There’s nothing more finger-lickingly good than a perfectly crisp-crunch piece of fried chicken. Forget the manners and napkins—it’s all about taking that bird in hand and hearing the crackle of that first satisfying bite.
Elements of Distress
Reality check: Frying a chicken at home is the least gratifying of experiences. For all the time and attention, the coating is noticeably thinner than its fast food counterpart; or even worse, it flakes like old nail polish. On the other hand, the beauty of fast food chicken, in all its crisp glory, is only skin deep: the underlying meat ends up both bland and dry. To top it off, the pleasurable mess of eating fried chicken pales in comparison to the less than thrilling hour of mandatory kitchen clean-up.
Plan of Attack
We wanted a chicken that rivaled fast food in crunchiness with a moist and flavorful interior. We also needed to streamline the frying process and eliminate unwanted mess.
We’d start our trouble-shooting with the coating. Fried chicken recipes fall into two camps when it comes to the dipping and dredging that precedes the frying: the single dippers (dip in buttermilk, dredge in flour, and fry) and the double dippers (includes the additional step of dipping in egg wash and dredging in flour). We quickly dispensed with the double-dipping option as unnecessary work.
Now that we were single dipping, we needed to perfect our coating. Plain flour didn’t make for a good crunch, Melba toast browned too quickly, and cornmeal contributed undesirable grittiness. That’s when we considered a somewhat unorthodox solution: pancake mix. While the baking powder added lightness and crispness to the batter, it also caused the coating to expand, contract, and eventually peel off. To solve this issue, we made our own version of pancake mix by combining flour with less baking powder.
As we fried in batches, we observed that the coating on pieces we dredged in the later batches was thicker because the flour was absorbing more and more of the buttermilk coating as it sat. To achieve this crunchier, thicker coating on every piece—not just those in the last batch—we streamlined the process: We added the buttermilk straight to the flour mix and then dredged the chicken pieces in the mixture. This made the process more efficient and gave us a sturdy, crunchy coating that didn’t fall off.
Now to tackle dry, overcooked chicken. Several recipes recommended brining in a saltwater solution, but we were using buttermilk anyway. Why not test soaking the chicken in the dairy as well? We found that a one-hour bath in buttermilk and salt produced a chicken that was not only juicy, but more flavorful.
But we still wanted to achieve a neater, less messy fried chicken, so we tried substituting a Dutch oven for the usual skillet. This change keeps more of the oil in the pot (rather than on the stove) where it belongs. Covering the pot during the first half of frying also helped the oil to recover heat more quickly.
The final piece in the puzzle was determining the type of frying oil. Peanut oil performed well, and lard added a nice mahogany color, but the top performer was vegetable oil. Not only did the chicken brown evenly, but it tasted like (gasp!) chicken, without a hint of greasiness.
Finally, fried chicken that’s finger lickin’ good—and doesn’t come in a bucket.