, I think the surprise of the flavorings left a bad taste in my mouth. But, I can see how these protein bombs could be appealing to some.
Beyond Chicken Tenders
Although slightly out of my comfort zone, I have experimented with a few Impossible and Beyond meat products. And, I've always been pleasantly surprised at how closely they do resemble real meat. However, this was my first introduction to Beyond Chicken. Unlike Trader Joe's Chickenless offering, these plant-based breaded tenders get their protein from the faba bean–in the pea and bean family–and they can be cooked up in just about half the time (eight minutes in the oven at 425 degrees—the shortest cook time of all the tenders).
The Look: Medium-sized but the shape still reads more like a chicken nugget. The coating has some nice coloring, albeit a bit fragile and scanty overall. The meat is questionable and I'm not sure it could pass for real chicken. Even its close-up shot on the bag makes it look just a little bit sketchy.
The Taste: It does smell and taste like chicken–but more like a shredded chicken or chicken you would find swimming in a pot pie. What gives it away is the denseness and the lack of moisture that real meat offers. The breading doesn't crisp like it should, even with some mush in places–something that really ruffles my feathers. Maybe it's just proof that eight minutes really isn't enough time in the oven? As a non-chicken chicken tender, this was miles ahead of Trader Joe's rendition, but it still isn't one I would grab again as a meat eater.
Perdue Breaded Chicken Breast Tenders
Perdue is right up there with Tyson as one of the most widespread frozen chicken brands available. It could be found in each of the grocery stores I visited while on the prowl for tenders, so naturally I picked up a bag. These tenders are classified as "breaded tender shaped chicken breast patties," made with boneless chicken breast and rib meat, and every single one of its ingredients is listed as organic. One which caught my eye was organic raisin juice. An interesting addition I thought, but after further research, I learned it is often used in foods as a binding agent, sweetener, or as an additive to prevent the loss of moisture–the more you know! The Perdue tenders are also gluten-free. A 22-ounce box cost me $10.49.
The Look: Pretty skinny. Each tender is pounded down and stamped to look just like the rest—a hint that it's probably more of a formed nugget-like tender, rather than a natural piece of chicken, as the packaging directly tells you. The coloring is nice and turned the teensiest bit brown in the oven. Any seasonings or specks of pepper are few and far between.
The Taste: It delivers a slight crunch but nothing over the top, and the breading is a tiny step up from completely bland. The chicken is slightly juicy, but it is undoubtedly just a strip of a pressed and formed chicken patty, not unlike the ones you would find in a school cafeteria. While there's nothing specifically erroneous with the flavor here, it just falls flat on what I expect a chicken tender to be.
Yummy Chicken Breast Tenders
Yummy's take on tenders goes a little something like this: "breaded chicken breast patties with rib meat," made only with white meat chicken, and with no antibiotics, artificial ingredients, flavors, colors, or preservatives. Its ingredient list is also eerily similar to Perdue's own brand, minus the organic labels. (Yummy, it turns out, is an affiliate of Perdue Farms.) A 22-ounce box cost me $5.99.
The Look: Very similar to the Perdue tenders. These two could've been taken from the same batch, if the Yummy variety toned down a shade and lost the extra texture it gains from its panko breading.
The Taste: Like Perdue, the Yummy brand delivers a product that is more chicken patty or nugget rather than tender, and gives off a kind of waxy feel and flavor that comes with that territory. The panko breading on these does give them a little extra crisp and oomph, though. This, plus the fact that the Yummy tenders are almost half the cost of Perdue's, is what gave them a slight boost in the pecking order.
Good & Gather Crispy Chicken Breast Strips
Target's store brand serves up "strips" rather than "tenders." But, further inspection of its ingredients list prompted me to throw them in my cart anyway. They are made up of white meat chicken breast–without the addition of antibiotics, hormones, or steroids—with rib meat and/or chicken tenderloins. Just the use of that buzzword alone sealed the deal for me, plus at a very acceptable price of $7.99 for the aesthetically-pleasing 25-ounce bag, this was a no brainer.
The Look: Chunky–the bulkiest of any thus far–and traditional. Finally a presentation to be proud of and one I could easily see being served at a restaurant! The chicken within appears to be succulent and inviting, and this is also the first time I noticed an appropriately dispersed layer of pepper bits.
