This week's post comes courtesy of BONizen, BurntOrangeJuice who is about to lay down the law on making killer fried chicken. I've always been a huge fan of fried chicken (who isn't?), and I can certainly make a mean batch, but I would hardly consider myself an expert on the subject. Furthermore, I am constantly looking for ways to branch out the series from BBQ talk, so I was incredibly pleased when BurntOrangeJuice reached out to me to write this piece. Are we leaving the confines of Texas cuisine by talking about this subject? Yes. Does that make the dish unworthy of discussion? Of course not. Is BurntOrangeJuice a deep fry Savant? I'll let y'all be the judge of that. Take it away, BOJ.
First, be aware that making the best possible fried chicken is a two day process. Day one will be the most labor and time intensive, as that will be the day you buy the ingredients, prepare the brine, and butcher the chickens. Day two is just battering and frying.
If you are averse to butchering the chickens yourself, you can buy pre-cut chicken pieces, but I recommend buying smallish (2.5-3 lb.) whole chickens (note below) in order to get optimal sized chicken pieces.
The chicken will need to sit in the brine for at least 8 hours, so the way I like to do this is plan a day to have friends over (3 or 4) for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon lunch in advance. Then the day before I plan to have them over, I go to the store to buy the ingredients for the chicken meal and to get something simple for my wife and I to eat for dinner before I start the Day 1 prep work.
When I get home with the ingredients, we eat a quick dinner, then I get to work preparing the brine and butchering the chickens. By the time I get the chicken in the brine and in the fridge it's about 10 pm, so I can pull it out around 10 am the next morning and start cooking. I like to have the sides prepared before I start cooking the chicken so that I can really focus on cooking the chicken perfectly and serving it piping hot.
I like to serve it with coleslaw, creamed corn or some other summery side, and pieces of good challah or brioche bread for anyone who wants to make into a sandwich with the chicken, coleslaw, and bread. Personally, I like to eat a wing or drumstick (or both!) on its own, then use a thigh piece or breast piece to make a sandwich. I like to pair it with a nice California Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc with the meal, but if you want to stay true to Texas you might choose a nice Texas beer or wine- something crisp and refreshing.
2 approx. 3 lb. chickens (Try to avoid chickens bigger than this. A little smaller is fine. We are trying to achieve an optimal crust to meat ratio and encourage the pieces to cook evenly.)
6 Lemons, quartered
A generous handful of bay leaves
1 bunch parsley
1 large bunch thyme
Head of garlic halved through the equator (no need to separate the cloves)
Small handful of black peppercorns
2 cups Kosher salt
2 gallons water
¼ cup garlic powder
¼ cup onion powder
1.5 tablespoons paprika
1.5 tablespoons cayenne (adjust to desired spiciness)
1.5 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
Dredging and Frying:
1 quart buttermilk
2 large jugs of Peanut or Canola Oil
People may debate over the best type of spices to put in the batter, how spicy it should be, or what oil is best for frying, but the one topic that is not up for debate if you want to bring fried chicken to the next level is brining it overnight before the day before you plan to make it. The brine adds flavor to the meat and makes it much juicier than just slapping some batter on plain chicken. I cannot overstate how critical this step is in order to achieve an extraordinary result.
I use a large dutch oven to prepare the brine and I just add the chicken after the brine is cooled. Two things I've learned from doing this are: (1) make sure you clear out plenty of space in your refrigerator to hold the pot and (2) prepare an ice bath in your sink to place the pot in after the boiling step. You don't want to sit around waiting hours for the brine to cool down enough to place the chicken in it, and you obviously don't want to precook the outside of the chicken pieces by placing them in a hot brine.
Prepare the brine:
Put everything but the chicken in a large dutch oven or large high-walled pot, such as the one you use to boil pasta. Make sure the pot can hold well in excess of 2 gallons. Bring the brining mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt, and let boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and place in ice bath in sink. I monitor the temperature of the ice bath and add ice as needed to keep it cold. You can butcher the chickens while you wait for the ice bath to cool down.
Butcher the chicken:
Lay out parchment paper or a clean kitchen towel over a large chopping board. Place the chicken breast side down and with poultry scissors if you have them or sharp kitchen scissors cut down each side of the backbone to remove it. Turn the chicken over and cut through the joint that connects the thighs to the chicken. Cut through the joint connecting the thighs to the drumsticks. Turn the chicken over again and remove the keel bone. This is the pointed breastplate. Make shallow cuts on each side of the tip and run your fingers under it to remove it. Cut through the wing joints to remove the wings. Cut through to separate the two breasts, then cut them in halve crosswise. Repeat with the other chicken. You should have 20 pieces total, 10 from each chicken.
