I’ve been trying to make outstanding fried chicken for about four years, and I think I’ve finally got it. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I just made the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever had, and it wasn’t even all that hard. If you like the crispy stuff and aren’t afraid of phrases like “heat a quart of oil to 375°”, read on…

Hardware

You’ll need some gadgets to pull this off:

  • A dutch oven or other fry vessel. One of those enamel-coated cast-iron dealios is the best. Le Creuset is the brand name, but Lodge makes one that’s about $100 cheaper and just as good.

  • A fry thermometer (digital is better). I’ve got a general purpose probe thermometer that I clip onto the pot with one of those wedge-shaped paper clips.

  • A spider (or a pair of tongs if you want to be cheap, but isn’t buying toys half the fun of cooking?)

  • Two wire draining racks, preferably ones that fit into baking sheets.

  • A nice sharp boning knife (a standard chef’s knife will do in a pinch).

Preparation

You’ll need to start at least 6 hours – and preferably 24 – before you want to eat, so plan accordingly.

Start by butchering a whole chicken. If you’re a pussy you can get one that’s already been cut up, but Real Cooks butcher their own chickens, and I’ll even tell you how:

  1. PLace the chicken breast-up with its legs facing you.

  2. Pull the leg away from the body so that the skin separates out. Swipe your boning knife through the skin, and you’ll see there’s a big cavity there between the thigh and the breast.

  3. Bend the thigh bone down towards the cutting board until the leg joint pops out of the socket. Cut through the flesh and skin between the now disjointed socket and thigh bone to separate the leg-thigh assembly from the main bird. Notice that the thigh actually goes pretty far back and under the chicken; this “back” part is known as the “oyster” and is the tastiest part of the chicken. Make sure it stays attached to the thigh.

  4. Put the leg-thigh inside (i.e. the side that was originally facing the rest of the chicken) up. There’s a thick line of fat along the joint that connects the leg to the thigh (the knee, I suppose); push your knife through the joint at this point. You shouldn’t get much resistance, so if you hit bone wiggle your knife around until it passes through the joint.

  5. Do that whole shebang again for the second leg.

  6. Bend the wings out away from the breast until the joints pop, and cut through the joints to remove the wings. Cut off the wing tip and freeze it for when you make chicken stock (or just through it away if you’re not down with the whole stock thing).

  7. Now you’re left with the breasts still attached to the carcass. Some people like breasts bone-in, but I prefer boneless, so that’s how I’m gonna explain it. This is actually pretty tricky to explain, but it’s pretty when you’re face-to-face with the bird (mano-a-pollo?)

    Basically, you’re gonna take your boning knife and, starting from the breastbone, drag it along the ribs down towards the bottom of the bird, separating the whole breast (and tender) from the ribs. You’ll kinda head downwards for a while, then when you hit the chest cavity you’ll start moving out towards the side of the chicken.

    If you fuck up just save the meat and make something else with it. The red meat makes the best fried chicken anyway.

  8. If you did it right, though, you’ll have two big boneless chicken breasts. Cut ‘em approximately in half so they aren’t undercooked when you turn to the frying.

Now it’s time to brine. A brine is basically a saturated salt solution used to soak meat – usually chicken and pork. The high salinity creates a situation where water (and associated flavorings) is drawn into the meat. Contrary to popular belief, brining doesn’t really carry too much salt into the meat; an ideal brine has about the same salinity as is naturally occurring in flesh anyway, so the salt actually serves as a vessel for water. Because of that, it’s quite hard to over-brine meat, which is why I usually do it overnight.

Anyway, though, here’s what you do:

  1. Put 1½ c. of salt, ¼ c. of sugar, 3 heads – yes, heads – of garlic (peeled), 2 T paprika (hot, please – that “sweet” paprika is bullshit), and a bay leaf into a food processor and grind the shit out of it. I guess you could do this by hand by crushing all that garlic, but that would be a pain in the ass.
  2. Put seven cups of buttermilk into a vessel big enough to hold both the chicken and the buttermilk – I use the pot I’m later gonna use for frying. Mix in the salt (&c.) until it’s dissolved, then drop in the chicken.
  3. Brine for at least two hours, and preferably 10-12.

