Thursday, July 15, 2010

Work in Progress: Fried Chicken!

Steve and I make fried chicken once a year, for the Fourth of July. This year’s batch was particularly good, and as a result of too much bragging (by me; Steve is much more restrained) several people asked for the recipe (hi, Veronica!). I couldn’t photocopy the recipe because of how it was laid out in the cookbook, so once I committed to typing it up, I thought what could be a better—or yummier?—metaphor for work in progress than this fried chicken project of ours, which has required over the years, time, patience, learning, luck, education, some bad “drafts,” and—at last!—has resulted in sweet success.

We’re not from the South, so I probably can’t claim this is the greatest fried chicken of all time. But it’s incredibly good, and not such a ridiculous recipe that it should scare the normal home cook. And it’s the best fried chicken this girl from Iowa has ever made.

Note: the paragraph heading the recipe is from the cookbook, and my hints follow the end of the recipe.


Fried Chicken

From the Joy of Cooking, 1997 edition

This chicken has the crackling crisp skin and distinctive mahogany color that are the hallmarks of this dish as prepared by the best Southern cooks. The buttermilk marinade promotes tenderness. Use a cast-iron skillet if possible, for it allows the chicken to achieve the prized deep color without charring. Frying the chicken in vegetable shortening rather than oil gives the crust a snapping crispness and, because shortening is more highly refined than oil, the odor-causing compounds are removed and it leaves less odor in the kitchen. A final important tip: The crust will stay crisper longer if you drain the chicken on a rack rather than on a paper bag or paper towels.

Rinse and pat dry:

3 ½ to 4 pounds chicken parts

Separate the chicken legs into thighs and drumsticks; cut each breast half diagonally in half through the bone. Stir together in a large bowl:

1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Add the chicken and turn to coat well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or remove the chicken and buttermilk to a sealable plastic bag. Refrigerate for 2 to 12 hours. Shake to mix in a doubled brown paper bag:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of red pepper (optional)

Shake the chicken a few pieces at a time in the bag until well coated. Let dry on a rack at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes. Place a deep, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, large enough to hold the chicken pieces in a single layer, over medium-high heat and add:

3 cups solid vegetable shortening

There should be enough shortening in the skillet to measure about ½ inch. Heat until a small corner of a chicken piece causes vigorous bubbling when dipped into the fat, about 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Being careful not to spatter yourself, gently lay the chicken pieces skin side down in the hot fat and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, checking after 5 minutes and moving the pieces if they are coloring unevenly or turning the heat down if the chicken is browning too quickly. (At this point, the fat should be bubbling and register between 250 degrees F and 300 degrees F on a thermometer.) Turn the chicken with tongs and cook, uncovered, until the second side is richly browned, 10 to 12 minutes more. Remove the chicken to a rack set over a baking sheet. If not serving immediately, remove the chicken, still on the rack, to an oven warmed at the lowest setting.

Chicken that is not to be served hot may be safely held at room temperature, still on the rack and loosely covered with wax paper, for several hours. It will be crisper and juicier than if chilled. Leftovers, of course, must be refrigerated. Serves 4.

Some notes from our experience:

--Temperature control is important and perhaps the most difficult variable. The oil must be neither too hot nor too cold.

--Don’t crowd the pan. We don’t have a big enough pan to fit all the pieces, so we set up two—one a cast-iron skillet, the other an All-Clad skillet—and both work well. Even so, we still have to do a second round in one of the pans to cook all these pieces.

--Sorry, but your kitchen WILL smell for a day or two. And doubly sorry, YES, making fried chicken leaves your stove and various utensils in a huge greasy mess that’s a pain to clean.

--Wings are easiest to get right; breasts are hardest. Don’t use those giant, Dolly Parton chicken breasts, or if that’s all they’ve got in the store, be sure to cut them as the recipe advises. You can buy a package of mixed parts—a whole chicken cut up—at the store.

--You’ll be surprised at how different this tastes from KFC—which I do love, but which, in contrast to this version, seems incredibly salty and processed-tasting.

--We use Crisco.

--Be safe. Remember that grease fires should be extinguished with baking soda (never water), so have an open box available, and every kitchen should have a fire extinguisher. Probably the only time you will need it is the time you DON’T have one available.

--Don’t invite anyone over…you will want these leftovers for yourself!

--Practice! We’ve made this for several years, and the chicken is getting better and better as we figure out the oil temperature situation.

--Hints and/or suggestions are welcome...send them here.


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