Fear Not the Fried Chicken

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Fried Chicken and Chunky Slaw

For delicious reasons, fried chicken has been making a massive comeback all over the place. This once demonized, fat-making grease-bomb of mouth-watering goodness is currently being revisited, remade, re-loved. And that… makes me very very happy.

In this post, I will share some of my trials and errors, my trepidation, and my most optimistic hopes when I chose one wintry night to launch my culinary skiff into the slowly shifting sea of about a gallon of peanut oil.

To begin with, there’s a lot of intimidation when it comes to deep-frying. It sounds hot and dangerous. The silky, untouched oil looks oddly serene, yet then erupts into a chaotic roil of white froth, surrounding whatever morsel of food has been lowered gingerly into the cauldron. One would never know the oil was even hot until it came into contact with raw foods. It also sounds messy. When I first started planning on making some fried chicken, I was sure that I’d be slipping around in spattering oil. Surely my house would be visited by the infamous and ever-dreaded roach. The hot spackle would burn little blisters on my hands; maybe even one perfectly launched droplet would make it my eye, blinding me forever. I was also really worried about the chicken not getting cooked through.

I read about 20 recipes and sort of cross-checked the ones that seemed legit for commonalities, which is what I mostly do when I’m about to head into new cooking territory. I also read a lot of people’s’ comments, and tried to peer deeper into the more detailed and technical suggestions made by fellow cooks. I was actually pretty nervous from the start. It could all go down in a giant eff-off disaster. And with nine beautifully fat drumsticks marinating away in the fridge for 18 hours, I felt there was a lot to lose.

I’m not going to go into every little step of my maiden voyage, but I’ll outline the key points so that anyone reading this can replicate what I thought to be pretty damn great tasting chicken in the comfort of their own homes. I’m realizing as I write this, that I have a whole lot to say on the matter, so unless I want to end up writing thousands of words on the topic, I better just get down to it. I’ll include little hyperlinks along the way that add some more handy and nifty information.

Lets talk chicken!

Always buy bone-in chicken. It can be breasts, legs, wings, whatever. All that matters is that there’s bone inside. This is pretty much my cardinal rule for chicken anyway. Now, throw all that chicken in a bowl, plastic bag, container, anything you have that will fit the chicken and what you’re about to add to it. If you’re only cooking for yourself or a couple of people, zip-lock bags are super church. The air can be squeezed out of them, allowing all that good stuff to fully engulf the chicken. Great, moving on. What I like to do next is mix up a whole bunch of spices, dry herbs, salt and black pepper, even a little sugar. Rub that into all the chicken, and don’t be afraid to get rough with it. Set it aside for up to 30 minutes at room temperature. The main spices I use are paprika, cayenne, salt, sugar, and pepper, but you can pretty much go buck-wild at this point, creating your very own special flavor profile. Any recipe online will give you an idea of the basic mix.

Buttermilk

If you can buy buttermilk where you live, great. If not, it’s easy as hell to make. Add 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon to a cup of whole milk. If you need more, double it up or do the math. Either way, it’s very easy. Let the milk sit for a few minutes. Stir it with a spoon and you should notice that it’s starting to thicken nicely. Pour the mixture over the chicken, slosh it around and seal that puppy up. Put it in the fridge. Most recipes usually call for a minimum of 4 hours in the fridge. I’ve done 4 hours, 24 hours, but the best time I made it was somewhere around 14-18. What happens is that the buttermilk, and spices, break down the proteins in the chicken. So the longer you let them go, the more tender the chicken will be on the inside after frying. In my opinion, 4 hours ain’t cuttin’ it. And a full spin of the earth could reduce your chicken to the texture of the dog’s breakfast. This really does depend on the chicken, spices, and the type of vinegar you use though. I like to use apple cider vinegar because it’s nice and tangy. And it has an olde-timey feel to it that seems to go well with olde-timey things like buttermilk and fried chicken.

Oils

My first attempt was with sunflower oil, which has a decent smoke point, and it’s a little on the lighter side, flavor-wise. But hey, what the fickety-fack!! We’re making fried chicken here! I wasn’t going for light at all! It was fine, but I went straight peanut oil the next time and got a way better flavor. My third and best fried chicken was using half sunflower oil and half peanut oil. Okay now, temperature. This is the maker or heart-breaker. To start with, use the sturdiest pot you have. Steel, iron, heavy ceramic, it’s gotta be sturdy because that will keep the temperature nicely regulated. Also, wider and deeper pots mean less mess and an easier area in which to monitor your chicken as it cooks. The optimum temperature…about 150-160 degrees Celsius. I read a lot about this and I found all kinds of crazy numbers. Sadly, one of my favorite cookbooks to come out in recent years, got it all wrong. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science suggested getting the oil up to 218 degrees Celsius before dropping the chicken into it. Being a newbie, and often over-trusting the printed word and under-trusted my instincts, I burned the first drumstick to a crisp in about 30 seconds. In the book, it was supposed that adding the raw chicken to the oil would decrease the temperature by up to 10 degrees. All in all, the book was spot on in just about every other part of about making fried chicken, but I’m still perplexed as to how such a great and ‘scientific’ book suggested such a high temperature. By the way, I have a decent cooking thermometer which I use all the time. It wasn’t cheap at $100, but the Thermapen is fast and accurate. That being said, any cheapy thermometer will do the trick.

