Game of Chicken: Southern-Style Fried
All You Need to Know About How to Fry Chicken So It's Crisp and Juicy Every Time
Hard to believe we are at Issue #36 already. Hope you enjoy it. Last week I announced the launch of my new podcast, What’s Burning, and now you can listen to fascinating interviews with the imitable chef Gaggan Anand, whose eponymous restaurant in Bangkok for years was ranked #1 in Asia by World’s 50 Best, Jamila Robinson, food editor of Philadelphia Inquirer and chair of the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Awards Committee, and Dan Barber, visionary chef-flavor-farming activist of Blue Hill. New episodes will drop every other Wednesday, wherever you listen to your podcasts. You should also mark your calendars on Wednesday, February 9, at noon (ET) for my upcoming conversation with celebrated cookbook author Claudia Roden, which is part of Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel’s “Flavors from the Library” series. To add to her more than five decades of work exploring the food of the Mediterranean, Roden has a new book out, she recommended a shelf of essential titles for Asif’s library, and she was just awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her service to literature by Queen Elizabeth II. This is a conversation you will want to hear.
It was only a matter of time until I got to fried chicken in this newsletter. A recent request from a reader asked me to write about it sooner rather than later. Before I married someone from the south, I probably ate fried chicken once every 10 years. Then, for a while, I would make it once a year, on March 4, Nate’s birthday. Since the pandemic began and I’ve been cooking much more, in general, and much more comfort food, in particular, and since we rented a house in the Finger Lakes, where I’ve found a great chicken producer, there have been recent periods when I’ve made fried chicken at least once a week.
I often tell the story of meeting Nate’s family for the first time. Fried chicken plays a role. I was coming to Birmingham, Alabama, for the weekend to meet Nate’s mother, sister, and nephew. We were arriving Friday morning so I offered to cook dinner Friday night. I packed a few key ingredients I needed. His mom, Cookie, picked us up at the airport. When we got to their house, their housekeeper, Juanita, was frying more chicken than I had ever seen fried at one time. I turned to Nate and Cookie and said, “I thought I was making dinner tonight.”
—“You are,” they replied.
—“So what’s the fried chicken for?” I asked.
—“Snacks,” they said in unison.
I believe good fried chicken is more the product of good technique than a definitive recipe, so I’m not going to tell you to get out your scale and do exactly what I say for the “Ultimate Fried Chicken.” Instead, I’m going to teach you how to think about frying chicken so you can make delicious fried chicken whenever and wherever you are.
It really helps to start with good chicken, and preferably a whole one. I know that “tastes like chicken” has become the cliché descriptor of any insipid meat. And most chicken, indeed, has no discernible flavor at all. But when you find a good chicken that actually tastes like something, and even more noticeably, when you find one that has a meaty, juicy texture, you immediately notice the difference.
Not all “good” chickens are well suited for fried chicken, though. Many free-range, heirloom birds aren’t meaty or juicy enough to produce a great fried chicken. Better to roast or braise them. The ones I get upstate from Just a Few Acres, which are a commercial cross, but well raised and harvested older than most, are plump and juicy and flavorful. They make a great fried chicken.
Whole birds cut into parts—I like to cut mine into 10 parts: legs, thighs, wings, and breasts cut in half—are always better tasting than chicken parts you buy already cut up. They are juicier and more flavorful. I suspect this is because there is less exposure to air and therefore less oxidation, but I dunno. Despite the fact that I was a teaching assistant for two years for the “meats” class at Cornell’s Hotel School, I’m no meat scientist. Just trust me here. If you can, buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself.
When I was in 10th Grade I got a job in our local butcher shop by cutting a chicken into eighths on command, an unexpected audition. I don’t do it exactly like this, but Melissa Clark shows you a good way to cut up a chicken here…
While in general I’m opposed to brining whole turkeys for Thanksgiving—which I think is more hassle than it’s worth and it’s just as effective to not overcook your turkey to keep it juicy—fried chicken is different. The brining adds flavor, juiciness, and ultimately is integral to forming a good, crisp coating.
