Chicken is a versatile offering, and there are various cuts to choose from. If you’re having a hard time deciding between chicken tenderloin vs thigh, our guide can help you make the right decision.
Chicken Tenderloin vs Thigh
The tenderloin is located on the breast muscle of the chicken, very close to the bone. It’s mild in flavor and the most tender cut you’ll find on a chicken. Chicken thigh is the upper segment of the leg, and its meat is fattier and more flavorful than the tenderloin.
About Chicken Tenderloin
The chicken tenderloin is a portion of the breast—actually, the part that’s closest to the breastbone. As a result, it’s the most tender part of the bird, as the name suggests.
Since the meat is so lean, it pairs well with a variety of flavors. The trade-off is that it doesn’t have a great deal of flavor on its own. It also overcooks quickly—you don’t want to cook it past 160 degrees, or it will turn chalky.
About Chicken Thigh
As you’ve probably guessed, the chicken thigh comes from the bird’s leg. To be precise, it’s the top portion of the leg, the part that connects to the body. The lower segment is called the drumstick, or sometimes just the leg.
Chicken thighs are sold either boneless or bone-in. The boneless and skinless variety is quite popular, but bone-in and skin-on thighs are also ideal for the grill.
This is a dark meat cut. That means the meat contains more myoglobin than the white meat on the breast. Since the muscles get more of a workout, the thigh meat is fattier and tougher than the breast, but it’s also more flavorful as a result.
Chicken Tenderloin vs Thigh: Breaking it Down
You should be able to tell the thigh and tenderloin apart at first glance. While they’re both recognizably chicken meat, they don’t resemble each other much.
The tenderloin is a long, skinny cut that usually has a white tenderloin running through it. Until it’s cooked, the color is pale peach to pink. Unlike the breast from which it’s taken, it’s always sold skinless, with no bone attached.
Thighs, as we pointed out, may or may not come with bones or skin, but their shape remains roughly the same either way. They have a squarish appearance, and the raw meat is dark pink to purple in color.
If you’re trying to decide between chicken tenderloin vs thigh and cost is an issue, we would go with chicken thighs.
As a rule, chicken breasts are much pricier than chicken thighs. This is due in part to the higher fat content of the thigh, which is seen as a drawback. The sheer popularity of chicken breast drives up the price as well.
What’s more, chicken tenderloin can be priced even higher than the breast itself because they make up such a small percentage of the chicken’s usable weight. You can expect to shell out a lot of money if you’re serving chicken tenderloin as your main course.
As we pointed out earlier, these cuts come from different spots on the bird.
The thigh is part of the leg, while the tenderloin is part of the breast. This discrepancy contributes to a vast difference in flavor and texture.
That brings us to the next point: Chicken thighs are more flavorful than tenderloins, by a long shot.
As a rule of thumb, the less fat there is on a cut of meat, the less flavor it has. Since the tenderloin is so lean, it doesn’t taste like much of anything unless you’ve added bold seasonings or put it in a marinade.
Chicken thigh, meanwhile, has a rich flavor that holds its own in a number of recipes. Even if you do nothing more than season the meat with kosher salt and black pepper, it should come off the grill tasting great.
Texture and Serving Temperature
We’ve grouped these two categories together because they’re so closely interrelated. The internal temperature of the chicken will have a direct impact on your results, whether you’re dealing with the thigh or the tenderloin.
Chicken tenderloin is white meat, so it should only cook to 160 degrees before coming off the heat to rest. During the resting period, the temp should come up to 165, which is considered the minimum safe serving temperature for poultry products.
If you cook the tenderloin past 165 degrees, it will dry out and toughen. That will defeat the whole purpose of choosing this cut, which will melt in your mouth when it’s done right.
Chicken thighs are another story. Dark meat is safe to consume at 165 degrees, but at this temperature, it’s unpleasantly chewy and stringy. We prefer to cook the thighs to 180 degrees and let them come up another 5 degrees as they rest.
When the chicken thighs are cooked to this temperature, they take on a succulent, rich texture. We think the extra time on the heat also improves the flavor.
Exploring the Similarities
Now that we’ve broken down the differences, are there any things that chicken tenderloins and chicken thighs have in common? As it turns out, there are a few. Let’s take a look.
Though the thigh has a lot more flavor than the tenderloin, it can also be used in many different recipes.
Chicken thighs can be baked, grilled, roasted, or smoked, all to great effect. Its high fat content allows it to hold up to low-and-slow cooking applications like braising and stewing. You can use diced chicken thighs to make delicious soups, stews, and casseroles.
Tenderloin should cook quickly over high heat to keep it from drying out. While it’s not a good fit for braising, it’s perfect for deep-frying, sauteing, and grilling.
Both of these cuts contain magnesium, selenium, niacin, copper, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. It’s true that the thigh meat offers higher levels of all these nutrients, but since the tenderloin is leaner, this category can be considered a toss-up.
We should also point out that you shouldn’t discount the thigh meat just because it’s not as lean as the tenderloin. In spite of the higher fat content, chicken thighs can still be part of a healthy balanced diet.
Are Chicken Tenderloins and Chicken Cutlets the Same Thing?
When you’re browsing through the meat section of your supermarket, you might come across some packages labeled as “chicken cutlets.” Are these chicken tenderloins or a different cut altogether?
In fact, most butchers should know better than to label chicken tenderloins as chicken cutlets—and vice versa. It’s important to know the difference, even though you can get away with substituting one for the other in most recipes.
Chicken cutlets are just chicken breasts that have been sliced horizontally to create a thinner cut. They’re usually cut in half just once, but sometimes a breast can be used to make three or more cutlets. As such, they’ll look just like chicken breasts, only less plump.
You can use chicken cutlets to make chicken parmigiana, chicken piccatta, chicken marsala, or any number of dishes that call for thinly sliced and sauteed chicken breast. Because they’re so thin, they might not be the best pick for the grill.
If you need to, you can use a meat mallet to pound the chicken cutlets so they’re even thinner. This will have a tenderizing effect on the meat as well.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a meaty cut with a silky texture and hearty chicken flavor, chicken thigh is the way to go. As a bonus, this cut is also much cheaper than most of the competition.
For fast, easy cooking, give chicken tenderloin a try. You’ll be rewarded with lean, mild-tasting meat that serves as the ideal backdrop to bolder flavors.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!