Fried chicken. The crown jewel of Soul Food, Southern Cuisine, and Sunday dinner. And for some, the most vexing of recipes. Why? Because for something that is seemingly so simple, it is very easy to screw up. Common problems? Under-seasoned. Undercooked. Scorched. Pale. Soggy. Dried out. Patchy crust. Gummy crust. And so many recipes! Everyone and their grandma has a fried chicken recipe, all of whom claim to have the best recipe, and if you can’t pull it off it is your fault. I learned to fry chicken from my grandmother, who put magic in her frying pan and miracles on the table.
I thought I knew everything I needed to when I learned from her, though my first try at chicken-flying by myself was a disaster - beautiful golden brown crust on the outside and deep red on the inside. Yikes.
Since then I’ve had a lot of practice and no more undercooked chicken. I consider myself a student in the science of fried chicken, not an expert. There are so many tasty ways to fry chicken and what is best is largely based on personal preference. Fried chicken is personal. Some folks like their chicken very peppery, and others more tangy, and even more who like a lot of heat. Some swear by buttermilk, others by egg, and some just flour. Some people double-fry and others single stage. Some finish (gasp!) in the oven. Ain’t none of them bad. Really. As long as the crust is crunchy, the meat flavorful, and the chicken cooked through, you have successfully executed fried chicken.
[But who likes boring, under-seasoned chicken? Not me!]
Whatever your personal taste, I have learned that there are 10 key elements to perfect fried chicken. Get these 10 things right, and you won’t go wrong. I’ll walk you through the basic elements, plus a few options, then finish out with my go-to fried chicken recipe.
Clean chicken. Make sure each piece is free of feathers and the goo that no one wants to eat. Use tweezers or your fingers to pluck the feathers out and a butter knife to lightly scrape the skin. Big gobs of fat under the skin should also be scraped, because they will melt and splatter in your frying pan. Rinse chicken and pat dry.
Time to brine. For the most flavorful chicken, you want to give it some time to soak up some goodness. There are many options for brining - try a few methods to see what you like best. These are my favorites:
Buttermilk. This is the preferred method of many fried chicken aficionados. The buttermilk adds a savory and silky quality to the meat, and results in super juicy chicken. Salt and pepper chicken pieces then place in a large bowl, cover with buttermilk, and marinate in the fridge for at least two hours.
Sweet tea. Black tea brings an rich, slightly smoky flavor to fried chicken, and guarantees a beautifully brown crust. Brew enough black tea to cover your chicken. For every 4 cups of hot water use 10 teabags or tablespoons of loose tea, 1/3 cup of sugar and 1/8 cup of salt. Brew enough tea to cover all of your chicken pieces. Marinate for at least 4 hours.
Sean Brock’s Husk Restaurant uses a two-stage brine - first sweet tea, then buttermilk. It is divine, and if you have the time you should give this a try!
Pickle juice. Yes, that’s right - the salty broth from your pickles make a damn good fried chicken brine. You need enough brine to “bathe” your chicken (it does not need to be submerged). Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours.
Dry brine. Mix up your salt and spices and rub all over dried-off chicken pieces. Place on a plate or in a container, cover, and refrigerate for 2-4 hours.
Baking powder. Adding baking powder to your flour or using self rising flour yields a super crunchy crust. Use 1 teaspoon for every cup of all purpose flour.
Cold chicken. The colder the chicken before frying, the crunchier the crust!
Not too sticky chicken. That may sound a bit weird, but after you dredge your chicken in the flour you want to shake as much flour off the chicken as you can and fry ASAP. So dredge, shake, and wait no more than a second or two before frying. Otherwise you risk a tough crust.
A frying pan worth its weight in crispy chicken. I only fry chicken in cast iron or forged steel pans. Period. They conduct heat evenly and reduce risk of scorching. I do not own one piece of artificially-treated non-stick pans for this reason. I have also fried chicken on a convection range in a stainless steel pan with good results, but nothing beats the taste and texture of chicken fried in a well seasoned iron pan. I use a 12” pan.
