Fried chicken is one of those things. Everyone has their own tips and tricks and secret knowledge to perfect fried chicken every time. Fried chicken is a personal favourite of mine. It is adaptable, tasty and great fun to cook. Also, if you’re having people over and can’t think what to cook for a gathering, who is going to say no to a golden, crisp, juicy fried chicken sandwich or chicken strips tossed in hot sauce?
It is comfort food, cheat meal, hangover scran. It can be whatever you want it to be. Stick on some loud music on a Friday night, get a beer opened and spend an hour in the kitchen frying yourself some feel-good food.
The difficulty in creating consistent, quality fried chicken every time comes from the time it takes. For me, it is all about preparation and I’m sure the pros would agree. So here I’ve compiled a list of tips that are applicable to every fried chicken recipe, whether you’re cooking breast strips, a whole breast, fried chicken quarters, drumsticks… whatever you’re cooking you’d do well to have a skim through these general tips for top-notch chicken every time.
So, without further ado:
When frying anything you should use clean oil, this is just a general rule for a lovely colour and fresh clean taste. It is important when you’re disposing of the old oil to do so responsibly and safely. Wait until the oil is completely cool and decant it into an old container or bottle and look up where you can responsibly dispose of it in your local area. Do NOT stick it down the sink or toilet. Its bad for your plumbing and makes David Attenborough cry.
For fried chicken it is important to use oil with a high smoke point. Don’t go using olive oil. Commonly recommended oils are groundnut oil, vegetable oil and canola oil. I use vegetable mostly because its easy to find in large quantities where I live.
When frying chicken you want your oil at 180-185℃ (350-355F for our transatlantic readers).
This allows your chicken to crisp up and get that lovely golden-brown coating while making sure the chicken is both fully cooked and still moist and juicy inside.
The best method for consistent, spot-on oil temperature is a thermometer. I never used to use thermometers because I thought they took the authenticity and skill out of cooking. As though properly temping the oil was an instinct that the gods of cooking would grant you after enough burns. This is stupid. A thermometer is much more reliable than deities I’ve just invented for a cheap joke.
However, should you find yourself needing to gauge oil temp without a thermometer you can always use the handle of a wooden spoon or chopstick. Dip it in the hot oil and if there’s a steady stream of bubbles you’re at about 180. If it starts violently bubbling or you’re only getting a few tiddly ones, you’re too hot or too cold respectively.
Blazing hot oil will brown the outside nicely but you’ll have raw chicken inside, or you’ll have cooked chicken but burnt coating, or dry chicken. Cold oil will leave you with heavy, greasy coating and that’s not what we want either.
If you do only one thing on this list, please brine or marinade your chicken prior to frying. I find that the choice of what you soak your chicken in before you cook it is largely down to personal preference. For me it’s the big 3. Brine, buttermilk or pickle juice.
Brine is basically a mix of water, salt and I’d recommend sticking some spices in there such as smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, chilli powder. Whatever takes your fancy. Brining chicken ensures it stays juicy and moist throughout the frying process. The salt in the solution breaks down the muscle fibers of the chicken and allows for greater moisture retention while cooking. J. Kenji López-Alt at seriouseats.com suggests that 30-40% more moisture is retained this way which isn’t to be sniffed at.
Buttermilk is my personal favourite chicken marinade. Some cooks believe a brine waters down the flavour of chicken. Personally, I’ve never found this, but I have noticed that buttermilk seems to significantly improve the chicken.
It’s not rocket science. Get enough buttermilk to submerge the chicken (I find that 2x 350ml pots do nicely or if you’re a Shetland native, 1x Shetland Farm Dairies 550ml jug is unbeatable) and leave it for a minimum of 2 hours. I recommend about 6 – 24 hours in the fridge if possible. Some people recommend putting the chicken and marinade in a zip-lock bag marinating but a sensibly sized container in will also do just fine. It is important to REMEMBER THE SALT though. This serves the same function as the brine above. Plenty of salt in the buttermilk will ensure moisture retention. I usually drizzle a few teaspoons of hot sauce in there too such as Frank’s because I love chicken with a bit of a kick. As with a brine, put whatever spices and herbs you feel like into the marinade. Develop your own secret recipe that will have family and friends raving about your fried chicken for years.
If you’re looking for a compromise, you can always make a buttermilk brine:
20g-30g salt depending upon preference
Sugar and spices optional (I tend not to use sugar)
If using pickle juice: open jar, strain pickles and seasoning off and keep the juice, put the chicken in the juice as you would a brine. Add any aromatics or spices you want to the juice and leave it to soak up that beautiful tangy flavour. Boom. Pickle juice chicken.
Now is probably a good time to cover seasoning. In addition to the spices and herbs that you want to include in your flour mix for that perfect, flavourful, crunchy coating, it is important to remember to season any marinade that you will be using as the nature of frying chicken is such that you won’t be able to season the meat directly at any point like you would when cooking a steak for example.
A lot of recipes will suggest that you take your chicken out of the fryer and rest it on paper towels to drain the excess oil. This is largely fine, but you run the risk of steaming the coating where the chicken is in contact with the paper by not allowing the steam to escape. This will leave you with soggy coating and that’s the opposite of what we’re going for.
Rest your chicken on a wire rack with paper towels underneath to catch the oil but make sure there’s a gap between the chicken and the paper. This will leave you with perfectly cooked, rested and crispy chicken.
That’s about all I can think of for now! I may be coming back to edit this post as I learn more about frying chicken, but this should serve as a good starting point for anyone new to frying chicken.
Thanks for reading.
May your chicken be always juicy and crispy.