Frying chicken, at its best, is a state of mind formed much in the same way as the quiet back beats of a porch-sitting session with a dear friend. It has a rhythm. It is good company on a sunny summer afternoon. It is pointless to rush. Futile, even. Besides, the comfort of a good friend comes from the effortlessness of meaningful conversation and is further heightened by the knowledge you have nothing you would rather do.
First you need to confront yourself; if you are in a hurry to fry chicken you should consider cooking something else. It is not a preparation to be hurried. The dinner will be ruined, even if the chicken is cooked perfectly. It is slow food — not because it takes forever to prepare, but rather because of the enjoyment of cooking and anticipation of the dinner to come. It is why fried chicken is the perfect summer Sunday meal.
Forget the notion of heavy-handed sides like mashed potatoes or mac and cheese. Even biscuits are not required. You will forget about them anyway once you realize they aren't nearly as good as the side dishes you can make with the fresh vegetables you picked up earlier that morning from the farmers market or, better yet, your own garden.
Think about a table set with a buttery succotash thick with sweet corn kernels fresh off the cob, fresh Lima beans patina-ed the color of a milky Key lime pie, and seasoned with green onions and lots of black pepper. Or how about stacks of salted thick sliced tomatoes, a vinegary leafy green salad, a bowl of roasted beets laced with fresh herbs, heady with aroma, or even a creamy cucumber salad with onions sliced paper thin. Trust me, there is room for all of them at the table.
From the first bite into the tender crust followed by the wonderful fatty juices of a well raised bird, I like to eat my fried chicken dinner much like lunches as experienced in the French countryside, with a healthy measure of friendship and the leisure of not knowing the time.
The rules of frying chicken
1. Pick a bird that is no bigger than 3.5 pounds. Anything over this size really isn't meant to be fried. A three-pound bird is perfect.
2. To ensure the breasts don't overcook and become too dry, cut the double lobed breast into three. (Take note of the picture of the raw chicken above.)
3. Wet brining does nothing for chicken but change the texture of the chicken to be more like ham. I am not a fan.
4. If you have a source for good chicken, why cover up the taste of a great bird with lots of unnecessary flavors?
5. To retain moisture, I use the Russ Parsons/Judy Rodgers method of dry brining as a guide and salt the chicken the night before, or at least two hours before frying.
6. You don't need a deep fryer to make great fried chicken. A high-sided Dutch oven or cast iron pot (not pan) is fine. Fill the bottom with peanut oil about one to 1.5 inches in depth. It should come up the sides of the pot no more than a third. When you add the chicken, the oil level will rise.
7. After you flour coat the chicken the second time, let the chicken rest on a rack for 20 minutes to form a crust before you fry it. This also allows the chicken to warm to room temperature which will help it to cook through. Use the time to finish any sides.
8. Your oven is your best friend here. Fried chicken is meant to rest before it is eaten. In turn, I don't worry too much about interior doneness because I always keep the chicken in a 250˚ F oven. I let it rest in there about 20 minutes, which allows time for it to finish cooking, remain crispy, and lets me finish any side dishes too.
9. Don't forget to fry up the giblets too — I always throw in extras. Serve them with a side of wing sauce. You'll be happy you did.
10. Choose lots of sides that can be made ahead of time so when you go to fry the chicken, there is nothing else to think about.
11. Gluten-free flours such as Cup4Cup make for a crispier crust. If you are going to use wheat flour, add a 1/4 cup of cornstarch to the flour to crisp up the crust.
12. Take your time, don't shortcut anything, and give the chicken lots of room. Enjoy yourself, frying chicken is fun!
Serves 6 to 8
2 chickens, around 3 pounds each, each chicken cut into 9 pieces
2 cups gluten-free flour or all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch (optional, it is used for a crispier crust)
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 cups peanut oil
2 slices pancetta, 1/16-inch thick (this adds a really nice subtle flavor to the finished product)
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld
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