I was mostly raised on grocery store and fast food fried chicken, as are most people who grow up in the northern part of the country. This chicken is sometimes battered (rather than dredged, more on that later) and almost universally fried in a deep fryer.
But there’s been this memory of really good fried chicken somewhere in the back of my brain… maybe from childhood visits to Arkansas now long forgotten, or maybe from some kind of nebulous genetic remembrance, it’s impossible to say for sure. Either way, the fast food fried chicken available here in the north just isn’t the same beast. It’s fried hot and fast, and is usually dry and for the most part flavorless. It’s not, despite what the menus might claim, southern fried chicken.
So I came to realize that there was no chance to find proper fried chicken here in the Pacific Northwest, and I set about learning how to do it myself. It took about three years before I figured out how to get it right, and believe me, there’s still room for improvement. But it, along with biscuits (those took five years), remain among the most valuable periods of time spent learning something, because now I can fry up chicken whenever I want to.
Fried chicken is a dish from the American south, a combination of Scottish tradition and West African. The Scots traditionally fried chicken, whereas the English preferred it baked or broiled. That dish traveled to the South and to Appalachia with Scottish immigrants. The West African tradition of fried chicken was brought to the same region with the slave trade. Black slaves were often permitted to keep chickens of their own to help feed their families… these birds were more valuable for eggs than for meat, especially since the birds best suited to frying were very young broilers, and so fried chicken among African Americans was mostly a rare treat, a dish to be served for celebration.
Since young broilers are best (that’s most of what you see in modern supermarkets, they’ll be marked “broiler,” “fryer,” or “young”), fried chicken is traditionally a spring and summer dish, made when the pullets and cockerels are still tender. With the industrialized food system, this is no longer a necessity, since young chickens are available year round, but fried chicken has always been a summer dish to me, just as in the winter my mind turns to chillis and stews.
I have never had luck using an already cut up chicken for fried chicken. The breasts are too big, and they never seem to get cooked all the way through. Instead, I buy a whole broiler and cut it up. If you’re not a regular cook, that may seem intimidating, but it’s a good skill to know, so I recommend that you learn. You can freeze the backs, necks and the wingtips for stock.
Once the bird is cut up, I put it in a buttermilk soak for at least an hour. This is similar to the brine that I use for my Thanksgiving turkey, except I don’t water down the buttermilk for fried chicken, because the buttermilk is going to be the base for your dredge. I generously salt the chicken, and then soak it in buttermilk with a few dashes of hot sauce in it. The buttermilk of the modern kitchen is thick and provides for a crisper and more flavorful coating, and there are those who say that it “tenderizes” the chicken. No grocery store chicken in the USA needs tenderizing, first of all. Our chickens are already so soft you could just about eat them without teeth, a mushiness that I wasn’t even aware of until I started eating chickens that were allowed to walk around. I imagine that the use of buttermilk came about for much more practical reasons… freshly slaughtered chickens are stiff and benefit from a soak, and back when buttermilk was the thin leftover liquid from churning cream to butter, I imagine it was a way to use up the buttermilk that southern farmers were too poor to throw away.
In this case, with the added salt, it’ll work the same way that a brine does, and some of the liquid will be drawn into the meat, which since buttermilk is cultured and therefore acidic, will make the meat slightly and deliciously tangy.
After the chicken has soaked, pull it out of the buttermilk and dredge in seasoned flour. I just season with salt and black pepper. There are all kinds of recipes out there for fancy dredges, but in my experience the garlic powder and ground chilis will just burn in the oil. If you want these things on your chicken, put it on before the flour goes on… that will keep your spices from burning.
Once the pieces are dredged, they need to sit out for at least a half an hour on a baking rack, or in my case, a plate with a couple of chopsticks on it. This allows the flour coating to absorb the liquid, causing the starches to swell and the proteins to unravel, and results in the beginnings of gluten formation. This promotes a good crust and also results in better crust adhesion. I hate it when the crust just slides off the chicken.
So after the chicken has set out, you need to heat a high-sided skillet (preferably cast iron for better heating) with some oil in it. You want the oil to come halfway up the chicken when it goes in the pan, so I start with just under an inch. I really prefer lard for this, but if you can’t afford the good stuff, just use peanut oil or even good old shortening.
The fat must be hot when the chicken goes in. Patience pays off here. If the oil isn’t up to temperature, you’ll end up with greasy chicken and possibly some issues with crust adhesion. You can tell when the oil is hot by tossing a pinch of flour in… if it sizzles and fries, you’re ready. Alternately you can put the end of a wooden spoon in the oil… if bubbles form around the wood and rise to the surface, you’re also ready.
Carefully put the chicken in the pan, making sure there’s a little room between each piece. For a whole chicken, you’ll probably need to do a couple of batches, and that’s okay. You want it bubbling actively, but not too hard. If it’s really going, your heat is too high and you’re going to end up with chicken burned on the outside and raw in the middle.
My rule of thumb is fifteen minutes per side for the breasts (they’re bigger and thicker than the thighs and drumsticks and wings) and ten to twelve for the rest, but again it really depends on how hot your fat is. You want to only turn the chicken once. Once it’s done, pull it out and set it on paper towels or brown paper bags to drain and rest. It will need to rest at least five minutes.
This chicken might be a bit darker than its deep fried northern cousin, and it will have darker spots where it rested on the bottom of the pan. That’s okay. The pan frying takes longer, but results in a moister, more delicious finished product.
Some people like theirs with honey or hot sauce or barbecue sauce or ranch dressing, but honestly I like mine with a squeeze of lemon and maybe some ketchup. The leftovers will keep in the fridge in a paper sack for a few days, but storing in plastic or other non-porous containers will soften the crust. Leftover fried chicken should be eaten cold, heating it in the microwave softens the crust.