Because Chicken Fingers Will Never Taste as Good as They Did When You Were 9

It’s been a long time since I’ve ordered off a kids’ menu.

Sure, I have vague memories of paper placemats and the restaurants that had subpar Crayola knock-offs and the ones that had the soft, vibrant crayons (that came in a sealed pack, not out of a basket of used, toddler tainted art tools) that practically glided through the word search and the connect-the-dots zoo scene.

The recollections stop there, given that I was weaned off of the 4-choice kids’ menu (perhaps) prematurely. My days with portion controlled noodles and butter were brief, as my parents encouraged me to order from the more plentiful “adult” side – under the guise that there would always be a parent-sized appetite or a styrofoam carryout box to worry about the leftovers.

The transition was manageable (discovering the beauty of Caesar salad –  a universal menu staple – at a young age helped), and I quickly picked up on a few critical truths:  “chopped steak” = a burger sans bun, no kid’s menu includes garlic mashed potatoes, and chicken tenders find their way onto the “Entree” section of more menus than you’d care to know.

These days, a hankering for chicken tenders still haunts me.

It’s as if the more I try to mature my poultry palette with birds that are broiled, baked, poached, pulled and sautéed, the more I can actually taste the crispy fried loins I used to shake with anticipation for (and the ranch dressing I used to dunk them in.) And in a twist of truly tragic proportions, a handful of recent adventures in nostalgic chicken finger ordering have done little to conjure up the childhood perfection that once was.

Could it be a case of maturing taste buds?  Perhaps.
Could it be my own damn fault for having such high expectations for Chili’s & bland Chicago sports bars? IMGP4933Absolutely.

Which leaves me stuck in my own shoebox kitchen, drooling over memories without a vat of oil, a cooking thermometer, or the patience to tolerate an in-house fry fest.

Enter: the oven. I know it’s summer and I know there’s dredging involved and I know that you’ve probably been fooled by the oven “fried” chicken myth before, but this recipe is, as G. Fieri would posit, the real deal.

I don’t know how and I have no idea as to why, but there is life after chicken finger youth. There is a reason to start eating chicken thighs. And when in doubt, there is always McDonalds for the occasional 10-piece nugget, because some gold things can stay.

Oven “Fried” Chicken
Makes ~4 servings; Adapted from Host the Toast

6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Cooking spray (olive oil spray works best here!)

For the brine
4 c water
3 tbsp Kosher salt
1-2 tbsp pickle brine (excellent excuse to buy pickles, mind you)
Dash hot sauce

For the breading
1 c plain bread crumbs
1 c flour
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp dried sage (optional)
¼ tsp onion powder
¼ tsp garlic powder
⅛ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

For the dredge
3 whole eggs
1 ½ c skim milk

Ahhhh so many ingredients, right? Kind of. You probably have a lot of the spices. You’ll be fine.

The night before, or 2 hours before cooking:
Mix together the brine ingredients in a large bowl under the salt is dissolved and then add the chicken thighs. Cover and refrigerate the bowl overnight or for at least two hours (after trying both options, the overnight brine came out on top.)

When you’re ready to cook:
Preheat the oven to 400º. Remove the thighs from the brine, rinse them off and pat dry with a paper towel, then set aside.

In a large bowl, combine all of the breading ingredients and stir until well-blended. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and milk.

Assembly line time: dip each thigh generously in the liquid gold dredge, then press it into the breading. Continue with as many thighs as you can end up fitting in the breading bowl (comfortably) at one time. You want to press the chicken into the dry mixture so it gets a thick coating before flipping over and getting the other side. Once both sides of any given thigh are sufficiently breaded, transfer to a large nonstick (or greased) baking sheet.

Once all of the thighs are dunked, breaded and arranged on your sheet, it’s spray time. You’ll want to spray these thighs real – this is the key to crispiness. When the breading of each thigh is glistening and damp (no dry flour spots), you’re good to go.

Bake for 40-45 minutes. Don’t burn your hands on the baking sheet. Proceed to the eating stage, after which you may never crave kids’ menu chicken fingers again.

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