I've never met a human who loves chicken fingers more than I do. In fact, I eat them *every* week and have officially dubbed Fridays "Fried Chicken Fridays" because I’d prefer to order Sticky’s (my current favorite chicken finger joint in NYC), turn on Netflix and avoid any and all human interaction on a night when I'm supposed to be social.
But sometimes I have a craving for chicken fingers beyond my weekly delivery allowance and must resort to desperate measures: making them myself. The result is usually fine, sometimes great, often abysmal, and rarely amazing. Luckily, any chicken finger, no matter how inedible, can be salvaged with a smothering of dipping sauces like honey mustard or spicy mayo.
My cooking outcomes are generally inconsistent because, frankly, I’m inconsistent with my recipes. Seeing as I’m usually half a bottle of pinot noir in before whipping up a last-minute culinary concoction, I’m thinking less about taste and precision and more about efficiency. But that all changed after I decided to conduct my own comprehensive taste-test with 15(!) different coatings. These ingredients, both familiar and slightly out of the norm, were chosen due to their natural crunch factor and ability to take on other flavors. The ultimate goal, of course, was to find the most perfect options from this bunch so that I could carry them in my pantry at all times to accommodate sudden cravings — and I definitely feel like I succeeded (with surprising results!).
Here's a list of the contenders (shown below, from left to right, starting at the top): pretzels, pork rinds, panko, standard breadcrumbs, almond and flax meal, potato chips, Cap'n Crunch, corn flakes, crispy fried onions, chopped pecans, Rice Krispies, shredded wheat, Corn Chex, Ritz Crackers, savory granola.
And here's a breakdown of how everything happened:
How to make chicken fingers
To carry out this experiment, I started with two pounds of trimmed chicken breast strips. This yielded exactly 15 chicken fingers, which I then rolled into a standard dry mixture of 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon paprika, 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, 1 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/2 teaspoon onion powder.
Once coated, I dipped them into a small bowl of two lightly beaten eggs and then dredged each finger through its individual coating (which took forever, but I’ll do anything in the name of science). From there, I added them to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and sprayed them individually with olive oil to encourage extra crunch.
Since owning an air fryer is still a luxury for many people and frying in a Dutch oven is just too much of a process, I chose to oven-bake these bad boys for 25 minutes at 400 F.
Chicken finger tips
Making chicken fingers is not a difficult task, but now that I am a certified chicken finger expert, I feel obligated to share some helpful tips I learned along the way:
- While the oven is great, I find that an air fryer makes chicken fingers a lot crunchier. Deep-drying will obviously have the tastiest results, but if you can invest in an air fryer, you will enjoy these chicken fingers a lot more.
- Never microwave leftover chicken fingers — it will dry them out. Pop them back in the oven or an air fryer to maintain their crunch.
- Rather than dipping into an array of sauces, you can try coating your baked fingers by putting them in a large plastic bag with a sauce of your choice and giving them a good shake. Allow them to cool a bit first, though, so that the coating doesn’t fall off in the process.
- Feel free to swap all-purpose flour for gluten-free alternatives.
- Baked chicken fingers can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to four days. Freezers will keep them edible for up to two months.
Chicken fingers were judged (out of 10) on two criteria (for a total of 20 potential points): taste and crunch level. Other factors like versatility (how well it would pair with most sauces) and juiciness were also taken into consideration, but the numerical scores only applied to the first two.
The final ranking, from worst to best, is below, with some additional superlatives at the end. At the end of the day, I learned that there really isn't a chicken finger I wouldn't eat, but there are some newfound favorite coatings that have earned permanent spots in my arsenal.
Taste: 3 — This was my least favorite. Shredded wheat has a way of completely drying out your mouth and tasting like cardboard if not served in a bowl of milk. The eating experience was most unpleasant.
Crunch: 5 — This certainly had crunch, but not the good kind. The shredded wheat was stringy and broke up into a bunch of smaller pieces after every bite. Nobody likes a mess!
Taste: 4 — It was entirely too greasy for my liking. The oils of the nut really took over the chicken and became somewhat bitter. This could have been easily remedied with proper seasonings, so I wouldn’t completely rule it out in the future.
Crunch: 7 — It definitely boasted the most unique crunch because it was soft. If something like cornflakes were added to the mix, that harmonious balance of textures could be a chicken-finger homerun.
Taste: 7 — It was fine and nothing to write home about, but I did appreciate the random salt crystals that added mini punches of flavor.
Crunch: 4 — The oven made the pretzels taste as if they went completely stale, which was quite quite odd, especially considering how delicious this finger tasted after being reheated in an air fryer.
