Garden & Gun (October/November 2016)
One of the first big projects we ever did on The Bitten Word -- all the way back in September 2008! -- was a fried-chicken cook-off that pitted famed chef Thomas Keller's extremely complicated fried chicken recipe against Clay's mom's recipe, which was decidedly simpler and more straightforward.
Now that we've decided to wind the blog down, we knew we wanted to do one more fried-chicken face-off before we say goodbye.
So this past Sunday, we had 9 of our friends come over for another good ol' fashioned chicken fry. (And to pose for chicken-leg portraits.)
This time around, we paired Clay's mom's chicken against the North Carolina "Dipped Chicken" recipe on the mouthwatering cover of the current issue of Garden & Gun.
Fire up your fryers, Bittens! This one's a barn-burner.
Let's start off by acknowledging that this isn't really an apples-to-apples comparison.
Clay's mom's fried chicken is exactly that: A simple, classic fried chicken. Tender, juicy meat. Crispy, salty skin. Done. (Seriously, the most exotic ingredient in it is black pepper.)
So these are really two pretty different approaches to fried chicken.
Nonetheless, let's talk about prep. Clay's mom's recipe calls for a simple overnight saltwater brine. Right off the bat, we made a misstep here. We used too much salt. Or we brined it for too long, about 24 hours. Or both. The meat in the final product was very good, but a little on the salty side. (And you guys know we're salt fiends.)
The prep for the dipped chicken is more involved. But it's actually this brine that most made us want to try this chicken. The BBQ dip that gets glazed on and the end sounded great, but it was this "pickle brine" we were really intrigued about. What that means here is a brine of two kinds of vinegar, a heap of fresh dill, and some other spices.
We made the two brines on Saturday afternoon, plopped in the chicken, and let it sit refrigerated overnight. We went out for sushi (at a great neighborhood place that just reopened!) and we saw a play (at a tiny local theater we really love). Then on Sunday afternoon, we dried off the chicken, set up the two different dredges, and heated up peanut oil in two big Dutch ovens. (We know cast-iron skillets might be preferred for frying chicken. But we prefer Dutch ovens because they cut down on splashing and splattering.)
While we were frying, our friends arrived and mingled in the back yard. After a week of rain, the weather on Sunday afternoon turned glorious -- sunny and cool, the first truly beautiful fall day we've had. We decided to set up a couple tables in the back yard for dinner.
We brought down the two platters of fried chicken (along with ample amounts of mac-and-cheese, collard greens and refrigerator pickles that we'd made). Everybody passed the food around and helped themselves.
Chicken in the backyard. Carl, there in the white shirt, wants everyone to know that he's still a strict vegetarian and he did not eat any meat on Sunday. Whatever, Carl: More chicken for the rest of us.
(This photo taken by our friend Tyler.)
The North Carolina dipped chicken was phenomenal! The skin was crisp and crunchy, and the vinegar glaze was lip-smacking good. And the meat! So tasty. The pickle brine really does come through, giving the chicken a wonderful, complex flavor.
But then there was Clay's mom's chicken. Even if it was a tad on the salty side, when you think of classic, perfect fried chicken, this is what's in your head. Golden-brown crispy skin and juicy, savory chicken. It's fried chicken heaven.
So which recipe won?
It was a straight-up 50-50 tie! Half the group preferred the classic recipe, and half went for the glazed version instead. And that sounds exactly right to us: The truth is, you can't go wrong with either one of these recipes. If you've never tried your hand at fried chicken, Clay's mom's recipe is a pretty great way to get started. And if you already love classic fried chicken, the North Carolina dipped chicken is a fantastic new twist.
Do you have your own tried-and-true method for fried chicken? Let us know in the comments!
1 3½- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces
For the brine:
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
4 cups water
¼ cup salt
2 tbsp. mustard seeds
2 tbsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. red pepper flakes
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
2 shallots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
For the dip:
1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 whole clove
1/2 tsp. salt
1 scant tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp. ketchup
1 tbsp. Texas Pete or other vinegar-based hot sauce
For the dredge and fry:
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. cayenne
2 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. black pepper
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup Texas Pete or other vinegar-based hot sauce
Peanut oil, for frying
To make the brine, combine vinegars with water, salt, mustard seeds, pepper, and red pepper flakes in a large stockpot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, then add dill, shallots, garlic, and chicken. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
To make the dip, combine all ingredients in a medium sauce-pan and simmer on medium-low heat for 10–15 minutes or until thickened. Cool to room temperature, remove clove, and then place in an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. For the dredge, combine flour and the other dry ingredients in a large bowl or a shallow pan and mix well. Combine buttermilk and hot sauce in a second large bowl or shallow pan. Remove chicken from brine. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Dip chicken in the seasoned flour to coat, then in the buttermilk mixture, and then in the flour again. Shake off excess flour and place on a rack.
To fry the chicken, fill a Dutch oven or a large, deep-sided cast-iron skillet with 2 inches of oil. Clip a frying thermometer to the side, place the pot over medium-high heat, and bring the oil to 350˚F. (The temperature of the oil will drop when you add the chicken. Adjust the heat so it stays around 325˚F for the duration of the fry.) Fry 3 or 4 pieces at a time for 8 minutes per side. When the chicken is golden brown and registers 165˚F on an instant-read thermometer, remove with tongs to a rack set over a paper-towel-lined baking sheet.
Let the chicken cool for 15 minutes. Microwave the dip to reheat, then plate the chicken and pour warm dip over each piece until fully covered. Serve immediately.
Hot Tip: To be sure each piece of chicken cooks thoroughly and doesn’t burn, start with a three-and-a-half-or four-pound fryer chicken, not a heavyweight roaster. Halving the breasts also helps them cook on schedule.
Clay's Mom's Fried Chicken -- verbatim from the source
First, I would soak my chicken in salt water the night before if it all possible. If not, that's okay.
When you get ready to fry the chicken, salt and pepper each piece. You can dip the pieces in milk and that makes the four stay on really good.
Put enough oil in a frying pan that the chicken is half covered. Make sure the grease is hot before placing chicken in oil so your flour with brown good. I like to place a lid on my chicken once it starts frying good, but if you don't have a lid that's okay. Just make sure the chicken is done before removing from the pan. The thighs take a little longer than any other piece. Hope you have good luck. It's not that hard to do, you might as well try it!
Clay's Mom's Fried Chicken -- adapted
Chicken cut into 8 pieces for frying
1/2 cup salt (for brining)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 cups flour
2 cups milk
Vegetable oil for frying
Add salt to 4 quarts of water. Soak chicken 8 to 12 hours in salt water.
Once you are ready to fry, drain the chicken and pat dry. Heat enough oil in your pan (cast iron skillet is recommended) so that each piece of chicken will be half-covered once in the oil.
Mix salt, pepper and flour in a medium size bowl. Place milk in a second medium size bowl.
Dip each individual piece of chicken in milk, and then coat with flour mixture, and then add immediately to the oil. Add only enough pieces of chicken so that the pieces are not crowded and not touching one another in the pan.
Cook legs and breasts 8 minutes on each side, or until skin is crisp and chicken is cooked through. Cook thighs 10 minutes on each side. Remove from oil and place chicken on a dish lined with paper towels.