I have spent quite a few years eating and drinking, and I pride myself on being willing to try anything, and I do mean anything, that is intended for ingestion by human beings. I have eaten food from Hawker Stalls in Malaysia that our hosts for that vacation called “botulism on a stick,” and avoided like the plague. Fried Chicken Livers and Waffles for breakfast at Elizabeth’s in the Warehouse District in New Orleans; Starling (tiny blackbirds) brains prepared by a French Chef I worked for; Sea Cucumbers, which I am still not sure are animal or vegetable, at Daimo in Emeryville for a Chinese New Year dinner (“Let’s give this to the round-eyes; see if they eat it…”); Durian, the World’s Stinkiest Fruit: tastes like smoky pineapple, smells like ripe Fontina; and anything and everything that comes from a Taco Truck (although I have discovered you don’t call tacos made from tongue “Tacos de Lengua”, as that term has an entirely different meaning to Mexicans, and has nothing to do with eating…food that is.)
So even though my Cast Iron Stomach has rusted a bit over the years, I am still quite adventurous when it comes to food; so you have to go a ways to find “the best I’ve ever had” of anything. But last night was one of those rare food epiphanies where my eyes were opened anew to something I’d had hundreds of times before: Fried Chicken.
Up until last night, I think the best Fried Chicken I’d had was at Wyatt’s Country Kitchen, located on a pretty scary stretch of Memorial Drive in Decatur, GA. Wyatt’s is a double-wide mobile home with a screened-in front porch for a dining room, and a big smoker bolted onto the back. He puts out ribs, collards, and butter beans “like you read about” and, on Sundays only, does Fried Chicken. Gotta get there early, too, as the after-Church crowd will eat it all up if you don’t, and they are usually sold out by 2pm.
But last night we were celebrating our friend Kim’s birthday, so my wife and I made dinner: Killer Mac-N-Cheese (recipe for that at another time, as it too was so-o-o-o good it deserves it’s own post) and what will forever be known as “Slap-Yo-Mama-Because-She-Should-Have-Made-It-This-Good-For-You-All-Along” Fried Chicken. Or, just slightly more succinct, “Kim’s Birthday/Valentine’s Day Fried Chicken.”
Here is the recipe/procedure; not as complicated as many I have encountered, just way, way better. Were I you, I would not change a thing the first time through, as even the most seemingly insignificant alteration may yield sub-par results. You might even have to come over here and use our stove and skillet to be sure you get it just right:
- 12 Chicken Thighs and 12 Legs (us White Folk don’t be eatin’ us no White Meat)
- 1/4 cup Kosher Salt for The Brine, plus about a teaspoon more for breading
- 1/4 cup granulated Sugar
- 1 tablespoon Chile Powder (I used a blend made by “El Guapo” available on that little rack of Mexican spices that almost every supermarket in California has; 98¢ for an ounce)
- 1 tablespoon dried Oregano
- 2 pints water
- All purpose flour for breading the chicken pieces
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Oil for frying (Carole used a mix of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Canola that that we bought at Safeway, I think, plus a little peanut oil she found in the cupboard).
Step 1: The Brine
(This is not one of those brining procedures that starts out with “Five days ahead of time, put the chicken in a brine of…” No, I brined the chicken pieces for only about five hours.)
Put the 1/4 cup Kosher Salt, the sugar, the Chile powder, and the oregano in a bowl large enough to accommodate all the chicken and the water. Add the water to the bowl and whisk it until well blended, and the sugar and salt have melted.
Put the chicken in the brine and submerge it. Put the bowl in the fridge. You might need to push the chicken down into the brine occasionally, but my bowl was wide enough that I really didn’t need to.
When ready to start frying, remove the chicken from the brine and rinse under cold, running water, and let drain in a colander. After they have drained a while, place chicken pieces, skin side up for the thighs, on a sheet pan lined with two thicknesses of paper towels. Use another wad of paper towels to pat the top of the pieces dry.
Step 2: The Fry
Put a couple of cups of the AP Flour in a Zip-Loc bag with the teaspoon of Kosher salt, and twenty twists or so of the black pepper from your pepper mill. Put the drained, dry chicken in the bag and coat well, a few pieces at a time. Place floured chicken on a sheet pan with a rack and let sit while you finish your breading duties.
Once all chicken pieces are floured, put your Big-Ass Cast Iron Skillet on a medium-high flame and let it heat for a minute or so. Pre-heat the oven to 325°. Add enough of the oil to cover the bottom of your B.A.C.I.S. to a depth of about a 1/4 inch.
Re-flour the chicken pieces a few at a time as you fry them in batches, using the same flour from the first breading (Don’t re-flour the all the chicken at once; do them a few at a time, and wait until just before it is their turn in the pan).
Now comes the only really tricky part in the whole operation: the actual frying. My wife is the Fry-Mistress; and her technique, while partly instinctive by virtue of her Mid-Western gene pool, has been finely honed over the years. Knowing when the oil is too hot, not enough, etc, is a skill that only comes with practice; but generally speaking, slower is better. I can’t give you an exact temperature because checking the oil’s temperature with a thermometer is just not how she rolls.
Knowing when to turn the bird is also critical, as she turns the pieces but once. The chicken last night fried at a pace that allowed her to put it in the pan, then come out into the backyard to socialize and have a cocktail, returning to the stove at just the precise moment to make the turn. So, to time it precisely, make yourself a Cosmo, go chat for about 15-20 minutes, then flip. Another important part of the frying procedure, apparently, is to yell “DON’T FLIP IT!!!” at your husband, from the backyard, if you happen to look through the kitchen window and see him even approaching the stove. (“Hey, I’m not touching it!!”)
Fry the chicken until beautifully golden brown. Put crispy, beautiful pieces of chicken yumminess onto a sheet pan with a rack, to keep warm in the oven while you finish frying the rest. Some of the pieces from the first couple of batches can be returned to the hot oil in the pan to re-crisp them, if you feel it necessary, before serving.
To those of you adventurous enough to try this Best Fried Chicken of All Time recipe, I will just say, in advance, “You’re welcome…”