What is chicken tenderloin, exactly? You’ve probably seen the ingredient advertised on menus, even if you weren’t sure what it was. Some of you may have even ordered it before, and wondered why it was classified as tenderloin. After all, the most tender portion of the chicken comes from the breast, doesn’t it? Where exactly does the loin come in?
What Is Chicken Tenderloin?
The answer is fairly straightforward, although there’s certainly a distinction when it comes to chicken breast vs tenderloin.
The tenderloin is actually a minor muscle located on the breastbone, just behind the major muscle known as pectoralis minor. It’s typically around half the size of the breast itself, with a slim, elongated appearance. Because the white meat of this muscle is exceptionally tender, it earns the nickname “tenderloin.”
The tenderloin is only visible when the breast meat is separated from the bone. For this reason, many people don’t even realize that this is a distinct portion of the bird, and not just a fancy euphemism.
Chicken Breast vs Tenderloin: The Basics
In addition to the size and shape of the meat, the tenderloin differs from the breast in a few important respects.
First of all, the meat of the tenderloin is higher in calories. This makes it an appealing option for athletes who are looking to bulk up on lean protein sources, but decreases its value for diners who are watching their weight.
The tenderloin takes another hit in the nutrition department on account of its lower vitamin and mineral content. While chicken breast is a low-calorie source of magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, and vitamins B-6 and D, the tenderloin provides only trace amounts of these nutrients.
Chicken tenderloin is also higher in sodium—a crucial distinction for people with hypertension or heart issues. Anyone who’s trying to follow a low-salt diet would do better to stick with chicken breast over tenderloin.
Another noticeable variance between breast and tenderloin can be found at the cash register. While chicken breasts aren’t exactly a bargain, they’re less expensive than the tenderloins. For this reason, budget-conscious shoppers might want to consider buying whole breasts and cutting them up into smaller pieces. The differences in flavor and texture will be negligible. Just be sure to slice against the grain—that is, across the breast, so that you wind up with shorter strips.
That said, the cook has to be a little bit more careful with recipes that call for tenderloin. It’s all too easy to overcook the delicate meat, which can result in a chalky, dry texture. If you’re planning to cook your chicken on the grill, the breast is usually the better choice.
Chicken Breast vs Tenderloin: How To Tell The Difference
This brings us to another valid point: Some supermarkets will simply cut chicken breasts into long strips and market them as tenderloins. So how is the average shopper supposed to know if they’re getting the real thing?
As we’ve mentioned, the tenderloin has a distinctive shape that can be difficult to mimic, even for an experienced butcher. In addition to being smaller and narrower than the breast, the meat is also less plump. It can also be darker in color, with a distinctive peachy hue.
The tenderloin muscle is wider on one end, tapering to a broad point. The larger tenderloins might have a bulbous “head” on the larger end, in which case the smaller portion might be connected via a thin white tendon.
This tendon is another way to tell the tenderloin from the breast itself—it will run nearly the full length of the muscle, with a flat tip that protrudes from the wider end. Because the tendon becomes tough when the meat is cooked, most chefs prefer to remove it in advance. Simply position the tendon between the prongs of a regular fork, using your other hand to grasp the tendon. Then push down with the fork and slide the tendon out.
Here’s a visual aid for removing the tendon from a chicken tenderloin.
How To Remove The Tenderloin From The Breast
If you’ve purchased a whole chicken breast—particularly if it’s bone-in—you can easily remove the tenderloin yourself.
All you have to do is lay the breast on the cutting board, flat side down. The tenderloin should be clearly visible, connected to the meat of the breast by a tendon. Using a firm hand, slice across the breastbone to remove the tendon and separate the tenderloin from the breast.
Substituting Chicken Breast for Tenderloin (And Vice Versa)
Although it’s a good idea to be aware of the distinctions between the two, it is possible to use chicken breast and tenderloin interchangeably. Here’s some pro advice on how to switch them while maintaining the integrity of your recipes.
First of all, use the tips we’ve outlined above to make sure you know what you’re working with. Mistaking one for the other could lead to disappointment.
Also, remember that the tenderloin will take less time to marinate and to cook. If you marinate them for too long, they’ll have an unpleasantly mushy texture, which goes against what you’re trying to achieve. They might also be too salty, depending on which ingredients are used in the marinade.
Chicken tenderloins only need a few minutes of cooking time per side. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell when they’re done. Because they’re so thin, it’s not necessary to use a meat thermometer. Just use a sharp paring knife to make a small slash partway through the meat. If it’s opaque throughout, the chicken is done.
If you’ve decided to use chicken breast instead of tenderloin for a particular recipe, you can flatten pieces using a meat tenderizer. After slicing the breast into uniform strips, place the meat between two pieces of wax paper. Use the smooth end of the mallet to pound them to a uniform thickness, then remove the top sheet of paper and use the textured end to tenderize the meat.
Best Ways To Prepare Chicken Tenderloin
The best way to prepare chicken tenderloin is to marinate it briefly—no more than 30 minutes—in a simple blend of lemon juice, olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. For best results, make a few shallow cuts in each tender before placing them in the marinade.
Because the tenders are already higher in calories and sodium than the breast, it’s a good idea to stick with healthier cooking methods for their preparation. Baking them in parchment paper is a good way to achieve this. Poaching and steaming are two other low-cal, low-fat methods that will accentuate the chicken’s best qualities.
You can also read this amazing article from cookthestory.com
Best Ways To Prepare Chicken Breast
When it comes to chicken breast, your options are more varied. The meat will readily absorb flavors, but it’s relatively bland on its own. That opens up a whole world of possibilities.
Remember that chicken breast is only a health-conscious option when the skin has been removed, as that’s the portion that contains the most fat. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to boost the flavor profile.
To begin, marinate the chicken breast the same way you would the tenderloin, but for a longer period of time—about two to four hours. This will give the meat time to fully absorb the marinade. It will also cut down on the active preparation time, since acidic ingredients like lemon will “cook” the meat slightly as it marinates.
Baking and poaching are two viable options, but we prefer to grill the marinated chicken breasts whenever possible. Why? Because the taste and texture provided by the open flame are incomparable. This method also doesn’t call for any additional fat, which is another plus if you’re watching your weight.
You can also check this amazing recipe from dinneratthezoo.com
The Bottom Line
While there’s clearly a subtle difference between chicken breast and the smaller tenderloin muscle, it’s fine to substitute one for the other. As long as you understand the distinction and are willing to make the necessary adjustments, you should wind up with rewarding results either way.
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Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!