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A girl, a bird, and a big bubbling vat of hot oil.
You can take the girl out of the south, but then how can you be sure she's southern? Despite growing up in East Tennessee, where people do say y'all and drink sweet tea and monogram everything, I've never made fried chicken. I can't even remember anyone in my family making it—my grandmother did, but she was more famous for her dinner rolls and tomato aspic, my mom for her green bean bundles (wrapped in bacon).
On the other hand, I eat a lot of fried chicken and have made something of a habit out of sussing out the best restaurants for it in New York (what they're serving at Charles' Fried Chicken and Pies 'n' Thighs are both top of the list). But this being summer, plus the fact that shelling out for it every time a craving strikes is getting a bit old, I set out to learn how to make it. Turns out, people have opinions about how to cook fried chicken! And good thing, because I learned a lot.
I started my research, no shocker here, on this very website. A quick search on Food52 yields many recipes for fried chicken, leading with a Kristen Miglore-approved Genius Recipe by Michael Ruhlman for Rosemary-Brined, Buttermilk Fried Chicken. I took issue with this recipe before even reading it, for two reasons: Michael is from Cleveland, Ohio, and Kristen's a California girl.
No offense to the experts, but I wanted a Southern recipe—and a simple one. The idea of cooking and cooling a brine before even adding in chicken, coupled with a multi-step dredging process, was very intimidating to me (though no doubt delicious!). As was a 6-inch deep pot of bubbling oil, but I figured there was no way around that bit.
Instead, I settled on this "Classic Southern" recipe by Chef James. Skimming the headnotes, I learned that Chef James is originally from the Florida Panhandle (an underrated place that is in the South), that he cooked in Birmingham (a place where people have strong fried chicken opinions) for the better part of a decade, and that he spent "20 years" developing this fried chicken recipe (that's two-thirds of my life). Good enough for me. Plus, it's just 4 steps: Season, brine, flour, fry.
My first buttermilk brine.
The list of seasonings that go well with chicken are endless, and Chef James used a popular selection: dried thyme, dried marjoram, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, salt, and pepper. You coat the chicken pieces in this blend and then let them cuddle together, unsupervised, for about an hour. It's very easy.
According to the two Tennesseeans I invited over to taste-test, the flavor was spot-on ("tastes like the South," one even stated), but as a manner of personal preference, I like a slightly less herby fried chicken. On round two, I used just brown sugar, cayenne, and plenty of salt—which made for a chicken with all the merits of honey and hot sauce, right from the fryer.
I looked up "brine" in the New Food Lover's Companion and it turns out to be "a strong solution of water and salt used for pickling, preserving, and tenderizing foods." Which means that buttermilk on its own is just a marinade, rather than a brine—though if you add salt to it, I think that it counts. Perhaps Chef James called his chicken "buttermilk bathed" in order to sidestep this debate?
Since our own Genius fried chicken recipe calls for a saltwater brine, I decided to consult Reddit, the ultimate source for rhetorical debating, on the merits of using buttermilk versus a traditional brine. Here's what emerged:
- "The use of a buttermilk brine is mostly to adhere fat to the surface to help the dredge really stick to the meat during cooking." —danimalistik
- "The acid content helps in the brining process as well but likely no more than adding lemon to a water brine." —danimalistik
- "I've also heard that buttermilk is a tenderizer for meat." —usernametiger
So maybe those weren't the experts. I dug up the recipes of some known fried-chicken authorities, too—and here's how they side:
- Salty buttermilk: Chef James, Alton Brown, Marcus Samuelsson, me
- Saltwater: Michael Ruhlman, Thomas Keller, Carolyn Bane and Erika Geldzahler (co-owners of Pies 'n' Thighs)
- Both: Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, Elizabeth A Karmel
- No brine: The Lee Brothers
- Other: Sean Brock (he uses tea)
Compelled by the idea of a tenderizing, acidic, and fatty brine that you can pour right from a bottle, I went with buttermilk. Plus, I love how it smells! (Not sorry.) You simply glug it over the spice- and salt-rubbed chicken, stir in some hot sauce if you please, and cover—then back to the fridge with it. Here are some tips for your brine, be it sea water or sour milk:
- Make it very, very salty. See: definition of a brine. The whole point is to salt your chicken through and through. Chef James called for 3 tablespoons of salt in the rub, which makes a few quarts of buttermilk sufficiently salty.