Taste: 6 — It was OK. There is not much you can do with breadcrumbs, even if they're pre-seasoned. I always enjoy dried parsley for an herbaceous note, but that flavor was lost during baking.
Crunch: 6 — Some areas were still moist after absorbing the breadcrumbs, so that proved to be particularly disappointing. But the cakey imperfections felt familiar and almost nostalgic, which helped increase its rating.
Taste: 6 — This was pretty bland, but I also didn’t hate it. The rice taste was subtle but could have benefited from seasonings.
Crunch: 7 — It was odd because some areas suffered the pretzel effect of staleness while others had a crunch that rivaled pork rinds. If I were to make it again, I’d be more consistent with the coating and either do all powder or keep the Krispies in tact. It was, however, one of my favorite options in the air fryer as leftovers.
Almond/flax flour blend
Taste: 7 — The brand I purchased had seasonings mixed in (which kind of made this taste test unfair #sorrynotsorry), but I really appreciated the general nuttiness — a lovely departure from standard breadcrumbs and panko, but without the oils of chopped pecans.
Crunch: 7 — I was really impressed with how well a fine dry mixture encapsulated the protein and created a crunchy exterior in the oven. This had every reason to become a mushy mess, but it really surprised me and is a fantastic gluten-free substitute if you swap the initial all-purpose flour dredge with any gluten-free variety.
Taste: 6 — It didn’t possess the same bold taste as Corn Chex, but the corn flavor was definitely present and generally pleasant.
Crunch: 8 — These coated the chicken like an absolute dream, making the chicken finger the prettiest and most visually delicious before going into the oven. I kind of wish it was a bit crunchier, but it’s no doubt a solid choice and will hold up to any heavy dip.
Taste: 7 — The sweetness wasn’t over-the-top, which was ideal, but it was present enough to not make this entirely binge-worthy. I’d be OK with a few, but then I’d need something more on the salty side to completely satisfy my poultry craving.
Crunch: 7 — I love how this was almost more crispy than crunchy, but that can be off-putting for many, so choose wisely.
Taste: 8 — I was kind of obsessed with the strong corn flavor. It certainly overpowers the palate (which can be a polarizing eating experience), but I thought it was unique and I wanted more.
Crunch: 7 — The ridges of Chex make its texture fun to consume. It didn’t lose its crunch at all, but it can definitely cut the roof of your mouth with its inconsistency.
Taste: 5 — It’s just white bread. This definitely needed a sauce or really heavy seasoning.
Crunch: 10 — There is a reason why nearly every high-rated chicken finger recipe online tells you to coat your chicken in panko. It absolutely generates the best crunch and is oh-so-satisfying.
Taste: 8 — Salty, juicy and a simple way to elevate something that is notoriously bland on its own. If you have kids, they will get a kick out of this preparation.
Crunch: 8 — The diversity in texture is what really stood out to me. I loved how some parts were crumbs while other parts were broken chips. This was, perhaps, one of the most exciting iterations to eat.
Taste: 9 — This buttery coating was decadent. It almost felt like I was noshing on something I wasn’t supposed to, which makes sense considering its high fat content. The crumbles literally melted in my mouth.
Crunch: 8 — It has fantastic balance — not an aggressive crunch at all, but a lovely mouthfeel that had me going back for more.
Taste: 9 — The brand I purchased had rosemary, pumpkin seeds and currants, and this unique flavor really withstood the oven (and flour/egg) to offer the most surprisingly scrumptious taste of the lot. As a self-proclaimed chicken finger purist, I was shocked over how much I enjoyed this.
Crunch: 8 — The assortment of ingredients like oats, seeds, dried fruit and herbs made it an absolute star in the crunch department.
Crispy fried onions
Taste: 10 — Frankly, I’m dumbfounded as to why these haven’t been used more often in homemade chicken finger recipes. The onion flavor was beyond superb and I can see myself getting into all kinds of trouble if I paired it with a batch of French onion dip.
Crunch: 8 — An awesome crunch, but beware: They are the most likely to get burnt if left in the oven for too long. That onion is still delicate!
Taste: 9 — It’s no surprise that the oily pork rind imparted its rich flavor into the meat, making it one of the juiciest on this list.
Crunch: 10 — This was the second best crunch of the bunch (after panko), brought on by the aforementioned high fat content. It almost resembled a Wendy’s chicken nugget and less like its breadier counterparts, which I really appreciated.
Best overall: Pork rinds
Best crunch: Panko
Best flavor: Crispy fried onions
Best indulgence: Ritz Crackers
Best surprise: Savory granola
Best for kids: Potato chips