Each cook has a fave style of fried chicken
It started while we were watching a football game. An ad appeared for a well-known brand of fried chicken developed by an elderly Southern gentleman. Maybe we were hungry (no chips and salsa on hand) or perhaps we imagined the aroma wafting from a bucket of crispy drumsticks. Dinner had to be fried chicken.
The first challenge was locating bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts that didn’t weigh over a pound each. There were several different cuts of boneless breasts, from tenderloins to paillards, but only a handful of split breasts. And, the way these huge pieces had been butchered, very little skin remained over the bulging flesh. Drumsticks were in similar condition, thin scraps of skin over a knob of meat the size of a softball. But, we’d already made our menu choice.
Once we had chicken parts, it was time to decide how to fry them: with or without batter and with or without deep fat. Much like recipes for meatloaf or tomato sauce, every cook has his or her favorite (or secret) ingredient and method. While living in New Orleans, I followed the Southern tradition of making fried chicken. I learned the tenderizing technique of an overnight soak in seasoned buttermilk. This was followed by a thorough coating of peppered flour (delivered in a brown paper sack) and 20 minutes in a skillet of melted Crisco to deliver crunchy coating over juicy meat.
Another approach I’ve tried is oven-frying. Chicken pieces are moistened with an egg-milk bath and then dredged in cornmeal, flour, bread crumbs or a mixture of all three. You may have tasted the cornflake-crusted version of this at a summer picnic during your childhood. My mother suggested another variation: coat the chicken pieces in crumbled French-fried onion rings (the stuff that tops the holiday green bean casserole). This preparation works equally well with skinless, boneless chicken.
To avoid excess calories added by coating the chicken with breading, I opted to pan fry the pieces. As I pulled out the cast-iron skillet, I remembered the first time I’d cooked bacon. I was probably 9 years old and had always seen the crisp strips browning in a fat-filled pan. Not yet aware that the bacon rendered its own fat, I filled the pan with shortening and set it over the heat to melt before adding the bacon. It was one of those early kitchen lessons I never forgot (nor did my mother).
Pan frying or sautéing the chicken would work in a similar fashion as the bacon: fat in the skin would liquefy as it heated; no shortening necessary in the skillet.
To provide flavor, the pieces were liberally coated with a citrus peel pepper spice blend before they were placed in the cold skillet. If you begin with a heated skillet, you run the risk of burning the skin before the interior is fully cooked (the photo shows a few of the pepper bits that almost reached that point).
While this version doesn’t have a true crust, the skin crisped and browned into a crunchy delight, leaving the meat tender and juicy. However, as the pieces cooked, the kitchen floor by the stove became an oil slick, dots of grease completely covered the front of my shirt, and even the spoon rest cradled a puddle of chicken fat. Next time we have a craving for fried chicken, I’ll invest in a spatter shield or a deeper pot – better yet, we’ll visit the Colonel.
Southern Fried Chicken
4 pounds chicken parts
1 1/2 C buttermilk
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
2 C flour
2 t salt
1 t black pepper
1/8 t cayenne
3 C solid shortening
If the breasts weigh more than 4 ounces each, cut them in half on the diagonal. Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces; remove excess skin flaps and fat. In a large glass bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces, turning to coat completely. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight. When ready to cook the chicken, combine the flour, salt, pepper and cayenne in a heavy brown paper bag; shake to combine. Remove the chicken pieces one at time from the buttermilk, allowing the excess to drip off. Place in the bag one or two pieces at a time and shake until thoroughly coated. Set coated chicken on a rack to dry for 20 minutes.
Melt the shortening in a deep, cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat; it should reach a depth of 1/2 inch. When oil temperature reaches 350 F, add the chicken in a single layer, skin side down. Cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan and turn over the chicken pieces; cook uncovered until well browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cooked chicken to a rack set over paper towels to absorb drips. Yield: 4 servings.
Oven Fried Chicken
4 lbs chicken parts*
1 C plain yogurt
1/4 C Dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
1/8 C olive oil
2 pressed garlic cloves
3 C plain bread crumbs
1 C grated Parmesan cheese
1 t oregano
1/2 t thyme
1 T parsley
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. If the breasts weigh more than 4 ounces each, cut them in half on the diagonal. Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces; remove excess skin flaps and fat. In a large glass bowl, whisk together the yogurt, mustard, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Add the chicken pieces to the yogurt mixture and turn to coat completely. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Place the remaining ingredients in a wide, shallow bowl, stirring to combine.
Remove the chicken from the marinade, allowing the excess to drip off. Dredge in bread crumb mixture, pressing to ensure crumbs adhere. Arrange the coated chicken on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until juices run clear and coating is browned, about 55 minutes. *Note - if using boneless chicken, reduce cooking time to 35 minutes.