Perfect Fried Chicken
I have a very delightful friend from Ghana who I am blessed to occasionally work with when I officiate weddings. After working a wedding together, we began to chat about life, love, and the meaning of the universe. Oddly, all topics that seem to come up at weddings. This friend is perhaps the most polite and reserved individual I have ever met. Because of these two qualities, I was very curious to know if my friend has any guilty pleasures– you know, those things in life that bring us great joy, but we are a little ashamed to admit just how much we love them.
After explaining to him the definition of a guilty pleasure, he could not think of a single thing. I suppose that this it is not something they discuss very often in Ghana. The major pitfall to discussing guilty pleasures is when you admit your shameful pleasure and your friend seems immune to these vices. My day job is as a youth pastor. In general, I assume that with enough digging, I could find something. So, I decided to begin suggesting categories of guilty pleasures to my friend, including movies, TV, snacks, and fast food. The first few categories were total misses, but as soon as I said fast food my beloved friend’s face immediately transformed from a normal complexion into the brightest of reds. I had found it, the kind of shame that is associated with a deep-seated love of fast food.
My friend confessed he did not particularly enjoy consuming American cuisine. Given his robust and overly fit physique, I believed him. However, he confessed that he can never say no to Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). I had to investigate: how deep did his addiction run? I decided to treat him to dinner that night, courtesy of the 24-hour drive through at KFC. My ordinarily fit, reserved, and self-controlled friend ordered a 20-piece bucket for himself. In retrospect, I feel slightly guilty about the entire ordeal. It is generally not in my nature to encourage such temptation, but it did give me an idea for a great recipe.
Fried chicken is delicious when done right and a sin when under seasoned, breaded heavily, or over-cooked. As a native from Southern Illinois, just a stone’s throw away from Kentucky, I have had more than my fair share of both absolutely delicious and incredibly awful fried chicken. I will admit, KFC’s original recipe is magical. However, you cannot beat homemade!
The great part of developing recipes is the experiment phase. If you want to learn how to cook the most delectable meal, then you must try different approaches, techniques, and ingredients to finally get the recipe just right. You will also need a few good tools to accomplish the perfectly crispy crust for fried chicken. With a little experimentation, and at great risk to my health, I prepared and was delighted to consume about 20 pieces of fried chicken over the course of a week. Over time, I gradually tweaked the recipe until the result was a miraculous plate of fried chicken that could make anyone drool. You are welcome internet, my heart for yours!
Many of you probably do not own a deep fryer. Good for you! I do not either; although, it is not for lack of trying. When I attempted to register one as a wedding gift my wife informed me that “till death do us part” was not a sprint challenge. So, we would never own a deep fryer. Consequently, I did what any well-meaning husband would do: I found a loophole. I could utilize cast iron skillet or any other heavy-bottom cookware pieces as a makeshift fryer.
Tools for success
- Cast Iron Skillet– I know what many of you are thinking: isn’t cast iron too difficult to clean? It is awfully heavy, why would I want such an intense upper body workout? I simply say that all of these objections are a bunch of “poppycock” for these reasons: 1) yes, cast iron is heavy, but that means even and consistent heating; 2) no, cast iron is not more difficult to clean. It is different and requires heat and oil to season the pan, but is often easier than scrubbing a nonstick; 3) cast iron is nonstick without using chemical coating that can scratch and end up in your dinner; and 4) the pan is extremely versatile. You can take that cast iron from the stove top put it immediately in the oven or the grill all without batting an eye. Honestly, it is cheap and easy to maintain, while giving superior results. If I have not yet convinced you of its virtue, then I fear you are a lost cause.
- Thermometer– You need to know the oil temperature when you are cooking. Cooking is a bit like driving in that guessing your temperature is as bad as guessing your speed. You need a speedometer to drive and you need a thermometer to cook. They are fairly inexpensive to get a great model and can be used to check meat temperature as well. Spring for a good digital instant read. I use a thermopop and love the little devil like a son.
- Cooling Rack– A cooling rack is a wire rack used for cooling food. Growing up, we used the paper towel method which works, but I always feel it is super wasteful. If you don’t care about waste, then you may care that it also makes soggy chicken. That’s right, if you use a cooling rack it will stay crispy and perfect. Reach for the paper towels and risk the bottom becoming super greasy and soggy. The decision is in your hands, you know what to do.
- Marinade Bowl– You will want to marinade the chicken before breading and coating the chicken. For a marinade, you need to be sure that the bowl is big enough to submerge the chicken completely. You will also need to make sure that it can sit in your fridge covered. No one wants salmonella and you can easily infest your fridge by spilling a bit of used marinade when trying to pull your chicken out.