- Be sure it's acidic. For the same reason pickle juice is a common ready-made brine, buttermilk has a natural acidity that cuts through the richness of the meat. If you're using a traditional brine, the addition of lemon juice is common.
- Leave it alone. Don't stir, don't futz, don't worry. Just let your chicken relax in its bath, in the refrigerator, for a full 24 hours if you can stand it—twelve if that makes more sense for your schedule.
"The skin was perfection," said my high school friend Mollie, who lives here in New York and who I tricked into trying my first-ever fried chicken by telling her to come over and bring wine (it never fails). Chef James had me dredge it in just one layer of flour before frying—no egg wash or double dip required. He even instructs you to "slap it back and forth between your hands" (pictured above) before slipping it into the hot oil, so only the lightest, thinnest of layers remains.
Other battering theories include:
- Adding some buttermilk to the flour, so you get really crunchy all-batter bits (h/t Victoria Maynard, via the Pioneer Woman for that one)
- Double dredging, from brine to flour to buttermilk to flour (Genius Recipes-endorsed)
- Dolling it in something crunchy, like panko (my mom used to make "picnic chicken" which was covered in crumbled Cheez-Its)
No matter how you batter the bird, do this one thing before you batter and fry it: Let the chicken come to room temp while the brine drains away. If you fry it right out of the fridge, your chicken won't cook evenly and you're not going to get a crispy skin. Instead, take it out and leave it alone on the counter while you go shop for a gallon of oil.
Edna Lewis fried her chickens in a combination of lard, butter, and ham fat (oh my), which sounds epic—but it didn't seem like such a good idea to try on my first go around. Chef James suggested canola or peanut oil, enough to come up 4 to 6 inches in a heavy pot. I broke out my Dutch oven, emptied a few bottles of oil into it, and watched it warm up from a safe distance.
The oil took on a swirly character as it got hot, which made me realize I might want to test the temperature. But lo, I only had a meat thermometer (possibly dated and ineffective) that stopped at 190º F (a whole 135º lower than Chef James' suggested frying temperature of 325º F). So I guessed—and got lucky. Do not do as I did! Raw chicken is a dangerous thing and should not be eaten by humans. To be safe, follow these tips:
- Before frying, obtain a candy thermometer.
- Monitor the oil temp closely (things heat up quick).
- Have patience: The average piece of fried chicken should take around 15 minutes to cook, and white meat cooks faster than dark meat. It's done when the internal temperature reaches 165º.
- If your chicken turns golden brown before the internal temp is safe, remove it from the oil and put it in a 400º oven to bring it up to speed.
- Don't crowd the pot (or the oil temperature will drop) and do cook similarly-sized pieces together (so you can remove them all at once).
- A little metal dumpling lifter is helpful, but tongs will grab a piece out real quick.
- Let just-fried chicken drain on a drying rack or paper towels (I've heard the latter will leave it greasy, but I had no such problems.)
And one more time: Getting your oil very hot is an essential—albeit scary—part of deep frying, as that's what will keep your chicken from being too greasy (counter-intuitive though that sounds). As one study puts it, "in the initial moments of frying, as the surface [of the chicken] dehydrates, it forms a crust that inhibits further oil absorption." Basically, you want a crust to form fast. Use a splatter guard, wear an apron, and don ski goggles if it makes you feel safer (I didn't, but I longed for them).
My boyfriend, careful critic that he is, suggested only one thing upon trying my first attempt: "Can you make some for a sandwich?" Determined, I scooped up some thighs and breasts the next week (I needed a slight fried chicken break), seasoned them with aforementioned brown sugar, cayenne, and salt, and then buttermilk-brined again because if it ain't broke you should use up the other half-gallon of buttermilk that you already bought.
These little boneless pieces fried up much quicker than bone-in, and my fellow chicken-experimenting colleague Leslie and I ate it right when it came out of the oil—it was so delicious we couldn't wait. We agreed that the dark meat was the most flavorful, but I was kind of freaked out by the idea of biting into a piece of dark meat on a fried chicken sandwich. I'd recommend frying chicken breast cutlets, or pounded chicken breast halves, for a sandwich/biscuit topper. Also, eat them hot! Left out waiting on their photo shoot, our boneless pieces got a little dried out.
Just add two mayo-slicked pieces of white bread, a few pickles, and a beer. Easy as fried chicken!
Platter of chicken, pouring of buttermilk, and sandwich of chicken photos all by Alpha Smoot.