Generally, I’m not a fan of chicken (gasp!). The chicken widely available in American supermarkets is at best a bland slate for any number of sauces and flavors. Even for the chicken dishes I sort of like, my enjoyment is in spite of, not because of, the bird at the center. Fried chicken usually falls under this category, the bone-in poultry serving as a socially acceptable delivery method for the actual goodies: spicy breaded animal fat, deep fried to a crisp. I started work on my chicken frying skills this summer, and to my shock, have perfected the art of golden chicken pieces whose flesh tastes nearly as good as their skin.
The secret is starting at least 48 hours ahead of the first bite, which takes special motivation if, like me, your best cooking results when precious free time meets creative culinary whim. But I promise, this is one dish worth the planning. What gives the flesh its flavor is a highly seasoned buttermilk brine or marinade. The technique is old news, but I think the level of seasoning and time spent soaking are the keys to making this chicken meat the most tender I’ve tried.
I follow this recipe but vary the spices depending on mood, side dishes, and what’s on hand. I usually swap cayenne for ruby-red Indian chili powder, and have tried combinations of Dijon, yellow, and honey mustard. You can play with flavors but follow these essential tips: brine for 24+ hours in a zip top bag with all of the air removed, turn the bag over and massage the buttermilk into the chicken pieces a few times a day, and use enough salt to flavor even the thickest breast meat (the seasoned buttermilk will taste oppressively salty).
After its long milk bath, the chicken spends another hour mingling with a simply seasoned flour mixture. If you buy a “fryer,” split the breasts in half, or better yet, have the butcher do it for you. A full-sized breast would take forever to fry. Like magic, your 8-piece chicken dinner becomes 10, so you can invite more friends over to rave about how your fried chicken is even better than that world-famous chicken they waited in line 2 hours to try while vacationing in [fill-in-the-blank southern city].
Per the recipe, I fry in peanut oil which can be pricey. Light colored vegetable oil or shortening should make a fine substitute. Because I love fried chicken but don’t want my couch/dog/clothes smelling like it a week later, I fry outside in an electric skillet. This has the added bonus of choosing a temperature dial, which eliminates the need for an immersion thermometer.
I’ve found that serving the chicken after exactly ten minutes on a wire cooling rack produces perfectly crispy skin that adheres to the meat and flesh that is warm and juicy but won’t burn your mouth. Served with mashed potatoes and a simple salad dressed in buttermilk, this is finally a chicken I can love.