American

Fried Chicken as It's Meant to Be

March 19, 2015

You know you love your great aunt's banana bread, but you probably don't know why you do. In Modern Comfort, Ashley Rodriguez from Not Without Salt figures out what makes our favorite classics work, and then makes them even better. 

Today: How to crack the code on fried chicken (no matter how far away you are from the South). 

Portland, Oregon has bicycling Darth Vaders, 1890s-style facial hair, plenty of plaid flannel, and Pine State Biscuits. It’s also the home of the original Pok Pok, some of the best coffee in the country (I don’t say that lightly -- I’m from Seattle), and a few of our closest friends. Needless to say, my husband and I frequent this fair city quite often. Even though there are dozens of new restaurants to try each time we visit, it’s always Pine State Biscuits that I crave.
 It’s The McIsley -- a towering biscuit with shattering fried chicken, honey, and pickles that bite you back -- that lures me in. After several trips and many long waits in line, I decided that this was a project that I needed to conquer in my own kitchen.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have tales of Grandma’s legendary fried chicken and my cast-iron pan didn’t come to me by way of many generations of friers -- it came from Amazon. I am about as far away from the South as you can get, and yet I was determined to crack the code on fried chicken. 

That is the sort of project that I love: taking a classic recipe and rethinking it -- dissecting all the parts, not just the ingredients but also the method, and putting it back together in a way that produces a dish that just might challenge the original. It’s the sort of project I’ll be regularly taking on in this column.

To produce flavorful fried chicken with a thick, crisp crust, I start with a dry brine, which is a mix of several different dried herbs and spices including thyme, marjoram, and garlic powder. I find a dry brine to be less cumbersome than submerging all the meat in a liquid brine, plus it really saturates the meat. Before the chicken pieces are fried, they’re dipped in a subtly tangy buttermilk and egg and dredged in flour. Not only is the flour laced with baking powder and cornstarch, which give the crust lift, lightness, and a crackling finish, but it’s also flavored with spices used in the dry brine so that both the crust and the chicken are herb-infused.

The real kicker here is that the chicken pieces (I prefer boneless, skinless thighs) are dipped into the buttermilk and flour mixture two times so that the ratio of meat to perfectly thick, crisp, and well-seasoned crust is practically 1:1. In my cookbook, this chicken sits on a black pepper biscuit with pickles, a drizzle of honey, and plenty of seedy mustard -- my homage to The McIsley. When I’m not in the mood for biscuits I prefer a piece of fried chicken between two pieces of fluffy white bread along with mayonnaise and pickles.

Make enough for leftovers and enjoy the thinly sliced cold fried chicken over a bowl of greens. 

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Serves 4

For the spice mix:

1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1 pound)

For the flour and buttermilk dredges:

1 cup (140 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup (240 milliliters) buttermilk
1 egg
4 cups vegetable, canola, or peanut oil, for frying

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Ashley Rodriguez

15 Comments

Chris April 8, 2015
Overall this is a great recipe however I find that there is to much oregano, thyme and marjoram resulting in more of an Italian flavor than Southern. The dredge method works fairly well but for a lighter crispier batter use two eggs and a some bread crumbs to the flour.
 
Stephen S. March 26, 2015
I'm curious if the naysayers actually tried the recipe. (I'm guessing you didn't.) It's really, really good fried chicken, even if it's not the way your grandma used to make it.<br /><br />Don't get me wrong - I'm all for tradition and time-tested methods; when I first read "boneless" I just about laughed off the recipe altogether. But I do love me a fried chicken sandwich and this makes a damn good fried chicken sandwich. The dry brine is a lot less fuss than a wet brine, the crust is light and airy and gorgeously crunchy, and the meat itself is moist and delicious. A little dab of mayo, a pickled green tomato and piece of lettuce and you have yourself a glorious sandwich. <br /><br />I imagine if this recipe were titled differently (it is admittedly incredibly pompous, borderline insulting even), people's reactions might be a little different. <br /><br />
 
calangus March 24, 2015
This is close to the way i make it. I'll definitely try this next time i make chicken.
 
