Cast Iron

Nashville-Style Hot Chicken Sandwich

March 19, 2018
Photo by Bobbi Lin
Author Notes

As the story goes, 80-something years ago, Thornton Prince wasn’t exactly the best husband. To teach him a lesson—and show him just how good he had it—his wife made him fried chicken doused in hot pepper, so spicy it burned. One thing led to another and it became a household—and neighborhood and Nashville—favorite, and soon, a business was born. Now, the Prince family is famous not only for having created this iconic dish, but for running one of the city’s most respected establishments: Prince’s.

Beyond its motherland, you can get hot chicken just about anywhere these days. In 2016, Nation’s Restaurant News explained the national boom by KFC’s hopping on the bandwagon, which helped spread the dish’s addictiveness far and wide. Like Thornton, once you try it, you’ll keep coming back for more (and more).

Here’s how it’s done. Bread bone-in chicken parts: Classically, they’re soaked in buttermilk, then tumbled around in flour—both probably spiced—to yield a sturdy, craggy crust. While other Southern fried chicken stops there, Nashville keeps going. While the chicken cooks, you combine a blend of spices—cayenne is key, plus brown sugar, black pepper, paprika, and garlic powder. Add a pour of hot fry oil—or lard or bacon grease (what, you don’t always have bacon grease on hand?)—and this becomes a makeshift chile oil. When the chicken is done, it goes for a dip, then makes you weep with joy (and capsaicin).

When I went to Nashville with a bunch of friends, we went to Hattie B’s, the other hot hot chicken place in town. There, the chicken comes atop slices of squishy white bread, which soaks up the cayenne grease, plus a couple sweet, crunchy pickles for good measure. You can order the chicken in six heat levels: Southern (no heat); mild (touch of heat); medium (warming up); hot! (feel the heat); damn hot!! (fire starter); shut the cluck up!!! (burn notice). I ordered the second to last—when in Nashville, right?—and, in retrospect, I regret this.

Since I probably won’t be going back to Music City any time soon, I wanted to re-create this experience at home (you know, without the cayenne-crying). I started with Hattie B's recipe, available on the Food Network website. I slightly lowered the cayenne, amped up the accompanying spices, and turned the whole thing into a sandwich. The sesame bun, iceberg lettuce, bread-and-butter pickles—and all the mayo—help tame the burn. At least a little. —Emma Laperruque

Watch This Recipe
Nashville-Style Hot Chicken Sandwich
  • Makes 4 sandwiches
Ingredients
  • Fried chicken
  • Peanut oil, for frying
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Sandwich
  • Shredded iceberg lettuce
  • Mayonnaise
  • 4 soft sesame seed buns
  • Bread-and-butter pickle chips
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Add a scant 1/2 inch of peanut oil to a cast-iron skillet. Set that over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, set up your dredging station: flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and a pinch of salt in a shallow bowl; buttermilk, hot sauce, egg, and a pinch of salt in another shallow bowl. Whisk each mixture with a fork until well combined.
  2. Bread the chicken thighs: First, season the chicken with salt. Now, dredge in the dry mixture, then dunk in the buttermilk, then back into the dry. Transfer to a plate to hang out while the oil reaches temperature—figure 360° F to 375° F. If you don’t have a thermometer, drop a piece of flour mixture into the pan. It should instantly sizzle but not burn.
  3. When the oil is hot, gingerly add the breaded chicken thighs. (If there isn’t enough space for all of them, do this in batches—overcrowding is not worth it!) Fry for about 4 1/2 minutes per side. Sprinkle with salt when done.
  4. While they’re frying, combine the cayenne, brown sugar, garlic powder, paprika, and black pepper in a heatproof bowl. When you’re done frying the chicken, add about 1/2 cup hot frying oil to the bowl with the spices and whisk until smooth. Dunk the fried chicken in the spiced oil. (If it gets too thick at any point, just thin out with a little more hot oil.)
  5. Build the sandwiches! Toss the lettuce with a little mayo and a pinch of salt. Slather a bottom bun half with mayo, then layer with pickles. Top with chicken, then lettuce. Slather a top bun half with more mayo, then close the sandwich. Repeat. Eat immediately.

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.