My sister makes the best fried chicken.
And, I have spent the the better part of thirty years trying to figure how she can make the most delicious, juicy chicken you have ever tasted. Today, people don’t fry chicken at home anymore. In fact, people barely fry anything at home anymore.
But there is nothing like homemade fried chicken with biscuits and mashed potatoes and gravy. The combination of salty, crispy, and juicy is rarely matched by any other recipe. There are hundreds of ways to cook fried chicken and most are pretty simple: chicken, flour, salt, pepper, and oil.
So what makes it magical?
After sneaking a peak at my sister’s technique and ruining many birds over the years, this is my step by step process that works for me. I cut a few corners but also make sure I invest in steps that seem to make a difference. One question that always comes up is what wine works best with fried chicken – well, champagne of course.
Step 1: Start with a fresh, organic chicken.
It does make a difference. Organic chickens are fed and aged differently, and they are typically air-chilled and not chilled in brine which allows them to have a fresher flavor. Whole chickens are usually much cheaper than those that are in parts. So – everyone should learn how to cut up a chicken, and for that, I will refer you to the master of this technique, Jacque Pépin, who does it better than anyone else.
Step 2: Brine the chicken 8 to 12 hours in buttermilk.
This is unusual for many recipes which usually have you make a salt/sugar/herb brine for the chicken, rinse it, and then dunk it again in buttermilk before breading. For me, I save a step. The acidity of the buttermilk combined with the spices in the brine season the chicken well and serve as a natural tenderizer. Plus, when you get ready to cook – all you do is drain the buttermilk and dredge it in flour. To make the brine, I combine a half gallon of buttermilk with 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt, 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black better, 1 to 2 tablespoons of hot sauce, and a bunch of fresh thyme. I place the chicken with the brine in a two gallon plastic bag in a bowl in the refrigerator.
Step 3: Dredge the chicken in flour.
This is a critical step in making crispy and flavorful skin – which is one of the reasons you fry chicken in the first place. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk brine and place on a wire rack to drain. Season the pieces with some additional salt and pepper plus a very light dusting of smoked paprika and Texas Greek Seasoning Blend. Make a flour dredge by combining all-purpose flour along with black pepper and some more Texas Greek Seasoning. I like to dredge chicken for frying in a large rectangular pan which allows me plenty of room to push the coating into the nooks and crannies. Don’t rush this step. Once you have coated the pieces well, shake off the excess, and lay them on a wire wrack to rest at room temperature for about 30 to 45 minutes. This step is also critical in that it gives the coating time to adhere to the surface of the skin and allows the temperature of the pieces to shake off the chill of the fridge and cook more evenly in the skillet.
Step 4: Fry the chicken in a skillet and not a deep fryer.
This is also an area of big debate, but one I feel pretty confident about. There is no doubt that my favorite utensil for this step is the cast iron skillet. It is thick and holds temperature extremely well – it is the best choice. But when I’m entertaining for a crowd I often use the electric skillet which allows me more space, and I can do the cooking outside which keeps the kitchen clean.
Vegetable shortening – or Crisco – is often cited as the best choice for a cooking vehicle, but over the years I’ve graduated toward peanut oil despite the negative press. It allows for a higher smoke point and gives the chicken a crispy golden crust. I heat the oil to approximately 380 degrees and then place the chicken skin side down and immediately cover with a lid. The oil should only almost cover the chicken – not bury it.
This is really important: in pan frying the steam needs a place to escape. If you deep fry chicken you run the risk of the steam forcing off the crust. You don’t need to measure the temperature of the oil anymore – you can listen to the sound of the frying to see if the heat is correct.
Cook the chicken until golden brown on the bottom and then flip it over and remove the lid. Continue cooking until the breasts measure 165 degrees where they should be removed. The dark meat should cook longer as it improves the texture and you have a safer margin in over cooking. I remove mine at 175 degrees.
While the chicken is cooking wash those wire racks and now place the pieces on them to drain and cool before plating on a platter.
Step 5: Serve with champagne. This requires no description.
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