[Exclusive to the Mercury, the following recipe is excerpted from The Achewood Cookbook II by Chris Onstad, set to be released this month. Visit www.achewood.com for more information and to pre-order.- Ed.]
No Fuss, Half Hour Fried Chicken
recipe by Peter H. Cropes
I HAVE A FRIEND named Daytime Dan. He is very good at frying chicken, and I learned this process at his elbow. I can honestly tell you that his chicken rivals any in the land.
His style is that he does not use a batter, or "egg dredge." I agree with him on this. All too commonly batter (or "breading," if you are in the city) is just a useless sheath of oil-gunny around a fine piece of meat. Batter is a fool's errand, which must no longer find purchase within our minds.
When you taste these fried chicken pieces, you will feel as though you are tasting the whole "caboodle" for the first time, perhaps as it was in history, say in 1973.
Nineteen seventy-three was a good year for fried chicken. People were careful with it, and used the correct grease, with the correct coating. They ate and strode and carried on long into the night. There must have been a brief revolution of magazine articles against batter, is what that leads me to believe. Groups of people who dined upon battered fried chicken, throughout history, always required great periods of rest afterward, and could not hit the town.
This recipe is so simple that you really have no excuse not to make it. There is none of that belabored overnight nonsense, where the chicken soaks in buttermilk (when I want fried chicken, I usually do not want it, "tomorrow"). There is no "brining" (for God's sake) or the aforementioned eggs and batter.
This is as simple as fried chicken gets, and it is also as GOOD as fried chicken gets. The skin renders out all its greasy, rubbery fat and becomes crisp; the meat stays juicy and delectable. I could eat ten pieces at a sitting, I do not lie.
KITCHEN TOOLS NEEDED
Deep cast iron pot, at least 6 quarts in capacity
Tongs or spatula or wire skimmer "spider"
Wire drying rack
1. Season and flour chicken
2. Fry skin-side down in oil, 5 minutes, lid off
3. Fry skin-side up in oil, 15 minutes, lid on (reduce heat)
4. Fry skin-side down in oil, 5 minutes or more, lid off
PROCEDURE IN DETAIL
I have come to truly believe that a lot of folks over think fried chicken. It's a bit of a production, what with all that hot oil you must prepare and then clean up. "Shouldn't we make the food a complicated production too?" we think. In this example, our instincts are wrong. Dry the chicken, season it gently, flour it simply, and turn it twice within the oil. I would hardly call that fuss.
To begin, I want to justify the high-society nature of my seasoning mix right away, before folks cast aspersions. As you may have heard, it is true: I use a store-bought ingredient from a major gourmet source. I do this because it creates the true flavor of all-American fried chicken with a minimum of worry and investment.
Oh, how I have tried to stray from this flavor with a variety of combinations; always, this recipe did prevail. There is no replacing familiar flavor, and in this recipe, I truly do believe you will achieve the world's greatest fried chicken, the one you remember from childhood.
You will see what this special store-bought seasoning is as you read the list of ingredients. I declare that it is worth your investment, and I do not lie when it comes to matters of money, for when money is squandered, there can be only anger and vengeance.
It is well to note that I only fry the thigh. The breast does not have enough crispiness-to-meat ratio to justify this fine type of cooking, and the drumstick, while quite amenable to this technique, does not offer enough meat. For me, it is the thigh—the, "thinking man's wing."
Wings are good, of course, as they crisp up nice and usually you can eat the third section complete with bone, but they do not have the yield of a thigh. Fry breasts and drumsticks if you must, as this technique will treat them fairly, but cook the breast longer, and deal with the results in your own way.
Finally, then, I must admit my fancy store-bought preparation to you, before proceeding. I think you will be able to tell it apart from the rest of the fixings.
6 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on, skin still firmly attached to meat and not flapping around loose
Black pepper, preferably fresh-ground
Lawry's Seasoned Salt*
1 1/2 quart of vegetable oil (48oz, 1.42 L)
I use honest American corn oil, but you can mess around some, here, so long as the oil is safe to get to 375F. Some men fry in Canola, Safflower, even olive oil. Some men fry in clearseed oil, and some in the tallow of a Mike boar's kidney netting, claiming unique and superior qualities, but really, if you have Lawry's Seasoned Salt, you can just smile and wish them fine days.
How to season:
Chicken, as it is a Flesh, naturally has a slime to it; slime does not fry well, so it must be thoroughly dabbed away. I use a good cloth towel for this, like Mom-mom did, but lately have come to see where paper towels are not a sinful indulgence (they rinse easily, and can be dried in the direct sun).
Once dry, the tacky surface of the flesh will enable the seasoning to adhere well. Do three grinds or so of fine black pepper over each side of the meat. Then, sprinkle the Lawry's lightly over each side, using the expertly-designed "sifting" perforated insert. Too heavy and it'll be too salty. "A little goes a long way," as it is said. The meat should look like a light hail fell upon it.
How do you salt food at the table? You put a few shakes on. So it is here, as this is food. If you get it wrong, do less next time, or mix up the proportion across different pieces. You'll be making this chicken again, even if you don't get the seasoning exactly to your taste the first time.
