I happen to like fried chicken. I like just about everything about it. I like being in the store and looking for the right chicken. I like cutting up the chicken, and then preparing the pieces for frying, and then frying them in the big pan we use for that purpose. And I like eating my portion. I can’t say I like disposing of the grease, a messy business, but then the meal I’ve just eaten has usually been worth it.
The fried chicken I like best is deep-fried. It’s fried in a pan filled with oil of a high smoke point (peanut is good). The oil is about an inch-and-a-half deep, and the heat (325 degrees, though you need to watch it and make adjustments) is such that the pieces, while submerged in the oil, don’t touch the bottom of the pan but fry comfortably until the crust is brown and crispy.
Pan-fried chicken—it uses less oil and the pieces touch the bottom—is okay. And I occasionally eat the kind made with a special pressure cooker that accelerates the process—so-called pressure-fried chicken. It was introduced in the Second World War by Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame and is used where demand is high, in fast-food chains and some restaurants. But when the measure is taste, neither pan-fried nor pressure-fried can match deep-fried chicken, provided it is made right.
I learned about fried chicken growing up in Texas in a family that ate a lot of it. My mother’s mother didn’t go to the store for her chickens but raised them out back, near the garden. She could wring a chicken’s neck—a skill, alas, I did not learn—and she used a large cast-iron pan for frying the bird, as did my father’s mother—and as did my mother, a home economics teacher.
To the extent I thought about such things in those days, I would have guessed that fried chicken was a Southern invention, since it was often referred to in my part of the country as “Southern fried chicken.”
But history tells a more complicated story. Four hundred years ago, chicken was being fried in Scotland (though not in prissy England, where it was baked) and in West Africa—precursors, it turns out, of the fried chicken that first appeared on our continent in the American South in the late seventeenth century.
Today fried chicken remains “a staple of the South,” as the old cookbooks call it. But in the past 80 years it has become popular across the country, admired today even by the best chefs. It’s a national food, indeed a great American food.
And, if it is to be good, two things matter. The first is the chicken itself. Roasters, ranging from three-and-a-half pounds to six, aren’t bred for frying; they’re just too big to make good fried chicken. I learned that lesson while a student in England, when the only chickens in the market the day I was asked to fry chicken were big roasters, one of which I warily bought and tried to fry.
Broilers or fryers—the terms are used interchangeably—range from two-and-a-half pounds to above four and do make for good fried chicken—especially if the bird is on the lighter side, less than three pounds. Obviously, the smaller the bird the smaller the pieces cut from it, and in my experience, smaller pieces fry best in the crackling deep fat.
What also matters is how you cut up a chicken to get those pieces. A chicken easily yields eight pieces you can fry—two wings, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two breasts—and the skilled cook can find the wishbone, surrounded by a delicate piece of white meat. On YouTube you can watch cooks demonstrating how to cut up a chicken with surgical care, using a small kitchen knife.
Preparing the pieces for frying can be done any number of ways. Each involves creating a batter to coat and seal the chicken. It’s made with flour and milk or buttermilk, perhaps also a beaten egg, maybe a splash of hot sauce (my wife’s addition), and desired spices. I don’t have a strong preference. I’ve eaten fried chicken variously battered, and none have I regretted, save that wretched one in England.
Recently our daughter Katie, who ate her share of fried chicken growing up (though only breast meat), decided she’d learn how to make it. She followed the recipe in the Lee brothers’ new Charleston Kitchen. It calls for legs and thighs only, which take about half again as much time to fry as white meat. She did a fine job. And she came up with a chef-like innovation, as she found a way to cut each thigh into two pieces.
Fried chicken is fast becoming one of Katie’s best dishes, though I don’t expect she’ll raise her own chickens and wring their necks.