Southern Tricks for Perfect Crispy Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is one of those dishes that is simple in design, but can easily fall apart in execution. It's one of the top comfort foods, but also tends to rattle most cooks. It is deceptively simple—tender juicy inside, flavorful crispy crust. Two elements. What can go wrong?
All kinds of things. Soggy, greasy crust, under or overcooked chicken, bland flavor, dried-out texture—the list seems daunting. The fantasy of a beautiful mahogany brown piece of crispy Southern goodness flies out the window after a couple of failures, and a trip to the drive-thru for a bucket of that white-suited guy’s stuff seems the best most of us can get.
There are ways to address each of these problems when you have a little culinary magic at your disposal. Here’s how to make the magic happen.
What You Need to Know Before You Start
Before we get to the recipe, there are some basic tricks and techniques you need to understand when prepping, battering, and frying.
Brining meat is the coolest thing. Brining is soaking the chicken in a salty liquid overnight. This is your magic potion. It’s a way to get flavor inside the meat so that the whole bite is full of flavor, not just the crust. It works by reverse osmosis– in a nutshell, the semi-permeable membrane of the muscle tissue will take up the salt and hang on to it while cooking. It seems like you’re using acres of salt—and you are—but it doesn’t end up in salty meat at all. You end up with well-seasoned and tender chicken. The one thing to watch on the brine is timing: Chicken can brine for up to 12 hours (overnight) but not much longer. Any longer and it gets too salty. Ew.
Another way to boost flavor is in the crust. Many recipes will warn you about either seasoning in the crust ingredients OR using a brine, but not both. This means you have to choose whether to have a tasty interior or crust but not both. That’s just wrong. If you make sure the seasonings appear in each element, the chicken will be intensely flavorful through and through. Don’t panic over what seems like large amounts of seasonings—if you think about what a tiny amount actually ends up in each bite, it’ll make sense. And once you taste it, it’ll REALLY make sense.
Battering or Coating the Chicken
I use a modified double dip to batter the chicken. I always feel like I’m trying to explain an Olympic maneuver when I say this—I call my signature move the semi-double dip. All it means is I dip in flour, then buttermilk, and then back into the flour.
You’ll notice when reading the recipe below that I say that after you batter the chicken, you should put it on a rack to let it rest. The reason for this is to improve and preserve the coating. If the flour/buttermilk mixture has time to rest after you coat the chicken, it has a chance to ‘meld’—the skin, buttermilk, seasoning, and flour become unified. This prevents the crust from separating from the chicken when it hits the hot oil.
Using the semi-double dip also means that you’ll have a nice layer of crust—not so thin so you barely know it’s there, nor so thick you need an excavator to find the chicken inside.
Ensuring Tender, Juicy Chicken
Brining in Buttermilk: Many southern cooks, my grandmother and great-grandmother included, soak their chicken in buttermilk before frying and/or use it as a part of the breading. For a few years, my mother fell away from the faith, but she’s now back in the buttermilk fold.
With buttermilk, you’re going to harness the power of lactic acid, which will help in denaturing the proteins in the chicken. This will not only make it tender but also increase the flavor throughout, not just on the surface.
So make a brine, but instead of water, use buttermilk. You’ll be amazed at the difference in texture and flavor.
Getting the Perfect Crust
There are two elements to getting that crunch: The 'double dip' of batter and the frying method. We've already discussed the batter, so let's discuss the best way to fry the chicken.
Temperature: The temperature of the oil is critical. You really need to have either a deep fat fryer with a built-in thermometer or an instant-read or candy thermometer that will clip to the side of your pan. The temperature needs to be right at 350°F. This will mean a golden brown crust and allow the interior to cook through correctly. If you have the oil at the right temperature, the crust is sealed quickly, which keeps the juices inside the chicken, not dispersing out into the oil. An additional bonus is the oil won’t crackle and spit as much. (It will some, just not as much.) The right temperature also means less oil is absorbed into the crust, which keeps it from getting that greasiness that can be so icky.
