Growing up, whenever it was someone’s birthday my mom would ask them what they wanted for dinner and that was what she would make on their birthday. My sister Kirsten usually requested hamloaf, and when my other sister was about three she requested “Japanese food,” which, interestingly, was the buffet line at Ponderosa Steakhouse. When it was your birthday, you ate what you wanted, no questions asked.
Last week was Nate’s birthday and when I asked him what he wanted me to make, he said “friedchickenmashedpotatoesandgravy.” Just like that. All one word. Right.
Usually when I cook (we’re talking about cooking here, not baking), I try to err on the side of healthy. Granted, I have my unhealthy moments (bacon and kale pie, for instance, or fried cheese placinta), but I’m usually I’m pretty good at making healthy dinners. And I’ve never deep-fried anything before in my life, much less chicken, which if not cooked properly can make you pretty sick.
This is the only raw chicken picture, I promise.
After researching how to make the best possible fried chicken (for “best possible” anything, Cooks Illustrated is a trusty source), I came up with a game plan. I would buy a free range chicken from the butcher down the road, who I could then ask to break it down for me into all the appropriate fry-able bits (he’s a very nice man, you see, and has been known to help me out in the past). Then the next morning I would wake up early to make the brine for the chicken before I left for work so the chicken could sit in the brine all day and get as flavorful as possible. I would then leave work early so I could go home and get started on dinner. This was the menu: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet corn on the cob and green beans. A substantial amount of work for a weeknight.
Things obviously didn’t go entirely according to plan. I went to the butcher the day before I was going to make the chicken, and he didn’t have any more whole chickens. So instead I went to the grocery store, bought a whole chicken and feverishly started watching youtube videos explaining how to break down a chicken. This video is the best one I found, if you’ll forgive the bad “invade another country” quasi-joke, as the cook is quite thorough and offers several good tips. I discovered two things: 1) my knife isn’t as sharp as I thought it was; 2) it’s easier to just use a scissors. Other than coating the kitchen in salmonella, breaking down the chicken wasn’t too bad, and I was quite proud of myself.
The next step was to brine the chicken. I mistakenly made the brine after I got dressed for work and it splattered all over my nice clothes. Oops.
From there on out it was smooth sailing and frying the chicken was easier than I thought it would be. I don’t have a candy thermometer so I had to guess at the oil temperature, but luckily it was spot-on. I tested the oil by first cooking a wing (unless we’re talking buffalo wings, the wings are no one’s favorite), which came out perfectly. I was so happy I practically reached around and patted myself on the back.
The brine made the chicken moist and flavorful and the outside was crispy and perfect. Good choice, Nate 🙂 It was a bit salty because it sat in the brine for so long, but that’s easily remedied for next time. If I ever have to make fried chicken again, this is definitely the recipe I’ll use. Plus, most of the oil remained in the pan and the chicken wasn’t even that greasy!
(Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
2 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) chickens, cut into 10 pieces each (breasts cut in half)
5 cups buttermilk
1 cup kosher salt (if you’re going to let it sit in the brine for over 5 hours, I would decrease the salt by half)
2 medium garlic heads, mashed but not peeled
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
6 cups flour
Mix brine ingredients in a large bowl. Place the chicken pieces in brining solution and refrigerate for two to three hours. Remove and place on rack to air-dry.
Mix batter ingredients and place in a large bowl. Place coating in large pan to coat chicken.
Coat chicken with flour, then place in batter. Drain excess batter off chicken and place in flour again and cover. Use tongs for transfers.
To fry, heat peanut oil (I used canola oil) to 375 degrees in a cast-iron skillet. Do not fill the pot more than half full with oil (my oil was about an inch deep). Place five to six pieces of chicken, skin side down first, in the skillet and cook, covered for seven minutes. Turn chicken and cook, uncovered, for another seven minutes. Allow the oil to return to 375 degrees F (this step is important!) before frying the next batch.
Remove the chicken from the oil and place each piece on a metal baking rack set on a sheet pan, keeping warm in the oven until ready to serve.