Today: Fried chicken you just can't mess up.
More often than not, if you are like me, you probably want fried chicken for dinner.
But fried chicken seems like trouble, doesn't it? You'd sooner wait for a road trip to Mississippi than get frying yourself. And what if -- once you commit to frying your own -- its crust is soggy, its meat forgettable?
Well, just stop it. Here, thanks to Michael Ruhlman, is a fried chicken that will not fail you, that is speedy enough to fit into your busy, tired, chicken-deprived lifestyle, and that is more than worth what little trouble it asks of you.
Ruhlman learned many (but not all) of his best fried chicken tricks while working on Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home -- and streamlined them, as is his way, in his own book Ruhlman's Twenty. Food52er vivanat tipped me off to the ease and the payoff of this recipe, and now I'm a convert. You will be too.
For starters, he uses just the thighs, legs and wings (to many, the good parts). Breaking down whole chickens has virtues, but you don't need to do that here.
He brines the chicken, which is key to keeping meat flavorful and moist, and he does it well. Shauna Ahern, of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, once told me, "His ratios are perfect. Whenever [my husband] Danny made a brine, he called me from the restaurant to read him Ruhlman's."
Not just perfect, but shockingly quick to throw together. I tend to get all zen and methodical in the kitchen, and dramatically underestimate how long it will take me to get from point A to point B. Many Genius Recipe testing sessions end at 1am. My sous chefs hate me. And still, despite myself, it took me 15 minutes to go from chicken in grocery bag to chicken brining in the fridge.
How does this brine get so flavorful, so quickly?
Namely, how do four cloves of garlic and a whole sliced onion go into a pot with one teaspoon of oil over medium-high heat, and quickly sweat into a soft puddle, without browning (or burning)? I didn't think it could be right, but I followed Ruhlman's directions, to the letter.
I was forgetting about all that salt (it is a brine, after all). It instantly goes to work on the onions, drawing out their moisture, which pools in the bottom of the pot and helps it all swiftly cook down in its own juices. Then you toss in rosemary branches and finish it off with water and lemon. Boil, ice bath, throw your chicken in it. Wonder why it's not 1am.
The recipe calls for brining overnight, but I've also done it for much less time, and it's still good. Once, when pulling this chicken out of its briny bath, my brother pointed out that this was the most delicious-smelling raw chicken he'd ever encountered. It's frankly a little jarring -- for good reason, raw poultry doesn't smell irresistible. You'll just have to control yourself.
Brining behind you, tempting raw chicken messing with your mind, it's time for dredging and frying. This crust is one of those stand-on-its-own, thick, shaggy, crunchy affairs. Ruhlman credits the Ad Hoc kitchen with showing him the ideal seasoned flour-buttermilk-seasoned flour coating, but he trims down the ingredient list, focusing on what's important: lots of pepper, paprika, and cayenne -- and baking powder, for extra lift and crispiness.
It's the kind of crust that you'd normally want to steal off other people's drumsticks and leave them the meat lingering on the bone. But remember that brine! As intoxicating as it smelled before cooking, it smells -- and tastes -- even more richly of rosemary and lemon, the salt having pulled it deep into the flesh.
The meat is so juicy, the crust so proudly crusty, you can fry it ahead and re-crisp in the oven when company arrives, which will give you plenty of time to wipe down the stove, shower, and pour yourself an early glass of wine. (Have you ever tried to deep-fry chicken while guests are standing around getting drunk? They ask an awful lot of questions.)
Best keep them away till the big reveal -- and what a reveal it will be.
Adapted very slightly from Ruhlman's Twenty (Chronicle Books, 2011)
Serves 6 to 8
1 small onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons kosher salt
5 or 6 branches rosemary, each 4 to 5 inches long
4 1/2 cups water
1 lemon, halved
8 chicken legs, drumsticks and thighs separated
8 chicken wings, wing tips removed
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 cups buttermilk
Neutral, high-heat oil for deep-frying (like canola)
Photos by Karen Mordechai