Monday, July 14, 2008



All I can say is I hope nobody starved to death over the weekend because I didn't put up a recipe on Friday. For that I have simply no excuse. It didn't even dawn on me until yesterday, Sunday, that I was supposed to talk about food last Friday. I can't imagine what happened--I must have been focused on the weekend or something. I know I wasn't on autopilot because you can't do this absent-mindedly. I did have great fun last Friday remembering all my old summer jobs, and I hope you did, too.

I've been interested in fried chicken ever since I first tasted it, and I'm sure most people can say the same thing, whether they are cooks or not. I think I can say unequivocally that I've never met anyone who doesn't at least like, of not love, fried chicken. This recipe has been evolving since 1974, when Esquire Magazine did a long article on the dish, comparing different recipes, analyzing what made a good one, and coming up with its own. It was very much like what Cook's Illustrated does now, long before Christopher Kimball sat in his first grease spot. I've been playing with the basic concepts presented in that article--buttermilk, seasoned flour, vinegar, even the paper bag to shake the pieces of chicken in--ever since, refining it as I've learned more technique. I've been settled on this iteration for a few years now.

Some notes:
  • I've always known that buttermilk and brining both make chicken tender and more flavorful. Cooks Illustrated came up with the idea of combining the two--brining in buttermilk--and it not only saves time but works like a charm.
  • Don't cook the chicken wet. Coat it and then let it air dry before putting it on the fire.
  • Fat: advice runs the gamut from pure bacon grease (delicious but deadlier than necessary) to plain vegetable oil. I settled on a combination of Crisco for its high smoke point and peanut oil for its flavor.
  • Intense flavors are a must. Use plenty of everything. An acid such as cider vinegar intensifies the tanginess imparted by the buttermilk. A light sprinkle just as the meat goes in the pan is all that is necesssary. The point is depth of flavor, not attention to the individual ingredient.
  • In my opinion, this old-fashioned dish only works in an old-fashioned cooking utensile: a cast iron skillet. Nothing holds heat more evenly. I have an ancient cast iron skillet from my grandmother and have collected more in antique stores. You may have the more fancy and expensive enameled variety. Whichever you have, use it.
  • Note there is no salt in the coating. Saltiness is imparted by brining. Adding more to the coating will make the product too salty. And on that subject, do not brine for more than two hours, for the same reason.
  • This is one time when dried, powdered spices work better than fresh. There's nothing worse than charred fresh garlic or herb leaves.
  • The chicken won't stick to the pan if it is dry and the fat is hot.
  • Don't crowd the chicken pieces in the pan. This recipe will need two frying pans if you want to cook the chicken in one batch.
  • Clean-up: there's no way around it, this is a messy dish to prepare. Fat will splatter on the stove during the uncovered phase of the cooking unless you have a strong back-of-cooktop vent. I use splatter screens to help keep some of the grease in the pan. For cleaning and reseasoning the skillet: scrape the biggest pieces of detritus into the sink, then fill pan with about an inch of water, bring to a boil over high heat, and allow the principle of de-glazing to work. Stir up any stuck on bits, scraping with a spatula when necessary, and pour it all down the drain. Place empty, clean skillet back on high heat to dry; then, while pan is still extremely hot, spray lightly with cooking spray to re-season. Wipe off excess oil with paper towels.
1 broiler-fryer 3/12-4 lbs., cut up
2 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons salt

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon powdered thyme

Crisco or other vegetable shortening plus peanut oil in equal measure to give an inch of fat in pan when Crisco melts.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Stir salt into buttermilk to dissolve. Place chicken pieces in a plastic storage bag, pour buttermilk brine over, close bag and refrigerate for two hours.

Place flour and spices in a paper bag large enough to hold two chicken pieces at a time, and shake to mix coating ingredients. Remove chicken from brine, shaking off excess liquid, and place directly into coating mixture in bag, two pieces at a time. Shake to coat chicken thoroughly, then place coated chicken on a rack to air dry at room temperature for 30 minutes.

In a heavy cast-iron skillet place Crisco and peanut oil. Melt Crisco over high heat. Put chicken in hot fat, largest pieces first, with the thickest parts towards the center of the pan to the extent possible. Drizzle with vinegar, reduce heat to medium low, cover tightly, and cook without moving for 15 minutes. Remove cover, turn chicken, drizzle with vinegar again, continue to cook, uncovered, sizzling slowly, another 10-15 minutes. Check for doneness at the 10 minute mark by piercing the thickest part of a large piece with a sharp knife. Flesh should not be pink and any juices should be clear.

Remove from skillet to paper towels or a paper bag to allow excess fat to drain for 10 to 15 minutes. Gobble up!


Anonymous said...

Very different recipe from the way I cook fried chicken. Will have to try your recipe this week, probably Friday night. I'll let you know how we do. Thanks Raff.

Ralph said...

Oh, good, Z&M, something different! I was afraid everybody fried chicken the same way. I'll be anxious for your report.

Anonymous said...

I do it.

Eclecticity said...

Sometimes I like to eat the biggest pieces of detritus!

Ralph said...

E, the crunchy black ones are good!

Eclecticity said...

I loved the "deadlier than necessary!"

Ralph said...

Just making sure you're paying attention, E! I think some magazine would enjoy having me as a food writer.