Oil: The temperature is more important than the type, but still, you need to use the right medium in which to fry. You can use vegetable oil, shortening, lard, or whatever, but my personal preference is peanut oil. It does cost more than most oils, true, and until lately, it was usually only sold by the gallon for deep frying turkeys at Thanksgiving. But it’s you can find reasonably priced smaller bottles now. Peanut oil works great for a couple of reasons: It can hold a relatively high temperature without burning, coloring, or acquiring an off flavor, and it doesn’t impart a flavor of its own. If you can’t find it (or don’t want to spend a little extra), try vegetable oil.
Real Southern Fried Chicken Recipe
1 whole chicken (about 3½ pounds), giblets discarded, cut into 12 pieces
For the Buttermilk Brine:
- 1 1/4 cups kosher salt OR 3/4 cups table salt
- 2 medium garlic heads
- 2 to 3 sprigs of thyme or rosemary, or both, crushed in your
- 5 cups buttermilk
Dry Ingredients of the Coating:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
Ingredients of the Wet Coating:
- 1 egg
- 1 cup buttermilk
In the Pan:
3 cups peanut oil or shortening—however much it takes to fill your pan 2 to 3 inches deep.
Real Southern Fried Chicken: Instructions
- In a food processor, combine salt and sugar, and process to combine. Add garlic cloves, and process for just a moment until the ingredients form a paste, but you still have large chunks of garlic. Put this mixture into a container large enough to hold all the chicken. Add the herbs and buttermilk. Stir well to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the chicken pieces, turning to make sure all are immersed. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours, which is ideal. Don’t leave it longer than overnight.
- Set a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Remove the chicken from the brine and discard the brine. Set the chicken pieces in a single layer on the wire rack, and refrigerate. Don’t cover the chicken at this point—you want it to air dry somewhat for a couple of hours. If need be, after two hours, you can cover it and refrigerate it for up to eight hours before proceeding.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients for the coating. Taste it. Yes, I mean it. You should be able to taste lots of flavor, not just the nothing of raw flour. If this mixture doesn’t taste good, re-season until it does. This is important—this is a prime component of the crust. (Note: A major magazine a few years ago published a recipe for “Ultimate Crispy Fried Chicken” using baking soda in the buttermilk dip. They said that the mixture would bubble from the combination of lactic acid and the baking soda. I’ve never had that happen. But it might. If it doesn’t, so what? Besides, my recipe is better. J)
- In a second bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk.
- One at a time, dredge (that just means cover in flour) each piece of chicken in the dry ingredients and shake off the extra. Return the chicken to the rack in between stages of the dip. After the dry, coat chicken in the wet mixture, then one more time into the dry. After the last dip in flour, make sure the chicken sits on the rack for about ten minutes. This sets the coating so it won’t float off the chicken when it hits the hot oil.
- While the chicken is setting, preheat your oven as low as it will go—mine goes to about 150°F. Make sure your oil has reached 350°F. Have a platter or rack ready for the oven, and several layers of paper towels on the counter. Working a couple of pieces at a time, place chicken in hot oil. Make sure you don’t crowd the pan—if you do, the chicken will steam on the outside instead of fry and the crust won’t be crispy. Allow each piece to get golden on one side before turning.
- If the brine is your magic potion, then a good meat thermometer is your magic wand. The two pieces that always seem to have doneness issues are the breast and the thigh. You want an interior temperature of 160°F. I promise the few dollars you’ll spend on that thermometer will pay you back a thousandfold in flavor dollars. Get one. Once the crust has gotten to that perfect dark golden brown, insert the probe of the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. You want to hit a minimum of 155°F—the chicken will continue cooking a little after you remove it from the pan.
- If by chance you have a problem getting the temperature up without burning the outside, no problem. Simply increase your oven temperature to 350°F, and finish the chicken off in the oven. If there is an underdone piece, it will probably be the breast or thigh. I do these pieces first, so if I need a little extra time to finish them in the oven, the other pieces will still be frying. Once the temperature on the breast and thigh are right, turn the oven back down to its lowest setting and proceed.
- As each piece is finished, drain it on the paper towels for a couple of minutes to get rid of any excess oil, then pop it on the rack in the low oven. The chicken can rest there, staying warm, as the remainder of the pieces cook.
- That’s it—once they are all done, let them sit for about five minutes out of the heat, then dig in!
© 2010 Jan Charles