I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like fried chicken. It’s comfort food, picnic food and even a special occasion dish. But what makes one cook’s fried chicken better than others’? Three things: the seasoning, the frying and the little extras.
Which cut is best for cooking fried chicken?
The meaty parts, of course. That excludes the neck and back which are really more ideal for making bone broth. The only not-so-meaty part of the chicken that can be fried with optimum results is the wing. It cooks fast and the ratio of meat to fatty skin is good. After frying, the meat is moist while the skin is ultra crisp.
But which meaty parts? Personal preference plays a role here. Some people prefer white meat; others prefer red meat. My husband, younger daughter and I like red meat; our older daughter prefers white meat. So, when I cook fried chicken at home, cutting up a whole bird (reserving the neck and back for making broth) is the best solution so everyone’s preference is addressed.
Is marinating the chicken a good idea?
The seasoning is what gives the cooked fried chicken its flavor. Seasoning can be in the form of a dry rub or a marinade. To make sure that the innermost portion of the meat absorbs the seasoning, you have to give the chicken TIME to soak up the flavors.
BUT. But some people say that salt draws out moisture from meat. And if the marinade has anything acidic in it, like vinegar or citrus juice, the acid will “cook” the meat and make it very dry by the time it reaches the frying pan.
The debate is endless, believe me. I am of the position that when we talk about seasoning chicken, we’re not CURING the meat. We’re not adding so much salt to turn it into ham. Too much salt can have the effect of curing meat but the right amount of salt will flavor the meat correctly, tenderize it and still leave it moist.
In a 2009 article in Food and Wine magazine, Oliver Schwaner-Albright (he’s a famous chef; Google him) did an experiment on two roast chickens. One was seasoned the day before and the other was seasoned just before roasting. He described the result as follows:
I roasted both for about 45 minutes at 475 degrees, which is in line with what professional kitchens do. I didn’t add any ingredients to enhance the flavor (butter, olive oil, spices or herbs), just salt and pepper.
The skins of both birds became crispy and golden in the oven, the breasts juicy and delicious. But the skin of the chicken that was seasoned just before roasting tasted saltier than the meat, and while I’m not sure I’d have noticed it on its own, when I sampled it next to the other chicken it seemed clumsy, an amateur effort. The chicken that had been seasoned the day before was more flavorful, but more than that, it tasted more balanced… more succulent.Source
Merriam-Webster defines succulent as 1) full of juice; 2) moist and tasty; and 3) of a plant: having fleshy tissues that conserve moisture.
You can read the full article on Food and Wine and note that the chef got different results with dry-aged steak, a rack of pork ribs and lamb shanks. He didn’t explain why but I can say why. The day-ahead seasoning technique only works on meat with enough fat content to counter any drying out effect that the salt might have. Season a very lean rack of ribs several hours before cooking and the meat will be dry. It’s that simple. That’s precisely why good ham has fat and why fatless ham is incomprehensible.
If we translate it in chicken language (and I am talking about a cut-up chicken here), when cooking fried chicken with skinless breast meat, it’s a better idea to season just before cooking. But when cooking red chicken meat, skin on, it is smarter to season several hours before cooking. Naturally, we exclude from this rule tiny pieces of chicken meat meant for stir frying. Those will be well seasoned within 30 minutes given their small size.
What about acid in the marinade? Most marinades contain one or more acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus juice. Won’t the acid dry the meat if it sits too long in the marinade? Again, we go into the AMOUNT of acid. The acidic ingredient in marinades is so measured to create a balance with the saltiness and, in some cases, the sweetness. We’re not talking about enough vinegar or citrus juice to make ceviche.
Does fried chicken require deep frying?
Ideally, yes. But that doesn’t mean a restaurant-style deep fryer is essential. You just need a wide pan with a thick bottom. Wide because it allows you to cook more chicken pieces at a time. A thick bottom to prevent scorching.
I fry chicken either in a wok or a cast iron frying pan. I use as much oil as is needed to reach more than halfway up the thickness of the chicken pieces. Then, I flip the chicken over halfway through and the evenness of the cooking is like I fried the chicken in a true-blue deep fryer.
How hot should the oil be?
That depends on the kind of oil you are using. Cooking oils have different smoking points and the ideal frying temperature is the smoking point of the oil. In very general terms, that would be between 350F and 375F. Some cooks use an oil thermometer to do away with guessing, I don’t own an oil thermometer so I just watch for the fine wisps of smoke that float above the oil. When I see them, the oil is ready for frying.
Another technique, used mostly by Chinese cooks, is to dip a wooden chopstick into the oil. If small bubbles form around the chopstick and the bubbles rise up quickly to the surface, the oil is hot enough.