Jan W. March 23, 2015
I just made this recipe, with the sole alteration being that I used bone-in, skin on chicken thighs and legs, and it was so perfect that I may never buy fried chicken in a restaurant again. <br /><br />Let me emphasize this, and I have extensive family in South Carolina so we're no strangers to down home cooking - I DID NOT marinate this chicken overnight in buttermilk. I used it exactly as prescribed here, and you could cut the chicken like a hot knife through butter. They were most tender, juicy chicken pieces, just sat in the spice mix overnight. Also, the skin and crust crisped up beautifully and upon storing the leftovers in the fridge wrapped in only paper towels overnight, the next day the crust still had some crunch to it! <br /><br />Here is a photo of the chicken served with buttermilk biscuits (https://food52.com/recipes/22853-rosie-s-buttermilk-biscuits):<br /><br />http://i.imgur.com/FGm2ePu.jpg<br /><br /><a href="http://imgur.com/FGm2ePu"><img src="http://i.imgur.com/FGm2ePu.jpg" title="source: imgur.com" /></a>
 
peg D. March 22, 2015
Ok, first you soak your chicken pieces in buttermilk - do it for 24 hours if you have the time, for 10 minutes if you don't, but you HAVE to soak the chicken in buttermilk! And heavily season your flour with salt, pepper, and paprika (for color only). You don't need anything else to muddy the water.
 
Jean B. March 22, 2015
Lordy, Lordy,<br />I declare, Southern fried chicken means, black cast iron pans, gas stove, fresh-skin on chicken, overnight dry seasoning, dipping in buttermilk/ milk and egg, double flour seasoning dusting, frying in peanut or corn oil or horrors of horror lard (Crisco) infused with love and paying attention to the frying chicken. Boneless just doesn't get it and neither does baking powder and cornstarch. OMG
 
Jim C. March 22, 2015
Sorry, in my humble opine, you have missed the mark completely. I personally believe it is in your avoidance of the traditional methodologies, developed over so many similar failures at recreating Grandma's sublime love from a pan. We cannot evoke fusion and call it a better traditional. It is neither. The experience of great "southern fried chicken" you set as a target starts with absolutely fresh, skin intact, buttermilk marinated birds and after light to moderate seasoning results in supremely moist meat with a paper light and thin dry crisp bite, deep chicken flavors and is shockingly light. The science behind granny's apron is that the lactic acids of the buttermilk break open the muscle tissues that are too tight and infuses the potentially dry open breast meat tissues with that symphony of chicken flavors. As stated below, cornstarch? baking soda? you are trying to avoid what actually causes the concept to work. Cement crusted heavy shell laden with oils instead of a light, dry and crisp skin, binding excessive seasoning that's hiding old frozen meat's lack of flavors isn't it at all. We might as well cover it in Buffalo sauce. Nor can we evoke fusion, and call it a "better traditional". It is neither. My epiphany was illuminated (I am also a reformed Seattleite) by a chorus of southern angles who served such a sublime shrimp and grits for breakfast that it rang up a great truth. Stay true to the freshest bestest ingredients and then let them shine thru. These folks intelligently discussed the subtle flavor differences of brown vs. white and pink shrimp at the table, and I began to understand what I had missed by trying to go 'beyond'.
 
Norma J. March 24, 2015
I just love your passion! You shold be a food reviewer. <br />
 
Jim C. March 24, 2015
Different isn't necessarily better. It's just "not the same as" . Different methodologies may indeed produce a "better" outcome, certainly, but not automatically. Sometimes I personally might get so involved in doing something differently, while looking for the same outcome, that the process becomes the focus instead of its goal... absolute loyalty to the ingredients value. Oft times ignored, or discounted, traditional methodologies properly executed seem to honor the components, not concoct an off target approximation of them. Fusion, often regaled, sometimes is nothing more than distilled to base and reconstituted according to whim without remaining loyal to the very essence of the product. Cool Whip is not Whipped Cream.<br />
 
whmcdevitt March 22, 2015
Freeze the left over oil after putting it through wire strainer. It works as long as you didn't burn your first batch. I always use new oil but if you want to conserve you can reuse the oil!
 
Kenzi W. March 20, 2015
This is incredible. (And that second photo! Wow.)
 
Trena H. March 20, 2015
I love fried chicken sandwiches! My husband and I used to go hiking in Napa Valley every weekend where there was a small family owned market that sold fried chicken sandwiches, it seemed like such a great reward after the hike. Your article reminded me of those sandwiches. Thank you!
 
Mike March 19, 2015
My challenge...what to do with the leftover oil?
 
nothankyou March 19, 2015
us southerners can tell...cornstarch, baking powder, boneless chicken? no thanks. lol
 
Alanna K. March 19, 2015
When I did batch after batch of fried chicken a few years back, I found the critical choice was “fresh and never frozen” chicken -- variety didn’t matter, organic didn’t matter, but never-frozen really mattered. <br /><br />PS I’ve never thought to use boneless chicken, great idea!<br />PPS The ingredient list seems to be missing the baking powder.