The key elements of the brine are acid and salt. You can also add spices and other aromatics, though generally I add my flavorings to the flour coating mixture. The most traditional acid is buttermilk, which also serves to make a nice coating later on. I will put a whole chicken cut into 10 pieces in a gallon-size resealable plastic bag with about 1 cup of buttermilk and a scant tablespoon of kosher salt. The chicken can sit in there, refrigerated, for anywhere from 1 hour to 3 days. The longer, the better, to a point.
But there are plenty of other options for brine. If I’m making fried chicken for kosher people, which I do every Thanksgiving weekend, I use either pickle brine or sauerkraut brine as the marinade. It has both acid and salt, as well as some other aromatics already infused in it. And you can just pour it into the bag with the chicken and let it sit. If you are using a particularly salty brine, reduce the salt you add to the bag and to the coating mixture.
Now that I’m baking a lot of sourdough, I have also used my sourdough discard for the acid to good effect. My starter is at about 100% hydration, which isn’t loose enough to coat the chicken, so I thin it down with either water, milk, buttermilk, or pickle brine, adding about an equal amount of starter and liquid. This needs salt.
The other day I set out to recreate the fried chicken we found from a street vendor near our hotel in Bangkok that became our regular breakfast during our visit. For that, I pounded garlic and cilantro in a mortar and pestle, added fish sauce (salt) and lime juice (acid), and marinated the chicken in that mixture for about a day.
With the coating, too, you have a lot of options. Juanita’s secret was AP flour heavily seasoned Lawry’s Poultry Seasoning. I used to use all-purpose flour with a generous amount of black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and sometimes a little cayenne. You can add herbs, other spices, just about anything. Although KFC’s secret recipe has 11 herbs and spices, the predominant flavor is salt.
Lately I’ve been cutting the wheat flour with rice flour and/or cornstarch, which provides extra crunch. You can use 100% rice flour to attain a super Korean fried chicken crunch. For the Thai chicken I mentioned above I used flour, rice flour, and cornstarch in equal parts.
How much seasoning? I don’t know exactly. More than you would think. The coating and the subsequent fried chicken seem to be able to hold a lot of flavor. I generally go heavy with the black pepper. Just be careful with the salt. The longer your chicken has sat in the brine, the saltier it will be. You still need some salt in the coating, but maybe not as much.
How much coating you need is a bit of a guessing game, too. I usually start with about a cup of flour in a resealable bag and then add the seasoning. That can do a whole chicken, if you let most of the brining liquid drain off the pieces before you dredge them. If you need more coating, of course you have to add more seasoning in the same proportion as before.
The Frying Fat
I shallow fry my chicken. Deep frying seems too wasteful of precious oil for me and it isn’t necessary imho. I have fried chicken in all kinds of oils and fats, including lard and Crisco. My favorite is peanut oil, which I think has a fairly neutral flavor and buttery texture. It also has a high smoke point, which is important. If someone you are cooking for has a peanut allergy, I would suggest rice bran or grapeseed oil, before soybean or canola oil. Although for some reason people, even famous chefs, will tell you never to fry in extra-virgin olive oil because it has too low a smoke point, when you spend time watching Italians cook in Italy, especially in Tuscany, you will see them fry in extra-virgin olive oil all the time. They do tend to fry things more gently than we do, but they fry in olive oil nonetheless. I don’t fry in olive because the stuff I buy is too expensive. But it would make a mighty tasty chicken, too.
The Dredging and Frying
Once your chicken is marinated and your coating is ready, you can begin to coat and fry. I like to use a cast-iron pan into which I pour about ¼ inch of peanut oil that I heat over a medium-high flame.
Using tongs, I pull a piece of chicken out of the marinating bag with one hand, while I squeeze the top of the bag with the other hand to remove any excess brine. This is especially necessary if using something on the thicker side, such as buttermilk or sourdough starter. Then I plop the chicken into the flour bag and repeat until there are four or five pieces in there. You don’t want to crowd the flour bag and you definitely don’t want to crowd the frying pan. So you should only dredge as much as both can hold. Seal the bag and toss the chicken around in the seasoned flour really well to coat all the nooks and cranny’s of the chicken pieces.
