A PRIMER ON SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKENBy David Lee
Southern Fried Chicken is a true delicacy, but is one of those foods that truly CANNOT be completely taught through a recipe. Like bread making, experience is what separates a good chicken cook from a truly great chicken fryer.
About Fried Chicken:
What is truly good fried chicken? It is not greasy, heavy, or coated with a thick coating of breading. True-quill Southern Fried Chicken is crisp, full of flavor, with a light coating that slightly crunches on the first bite and blends together in the mouth the taste of chicken with crunchy skin and breading with a slight undertone of fat.
The ingredients are simple: cut up chicken, hot oil, a coating. But there are so many variations, personal tastes, opinions, methods, etc. that you can spend a lifetime investigating them all.
Making fried chicken is a LOT of work (at least according to today’s 30 minute meal prep orientation). The preparation of the chicken, the breading of the chicken, the temperature regulation, the actual cooking, the cleanup of the cooker, the kitchen and you, applying first aid to yourself (you cannot fry chicken without getting at least one fat burn, I believe). Also be aware that your kitchen (and your house) will smell of fried food for at least another day. But the work is worth it in the delight of biting into a fresh, warm, crunchy piece of perfectly golden home-fried chicken.
I must say I am well-qualified to discuss fried chicken. Not only did my mother make excellent chicken for years, but my Father was a Baptist Preacher who served in both the 'country' and the 'city' in the "Golden Age of Southern Cooking" (see note). I also was a member of a college ensemble who specialized in the music of Appalachia and we toured through the South constantly.
So I have eaten whole flocks of fried chicken, at church dinners-on-the-ground, at socials, at many private homes throughout the South, and as prepared as 'pre-concert' meals for social organizations (Rotary Clubs), and community arts organizations, etc.
Here are my oracular comments and opinions LOL!
(Note: The Golden Age of Southern Cooking was the late 50s & early 60s. This was the "Golden Age" because many people were not as poor as they had been before WWII, and yet the cuisine had not been ruined by the mass standardization and commercialization of food in the USA.)
The Primary Ingredient: The Chicken
The best size chicken to fry is a 4-pound fryer. Never fry any chicken larger than 5 pounds as it will take the pieces too long to cook. Chickens smaller than 3 pounds are too small for good fried chicken.
Traditional fried chicken HAS SKIN. Skinless fried chicken is a weird invention of those who think that it makes for a lower-fat chicken (and what are those people doing eating Fried Chicken in the first place!). The skin is necessary to provide the support for the breading, and to add that element of 'crisp' that is the goal of the great chicken fryer. I also think that the skin actually helps keep the chicken meat lower in fat as it serves to shield the meat from the fat. (Whether you eat the skin is a matter of your conscience -- I cannot image peeling that lovely skin off and only eating the meat. You might as well just roast a chicken!)
I strongly believe in buying whole chickens and cutting them up into frying pieces yourself.
You should do this for several reasons:
***You will have better chicken (most whole chickens are fresher nowadays than pre-cut parts, and safer too)
***It is cheaper (always important in the South, which was not a rich area of the country)
***Cutting your own gives you more flexibility in determining size, nicety of the cut, etc.
How to Cut the Chicken
A whole chicken is cut into 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, and the white meat. White meat can be cut into 2 breasts and a wishbone, 2 breasts, or 4 pieces of breast. Most chickens are simply cut into 2 breasts. The backs are cooked only for family (never for company). Of course, if no one liked the backs, they were not cooked. However, usually someone liked the extra breading found on the backs (along with the succulent morsels of meat) and they were prepared.
Preparing The Chicken
This is one of the crucial parts of making Southern Fried Chicken. The chicken is usually soaked overnight in one of three elements: milk, buttermilk, or very lightly salted water. Each person develops their own preference.
My mother was a great believer in soaking the chicken overnight in milk. She thought that buttermilk made the coating too thick and, while she love buttermilk, thought the slightly tart taste did not blend as well as milk with the Chicken.
If you use salted water, the water is salted very lightly -- less salty than sea water! You should taste the water (before adding the raw chicken of course!) and you should just be able to tell it is salty.
