The American Series, Pt. I — Fried Chicken

To kick off my new series of posts on classic American dishes, I chose the most iconic dish of them all — fried chicken. While I’m not convinced anyone will ever do a better fried chicken than the Colonel, I thought I’d give it my best.

If you begin to research the origins of fried chicken, you quickly find yourself wading in some murky waters — with references to everything from Vietnam and West Africa to medieval Europe, the existing literature flavored with converging allusions to homesteading, the Deep South, the Civil War, slavery, industrialization… which makes sense. Throw some flour on chicken and put it in some oil. What could be more elemental?

My recipe includes buttermilk and involves brining, and thieves the insights and the wisdoms of sources as diverse as Joy of Cooking and Thomas Keller. As good as the chicken is, the crowning achievement may be the leftover fried chicken salad, which I’ve also included a recipe for.

For your next 4th of July party, backyard barbecue, church potluck or casual dinner party, roll up your sleeves, get out the cast iron pan and get to work.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
serves 6 with sides

1 chicken, cut into 10 pieces (breasts cut in two, thighs/legs cut in three)
kosher salt
2 cups buttermilk
3 cups flour
2 tbsp. garlic powder
2 tbsp. onion powder
2 tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 cup canola oil (note: your chicken will taste even better if you add a tablespoon or two of bacon fat, lard or duck fat)

Salt chicken pieces liberally and place in fridge to brine for 2-3 hours.

Place flour and spices in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Remove half flour mixture to a plate. Put buttermilk in another bowl between the bowl and plate of seasoned flour. Heat canola oil over medium-high heat in a cast iron or other heavy bottomed pan.

Dredge chicken pieces in bowl of flour. Dip in buttermilk, let drip off, and dredge again in second plate of flour. Set on a parchment-lined baking sheet as you finish. Cook the dark meat pieces first, about 10 minutes on each side, until golden brown. (Turn down to medium if chicken seems to be browning too fast.) When those are done, keep warm in a 200 degree oven while second batch is cooking. Place white meat pieces (wings, breasts) in the oil and cook 7 minutes on each side, until brown and crisp.

suggested sides: sauteed greens, mac n’ cheese, fried okra, etc.

*   *   *

Leftover Fried Chicken Salad
serves 4-6, depending on leftovers

2-4 pieces leftover fried chicken
1 head red oak leaf lettuce
2 slices cooked bacon
1/4 cup crumbled bleu cheese
1 tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tbsp. sweetened rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup half and half
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Make dressing: combine bleu cheese, mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar and half and half. With a fork, mash together thoroughly until creamy. Add olive oil. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cut chicken meat off bones, being careful not to dislodge crust. Cut into chunks, place on a piece of foil, and cook in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, until re-browned and re-crisped. Remove.

On each of four to six plates, arrange whole leaves of red oak leaf lettuce. Place chicken chunks on top in an artful arrangement. Drizzle bleu cheese dressing over the top, and then sprinkle to taste with flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. paul
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 13:52:32

    You are in my wheelhouse now. I don’t use the buttermilk and the spices are a bit different and the process different but dag if it doesn’t come out really delicious each time with sticky rice and cream chicken gravy and a side of peas. Don’t forget the Iced Tea (sweet and unsweet).


  2. g
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 14:47:34

    I’m terrible at frying anything because I’m simply incapable of putting that much oil in a pan. The few times I try it I always skimp, with predictable bad results.

    But we understand Max has been making American-style fried chicken in London for his dorm-mates. Where’d he learn to fry, I wonder? Not from me!


    • scolgin
      Apr 22, 2011 @ 15:45:37

      I had that same aversion to using the right amount of oil, with predictably miserable results. But you actually need less than you would think. It only needs to come about 1/3 up the side of the chicken. It’s not deep frying, which I could never bring myself to do. (Besides tempura, that is…)


  3. Andy
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 23:46:40

    I LOVE fried chicken! What do you mean thighs/legs cut in 3?


    • scolgin
      Apr 22, 2011 @ 23:58:07

      Well, I take my big cleaver, and I take the thigh/leg piece (assuming it’s still in one piece)… and instead of cutting it into two pieces (i.e. leg and thigh), I cut it into three. Basically, the thigh gets cut in two. Then I also cut off that knuckly bottom part of the chicken leg, which makes for a more attractive piece of cooked chicken. Got it?


  4. Suzanna
    Apr 29, 2011 @ 05:04:33

    If you ever make it to Trinidad, your opinion of the Colonel may change:


  5. Par
    May 08, 2011 @ 17:30:22

    I did this last night. I subbed a little Greek yogurt/whole milk/vinegar for the butter milk that I was out of. Worked great! Cold fried chicken and coffee make a great breakfast. 😀


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