THE BEST FRIED CHICKEN: SELECTING THE BIRD, THE BATTER, AND THE METHOD
Fried chicken—it’s a simple, decadent delicacy that has been taken for granted years. If you live in the South, it’s easy to find—but that doesn’t mean that the gas station on the corner is doing it right. (Though some of them might be.)
When searching for expertly fried chicken or preparing it yourself at home, the one ingredient you need to keep in mind is love. If you —or the person standing over that hot fryer grease—don’t love that chicken throughout the entire process it will be evident in the final product. Fried chicken isn’t the hardest meal to cook, but you have to pay attention. Otherwise, you might end up with a beautiful disaster. A beautiful golden brown crust concealing an underdone mess of cold flesh underneath. Or the perfect crust, perfectly cooked meat, but zero flavor. It’s also easy to let the crust cook too long because you’re trying to achieve a safe internal temperature for the flesh.
Over the years I have encountered every one of these missteps. Even after figuring out methods to eliminate these problems from future chicken frying attempts, I still know that—if I don’t pay attention and focus on the process—I will end up in one of these possible scenarios. Again.
Yes, frying chicken is a little messy. It’s hot and it’s greasy and it takes a little time, but trust me. The sense of pride and accomplishment you get when you put the plate piled high with flaky, golden deliciousness is so worth it. And of course there’s the flavor and crunch. It makes that cheap 8-piece bucket from drive thru down the street pale by comparison. You don’t know how long it has been sitting under a heat lamp, and neither does the person that passed the bucket through the window. You don’t know what was in the brine or the batter. Of course it makes more sense to know what goes into the food that we eat, right?
Frying chicken also has that nostalgic Sunday supper feel to it. It is a lot of work and a bit of a production altogether. It’s not necessarily a meal that should be eaten often so make it a special occasion. Invite friends over and break out your grandmomma’s fine china. But before you get the house all gussied up for guests, be sure to follow these steps to ensure that there is a reason to break out the fancy platters.
How to Perfectly Fry the Best Chicken
First, you have to have a good chicken. The perfect sized chicken is between three and a half to four and a half pounds. This size allows all of the respective chicken parts to cook in a timely fashion. If you aren’t comfortable with cutting up a whole chicken, ask your butcher for an 8-cut chicken. This means that the wings, breasts, thighs and drumsticks have all been separated from each other. (Or order the parts separately from Grass Roots’ online shop.) If all you can find are five to six pound birds, a 10-cut chicken might be best, which means the butcher will cut the breast into two halves to allow for a shorter cooking time.
To ensure that the chicken is tender and delicious throughout, I suggest a buttermilk brine. I use three cups of buttermilk to one third cup of kosher salt, and about 3-4 ounces of hot sauce, and I brine the bird for at least four hours and sometimes overnight.
It is best to have a nicely seasoned flour to dredge your brined chicken. I use a mix of paprika, granulated onion and garlic, cayenne, black pepper and kosher salt, and I taste the dry mix to be sure it is well balanced and has proper salt content.
Remove the chicken from the brine, but reserve the brine for the breading process. Set yourself up with a proper breading station, which will require a bowl or pan of seasoned flour, a bowl with your reserved brine (which I suggest you add another cup of fresh buttermilk to dilute the salt a bit), and a landing pad for your breaded chicken, such as a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silpat liner.
When breading any item for frying it is best to keep a wet hand and a dry hand. It allows for easier clean up this way, and doesn’t get your flour as caked up with buttermilk. bread each piece by itself, taking the time to shake off any excess flour or buttermilk. Start with flour, into the buttermilk, and then back into the flour. Let the breaded chicken set for about fifteen minutes. This allows the breading to hydrate properly before frying and results in a much nicer crust.
Now its time to fill a cast iron skillet or deep pot with 2-3 inches of lard or oil and heat it to about 300-315 degrees. You can use a candy thermometer to keep an eye on your oil temperature. Frying in this temperature range will ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked and the crust is still golden brown and crispy. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Give the chicken room so the breading doesn’t stick together and the oil can circulate around each piece evenly. Once the meat registers at 165 degrees internally it is ready. Line a plate with a few paper towels and let the chicken rest for a couple of minutes.
Take a moment to gaze proudly at the beautiful sight before you, then serve it up just like that or along with your favorite condiment. You can’t go wrong. Country gravy or hot sauce, pepper jelly or one of my favorites, you can serve it Nashville style, drenched in a hot mixture of cayenne pepper, salt and good lard. Make it as hot as you like by adding as much cayenne as you think you can stand.