Of all the arguments that can be made for cooking at home, most come down to this: Home-cooked food is better. Here’s the thing, friends: You aren’t going to make fried chicken at home that tastes exactly like Popeyes. I’m just telling it like it is. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it, because what you pull out of your own skillet can still be every bit as satisfying as what comes out of a paper carton. It’s also way more impressive.
My goal was to find a relatively fuss-free recipe – as fuss-free as frying can be, anyway – that would be doable for those with a fear of or inexperience with frying (me and me!). And I did, thanks to a modified version of a recipe we originally published in 2009 from chef Gillian Clark of the late General Store. It gave me juicy meat, crispy skin and, yes, happiness. Here’s what I learned over the course of frying about a half-dozen birds for this story:
• Smaller birds are better. You might think a bigger bird means more fried chicken and more fried chicken is better fried chicken. But a bigger bird means bigger parts, which means you may not only need more oil but a deeper skillet or pot to hold it. In my case, a larger chicken with thick breasts left some of the meat sticking too much out of the oil, and adding more oil would have brought it too close to the top of the skillet. The result: Pale sections of skin. It also made it tricky to cook the meat all the way through before most of the skin burned.
Chickens that are in the 3- to 3½-pound range are ideal. You may have to work harder to find a smaller chicken because many at grocery stores can approach 5 pounds. I ended up using a brand labeled “natural” at my local supermarket, and while the word has no official government definition (yet), the chickens labeled as such were consistently smaller. I paid more per pound, but they cost less for a lower weight. (Substitute eight pre-cut parts if you’re looking to save time, but cutting a whole bird yourself gives you a nice mix of light and dark meat for a crowd.)
• Let the chicken rest. Refrigerator space and time are at a premium in both my house and in The Washington Post Food Lab, so I was not interested in a long saltwater brine. I know brining has its proponents, but a two-hour bath in buttermilk spiked with hot sauce and garlic achieved great flavor and tender, juicy meat. The final step to sealing that all in before you fry is to let the coated chicken rest. Doesn’t have to be for long – 10 or 15 minutes while the oil is heating up is enough to help the breading set and not come off during frying.
• Then keep it moving. Turning the chicken pieces over every 5 minutes cut back on the odds that one particular side will brown more than the other. Move the chicken around laterally as well, so that parts toward the hotter center of the pan can be moved toward the cooler outside. Movement also helps prevent the chicken from sticking to the bottom of the pan, especially where some of the flour coating has settled.
• Don’t be afraid of the oil. There’s a difference between fear and reasonable precaution, and I’ve finally reached the latter state of enlightenment. You should not be getting huge splatters here; more like enthusiastic bubbling. If you do, your oil is too hot or maybe some moisture was introduced. An inexpensive splatter screen can provide an extra layer of insurance against any unexpected pops. When you add the chicken to the oil, put it down facing away from you (imagine an alligator mouth clamping shut – the mouth should be closing in the same direction you’re looking). Use a long pair of metal tongs to turn the chicken and keep your hands clear of the oil.
• Use an instant-read thermometer. Take the guesswork out of everything. You want to know how hot your oil is, and you want to know when the chicken is done. The ThermoWorks Thermapen is the gold standard, but for years I’ve been more than happy with a less than $20 model from CDN.
So by all means, save the drive-through for when you need fried chicken right now. But now you, too, know the right way to fry.
Classic Fried Chicken
4 to 8 servings
The amount of oil you need will vary based on the size of your pot or pan. You want the oil to come up about two-thirds of the way against each chicken piece. In a Dutch oven and 10-inch cast-iron skillet, we needed about 3 cups of oil, while a 14-inch cast-iron skillet required closer to 4 cups.
Make Ahead: The chicken needs to soak in the buttermilk mixture for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. This chicken reheats well: Place it on a lightly greased rimmed baking sheet (or one lined with aluminum foil), then into a 400-degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Watch closely to keep the chicken from burning.
– Adapted from Gillian Clark’s “Out of the Frying Pan” (St. Martin’s Press, 2007)
1 quart buttermilk (can use low-fat)
6 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup hot pepper sauce, preferably Tabasco
One 3- to 3½-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (wings reserved for another use; breasts cut in half crosswise)
Vegetable or canola oil, for frying (generally 3 to 4 cups)
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sea salt or kosher salt
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Stir together the buttermilk, garlic and hot pepper sauce in a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces, making sure they are all submerged. Refrigerate/marinate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Heat the oil in a deep pot or deep, large skillet over medium heat until it reaches about 300 degrees F. (You generally want the oil in the 275- to 300-degree F. range while you fry, so check it with the thermometer often.)
Sift together the flour, salt and pepper on a wide plate or pie dish. Set a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
Pull the pieces of chicken out of the buttermilk one at a time and coat in the seasoned flour. Shake off any excess, but try not to be overzealous because you most likely want a nice, thick crust. Place the chicken pieces on the rack as you work; let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes. (This will help the coating stay in place as the chicken fries.) Discard the excess buttermilk and seasoned flour mixtures.
Working in batches as needed, carefully add the chicken pieces to the pan, skin sides down; the oil around them should bubble vigorously. Fry for a total of 20 to 25 minutes, using tongs to turn the pieces over about every 5 minutes and rotating them around the pan to keep the pieces from sticking to the bottom and out of hot spots.
The chicken is done when evenly browned and crisped; an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meat (and away from the bone) should register at least 165 degrees F. Use tongs to transfer it to a clean wire rack to drain and cool for a bit before serving.
• Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful nutritional analysis.