My friend Katie is no chicken. In May, she graduated with a masters in English literature. In June, she’ll fly to Turkey to study abroad and in August, she’ll move to Minnesota to begin her Ph.D. program. I’ve known Katie since we edited each others’ stories in an undergraduate class years ago. Though the stories were rife with melodrama, the friendship wasn’t, and Katie and I became fast friends.
So when I invited her over for dinner last week to celebrate her graduation, I offered to cook whatever her heart desired. However, I got a bit, well, chicken, when she asked me to cook fried chicken.
Being no stranger to culinary experiments, I accepted the challenge. I turned to the proper Southern mentors for some inspiration: technical epicure Alton Brown and butter-lovin’ Paula Deen. I also looked to a recipe by Cooks Illustrated. In the end, the technique I used was a combination of several recipes. Plan ahead: the recipe requires several days of non-active prep work, though it could be done in as little as two.
For this recipe, I chose peanut oil for its high smoke point and clean flavor. For those with peanut allergies, fear not. The process used to make peanut oil removes any allergens. You can also use fresh lard (look in the refrigerated section at your Mexican grocery store), but avoid shelf-stable lard and shortening (Crisco), which have trans fats.
- A large, high-sided skillet or dutch oven, preferably cast iron
- A candy, deep fry, or instant-read thermometer with accuracy to 400 degrees
- Fire extinguisher (just in case…)
2 (3-4) whole fryer chickens, cut into 8 pieces each
6 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt
2 quarts buttermilk
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbl paprika
½-1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
6 cups peanut oil
Step 1: Dry-Brine
Dry-brining is the easier and less messy version of the popular wet brine often used to flavor holiday turkeys. Dry brining ensures that the chicken meat is seasoned inside and out. To dry brine: first, rinse the chicken parts. Salt both sides of the chicken and place in a non-reactive (glass or plastic) container. Cover and refrigerate, letting chicken brine overnight or for up to 24 hours.
Step 2: Buttermilk Soak
Move the chicken pieces to a colander and rinse off. Place the chicken pieces back in the now rinsed and dried container and pour over a quart of buttermilk, ensuring that all pieces are covered. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to 24 hours.
Step 3: Air-Drying the Chicken
Put a wire rack on a baking sheet. About two hours before you plan to fry your chicken, remove it from the buttermilk and place on the wire rack. Refrigerate and allow to air dry for at least 2 hours. After 2 hours, chicken can be covered and refrigerated up to 6 hours.
Step 4: Batter Up, Baby
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large skillet or dutch oven, heat 6 cups of peanut oil over medium-high heat until temperature reaches 375 degrees.
In a bowl, mix 1 cup of buttermilk, the egg, baking powder and baking soda. In a large shallow dish, mix together the flour, paprika and pepper. Do not add salt.
Drop chicken into flour mixture and press to coat both sides. Shake off excess flour and dip chicken into egg mixture. Allow excess to drip off, then dip chicken in flour mixture again. Place on wire rack and repeat to coat all chicken pieces.
Step 5: Fry Away
Put 4-6 pieces of chicken in the hot oil, skin side down. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Cover, reduce heat slightly and fry until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. After 3 minutes, check chicken for even browning. After 6 minutes, re-check the oil temperature. It should be at about 325 degrees. Once brown, turn pieces over and continue to fry an additional 6-8 minutes, until second side is golden brown.
Using tongs, transfer chicken to paper towel-lined plate. Let stand 2 minutes to drain, and then transfer to warm oven. Reheat oil to 375 degrees and repeat to fry remaining chicken pieces. Allow chicken to cool on wire rack 5 minutes, then serve.
The temperature rose in our kitchen as we kept the oil hot and the chicken frying. Tempers flared a little from the heat and stress, but we never had to use the fire extinguisher.
As I brought out the chicken, Katie and the other guests oohed at its perfect mahogany exterior. The conversation broke into silence at the first taste of crispy crust and moist, tender chicken. To accompany our chicken, we heaped our plates with coleslaw, mashed potatoes and homemade buttermilk biscuits. It was a perfect Southern feast on a beautiful spring night in the North.
For a memorable Memorial Day, don’t be scared to try this recipe for homemade fried chicken.