Is it necessary to dredge the chicken in flour before frying?
No. Flouring or coating in bread crumbs is traditional in some regions but it is not necessary. Note, however, that flouring or breading does help prevent spatters because it traps the moisture. It also adds an extra layer of crispness.
The disadvantage is that the breading soaks up a lot of oil which you will naturally ingest.
The other disadvantage is that seasoning can be affected. You may have perfectly seasoned chicken but coating it in bread crumbs or flour will detract from that perfect seasoning. Worse, if the bread crumbs were processed from bread with sugar, the cooked chicken will be sweeter than intended. So, while breading is optional, if you want the added crisp, make sure to properly season whatever you are coating the chicken with.
Does the temperature setting have to be lowered during frying?
So, you have your chicken, it’s been properly seasoned, you may have floured it (or not) and you’re about to drop each piece into the hot oil. Is that all there is to it? Just drop it in, wait for the chicken to cook and that’s it?
Fried chicken does not cook in one minute. Depending on the size of the chicken pieces, it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for the meat to get cooked through. If you’re frying large chicken pieces or a whole chicken, it will take even longer.
So, when the chicken is already in the oil, do we keep the stove setting steadily on high? Here’s the thing. We’ve already established that the ideal frying temperature is the smoking point of the cooking oil. So, what we want is to MAINTAIN the temperature throughout the frying. Once you drop in the chicken pieces, the temperature will drop (naturally!). Keep the stove on high until the smoking point of the oil is reached once more. Whether to keep it that way until the chicken is done depends on whether you cover the frying pan or not.
Is it okay to cover the frying pan?
Generally, I don’t recommend covering the pan because of steam buildup. The steam will condense and drop back into the oil and that really ruins the fried chicken. When the frying pan is left uncovered, the temperature setting must be left on high all throughout because it’s going to be a wrestling match between the oil temperature and the cooler air temperature. Keeping the stove on high ensures that the oil temperature wins the match.
However, leaving the frying pan uncovered creates a lot of oil spatter in the kitchen. There is also the danger that some insect might fly over the pan, get killed instantly in the heat and drop into the oil.
There is such a thing as a splatter guard (also known as splatter screen). It’s an inexpensive tool that allows steam to escape while, at the same time, reducing the amount of oil spatters. It also solves the insect problem.
Won’t a regular frying pan cover do? It might if it has generous steam vents. And I mean a lot of steam vents. If you have one and you decide to use it, the stove setting will have to be lowered. With the pan covered, it will be like an oven inside it and if the stove is retained on high, the oil temperature will go up and up and up, and the chicken will burn. When the pan is covered, the chicken cooks in the combined heat and pressure built between the pan and the cover. The meat might, in fact, cook faster.
The downside, of course, is that because you can’t see the chicken with the cover on, you don’t really see how it’s getting along. And you have to lift the cover every now and then to check on the progress of the chicken. Lifting the cover releases pressure; it also makes the oil temperature drop. So, once you replace the cover, you’ll have to adjust the stove setting again to get the right temperature. It can be tedious. I’d really go for the splatter guard.
How do we know if the chicken is done?
Lift one piece, the thickest one like the thigh, take a skewer and poke at the thickest portion of the meat. If the juices run clear, the chicken is done. If the juices that ooze out look bloody, put the chicken back into the frying pan.
Naturally, unless you’re cooking all thighs or all legs or all wings, the cooking time for each chicken part will vary. The wings will cook before the legs and things. Check the smaller portions first for doneness to make sure that they don’t overcook and shrivel to dryness while you’re waiting for the larger ones to finish cooking.
Does fried chicken have to have a sauce?
In my opinion, sauce — whether in the form of a glaze or a gravy — is optional. That might sound like a sacrilege for people who believe that fried chicken and gravy belong together, but seriously… Truly good fried chicken should be delicious by itself and NOT dependent on sauces. If the fried chicken is not edible unless doused with ketchup, for instance, then, it’s not good fried chicken at all.
There are times, however, when a wisp of glaze or a little sauce on the side can enhance the fried chicken experience. That means the glaze or sauce must be good by themselves and not used to hide badly seasoned or disastrously cooked chicken.
Personally, I prefer glaze over gravy. When used correctly, glaze can make fried chicken look and taste better. By itself, fried chicken is just browned meat. But add a glossy glaze and the appearance is transformed. The glaze also ads another layer of flavor.
How is glaze used correctly? In my cooking wiki, that means the glaze should be thick enough to coat the chicken but thin enough to leave the real texture of the chicken visible. Like I said, a glaze is not something to hide bad fried chicken. And don’t use so much that by the time the fried chicken is served it looks like a stew and you have to fish out the chicken pieces from the sauce.