The right oil. I personally believe that this boils down to personal preference, though I prefer a combination of equal parts canola oil, peanut oil, and yes, lard. Of course, I use only the cleanest oil that I can find, getting my peanut oil cold pressed and my lard from a local farm. I have also fried chicken in straight vegetable/canola oil, vegetable shortening, and a combination of both. My grandmother used to put bacon drippings in her oil (magic!). Other oils like sunflower and grapeseed would work well, though will yield a bit of a oilier finish. Olive oil is a waste of time, because if you are eating fried chicken it really doesn’t matter. It’s fried chicken. Just go with it and eat a bunch of greens and whole grains to offset. Use olive oil only if you like the taste.
Deep enough oil. You want to make sure you have (a) a deep enough frying pan and (b) at least 2 inches of oil in the pan.
The right temperature. I have never stuck a thermometer in my oil, but the ideal temperature for your cooking oil before you start frying is 425F and 350F once the chicken is in the pan. The way I check my oil temperature is by flicking a drop of water into the oil - if it pops, the oil is hot enough. This, admittedly, quite stupid because of the risk of injury. The smarter method is to drop in a small cube of white bread - if it starts to sizzle ands build a steady brown over the course of 2-3 minutes, the oil is hot enough. You can always lower the temperature of your oil once you drop in the chicken, but if that oil is too cold when you add the chicken the flour will just float off and your chicken will be soggy.
Stick and move. Once your chicken is in the pan, keep it moving, turning every 2 minutes to avoid scorching and to cook the chicken evenly. Remember that dark meat cooks slower than white, and legs take the longest. You want your chicken to be a deep golden brown on all sides. The general amount of frying time per piece you want is:
Legs: 15-20 minutes
Thighs: 15-18 minutes
Breasts: 18 minutes
Wings: 12 minutes
I know that may this may all seem like a lot to think about, but I promise that these basics will stick if you just roll up your sleeves, put on your apron, and get to it! Have fun trying out different brines and fats, and make frying chicken an occasion by saving this ritual for Sunday dinner or having friends over. Now, to get you started, here is my grandmother’s dry brine fried chicken (in the photo above). This is possibly my favorite way to fry chicken at home because it is flavorful, crunchy, and straightforward! As stated above, I like to fry my chicken in a oil blend, but feel free to use whatever oil you prefer.
Dry Brine Fried Chicken
I whole fryer, cut up
For the dry brine:
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne
3-4 cups oil (for a 12” skillet) (you can use canola, peanut, sunflower, shortening, lard, or any combination thereof)
2 eggs, beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground paprika
Clean chicken by picking off any feathers and gently scraping the skin with a butterknife under cold running water. Dry thoroughly with paper towels and set on a large plate or in a casserole.
In a small bowl whisk together the dry brine ingredients. Sprinkle all of the dry brine over the chicken pieces and toss to coat ( I use my hands). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
To fry the chicken: Heat oil in a 10” or 12” skillet over medium high heat until 425F.
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and paprika together in a large bowl.
Blot to dry off each chicken piece with paper towels then dip in the beaten egg to coat. Shake off any excess egg, then drop into the flour.
Dredge the chicken piece in the flour and make sure to completely coat with flour. Shake well to remove any excess flour and drop into the hot oil.
Repeat this process with one or two more pieces of chicken until you have a single layer in the frying pan, making sure that there is enough space between each piece that they do not touch.
Staying close to the stove, turn the chicken with tongs every 2 minutes to ensure even cooking and to prevent scorching. Cook each piece of chicken this way for 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the piece and whether it is dark or white meat.
Remove chicken from the skillet and place on paper towels to drain.
Continue steps 3-9 until you have fried all of the chicken.
Serve hot or at room temperature with hot sauce, hot honey, or nothing at all.