Breading the Chicken

Pull the chicken out of the fridge at least an hour before you plan on frying it. It should be at room temperature when it’s ready to take its hot oil bath. This will minimize the drop in temperature. Next, mix up some bread crumbs, panko, some flour, salt, pepper, and even more of the spices you used at the start. I had store-bought breadcrumbs and panko, which I like because it’s jagged and adds crunch. Rough surfaces create nooks and crannies of flavor in fried chicken. The rougher and more uneven the better. I pretty much mixed equal parts of what I had. Time to get a little dirty. Have a baking sheet ready with a metal grate on top of it. If you don’t have that, at least have a baking sheet. Or something, god. Now, take individual pieces of chicken out of the bag. And one by one, set them in the dry breadcrumb mix. I used a medium-sized mixing bowl for this part, but I’ve heard tell of people throwing the chicken into a paper bag and shaking it all up like crazy. I didn’t have a paper bag and I sure as hell wasn’t going to take the chance of my wet chicken sogging through the bag and flying across the room. I used a bowl. It fit about 3 drumsticks at a time. Next, I added a little of that buttermilk mixture to the dry. BE CAREFUL. If you add too much, you’ll need to make more of your breadcrumb and flour mix. 1 tablespoon at a time is good. What this does is it will create just a tiny bit of gloop that is still surrounded in a lot of dry. This gloop will add some nice crags to the fully breaded chicken pieces. Now, simply just use your hand to cover each piece of chicken. Roll it around, squeeze it on there, sprinkle the dry stuff down from the heavens. AS LONG AS IT STICKS. If it doesn’t it’s either too wet and caking off, or it’s too dry. You’ll have to tinker a little with that.

Okay so you have some nicely coated, breaded pieces of chicken on your baking sheet or plate or whatever. Let them sit there for about 15-20 minutes. That’ll let everything set, and avoid huge hunks of that amazing stuff to come crackling off when it hits the oil. How said would that be?

Cook That Chykin!

So you’ve got your oil up to 150-160 C. That’s a medium heat on a gas burner. Your cookie sheet should be sitting next to the hot pot of oil, preferably, to minimize mess and to just make life easier in that beautiful OCD way that I so love. Even with my big 28 cm iron pot, I generally only do 3 pieces of chicken at a time. This keeps the oil at temperature, and it is also easy to watch each piece. Because no two pieces of chykin were created alike. With pincers, I turn the chicken around from time to time because I use a gas burner. And while the chicken is fully submerged in the oil, the bottom is a little hotter being closer to the source. When I get that beautifully burnished, golden brown color, I pull the pieces out and put them back on the cookie sheet. The time can vary. It can be 4-7 minutes. I’m just going for a color and seemingly crispy appearance. I cooked all 9 pieces, 3 at a time.  All should be fine. As I said, I use a metal grate on top of my cookie sheet to keep the oils from making the bottom of each piece soggy. Nobody like soggy fried chicken! As soon as the chicken is out, SALT IT GENEROUSLY. This salt will go straight to the heart and very soul of the chicken and will pay you back in gold nuggets!

Bake It–Optional–BUT BEST

My oven has been preheated to 180 C. All my chicken has successfully come out of the oil, and HAS BEEN SALTED accordingly. Throw it in the middle rack of the oven for anywhere from 10-20 minutes. No kidding. I know it seems like a long time, but even with my powerful convection oven, I have only noticed the slightest darkening of color, and all that juiciness is locked up nicely inside. What this does is simply make sure the chicken is fully done inside, super crispy, and super juicy on the inside–and not greasy at all to the touch. What more could you want? Enjoy it. It should work out great for you. Post your comments, share your experiences. I’d love to hear about them.

In short, fried chicken was always supposed to be easy. It’s roots are humble. Cheap. Fast. With a few basic preparations, it’s a pretty hard to botch up. Yet with all simple cooked foods of this nature, like burgers, the perfect spaghetti sauce and pie pastry, what makes each so special is the little personal flares that get added. They were never complex to begin with. Comfort foods should not only be comforting to eat. They should be a pleasure to make too. You almost have to go back in time in your mind to when things were prepared and cooked simply; less technology, less time, less money, more mouths to feed. A lot of family secrets were just that; ways to save and capitalize on what little there was to be shared with so many. The same goes for fried chicken. Secret spice rubs, flour to breadcrumb ratio, oil mixtures. All these little nuances are, ironically, what intimidate a lot of folks, myself included, from venturing into these savory, delicious lands. I say to hell with all that. Fry that chicken, roll that pastry, flip that burg. Do it all while tapping the top of your head and trusting your gut.

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4 thoughts on “Fear Not the Fried Chicken

  1. Funny about The Food Lab, among my favorites too. I was reading his fried chicken section recently and was getting ready to try it. He’s typically spot on, but every so often there’s a glaring error. If you are going to try them, double the buttermilk in the sour cream pancakes.

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    1. So glad you commented on this. I thought I was going mad at first; especially since the book is supposed to be all about science. You’d think editors and recipe testers would take extra care, especially with dangerously hot temperatures.

      I went back to the Serious Eats website where the fried chicken recipe is featured. I tried to add a comment about the temperature, followed the comment guidelines, and alas, they didn’t post it. I emailed them asking why. Got nothing back. Lame. Seem promotion wins over truth.

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      1. I’ve found Lopez-Alt to be really helpful on Twitter, at least as far as my questions about minor things. He was hyper defensive when someone else claimed he mismeasured a few things. It’s odd, because he is generally so on top of things.
        Not everyone can be Marcella Hazan, but he comes so close.

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