Get finger lickin’ good without the greasy fingers – yours or the chicken. Healthy homemade Air Fryer Chicken Tenders are the ultimate guilt-free comfort food. Juicy breaded chicken tenderloins with panko get – and stay – super crisp in the air fryer. Serve with your favorite family sides and dipping sauces for days!
Call them what you will – fingers, tenders, even nuggies – but if there’s a better meat-based comfort finger food I’ve yet to find it. And sure, you could dump frozen chicken tenders in the air fryer for some instant gratification, but not when fresh chicken tenderloins are easy, available, and the same dang price as chicken breasts. (Ahh! Put down the knife!)
This particular air fryer chicken tender recipe is so satisfying because like all the best chicken shack fried chicken, it’s double-dipped with flour, buttermilk (no egg), and panko for that super crunch bomb. And even without deep frying in a vat of grease, these tenders are crunchy and, better yet, healthy!
As an adult with children, I can neither confirm nor deny that if it weren’t for my kids, I wouldn’t make these chicken fingers at home. I also cannot confirm or deny that making a few batches and storing them in your freezer (see below for easy instructions) for those days when your house is infested with whiny kids and/or exhausted parents who just spent 3 hours putting said whiny kids to bed and need a little something to go with their boxed wine is the best idea I ever had.
Why Use the Air Fryer?
I know we all love a deep fried chicken finger, but at home, the air fryer is the best way to get crispy homemade chicken tenders:
- Healthier: save your calories for your next diner trip. You won’t miss them anyways, because air fryer chicken fingers are also…
- Crispier: incredibly so, in fact. Way less oil means less moisture means less risk of the dreaded soggy chicken tender.
- Cleaner: no splatter, no drippings, and no greasy skillet to deal with later.
The Magic of Buttermilk
Don’t get it twisted! When you marinate chicken (esp. for grilling) you’re not just injecting it with a nice tangy flavor – the acid in your marinade (usually from citrus or vinegar) helps break down the proteins in the meat to yield incredibly tender chicken.
So, marinating in buttermilk isn’t just some quaint, home fried country cookin’ trick. The acid in buttermilk tenderizes the chicken to keep it moist and juicy while infusing it with an additional layer of flavor.
How to Cook Chicken Tenders in the Air Fryer
Who said you can’t double dip? Air Fryer Chicken Tenders get a buttermilk bath before being double-coated and air fried to crispy golden-brown perfection. The chicken stays perfectly tender and moist inside a simply seasoned panko crust. And no messy cleanup means more time to DIY dipping sauces the whole family will love!
- Make your buttermilk marinade and soak chicken for 1 hour in the fridge.
- Prep your breading station: flour in one bowl, seasoned panko in the other. Use wide, shallow bowls for ease.
- Heat a baking sheet in a 200°F oven as a warming station.
- Preheat your air fryer at 380°F for 5 minutes; then, lightly mist basket with olive oil.
- One at a time, remove a tender from the marinade and allow the excess to run off.
- Dip in flour. Dip back into buttermilk. Dredge in panko.
- Transfer to plate and repeat for all tenders.
- Place chicken in basket in a single, even layer. Cook 10-12 minutes (internal temperature must reach 165°F). Flip once for even crisp on both sides.
- Transfer tenders to the warm oven while you air fry the remaining batches.
- Serve warm or hot with your favorite sides and sauces.
- Marinate at least 1 hour, but no longer than 2. If chicken sits in an acidic base for too long, it will eventually toughen the chicken. About an hour is the sweet spot for chicken tenderloins or sliced breast meat.
- Use panko breadcrumbs for their lighter, crunchier texture.
- Ketchup: can’t go wrong with a classic.
- Honey or Hot Honey: use your favorite local, raw honey on its own, or stir in your favorite hot sauce for an added kick.
- Honey Mustard: make your own honey mustard using your favorites – I like to mix whole grain and dijon mustard, then sweeten to taste with local honey.
- Ranch Dressing: try our healthier Whole30 version – it’s super easy to make!
Storing and Reheating
One of my favorite reasons to own an air fryer is how well it reheats food – even foods that weren’t originally cooked in an air fryer!
These breaded tenderloins reheat like a dream, and get crispy all over again:
- To reheat chicken tenders from fridge: place in a single layer at 350° for 5 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
- To reheat chicken tenders from freezer: in a single layer at 350°F for 7-10 minutes, flipping once halfway through
Frequently asked questions
Yes! Slice a chicken breast lengthwise into ½″ width strips. For everything you’ve ever wanted to know about chicken tenders, this is a great article from The Kitchn.
Yes, after cooking – flash freeze in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet until firm. Then transfer to a gallon zip bag, press the air out, and store for up to 6 months in the freezer.
Good news! You don’t have to because you can easily make your own buttermilk if you don’t have any (or don’t want to buy for just one recipe). The ratio is 1 tsp. of acid per 1 cup of milk. For this recipe, I recommend adding 1.5 teaspoons of lemon juice to 1.5 cups of whole or 2% milk, but you can use reduced fat or skim milk too.
More Homestyle Air Fryer Recipes You’ll Love
- Air Fryer Corn on the Cob
- Air Fryer Steak
- Crispy Air Fryer Chicken Thighs
- Air Fryer Baked Potato
- Quick and Healthy Air Fryer Shrimp
- Air Fryer Potato Wedges
Did you try this recipe for air fryer chicken tenders? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below.
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- Air Fryer
- Heat the oven to 200°F; place a baking sheet in the oven.
- In a wide, shallow bowl combine the buttermilk, garlic powder, paprika, salt, and pepper; whisk until smooth. Add the chicken tenderloins to the buttermilk mixture and ensure the chicken is completely coated. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Whisk the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and olive oil in a shallow bowl until the breadcrumbs are evenly moistened.
- Place flour into a second shallow bowl.
- Remove 1 piece of chicken from the buttermilk mixture and allow the excess to drip off. Dip the chicken into the flour, then flip the chicken to lightly coat the other side. Dip the chicken into the buttermilk again, then finally dip the chicken into the breadcrumbs mixture – gently press to help the breadcrumb coating stick, then flip the chicken and coat with breadcrumbs on the other side. Transfer the breaded chicken tenderloins to a plate or baking sheet and repeat with the remaining pieces.
- Preheat the air fryer for 5 minutes at 380°F, then lightly brush or mist the basket with olive oil.
- Arrange the breaded chicken in your air fryer basket in a single layer – do not stack or overlap the chicken, and leave a bit of room between each piece.
- Cook the chicken tenders for 10-12 minutes, or until the internal temperature reads 165°F using an instant read thermometer. Transfer the cooked chicken tenders to the warm oven and repeat with the remaining tenders. Serve hot or warm with your favorite dipping sauces.