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Fried Chicken as It's Meant to Be

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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). 

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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. 

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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

Tags: fried chicken, chicken, southern, southern food, fried food, chicken