Fried chicken that folks will flock to

Brining, marination and use of the right pan all part of critical steps in achieving perfect poultry

July 19, 2006|By ROBIN MATHER JENKINS | ROBIN MATHER JENKINS,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A knowledgeable cook can make a reputation on terrific fried chicken, but a badly done bird - gummy, greasy or otherwise poorly rendered - can ruin that reputation.

Most of us have an idea of what fried chicken should be, but John T. Edge can describe it. In fact, in 2004, he wrote the book about it. Fried Chicken: An American Story details his cross-country ramble in search of the perfect poultry. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, found that fried chicken is universal, but good fried chicken is a peerless treasure.

"The crust is the armor for the chicken," he said. "It insulates the chicken from the burbling oil. It's also the gateway for the chicken: It's the first indicator that things have gone terribly wrong or terribly well."

Beneath the crust, there's the skin. "In many versions, it's where most of the flavor resides," Edge said. "And just below it is that layer of fat, where that first burst of chickeny goodness is found."

Then the teeth meet the meat.

"There need to be rivulets of chicken juice running down when you bite into the flesh," he said. "Even white meat needs to erupt with juice. And I want to taste something that tastes of fowl. I don't want it bland, and it's not enough that it's greaseless. It's got to taste like something."

In Fried Chicken, Edge found his pullet nirvana at Scott Peacock's Decatur, Ga., restaurant, Watershed. "No taste could be worth brining the bird for 24 hours ... soaking it for an additional day in buttermilk," Edge said. "But there it is, on the plate, for all to admire: the perfect fried chicken breast."

To learn how to make fried chicken that meets Edge's criteria, we conferred with food scientist and teacher Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise, and Pamela Anderson, author of Perfect Recipes for Having People Over. We learned a passel of tips and tricks to turn out fried chicken that would please even the pickiest eater.

Seven steps to perfect fried chicken:

Brine the bird.

"Meat usually loses 30 percent of its moisture before you cook it, but if it's brined it loses just 15 percent - and that's a big difference," Corriher said. "Brining does two things: The salt solution turns certain compounds into liquid in the muscle, which means more juice, and you're plumping up the cells and filling them with water."

On its way into the meat, the brine will carry any extra flavorings you've added. So season the brine, if you like, with your favorite herbs or spices.

For brining meats overnight, the classic brine is 1 cup of table salt to a gallon of water, she said. "For smaller pieces, like a cut-up fryer, you can increase the salt tremendously and brine for a shorter time. Take a cup of table salt, rub it well over all the pieces, cover them with ice water and refrigerate for three to four hours. Rinse it really well, or it will be salty," she said.

Marinate the bird.

If brining makes the meat juicy, marinating it in buttermilk will make it tender. A buttermilk bath also "sweetens up the chicken a little bit," Anderson said, "and it really does attract a good bit of flour, so it solves the crust thing."

Use low-fat or nonfat buttermilk to marinate, and season it generously with hot sauce, such as Tabasco. Low-fat buttermilk is a little thicker than nonfat, which means it will cling to the chicken pieces slightly better.

Create the crust.

For classic fried chicken, we prefer flour. Season generously with salt and pepper. If the crust is your favorite part of fried chicken, consider double-breading. Dip the once-floured chicken into the buttermilk again, shake off the excess and shake in the seasoned flour again.

As you finish flouring each piece of chicken, lay it on a rack over a cookie sheet. Refrigerate it 30 minutes to an hour before cooking; the resting time helps the breading stay on the bird and not fall off in the pan.

Choose your pan.

Cast iron means even heat and even browning. Use a "deep, heavy pan," Corriher said. A cast-iron skillet is terrific, but a classic chicken fryer, with 3- to 4-inch-deep sides, reduces spattering oil and make the process a little safer.

Fry right.

"I like to use oil rather than shortening," Corriher said. "And it's very important to use fresh oil, both for flavor and for safety." Adding a couple of tablespoons of bacon drippings will give the chicken incredible richness.

The fat should come halfway up the side of the pieces to be fried. Using less means the food sticks on the bottom of the pan, instead of floating above the bottom of the pan.

Here's how frying works and why foods fried right don't get greasy. "When you drop the pieces into hot oil, that sizzle is moisture coming out of the food," Corriher said. "As long as moisture is coming out, no oil can go in. ... But if you overcook the food and run out of moisture on the inside, the food sucks in the grease."

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