On Home Cooking: Transcendent Fried Chicken

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There are some dishes that I need to cook at home, again and again, no matter how complicated, messy and impractical they are. They all share one thing in common, of course: they’re all psychedelically, riotously delicious… when they’re done right. The rationale for making them at home rather than going out for them varies. Sometimes, the value proposition of a restaurant experience is out of whack: anyone with a decent butcher can make a grilled steak and creamed spinach as good as an expense-account steakhouse for a fraction of the cost of going there, assuming you want to be there at all. Less accessible are fanciful, jewel-like dishes from the cookbooks of tasting menu restaurants like NOMA and The French Laundry. There’s joy in perfecting those at home; it’s like getting something otherwise inaccessible for (almost) nothing, plus the sense of accomplishment, if “tweezer food” is how you get your jollies.

How I sometimes get my jollies.

But there are also humble foods – burgers, for example, or baguette – that might not be well executed anywhere within easy stumbling distance of where you live. Maybe they’re made carelessly, or with poor quality ingredients. Maybe they’re just not to your taste.

Then there are those things that you don’t even want to eat in the presence of others (except those who’ve already seen you at your best-worst). Fried chicken is one of those things for me. I’m in thrall to it. It transports me. I want it to be perfect, and I want to enjoy it unencumbered by social convention or shame. Please don’t come up to me and ask me how I’m finding my first few bites of it. Please don’t talk at me while I grunt contentedly or – cliché – lick my salty, fat-slicked fingers. Please grant me the solitary dignity of eating it cold the next morning, in my jammies, chasing the savouriness with freshly squeezed OJ and going back for more. Until we give fried chicken the respect that the French give the tiny ortolan – which one apparently consumes while under the veil of a large napkin – I’ll only eat it at home, thanks.

So, here’s one road (there are many) to what I think is perfect fried chicken. This draws heavily on the exhaustive work of Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab, which is a modern classic of a cookbook. An earlier version of his deep(fryer) dive on fried chicken can be found here. That said, I have a few tips and tricks of my own.

I’ll say at the outset: this isn’t the easiest method, nor the quickest (it takes 7 hours minimum, most of that unattended). But it’s really, really delicious and super-crispy. That’s because it’s fried twice.

The Bird

Get yourself an organic chicken, free run if possible. Make sure it’s fryer size (between 2-4 lbs), not a roaster (or a rooster, for that matter) – a big bird won’t cook through before it’s carbonized on the outside… and, more tragically, the ratio of meat to delicious skin and crust will be off.

Petite!

Bird procured, proceed to cut it into ten pieces. Two wings, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two breast halves bisected crosswise. Actually, it’s 13 pieces if you count the backbone and two wing tips that you’ll stow into a Ziploc bag in your freezer and use to augment the chicken stock you’ll make in the not-too-distant future. Here’s a quick visual guide to breaking down your chicken.

The Seasoning

Here’s where I diverge notably from Kenji, whose spice blend I find paprika-heavy (this makes the coating unappealingly dark once fried) and lacking depth and 11-herbs-and-spices mystery. Believe it or not, mine is based on a published recipe that purports to be the KFC Colonel’s original blend. I make no apologies for this… fried chicken is all about going primal with your inner glutton-child, and my child was a little trashy and imprinted on KFC.

Sidebar: if you use the recipe linked above, do not adhere to the instruction to mix the spice blend with two cups of flour… that will end in tears. The recipe below will make enough for three chickens.

My version reduces the ginger and adds… yes… MSG. Yeah, I also grew up with the hysteria around Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, but the science is in, and MSG is unlikely to cause grief to the vast majority of people, especially if you don’t eat it on an empty stomach. If you’re one of the afflicted, feel free to leave it out. It just won’t have quite the same umami kick.

  • 2/3 Tbsp Salt
  • 1/2 Tbsp Thyme
  • 1/2 Tbsp Basil
  • 1/3 Tbsp Oregano
  • 1 Tbsp Celery salt
  • 1 Tbsp Black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp Dried mustard
  • 4 Tbsp Paprika
  • 2 Tbsp Garlic salt
  • 1/2 Tbsp Ground ginger
  • 3 Tbsp White pepper
  • 1/2 Tbsp MSG

The Brine

Buttermilk brine is where it’s at. Use a good, thick buttermilk, high-fat and organic if possible. The brine holds the coating to the bird, so you want viscosity to help that happen. Whisk a cup of it together with 2 Tbsp of your spice blend (another place where I diverge from Kenji, who uses much more), 1 Tbsp of kosher salt, and an egg (which also helps the coating adhere to the bird). Let your chicken brine for at least four hours. I wouldn’t go more than eight hours, or you’ll have something resembling deli-sliced chicken. Take it out of the fridge an hour before you want to start cooking.

No skim buttermilk here.

