These Paleo Chicken Tenders are crispy on the outside, juicy in the middle, seasoned to perfection and super easy to make. If you didn’t know any better, you’d never guess they were grain-free, gluten-free and Paleo-friendly. Your kids will love them and they’re perfect for a game day spread.
What You Need For These Paleo Chicken Tenders
- Chicken Breast: Although “chicken tenders” and “chicken fingers” are often used synonymously, the chicken tender actually refers to the tenderloin of the chicken breast (that small strip of meat attached to the underside of the breast). In this recipe, you can use either chicken tenderloin or chicken breast cut into the shape of tenderloins. I prefer the latter option because the breast is meatier.
- Seasonings: This is a great time to make good use of your spices! Just keep in mind that if you’re going to be serving your paleo chicken tenders with a dipping sauce, you’ll want to use a seasoning blend that compliments it, or vice versa. I served mine with some Side Dish Honey Dijon and Chipotle Ranch. Both of these sauces are incredibly delicious and packed with flavour so I kept the chicken tenders seasonings fairly simple with a combination of paprika, smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper and a touch of cayenne pepper. If you want to use a ready-made seasoning blend, I would recommend Primal Palate New Bae.
And in case you missed it, I just reorganized my spice drawer and couldn’t be happier to easily see which spices I have all at once. If you have a surplus of spices in your pantry, I highly recommend taking the time to organize them similarly.
- Tapioca Starch: I’ve tested just about every possible combination of alternative, grain-free & gluten-free flours and can honestly say that this recipe is the best I’ve ever tasted. The secret is to first marinate the chicken breast in a batter made with a small amount of tapioca starch and egg. Step 2 is to dredge the marinated chicken in more tapioca starch before frying it. The batter forms a super strong glue that helps the tapioca starch stick to the chicken so that nothing falls off as it fries. The finished product is a crust that is impossibly crispy, crunchy and delicious, yet also quite light and airy without tasting overly greasy.
This dredging process is identical to the one I developed for my Mala Shrimp Stir Fry and Salt and Pepper Shrimp and Squid. It’s also much easier and less messy than the one I developed for my Dill Pickle Fried Chicken. So if you love any of those recipes, you’ll love these paleo chicken tenders.
- Egg: For the absolute best results, use eggs to make the batter. Without it, the tapioca starch falls flat and doesn’t stick well to the chicken. If you have an allergy, you can substitute an egg replacement that you find suitable. If you do choose to use an egg substitute, keep in mind there is a strong chance that it will not be paleo-friendly.
- Avocado Oil: I like to fry the paleo chicken tenders on avocado oil because it is neutral-flavoured, healthier than refined seed oils and has a high smoke point.
Grain-Free AND Gluten-Free?
If your family loves chicken tenders but you want to serve them a healthier option free of grains, gluten and refined starches, this recipe is for you! I promise, you will never ever guess that these paleo chicken tenders are grain-free and gluten-free. They taste just as good, if not better than your favourite ones.
As mentioned above, the secret is to use tapioca starch, a naturally grain-free and gluten-free alternative flour. It’s made from cassava root that has been peeled, washed and pulverized. Once the pulp is squeezed, a starch is extracted and left to dry. The water is then left to evaporate, leaving behind a dried flour or starch.
Tapioca starch is a much, much finer powder and reacts differently than cassava flour when it comes into contact with water and heat. It does not have the same integrity as cassava flour, so it can not be used interchangeably.
Other Paleo Flours and Starches
I recommend resisting the urge to substitute tapioca starch in this particular recipe. No other alternative, grain-free & gluten-free flour will give you the same texture or taste.
The good news is tapioca starch is becoming much, much easier to find. You can buy Tapioca Starch on Amazon or find it many local supermarkets.
Can I Cook the Chicken Tenders in An Air Fryer?
Short answer: I don’t know because I don’t own an air fryer.
Long answer: I believe so. Because the chicken tenders are dredged in the tapioca starch before frying, they will have a dry coating that won’t drip down through the air fryer basket. I would spray them with a coating of avocado oil before cooking so that they get as crispy as possible.
I should also mention that if you don’t own an air fryer and don’t want to fry them in oil, you can spray the chicken tenders with avocado oil, spread them in a single layer on wire rack set over a sheet pan and bake them in a 400F oven for 15-20 minutes depending on their thickness, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165F.
- Wash and dry your chicken: You read that correctly. I always, ALWAYS, wash my chicken. Even when I don’t show it in a video. The reason has less to do with salmonella and much more to do with the fact that I want to rinse away any bone shards, blood or other surface level contaminants that result from the manufacturing process.
- Marinate: Add the chicken, spices, egg, a splash of water and a small amount of tapioca starch to a bowl. Toss it all to combine and let it marinate for at least 15 minutes so that the spices have a chance to flavour the meat.
- Dredge: You can dredge the chicken in a large bowl or in a strong paper bag (I actually use two bags placed one inside the other). The goal is to coat every nook and cranny of the chicken with tapioca starch.
- Preheat Oil: It’s crucial to preheat your oil to around 360F before frying, otherwise you’ll end up with soggy and greasy chicken tenders. I like to use a large cast-iron skillet for this recipe because it retains an even heat.
- Fry the Tenders: Working in batches, fry the chicken tenders until they’re golden brown, crispy and the thickest part registers 165F internally. They cook quickly, taking only around 4 minutes per side, so don’t walk away!
- Drain the Oil: Drain excess oil by placing the fried chicken tenders on a wire rack set over a sheet pan.
- Serve with Dipping Sauce: Serve the chicken tenders with your favourite dipping sauces, or you can try tossing them in a combination of melted butter and Frank’s Red Hot for some Buffalo chicken tenders.
The Best Paleo Chicken Tenders: Grain-Free & Gluten-Free
- 4 medium chicken breasts rinsed, pat dry and sliced into 1” strips
- 2 eggs
- 1.5 cups tapioca starch plus more, as needed
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more, as needed
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper plus more, as desired
- ½ teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 1 cup avocado oil plus more, as needed
- In a large bowl, combine the chicken, eggs, ¼ cup tapioca starch, paprika, onion powder, salt, smoked paprika, granulated garlic, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and water. Mix well to coat, cover and refrigerate 15-30 minutes to marinate.
- When ready to cook, preheat 1 cup of avocado oil in a large cast-iron skillet set over medium heat until it reaches around 360F.
- Add the remaining 1.25 cups tapioca starch to a large bowl or strong paper bag. Season the starch with a pinch of salt and pepper and stir through. Working in batches, drain the chicken of any excess batter and transfer them to the tapioca starch. Toss the chicken pieces to fully coat, shake off any excess starch and carefully add them to the hot oil. Cook the chicken until golden brown and crispy, around 4 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown and crispy, or until the thickest part of the chicken registers 165F internally, 3-4 more minutes.
- Transfer the chicken to a sheet pan lined with a wire rack to drain excess oil and continue cooking the rest in batches. Serve immediately with dipping sauces of choice.