I’ve made fried chicken for as long as I’ve been cooking, but I might go five years without making it. I began with a Paula Peck recipe that contained cinnamon in the coating — not bad, I still do that occasionally — and cooked the chicken mostly covered. That’s a successful technique if your primary goal is avoiding spatter, always an issue when frying, but there are better. And there are better coating methods than hers, also.
I won’t say I’ve tried everything, but I’ve tried a lot of things, and I do believe the version I’m making now is about as good as it gets. Not that it’s revolutionary: There’s no cornstarch, or rice flour, or coconut oil, or double-coating, or long marinating, or brining, or anything. There is buttermilk — I’ve come to believe in it — and there is some care and precision. As long as you pay attention, this should be relatively simple, and it will result in perfect chicken every time.
Another trick is to cook it at a lower temperature than you think you should, and for that I’m indebted not to my own creativity or intelligence but to a tip from Shawn Hubbell, a Hudson Valley chef who’s made fried chicken at the last two annual pig roasts I’ve gone to at Glynwood, the food-and-farming nonprofit I’ve made home. And the thing about 315 degrees — the temperature Shawn recommended I try — is that it seems to be magic: By the time the coating is about as dark as it can get without scorching, drumsticks and thighs are both cooked through, moist and perfect. You just avoid crowding, move the pieces gently now and then, and the second a piece starts to get too dark, you remove it: It’s done. It will also remain delicious all day; this is ideal picnic food, though it must be transported carefully, lest the crust get knocked off or become soggy.
Everything else is straightforward as hell, though there are some fine points: I suppose it goes without saying that you should buy the best chicken you can find, at least like Bell & Evans quality. Soak the pieces in buttermilk, for as little as an hour or as long as 24 (in which case it should be refrigerated). The buttermilk should be seasoned well, with a handful of salt and a load of black pepper. Despite what half the recipes in the world will tell you, adding other spice to the brine will make almost no difference at this stage; save them for the coating. But if you’re looking for some heat, a dollop of chili-garlic paste — the Vietnamese stuff — will make its presence felt in the end product. (So will cayenne in the coating.)
Then you dredge. I use mostly white flour, mixed with a bit of cornmeal, more salt, and more pepper. (Again, lots of each.) Cayenne, curry, chili, garlic, and onion powder are all good, and you’ll taste them. I don’t think any of that’s necessary, though, and black pepper is just so great in this coating. After dredging, let the chicken rest on a rack for at least 10 or 15 minutes; this sets the coating and makes it less fragile in the fryer.
Meanwhile, heat the oil. I would say that peanut is the best choice; peanut oil mixed with lard is admittedly less convenient, but it is even better. If you have an automatic deep-fryer, great; if not, use a broad but deep pot — a big cast-iron skillet is good, too, though not ideal — and probably about a gallon of oil. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it. Heat it slowly to something above 315 degrees, but not more than 320 degrees. Then follow the instructions in the recipe here.
Personally, I cannot eat fried food without lemon, and I like to add some chopped parsley, too, but this certainly doesn’t “need” either. Still, you won’t be upset if you include them.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 2 hours, more than half with no work
2 cups buttermilk
Salt and ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Vietnamese chili-garlic paste, optional
4 leg-thigh pieces of chicken, cut in two
Peanut or other oil for deep-frying
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal, optional
Spices as desired
1. Put the buttermilk in a gallon ziplock bag. Add a handful of salt and some black pepper, along with the chili-garlic paste if you’re using it, and mix it up a bit. Put the chicken in there and seal the bag, squeezing out as much air as you can. Let it sit, refrigerated, for 1 to 24 hours.
2. When you’re ready to cook, put oil in a deep-fryer or a heavy pot to a depth of at least 3 inches; the narrower the pot, the less oil you’ll use, but you’re gonna use at least 2 quarts anyway, so get ready. (You can strain and save it afterward; it’ll be good for a couple of other deep-frying sessions, or for all-purpose, chicken-flavored sautéing.) You want the oil at 315 degrees, more or less, so either set the fryer to that temperature or set the heat to medium and keep an eye on it. If you don’t have a thermometer, heat the oil until a cube of bread sinks a bit before rising to the top and bubbling merrily. There’ll be time for adjustments as you cook, but try not to make the oil too hot.
3. As the oil’s heating, mix together the flour, cornmeal, and spices if you’re using them, along with more salt and a lot of black pepper — 2 tablespoons is not too much. Remove the chicken one piece at a time from the buttermilk and dredge heavily with flour, turning and piling the flour on. Put each piece on a rack over a cookie sheet (or something) to dry while the oil heats.
4. In most pots, this is two batches of chicken, so put 2 drumsticks in the oil, followed by 2 thighs. They should quickly rise to the top and bubble vigorously, but not insanely. Adjust the heat so the oil stabilizes at a steady but not-too-frantic cooking pace. Ideally — and this isn’t that hard — you want the chicken to cook through before the outside burns, and this takes about 15 minutes, or a little less. So if the coating is browning too quickly, turn the heat down (one way to get the heat down quickly is to put another piece of chicken in). Turn once or twice (more if the oil isn’t deep enough to submerge the chicken), and try to get the coating as dark as you can before it starts scorching (one or two black spots are okay, but more are dangerous).
5. As the chicken finishes, remove it to a towel or rack to drain a bit. Add a piece of chicken as you take each out, until you’re finished cooking. Garnish with parsley and serve at any temperature with salt, pepper, lemon wedges, and if you like, hot sauce.
Mark Bittman is the author of How to Cook Everything.