Once the brining’s done, take out the chicken, pat off the excess brine with a towel, and refrigerate it until you’re ready to fry. The resting is going to leech some of the excess moisture out of the chicken, so you’re gonna want to let it sit for at least an hour. I usually drop the chicken in the brine before bed, take it out in the morning, and let the chicken rest during the day.

Fry baby fry

OK, almost time for the fat to hit the pan. The key to great chicken, though, is a proper work setup, so since I’m a geek here’s a diagram of how you’re gonna need to be set up:

everything flows one way

Workflow and order is important. You’re dealing with raw chicken, so you have to make sure that everything flows one way – from raw, to cooking, to cooked. That’s right-to-left in the diagram above. Move things backwards, and you could end up praying to the porcelain gods for the next three days. You really shouldn’t even mix tools from one area to the other.

Anyway, though, here’s what each of those boxes are, again from right to left:

  • The raw chicken, ready to fry.

  • A tub of flour with a pinch or two of salt. You’re gonna need about four cups, give or take.

  • A cup of buttermilk mixed with one egg and a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Yes, that’s mixing an acid and a base, so expect a bit of fizzing.

  • A wire rack, right side up, over a baking sheet to catch any drips.

  • A stove, with four quarts of oil at 375°. On my stove this means about ¾ on the heat dial, but it’s gonna to tricky to get just right on your first try. Just keep tweaking it before you put any chicken in until you can maintain a steady 375° for five minutes or so.

    If you want any hope of pulling this off, you’ll need a digital thermometer (see above).

  • Another wire rack, this on upside down on top of a bunch of newspaper. You could use paper towels I suppose, but I have to do something with my mandatory free subscription.

    Yes, upside down. This is important: the wires will wick the oil off the chicken when it comes out of the fryer and the paper will blot them up. Leave the rack right side up, and that’ll just allow the oil to cling to the wires and soak back into the crispy crust. Forget the rack entirely, and the chicken will sit on fat-soaked paper and, again, suck up the fat and ruin the crust.

  • You’ll probably want a serving vessel of some sort at the end of the line, but this post is about cooking, not serving, so you’re on your own here.

Once everything’s all set, it’s time to fry:

  1. Grab a piece of chicken, and coat it in flour. If you want to avoid getting a big glob of gunk of your fingers choose one hand to use for wet (raw chicken, buttermilk), and use the other for dry (flour). If you keep the wet hand out of the dry and vice versa, you’ll minimize klingons.

  2. Shake off the excess flour, and dunk the chicken into the buttermilk mixture.

  3. Shake off the excess buttermilk, and move the chicken back into the flour.

  4. Put the chicken on the wire rack to dry, and repeat with the rest of the chicken.

  5. Drop a few pieces (three to five, usually) into the hot oil. You want to avoid crowding the pan, so work in small batches. I usually do three batches of three to four pieces.

    You’ll immediately see the oil temperature start to drop. You’ll want to turn up the heat if the temperature falls below 325°, but otherwise let it drop.

    Cooking time is usually around ten to twelve minutes, but time is about the worst way to tell when the chicken’s done. Instead, you’ll want to rely on visual and auditory clues.

    The first clue is the oil temperature (this is why you want to let it drop). The oil will heat back up as the chicken cooks, and will hit 365° around when the chicken is done.

    The second clue is the color of the chicken: it’ll go from white and floury to yellow-ish to a deep golden brown. Oh, you’ll want to turn the chicken over once the bottom gets pretty colored to avoid any light patches.

    The final way to tell that the chicken’s done is by the sound. At first, the oil will hiss and sizzle like mad before settling down to a steady boil. As the chicken cooks and gives up moisture, the sizzling will slow down. There’ll be a noticeable drop in volume when the chicken’s done.

  6. With the spider, pull the chicken out of hot oil and place it on the draining rack. Let it drain for about five minutes before you eat it.

I like my fried chicken with biscuits and some collard greens cooked with garlic – what about you?