As you have noticed, I season the meat instead of the flour. When you season the flour, you can't be sure how much seasoning you're getting on the meat, and you end up throwing most of it away. This is nonsense. Whenever a man tells you to season your dredging flour, look in his eyes: my guess is, pure white, with no iris or pupil.
When the oil is hot (a small cube of bread browns in under 30 seconds — 360F if you have a thermometer) roll the seasoned chicken pieces around in plain flour until coated, then tap a few times to release the extra flour. Immediately, and carefully, lay these pieces skin-side down in the hot oil. The chicken should be 90% submerged, with just the top-most bit showing. It should sizzle and bubble aggressively, but not dangerously. You should not feel that this chicken endangers you.
When you have added enough chicken to fill the pan (in this case, five or six pieces), the oil temperature will begin to drop. It will quickly rise. For about the next five minutes, let the pieces cook skin-side down. Make sure the oil merrily sizzles and bubbles.
Now, it may take around ten minutes for the initial blonde color to occur, before the first flip. Sometimes, if I'm waiting for it to blonde up, I wonder where the chicken's head is. It is probably already ground to dog food, or else stuck behind some machinery in a far-off state. Heck, it might even be in a puddle on private land. You just can't know, and that's what makes this wait fun. It's better with a friend. Daytime Dan always has neat ideas about where the chicken's head might be.
When the skin has become a light blonde color, sort of like a tortilla chip, flip the pieces over so that they are now skin-side up, lower the heat to "medium-low" so that they still sizzle merrily but do not bubble angrily, and cover tightly with a lid . You may need to lower the heat further. Keep your ear on it.
Maintaining Heat During Cooking:
Once you put that lid on, it may be tricky to control the temperature, since the pot will hold heat better when covered. So, put the lid on, turn the heat to its lowest setting, and listen to the oil for a few minutes. If the sizzling slows, gently increase the heat. The sizzling should sound merry, and not aggressive (too fast) or so slow that you can hear isolated "pops."
Once lidded and cooking at a stable temperature, leave the assembly alone for fifteen minutes. When you return, the chicken pieces should be one or two shades darker. This is fine.
At this point, this is pre-success, which is better than pre-failure, if that gives you any encouragement. After you read that sentence, turn the chicken pieces back skin-side down and let it finish for perhaps five more minutes, lid off.
The chicken pieces should be approximately the color of evening program actor George Lopez. Look at several photos of George Lopez and take an average, if you are not familiar with his work (several computer programs are available which can do this).
Flash bulbs and vanity software often adjust celebrity photographs in unnatural directions. I assure you that George Lopez is the color of perfect fried chicken. (I have taken pains to observe him in person; did you know that he has a tattoo of a sun on his lower back?)
The true, final test of a good piece of fried chicken is this: pieces that were touching the bottom of the pan during cooking have started to, "caramelize," or turn dark brown. When you see those dark brown spots begin to form, that is a good sign the bird is done. You never want to see any spot turn black.
Place the chicken pieces on a wire rack. It does not matter what the wire rack is over, although it is tidy and sensible to put it over a cookie sheet, newspaper, or paper towels.
Some people put the chicken pieces directly on the newspaper or paper towels; this is insanity. The chicken pieces will sit in their own grease this way, and become soggy. A drying rack allows air to circulate around the entire chicken piece, which makes for a uniform crust. You will notice that the chicken continues to darken a bit. Let it rest a good five minutes before serving.
Since this dish is so crisp and greaseless, I often like to go out for a walk afterward, and watch the light aircraft land at the local community airport. I always wonder what would happen if I shot at those little planes. Probably nothing too bad, since they're so close to the ground. I guess that's why I don't.
An Observation on Herbs and Nonsense:
We do not put a bunch of fancy-pants herbs on this chicken, because it cooks for such a long time at such a high heat. Dried herbs will cook to a cinder and become nonsense. I am also not a supporter of putting flavorings under the skin of fried chicken. With roast chicken it is different; the skin stays in place. With fried chicken, the skin bubbles and burps in the hot oil, and under-dressings are ejected while the skin loosens.
Fried chicken desperately needs a skin that is still attached by a membrane to the flesh. It will not cook properly if the skin has been carelessly loosened. Always get chicken pieces where the skin is still firmly attached to the meat. Many stores do a bad job with this; stand up for yourself. If the butcher will only give you chicken pieces where the skin is nothing more than a floppy ribbon hanging off to the side, give him your eyes but no tongue. Point to his heart, then his hand. Finish with your other purchases, then, go to another store.
Never cultivate an understanding with a disease. It is wholly unnecessary to brine chicken before frying, or "soften" it in buttermilk. Those just add fuss and time.
I can have good fried chicken on the table in less than an hour, easy. How can I do this? Lawry's Seasoned Salt. I say this again for emphasis.
*If you cannot find Lawry's seasoned salt, then choose another variety of seasoned salt. There are several on the market (Old Bay is used by an enemy of mine; I admit it will do in a pinch, but you must use more of it, and the whole dish will reek of compromise).
Lawry's is common enough stuff, and has garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and celery seed. Some folks try to create a stir about MSG (an ingredient from the Orient that mimics flavor) in this product, but there is none in Lawry's Seasoned Salt. It is an honest seasoning ratio hard come-by but every bit worth their efforts.