The Fat

The best balance between crispiness, flavour and cost, at least where I live, is canola oil. Kenji swears by peanut oil, but I’ve found canola makes a much, much less greasy end product. A key tip is to use some UFO (Used Frying Oil) that you’ve filtered and held back from your last batch or three of fried chicken, French fries, tempura or vegetable fritto misto (not fish). Use anywhere up to half UFO to half “virgin” oil. It makes your fried food taste like Fried Food rather than food that’s been fried. (I only do this for fast food things like fried chicken and fish and chips, btw… things like tempura and schnitzel are best with 100% clean oil.)

The Gear

I’ve experimented with everything from a home electric deep-fryer to a dutch oven, a beast of a cast iron wok, and a skillet. I’ve had the best success with this large, deep-walled, flat-bottom wok. You want a vessel that’s about a third full when loaded with 8 cups of oil… so, 6 quarts or larger. It should be wide enough to have good contact with your heat source and not crowd the chicken. (You bought a free-range bird… give it room as it achieves its final moment of glory.)

I also place a trivet in the bottom of the wok: this keeps the chicken from scorching through direct contact with hot spots, and elevates your subsequent batches of chicken above the crumbs left from your initial batch(es).

A thermometer is an absolute must. I use a schmancy electronic model from ThermoWorks, but any accurate one will do. Pet peeve solved: the clips that come with thermometers usually suck. These ones actually work.

Our stove is a decently-powered induction model. A gas stove will behave similarly. If you have an electric or halogen-ceramic cooktop, you’ll want to adapt the directions below to either start with a higher initial oil temperature or fry smaller batches of chicken.

The Coating

Flour gives you structure. Cornstarch adds tender, delicate crispness. Baking powder gives you loft.

  • 1.5 C flour
  • 1/2 C cornstarch
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 Tbsp spice blend
  • 2 tsp kosher salt

The Cook

Whew! Are you ready to cook? Take your chicken out of the fridge 4 hours ahead of dinner time and start cooking an hour later (you’re going to be frying the chicken once, then baking it, then resting it for an hour and a bit, then frying it a second time). Assemble the following gear:

  • Your chicken in its brine, removed from the fridge an hour earlier
  • A bowl with your coating, into which you’ve drizzled a couple of tablespoons of the brine (this hack, from Kenji, ensures that even your first batch of chicken will have lots of gnarly cronchy bits on its surface)
  • Your cooking vessel, loaded with 6 cups of oil, a trivet, and a thermometer
  • A plate or half-sheet pan with a rack to hold the raw, coated pieces
  • A half-sheet pan with a rack to hold the fried pieces
  • A spider or slotted spoon
  • Room in your fridge to hold the chicken between fryings

Preheat your oven to 300’F. Bring your oil gradually up to 350’F (or, if your stove is less powerful, 400’F). No more than 10 minutes before it comes up to temperature, coat half of the chicken: Take each piece out of the brine. Shake off the excess. Toss it in the coating, pressing it to adhere the coating and ensuring that you hit the nooks and crannies (e.g., wing joint pits). The skin on the breast pieces will likely come off. Don’t panic… just kind of paste it back on there with some coating. It’s gonna be okay. Shake off the excess and put the chicken on the rack. Wait 5 minutes. Just before putting the chicken in the fryer, assuming the coating has become a bit tacky, give it another quick toss in the coating and shake it really well to remove the excess, or you’ll have gross, cloudy oil.

Put between 3 and 5 pieces of chicken in the oil (depending on their size and the capacity of your cooktop to hold the oil at temperature once the cold chicken is in.) Adjust the temperature so it stays between 300’F and 310’F. You’ll get a feel for this over time. It’s better, as you’re learning, to err on the side of a bit hotter: you can always take the chicken out of the oil and finish it in the oven if it’s getting too dark, but you can’t salvage chicken that’s fried in oil much under 300’F… it’ll be a greasy mess. Don’t touch the chicken for 5 minutes. Flip each piece gently, and fry it until it’s golden-brown and seems crunchy, between 5 and 7 minutes longer.

Frida wasn’t interested in my foot until the point of maximum kitchen danger.

Remove the chicken from the oil and drain it on the rack. Immediately (!) salt it on both sides with fine sea salt. Check its temperature. If the breasts are above 150’F and the thighs above 165’F, you don’t need to put it in the oven. Otherwise, throw it in the oven for 5-10 minutes.

Let the chicken hang out on the counter for about 20 minutes so your fridge doesn’t get all steamy. Then put it in the fridge for at least an hour, or up to overnight.

Just before you want to eat, bring the oil back up to 375’F to 400’F. Fry the chicken once more for about 5 minutes, being careful not to let it get too dark. Drain it, and serve either immediately or up to an hour later. We love ours drizzled with Mike’s Hot Honey and a vinegary slaw on the side. This one is a super-quick napa cabbage and carrot slaw with scallions and cilantro, black sesame seeds, shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice blend), black sesame seeds, and a dressing of reduced rice vinegar, canola and sesame oils, agave syrup and a squeezed orange wedge.

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