The Taste: Juicy, but not enough crunch. I was really rooting for this one since everything on paper—or rather, on my plate—was up to snuff. The chicken, both real and bold, delivers. But, unfortunately it is wrapped in a soggy shell that easily shrugs off and goes a little bit too hard with both the pepper and salt (those 600 mg of sodium didn't go unnoticed). I still give the Good & Gather tenders major props, though, for feeling and tasting like real chicken breast—a critical element which is evidently difficult to find.
Applegate Naturals Chicken Breast Tenders
The fact that these are gluten-free is something Applegate often crows about, along with its narrative of raising its chickens humanely on family-run farms. These chicken breast tenders–reiterated as "breaded chicken breast tenders" on the package–are made with only white meat chicken and are fairly middle of the road in terms of nutrition. Other included ingredients are garlic powder, onion powder, celery seed, and extractives of paprika and turmeric to taste. Plus, raisin juice concentrate once again made an appearance.
The Look: Almost like a chicken wing with very fair skin. Breading is dense and peppered, but no other spices give themselves away. It didn't look much different on the outside after an 18-minute trip to the oven, but the enveloped poultry became nice and steamy.
The Taste: Very nicely executed. A bit of a firmer crust would've been the perfect capper–and is probably the only thing that plucked Applegate out of the final running. But, this moist chicken fused with a light garlicky breading was certainly strutting its stuff. On a side note, the tenders' size and shape also made me think that they would make the perfect boneless wings when smothered in buffalo sauce. And, spoiler alert, after a quick home-experiment, I proved this hypothesis to be true.
Tyson Crispy Chicken Strips
Tyson is no spring chicken in the poultry game. The multinational food corporation got its start in 1935 and now produces close to 20% of the beef, pork, and, of course, chicken in the United States. These poultry products include everything from fresh ground chicken to Any'tizers Chicken Fries to one of its most prized, these crispy chicken strips. Like Good & Gather's strips, Tyson's are made with boneless, skinless chicken breast and rib meat. The packaging also uses the word "fritters" to describe them. My local Kroger only had the family-sized bag in stock, so I walked away with 2.5 pounds of these strips, hoping they would be all they're cracked up to be.
The Look: Colossal, but also the quintessential chicken tender. An asymmetrical, bumpy shape clues you in that you're about to bite into an authentic hunk of chicken. Its hue is between medium and dark brown (which it apparently gets from cocoa powder), and my only reservation was that it was naked in areas, with glimmers of white chicken peeking through.
The Taste: Delivers on that ultimate crisp so many other brands have been missing, with its chunky outer layer to thank. There's additionally something comforting and nostalgic about the breading–like homestyle cooking. The chicken breast was tender and savory. Everything was in harmony, but did lead to a small hint of an aftertaste–a slightly sour or even acidic flavor that came and went quickly.
Trader Joe's Breaded Chicken Tenderloin Breasts
In the name of full transparency, I ventured into Trader Joe's solely to pick up and try its Chickenless tenders, as I have heard tales of them previously. But, as I was further perusing the store's frozen section, I noticed these breaded chicken tenderloin breasts and snatched them up on a whim. They match Good & Gather's in price–at $7.99–for just a morsel more of chicken. And, they're comparable to Tyson's cost per pound, as well.
The Look: Nothing like the bag would suggest. On the packaging, these tenderloins look flat and almost triangular-shaped. I was elated when I pulled one out that was quite hefty and twinning in both size and color to Tyson's—the standout of the taste test thus far. This time, however, not an inch of chicken went uncovered.
The Taste: Toothsome perfection. This chicken tender has the longest cook time of any in this survey at 25 minutes—and for good reason, have you seen the size of it?—but it is worth every second. Juice dripped off the chicken as I bit into it, and the breast actually revealed itself to be much thicker than Tyson's, which became clear as I continued eating. My mind also quickly snapped back to the chicken in my great grandma's chicken and dumplings recipe—a very welcome flavor memory, to say the least. The exterior crust develops a nice snap and adds depth rather than overpowering the meat, as well.
Trader Joe's tenderloins truly rule the roost in my book, and I could not have been more happy with this last-minute addition. If you're looking for a truly top-notch tender, Trader Joe's is the place to go.