All chicken should be immersed and soak at least 8-12 hours in the fridge. (For dinner the chicken soaking was started just before bedtime; if the chicken was for 'supper', the chicken was placed in the soaking liquid just after breakfast.
Breading the Chicken
Here is where things begin to get controversial. Method is fairly consistent, but the actual ingredients can vary widely. However, I will discuss "classic" fried chicken breading as found in Tennessee and Georgia.
First: Remove the chicken you have been soaking from the icebox :-).
Next: Draining and reading the chicken for breading.
***If soaked in milk, hold the chicken so the milk drips off, but do not shake or dry the chicken. Place the chicken skin side up on a rack (a cookie sheet underneath keeps things neater!)
***If soaked in buttermilk, hold the chicken so it is well drained, then shake the chicken to remove almost all of the buttermilk coating the chicken. There should just be the lightest glisten of buttermilk on the chicken. (Otherwise the breading will be too thick.) Place chicken skin side up on the rack.
***If soaked in salted water, lift the chicken so a majority of the water drains off. While still dripping, place the chicken skin side up on the rack.
Preparing the Breading
Classic fried chicken uses flour, salt and ground black pepper to form the breading. You can use any amount of black pepper you prefer. The only caution on salt is not to add too much! Blend the three ingredients together. (Note: Crushed corn flakes, bread crumbs, panko, cornmeal, and anything else but flour is an abomination and you will go to hell if you use them! ROFL!)
: Other additions to the breading CAN be made, I just don't recommend them -- cayenne pepper, parsley, garlic or onion powder, etc. -- but that is not 'true' fried chicken. At best it is a regional variation (such as Louisiana-fried chicken with cayenne added).
Breading the Chicken
We have arrived at the 'great divide' of frying chicken recipes. This is an irreconcilable difference between different cooks. I am sure in the past mountain feuds were started over this issue: egg wash? Or Not?
This determines thick or thin crust. I personally think that a thin crust is better. A thick crust tends to be too greasy and also can cook unevenly. Again, you may have a different opinion or preference.
Pure Breaded Chicken (no egg wash):
Place breading in a small bowl or large plate. Take the moist chicken you have placed on a rack. Completely coat the chicken in the flour. Bury the chicken in the flour. Press the chicken down in the flour. Then, ever so gently, lift the chicken out of the flour, give it a light shake to remove excess flour, and place it on a different rack to hold before frying.
Combine 2 or 3 eggs with 3 tablespoons water. Whisk with a fork until the egg is blended and slightly airy. Dredge the chicken in flour. Transfer to the egg wash and coat the chicken with the wash. Then place in the chicken in another plate or bowl filled with your breading flour and dredge. The egg wash will have created a thicker coating on the chicken. Place on a different rack to hold.
What to Use for Frying
Another area of controversy. Some cooks swear and would never use anything but 100% (choose 1): Crisco (shortening), Corn Oil, Peanut Oil, or Lard.
I personally think that 50% lard and 50% Peanut Oil gives the perfect flavor to fried chicken -- a subtle flavor since there is really not that much oil present in fried chicken, but you can get a slight foundation taste. This combination is favored in Georgia.
However, practically speaking, any of the oil or fats listed above in any combination can produce fine fried chicken. Choose what is available, fits your budget and is of high-quality. (Be careful of Lard in regards to quality).
Frying the Chicken
Do not begin to prepare your skillet until all of the chicken has been coated. The chicken needs to air-dry a bit to firm up the breading and to make sure no liquid will create problems when adding to the pot.
What To Fry In
Some cooks swear by a cast-iron skillet, others by a chicken fryer (a pan that is cross between a Dutch oven and a skillet -- you can substitute a Dutch oven), a few by an electric skillet.