Brine the chicken:
Place all of the chicken pieces in the cooled brine and refrigerate for 8-12 hours. Word of warning, brining for much more than 12 hours will make overly salty chicken.
Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse to remove any herbs or spices sticking to the skin. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside to rest at room temperature while you continue the other prepping steps. You want the chicken to rest for about an hour and a half, so plan accordingly.
Combine the coating ingredients in a medium bowl and use a fork or a wire whisk to mix them well. Set aside.
If you have two large pots, you can cook the white meat and dark meat pieces together. I use the dutch oven I brined the chicken in, after rinsing and drying it of course, and a large pasta pot. If you only have one large pot, cook them in batches. Place pots on back burners and add oil about 3-4 inches deep. Turn the burners up to about medium, using a deep frying thermometer to get the white meat pot to about 340o and white meat pot to about 320o. Preheat an oven to 200o.
This is where logistics are important. You want to set up stations. Split the coating mixture between two large plates or large bowls. Pour the buttermilk into a bowl or casserole dish placed between the two bowls of coating mixture. Add salt and pepper to the buttermilk, and, optionally, a little bit of Sriracha or Tobasco sauce. Place a large plate or baking sheet between the battering station and the stovetop, and cover it with parchment paper. Set up a cooling rack over a paper towel lined baking sheet, and place another baking sheet in the preheated oven.
Once the oil has reached the proper temperature(s), place a few pieces of white meat (wings and breast quarters) and a few pieces of dark meat (thigh and drumstick) into the first coating, turning and patting off excess, then dip them in the buttermilk letting excess run off, then turn in the next bowl of coating. Transfer pieces to the parchment lined pan until you have a batch of breaded pieces. Place the white meat pieces into the 340o degree oil, and the dark meat pieces into the 320o oil. It is helpful to us two timers, one for each pot. I use the oven timer for one and my iPhone timer for the other. Fry the dark meat pieces for about 12 minutes to a dark golden brown, and the white meat pieces for 8 minutes, ever so gently moving the pieces around after a couple of minutes and turning as necessary to cook evenly. Don't move them too much or you will cause pieces of the delicious crust to break off and be tragically lost. Transfer pieces to the wire cooling rack when done and begin coating the remaining pieces of chicken using the same process as before. Place thigh and breast pieces skin side up on the cooling rack, lean drumsticks thick side up against thigh or breast pieces.
Once the second batch has gone into the oil and the timers have been reset, place the first batch pieces in the oven to keep warm. When second batch is done, combine the batches on a large serving platter and sprinkle with a couple pinches of salt and cracked pepper to taste. Rain the salt from high over the chicken to ensure an even distribution. If you are serving any warm sides, quickly reheat them while the second batch fries and get them on the table. The piping hot chicken should be the last serving platter to hit the table with the table set, drinks on the table, and everyone in place ready to eat. A pet peeve of mine when I've spent hours striving for culinary perfection is people roaming around and using the bathroom, finishing up texts, or doing other silly things before getting to the table while the food sits there and gets cold, so I give my guests a 5 minute warning to get themselves to the table and ready to eat. Being a draconian, Sabanesque host is optional, of course.
Variations and Matters of Personal Choice
As stated above, you must brine the chicken or else don't bother. Just go to KFC or Popeye's and get a bucket of their chicken.
You can, however, tinker with the herbs and spices you add to the brine until you find a version that suits your fancy. You might try adding some chopped jalapeno, basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, mint, and/or other herbs/peppers to your liking. Just be careful not to go overboard or use any weird combinations of flavors. You can use a little more or a little less lemon, or even a little lime. No matter what extra flavoring ingredients you use, though, don't change the amount of salt.
You can alter the amount of cayenne pepper to adjust the spiciness of the coating, or as I mentioned above add a little pepper sauce to the buttermilk. If you want to give it an ethnic kick, add a little yellow curry powder or masala.
Southern Fried chicken is cooked in shallow oil so that the pieces are not fully submerged. While this may seem more Texan than deep frying, I recommend fully submersing the chicken pieces in the oil to help them cook more uniformly.
Type of Oil:
Both peanut or canola oil will work, but I've found that a better color is achieved using peanut oil. The one time I used canola oil, the batter ended up a little darker than I wanted. I found the result when using peanut oil to be more aesthetically pleasing, but I didn't notice any difference in taste.