Every week on Food52, chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld features his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.
Today: The slow art of fried chicken -- with 12 tips and a master recipe.
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.
1. Pick a bird that is no bigger than 3 1/2 pounds. Anything over this size really isn't meant to be fried. To me, a 3-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. In my opinion, 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 2 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 1 to 1 1/2 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 twenty 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 twenty 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 short cut 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)
1. After you have cut up your chicken, place it in a tray or on a sheet pan with sides. Season it on all sides with kosher salt. Place it back into the fridge for at least 2 hours to overnight.
2. When you are ready to fry the chicken, combine the flour, cornstarch, dried seasonings, salt, and pepper in a large plastic or paper bag. Give it a shake to mix.
3. Work with three pieces of chicken at a time. Place the first three pieces into the flour. Close the bag and shake it around until the chicken is coated evenly. Before you remove the chicken to a cooling rack give it a gently shake to rid it of excess flour. Continue with the first flour coat until all the pieces are floured.
4. Again, working with three pieces at a time dip the first three pieces of chicken into the egg wash( the buttermilk and egg whisked together). Make sure they are coated on all sides. Remove them from the wash and place them into the flour bag. Gently shake and roll them until they are fully coated for the second time. Remove them to a cooling rack once more. Continue until you have finished with all the pieces. Now let the flour-coated chicken rest for 20 minutes to form a crust.
5. Turn your oven to 250˚ F.
6. Place the pot over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and oil. You can use a deep fry thermometer but I never really find them accurate unless you can submerge then at least 2 inches up the stem. The pancetta is your canary in a coal mine. As the oil heats it will begin to bubble. It will get you close to the right oil temperature but then you need to go with the crouton method. In other words I take a piece of bread, pinch off a corner and drop it into the oil. If the oil is hot enough the bread will sink almost to the bottom but before it gets there the bubbles that have formed from the hot oil will carry it back to the top. If the bread sinks to the bottom and rests, gets a few bubbles and then slowly rises, the oil isn't hot enough. On the other hand if the bread hits the surface of the oil and it looks immediately like it is surfing a volcano then the oil is way too hot -- remove the pot from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes then place it back on the heat and test again.
7. Remove the pancetta when it is crispy.
8. When the oil is right, begin frying 5 to 7 pieces of chicken at a time. Just be sure to give the chicken some room. This, of course, is a common sense moment. It all depends on the size of your pot -- you be the judge. Just realize if you crowd the chicken, the crust will cook together and you either have one big piece of fried chicken or you'll have to break off pieces of the crust, which is less than desirable.
9. After you place the chicken into the pot, let it sit for 15 to 30 seconds before you attempt to turn it. This moment of time allows the crust to set so when you go to turn it the crust doesn't fall off.
10. Turn the chicken as necessary. If by chance your oil has not risen above the chicken you will need to turn it more often but by no means add oil after you have begun frying.
11. Brown the chicken on all sides. Once it has browned, remove it to a tray with a cooling rack and place it immediately into the heated oven.
12. After the last batch of chicken goes into the oven, let all of it rest in there for 15 to 20 minutes. Finish any sides that need it, dress the salads, and get everything to the table. Platter up the bird and serve.
Photos by Tom Hirschfeld