Temperature regulation is the tricky thing with frying chicken, which should help determine your pan. You must have a heavy pan to help make this process easier. First, the oil must be 'just right' when adding the chicken. You then have to increase the heat to compensate for the addition of the chicken so the fat doesn't loose its heat and create soggy chicken. After the recovery from the addition of chicken you then have to lower the heat to prevent burning. When the chicken is turned you raise the heat slightly (but not as much as the first time), after the chicken is frying well, then you lower again to finish the cooking. (Great fried chicken is turned only once). That is why some cooks say "to heck with it" and use a electrically controlled fry pan.
How Much Fat To Use
Southern Fried Chicken is never deep-fat fried (commercial chicken shacks deep fry for speed), but more of a really heavy sauté. The fat should come up to the halfway point of the chicken pieces. Again, determining the quantity of oil to add is a question of experience -- as you don't really know how much oil is needed until after the chicken is in the pan!
The Frying Process
Basically described above under temperature regulation. Traditionally, you determine how hot the oil is by adding a tiny pinch of flour to the pan. When the flour fries nicely and foams, the oil is hot enough. I don't know of any Southern Cook who uses a thermometer to determine the temperature. Its all done on sound and vision. However, if you must use a thermometer, use a metal and glass “candy thermometer” and heat the oil to at least 360 degrees.
Add the chicken slowly (and carefully) to the pan skin side down. Most cooks add the chicken by hand, being very careful and gentle in adding the chicken. Do not 'plop' the chicken in the pan -- it will only shake off some coating and will tend to splash you with hot fat. (You don't use tongs or a fork to add the chicken because you don't want to disturb the coating or create a 'hole' for the fat to enter into the interior of the chicken.)
After adding the piece of chicken, gently move it in the pan with a long 'chicken fork' to make sure the coating has not stuck to the bottom of the pan. Then add the next piece. Every so often, jiggle all of the pieces to make sure they have not stuck to the pan and to keep things moving. Never leave chicken frying unattended, it can ruin the chicken and also is not safe. (Note: if there is a handle to your skillet or pan, make sure the handle is pointed into the middle of the stovetop. Spilled hot fat can cause a horrible burn or tragedy.)
If you are frying several chickens at the same time (my mother always fried two), a good idea is to fry dark meat in one batch, then the white meat in the second batch. This allows each kind of meat to cook the right amount of time, helps in temperature regulation, and also minimizes the amount of time you have to hold the chicken before serving, as the white meat will cook faster. When the chicken skin is cooked to a beautiful tawny color and blood is seeping from the top side of the chicken the chicken is ready to turn. Turn the chicken with the fork (either from the bottom, or piercing an edge that has almost completely cooked). Continue to fry for 2/3 of the time it took to cook the first side. The 2nd side will never be a pretty as the skin side that was cooked first. The pieces will not finish at the same time, you must monitor every piece and fry each piece individually. Remove each piece when done. If cooking large amounts of chicken, most cooks will replace the empty place in the skillet with a new piece of chicken. This speeds up cooking, but does make temperature regulation more demanding!
Some cooks prefer to cook their chicken using this method. (I never have, but it has been used by some great chicken fryers.) They fry the chicken at a slightly higher temperature until the skin side is a golden brown, but the interior has not really cooked that much. They then turn the chicken, reduce the heat a little and partially cover the skillet or fryer and cook until the chicken is done! (You can see where this is heresy to many cooks.) After the chicken is done, if the second side is not brown they would then increase the heat to high and quickly finish browning the second side.]
When done, remove chicken to a rack and let drain over paper towels in a cookie sheet. You can place the chicken in a warm oven whose door is partially open to hold until serving. Freshly fried chicken should be served very warm, NOT hot from the skillet. The juices need time to redistribute, the flavors to calm down, and the entire chicken to be cool enough so it won't burn anyone when eaten. Cold chicken is excellent for breakfast and picnics.
Note: Traditional Southern Fried Chicken is always eaten 'out of hand'. Fried Chicken was never served at truly formal occasions (such as a banquet) as it was too 'homey' and messy to eat.
Of course, be very careful when handling chicken to avoid cross-contamination with other food prep areas. Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds after handling chicken. Do not allow cooked chicken to be touched by anything that touched raw chicken. Be sure and use good food safety habits anytime you touch or prepare any chicken dish.