I crave fried chicken. In summer the best kind of fried chicken is cold fried chicken, the kind pulled from a picnic basket. In hot months this kind of fried chicken is more appealing than the kind that you eat right after it is pulled from a sizzling skillet.
The skillet, of course, is a key to success. It should be big, dark and storied. The best fried-chicken skillet is one that has a tale that goes with it. Such a skillet might be described as "that old skillet, the one Grandma used to threaten us with."
I thought about this recently when I tried to teach my kids how to cook fried chicken. I looked around for the oldest skillet in the kitchen cupboard. Nothing new or coated with Teflon would do. It had to be old, and cast iron. I found one that I swore belonged to my mother, or maybe my wife's mother. When I held that skillet in my hand, I just knew it threatened somebody, sometime.
I put that no-nonsense skillet on the burner, poured in the oil and cranked up the heat. I used olive oil, which I realized later was a mistake. Olive oil has many wonderful properties, but when you cook fried chicken in it, your chicken doesn't taste like "home," unless you happen to grow up eating fried chicken in Italy.
I soaked my raw chicken pieces in buttermilk, which I thought was a clever, geographically correct touch. Fried chicken is a celebrated dish of the South. While I am not a child of the South, I have lived there and have, by marriage, become acquainted XTC with the foods and habits of the region.
In my mind two signs that someone hails from the South are if she answers "Yes, m'am" when her mother is mad at her and if she drinks buttermilk.
I dropped the buttermilk-soaked chicken in a bowl of flour seasoned with salt and pepper. When the 1/2 inch of oil in the skillet was hot enough to make a bread crumb float and bubble, I set the floured pieces of chicken in and cooked them, uncovered, for about 25 minutes.
The result was OK. The skin was crisp, but the interior lacked texture and flavor. This was not as it should be. A good piece of fried chicken, like a good book, is supposed to get more interesting as you go along.
After I fried my less-than-successful chicken, I consulted two expert sources to find out what went wrong. The first was "Southern Food" (Knopf, 1987), a lively and thoughtful book about the food of the region, written by John Egerton. Egerton has lived in Lexington, Ky., and Tampa, Fla., and now resides in Nashville, Tenn.
In his book, Egerton says the crucial ingredients to good fried chicken are the skillet, the size of the bird, the method of applying the flour, and whether you put a lid on the skillet.
The skillet, he says, should be deep, heavy and black. The size of the bird should be small and lean. Egerton soaks his chicken, as I did, but not in buttermilk. He uses cold, salted water and soaks the pieces for about an hour. The purpose of soaking, he explains, is to get any excess blood out of the chicken.
He also has a different way of putting the flour on the chicken. Rather than dipping the chicken pieces in a bowl of flour, Egerton puts some seasoned flour in a paper bag, then shakes the chicken pieces in the bag until the pieces are coated. Something in the shaking process, I guess, makes the chicken more amenable to frying.
Egerton drops the coated chicken into a skillet filled with about half an inch of sizzling oil. He uses melted shortening fortified with 3 or 4 tablespoons of bacon grease.
The oil, he writes, should be sizzling but not smoking. Moreover, the chicken pieces shouldn't be pushed together in the skillet. A crowded piece of chicken does not, he says, make for a happy fryer.
He cooks the chicken until it is golden brown on each side. How long this takes depends on the size of the chicken and heat of the oil, but usually the chicken is cooked within 20 to 30 minutes, he says. There is no lid on his skillet. An uncovered skillet, he says, yields dry, crisp chicken. Cooking with a covered skillet yields chicken with moist inner meat.
After consulting with the author, I talked to a home cook, Kay Purvis of Baltimore. When my kids were younger she helped care for them. And on special occasions, she cooked fried chicken. Ever since then, "Kay's fried chicken" has been the standard that all fried chicken has been measured against. After tasting my attempt at fried chicken, for instance, one of my kids told me, "It is good, but it is not Kay's."
When I called her on the phone, Kay told me flat-out that the secret to good fried chicken "is good, hot grease."
"I use Crisco or Mazola . . . now real old cooks will use lard," she said. Not only must the oil be hot, there must be plenty of it, she said.
"I don't have the oil covering the chicken, but I have it right up on it," she added.
Kay, who was born in Brownwood, Texas, said her fried-chicken-cooking style was taught to her by her late mother, Ruby Stafford.
Kay said she realized that these days some people regard fried food as something to be avoided, not embraced.
"Those people on diets, they don't want you to talk about grease," she said. But those folks, she said, are simply going to have to miss out on one of life's treats -- real fried chicken.
So I am saving paper sacks and bacon drippings in preparation for my next attempt at greasy fried chicken.