- Marinade– Let that chicken soak up a little flavor before you bread and fry each piece. There are so many different things you can do here. You can brine it in pickle juice, marinade it in buttermilk, or marinade it in hot sauce. I experimented with all these and will let you in on what I discovered. They are all awesome. Honestly, a pickle juice brine makes the chicken super delicious. The salt and pickling flavors will impart great flavors into the finished product. The recipe I liked the most was with the hot sauce marinade to give the chicken a great kick. Buttermilk is a classic, but to be honest this was my least favorite marinade choice. It did not change the final product as much as the hot sauce or the brine.
- Three-Step Breading– in terms of frying, I know about two major camps, the wet and the dry. I figure let’s combine them into one super awesome breading. Wipe excess marinade off the chicken and then move on to breading. The first phase is a plain flour coat. Then you dip it in a beer batter (yeah, beer it up). Then you finish it in the seasoned flour coating. This method will give you a great coating on top of your marinade. The trick is to make sure the coating is not too thick. If it is, the batter may be soggy or the breading super thick and the final product kind of gross.
- Cooking Time– Cooking time will vary on different parts of the chicken. I wanted to make sandwiches, so I used boneless and skinless chicken thighs. This came out to an average of 5 minutes per side. This put the total cook time at 10 minutes per batch. You need to be careful not to overcrowd the frying pan. With each piece of chicken, it cools the temperature of the oil. The more you crowd the more likely it is too overflow and to cook slowly. I never put any more than 3 pieces per batch in at a time. Also, when you pull it from the fryer. Immediately check the internal temp with your thermometer. It should read 165 degrees. Do not eat undercooked chicken or you will spend a lot of time praying to the porcelain gods.
- Shallow Fry – Like I said, I do not own a deep fryer. I take a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven and fill it with oil. You cannot completely submerge the chicken nor should you try. Make sure the cooking pan is filled no more than 30% full of oil. You can seriously injure yourself with hot oil!The oil will bubble and overflow if the pan is too full. When shallow frying you will need to flip half way through the cooking process.
- Cool on a Wire Rack– Pull the chicken from the oil when it is finished cooking, and place it on a nearby cooling rack. Immediately sprinkle salt and pepper the chicken. Let the chicken rest for about 5 minutes to cool down before eating. Seriously, you will be tempted to take a bite. If you do, you will burn the life out of your tongue and will be unable to taste anything for a few days. By then, your delicious chicken will no longer be good.
Chicken – I chose boneless and skinless thighs. Dark meat is more moist and has a deeper flavor. If you overcook dark meat it is less likely to dry out. If you overcook white meat, then you will need a lot of water. Pick your favorite cut. Bone in or out. Thigh, leg, or breast this recipe will work great.
Marinade – Frank’s red hot, enough said. Submerge the chicken completely with the marinade and let sit for at least 1hr and up to 4hrs. Do the same if you choose to go with the pickle juice or the buttermilk. You can brine overnight if you like as well.
Breading – This comes in three stages with three different recipes. They are simple so do not fret:
- Dry Coat – This is simply all-purpose flour. Do not bother seasoning this flour. Give It a quick coat on both sides. Make sure that it covers all the chicken but is not clumped on.
- Wet Coat – Ingredients: 1 cup flour, 1 egg, 8oz beer.For this coating you want to create a batter. I like to choose something with bubbles like beer or club soda to make the batter lighter. When picking a beer, do not choose something overpowering like a stout. You will lose a lot of more subtle flavors if you do this. In general, I put 1 egg per cup of flour. Whisk this all together. It should have the consistency of pancake batter. If it is too thin, then add some flour. If too thick add some more beer or club soda.
- Seasoned Coat – The final coat is seasoned flour. Ingredients: 1 cup flour, 3 tbs Scarborough hen seasoning*, and 1 tbs salt.
I loved this fried chicken recipe. The results were so much more satisfying than any other fried chicken I have had. I would not mess with the technique (3-step breading), as other variants that I tried all gave me sub-par chicken. In terms of the recipe, go for whatever tickles your fancy. I found the hot sauce marinade was superior to the buttermilk. But, I prefer hot chicken. I also liked the beer batter more than the club soda. However, I did notice that the club soda had a cleaner taste. The beer gave the chicken a wheat kind of taste (I used a German wheat beer).
Fried chicken is an American classic. When I lived in China for a year everyone was convinced that Americans only ever eat cheeseburgers and French fries for lunch with fried chicken or steak for dinner. Every “American” restaurant had at least one of these items on the menu. If you can learn to cook this recipe or a variant of it, I guarantee Sunday dinners at your house will become #Legendary.
Scarborough hen seasoning – When in doubt, Simon and Garfunkel can show you the way. Use 1 tbs each of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Add in 1 tbs of black pepper and garlic powder but do not use any salt. This is a great poultry seasoning so most things you will use it on are brined and the extra salt will be too much.