For many years, I resisted the siren song of my Southern upbringing and never even considered frying a chicken. "A greasy mess in my kitchen! The smell for days on end!" I would protest. For some reason, I guess I felt that quality fried chicken was easy to obtain and therefore I had no need to create it in my own home. I feel this way about barbecue pulled pork, also. I live in the beating heart, the very epicenter of Georgia barbecue. I'm not saying it's the world's best barbecue, because frankly I don't know or care, but I will say give me Wallace's Barbecue Super Salad with pork and blue cheese dresssing on the side any day of the week. And make it snappy, miss.
Back to fried chicken. I come from fried poultry people. My mother would fry chicken at least once every other week when I was living at home. She cooked it several different ways, but mostly she would dip chicken pieces in seasoned flour and shallow fry in her treasured, black-as-tar cast iron skillet. The chicken was usually served with fresh snap beans and potato salad (summer version) or baked macaroni and cheese (winter version). This is such a singular memory of my nesting years that when I went away to college, I would request fried chicken for supper when I came home for a visit and fresh laundry.
Mom gave up frying chicken a few years ago, on a healthy cooking bend which means the sacred cast iron skillet rarely gets a greasy workout these days. Mom and Dad's waistlines are certainly trimmer now, but honestly, folks, don't you at least miss the crunch of chicken skin and the squirt of juice from that first bite of a just-fried-and-dried thigh (my poultry limb of choice)?
I guess I'd managed to forget about fried chicken for a few years, occasionally ordering it at meat-and-threes and finding satisfaction there. Until a few weeks ago, after church, knowing our fridge and pantry were nearly empty and not feeling up to the after-church restaurant crowds, we went to one of those fast-food chicken places and got a bucket to go. The price was certainly right. For under $15 we got one whole chicken (should we decide to reassemble it) and three sides (cat's-head biscuits, slaw and reconstituted mashed potatoes with regurgitated gravy) and a gallon of the sweetest iced tea known to man. The kids loved it. My dear husband loved it. I actually enjoyed the guilty pleasure of eating something that was fried in someone else's kitchen. But I discovered the practical reason for the generous iced tea portion: the chicken crust was salty enough for hunters to employ to attract deer. And I thought to myself, why have I been such a snob, lo these many years? Why not just give in and sacrifice your kitchen for just once, silly girl, and show your children what a fried chicken is supposed to taste like.
And so I did. I consulted many regional books on my shelves. Edna Lewis, Scott Peacock, Damon Lee Fowler, James Villas, John T. Edge, Fanny Flagg. And, of course, my tried and true, America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which I relied on quite heavily for details. My message board friends delivered a primer, "Carolina's Fried Chicken," written by a doubtless apron-wrapped mama who spent many years perfecting her chicken technique.
Here's what I did:
1. Procured a whole chicken and butchered the thing into 10 pieces. I'm not ready for Top Chef by any means. It took me at least 10 minutes to break down the bird, but I saved $2 by going with the whole chicken versus the parts at the store. I cut each breast into two pieces, which yielded 10 pieces.
2. Soaked the chicken pieces in buttermilk for two hours. ATK recommends a buttermilk brine, and I think I will do that next time, just to bump up the flavor a bit.
3. Mixed all-purpose flour with salt, fresh cracked black pepper and a pinch of cayenne. I went light on the pepper because of my daughter who has a histomy fit when she sees even a speck of black pepper on her food. And I wasn't sure how much the frying would disguise the pepper flecks. I shook the buttermilk ever so gently from each piece of chicken before dipping it in the flour and setting it aside to dry while the oil heated.
4. Got out my All-Clad stainless Dutch oven and poured in an inch or so of canola oil and set the heat to a medium flame. I don't own a deep fry thermometer and I never worked in fast food, so I had to rely on my limited frying skills to determine when the oil was ready. After about five minutes, I dropped in a piece of batter and when it bubbled up rather than sinking, I knew it was time for the chicken parts.
5. It took at least 15 minutes, covered, for the first pieces to cook to a deep mahogany. While the first batch rested in a warm oven on a grid-lined sheet pan. The best part so far: my house smelled like fried chicken. Any stranger coming to my door would know that a real cook lived here.
That's pretty much it. We ate like stevedores and still have leftovers for a few days. The clean-up was kind of yucky, but I was careful to pour the expired oil into disposable cups and used cans and throw it away. It's been two days now and, I must say, through the extensive use of air cleaners and detergents, my house smells fresh. And I can't wait to fry my next chicken.