When the oil is hot, open the bag, use the tongs (or your hands) to pick up a piece of chicken, tap it on the counter while still in the bag to knock off any excess flour, and place it skin side down in the hot oil. Repeat with the other pieces. The oil should be hot enough so that it sizzles immediately, that’s at least 325°F, if you have an instant-read thermometer (which will also help you determine when the chicken is done). Once all of the chicken is in the pan and it is sizzling, let it go for a few minutes undisturbed to begin to crisp. Then turn the heat down to medium and continue cooking until the chicken is nicely browned.
Fried chicken takes a lot longer to cook than you think it will. The trick is moderating the heat so that it doesn’t burn before it is done. I figure about 15 minutes for the first side, depending on the size of the pieces, and then 7 to 10 minutes on the second side. It is best not to move the chicken pieces until the crust has formed and begun to brown or you risk losing the crunch. Some people suggest once the crust forms you can cover the pan, so that the chicken steams a little and cooks faster. I have done this and it works without making the bottom crust soggy, but in general I haven’t found it necessary.
When the crust is deep, golden brown, you can flip and cook the second side. It doesn’t usually take as long to cook this side, but it still takes longer than you think it will.
In the meantime, while the chicken is frying, preheat the oven to 275°F., so you’ll be able to hold the first batch of chicken warm while you fry the second. Place a wire rack over a sheet pan to receive the chicken when done.
When the second side is nearing the same color as the first, you may want to move the chicken around to stand the pieces up on any ends that aren’t quite browned. Now’s the chance to even out the coating. Use tongs, if necessary, to hold the chicken upright while you brown around the joints and thick sides.
The surest way to know the chicken is done is to use an instant-read thermometer. Insert it trough a crack in the coating so as not to disturb anything, right up against a bone. It should read at least 155°F. Remove the pieces that are done to the rack on the prepared pan and set in the preheated oven to keep warm and continue cooking while you finish the next batch.
Use a spatula or slotted spoon to remove any crispy burnt bits from the oil. If necessary, add some fresh oil to make sure the bottom of the pan is still covered and make sure you let it come up to temperature again over medium-high heat before you add any more chicken.
When all of the chicken is fried and and warmed, you are ready to eat! Note that fried chicken is one of those extremely versatile foods that is good eaten hot out of the pan, at room temperature, and cold from the fridge.
So you don’t have to read through this long explanation every time, I’m summarizing everything above in this short “recipe,” with the caveat that the measurements are not exact.
RECIPE: Mitchell’s Fried Chicken
(Yields enough for 4 to 6 people, or more, for “snacks”)
1 whole chicken, 3 ½ to 4 pounds, back bone removed and cut into 10 pieces
¾ cup to 1 cup acidic liquid, such as buttermilk, pickle or sauerkraut brine, sourdough starter thinned to the consistency of buttermilk, or any creative combination of salt and acid
1 to 3 teaspoons of salt, depending on how salty your liquid is
About 1 cup flour, either all-purpose, rice flour, cornstarch, or a combination.
Freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne, or other herbs and spices, about 2 tablespoons total, or to your taste
Peanut oil for frying
Place the chicken in a resealable bag. Add the acidic liquid, salt, and any aromatics you want to include. Let marinate, refrigerated, for at least an hour and up to 3 days.
In a clean resealable bag, combine the flour(s) and seasonings. Heat a ¼ inch of oil in a cast-iron pan set over medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 275°F. and set a wire rack over a sheet pan.
One at a time, remove 4 or 5 pieces of the chicken from the brining bag, letting any excess liquid drip off, and place in the flour bag. Seal and toss to coat. Tap off any excess flour and place skin-side down in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan. Fry until a deep golden brown, moderating the heat so the coating doesn’t burn, about 15 minutes. Flip and fry the second side. If necessary, reposition the pieces to fry the ends and cut sides of the chicken pieces, to a crisp golden brown. When an instant-read thermometer inserted to a bone reads 155°F., remove the chicken, place on the rack, and keep warm in the oven while you fry the rest.