Food Porn: Fried Chicken

by Bernard Brandt

and-watermelon

Well, it’s been two months since I’ve written in this silly weblog. Sorry about that. Something to do with having to face the loss of my mother, who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s and old age. I will, perhaps, talk about that later. There have also been some changes as regards my process of remedial education. Certain intensifications. I will also perhaps write more about that, later.

But as I am not quite ready to talk about either subject, I will instead talk about fried chicken.

A bit more than a week ago, I got the jones to cook fried chicken, the way my family did when I was young, and we were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, back when only ferns and algae were on the face of the land, before even the dinosaurs. I remember the many Sundays when my family would get together and cook it in large quantities.

Those were in the days when my mother and father lived on the same street with my uncles, Morris and Charlie, my aunt Mary Anne, and my grandfather, Bernard, and great aunt, Rose. My grandfather had bought houses for all of them on that street, and all of their children had meals together on Sundays and feast days, and all of us grandchildren played whispering excitedly under the great table where our parents ate.

And, for many years later, after my parents, my brothers and sisters and I and my aunt Ann traveled by covered (station) wagon on the Great Aerospace Engineering Migration to Southern California, my father and mother and brothers and sisters would continue the grand tradition, and have neighbors and friends over for Sundays and parties. Of course, since we were sojourners in La La land, we became devotees of St. Julia Child, apostle to the Philistines, and so we watched The French Chef and The Galloping Gourmet, and read Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and added many other dishes to our repertoire.

But it was always fried chicken that I loved best. And I had not cooked it in more than a score of years.

I was also just recovering from this damned flu that seems to be going around. The one where the contents of your guts turn into a foul, putrescent mass that seeps from you, and your brains seem to turn to prune whipped yogurt that drips from your ears and sinuses. I was in no fit state to see much of anyone, and so I had stayed in my home, usually in bed or on the couch, for a long, long time. When I was finally assured that I was no longer infectious, and could finally eat something again, I wanted something that I hadn’t had in a long time.

So, fried chicken it was.

Of course, the way it is done, the way that I learned it from my youth, was that you just don’t do this for yourself. This is something of festival. Of giving to others. I knew that my friend, Larry, was having a football party on that Sunday, and had invited a number of his friends, including me. So I decided on the Friday before to go all out, and to bring something to that party.

So I went to the local Top Valu, which is amazingly enough, an accurately named store. I bought sixteen pounds of good chicken legs and thighs. Those cost sixteen dollars. I also looked for a good frying oil. Peanut, soy, canola, light virgin olive, and lard have the best smoke points (above 375°, which is the target temperature for frying chicken). While Alton the Venerable recommends Crisco, I found that that was composed of soy oil, with palm oil as a stabilizer (which tends to reduce the smoke point). Mazola’s soy was the best value for price, so I went with a gallon of that at ten bucks. Flour and spices also were on the list, but were all inexpensive. And I decided to up my game, by doing some fooling around. So I bought a quart each of buttermilk and Sadaf unflavored liquid yogurt.

When I got home, I divided my chicken, like Gallia, in partes tres, which I put into three gallon Ziplock bags. Into the first I poured the buttermilk, and sealed the bag. Into the second, I poured the liquid yogurt. I poured water into the third bag, weighed the bag, poured the water into another container, and measured out salt for five percent of the total weight of chicken and water, and dissolved the salt in the water. I then poured the water back into the bag containing the chicken, and sealed the bag. (And a tip of the hat to my nephew, John Brandt, from whom I learned that little trick!) All three bags I put into my refrigerator, to wait for the following day.

My reasons for taking this approach were to see which yielded the best results: a salt brine, a buttermilk brine, or a yogurt brine. Buttermilk, of course, is the classic soak used for Southern fried chicken. But I wanted to experiment with yogurt, because I knew that the lactic acid in buttermilk helped to tenderize the chicken. I wanted to see if the greater amount of lactic acid in liquid yogurt would yield better results.

That Saturday, I started by taking the bag of salt brined chicken, which I opened and put upright in the kitchen sink. I transferred the chicken from the bag onto a half-sheet pan and wire mesh tray inside, which was placed on the nearby cutting board, and I separated out the thighs from the legs. I had a bottle of mixed spices which I sprinkled upon the pieces until they were nicely coated on both sides, turned all of the pieces over, and did the same for the other side.

I then took the half sheet tray over to the top of my washing machine in the nearby utility room, where I staged the breading of the chicken. To the left of the tray (I’m left-handed) I had two shallow square tupperware bowls, one containing a few ounces of flour, and the other containing a large egg mixed with a jigger (1.5 ounces) of water for an egg wash. With a small pair of tongs, I put each piece of chicken in the egg wash, used the tongs to turn the piece over so that it would be thoroughly baptized in the wash, and put each piece back in the tray. I then washed and dried the tongs, and used them to dredge each piece in the flour, on both sides, until each piece was nicely coated, and also returned each piece to the tray.

By the way, if you want chicken lightly breaded, the way Popeyes does it, a single egg wash and flour dredge should work. But if you want it KFC style, you’ll need to do the job twice. Just sayin’. Me, I find the first way works just fine, and takes less work.

Once the chicken was breaded, it was ready for frying. Some people prefer using an electric deep fry pan and basket. I’m not among those. As one southern lady has remarked, southern cooking involves an element of danger, which is why we are so fond of open fires, grilling and barbecue. No, I have two twelve inch frying pans, one cast iron, the other stainless steel, and I’m not afraid of using either one of them.

As a matter of fact, I had both frying pans stationed on the front burners of my oven/stove, with about three quarters of an inch of oil in each of them, or a little less than a liter or quart of oil for each. I had the chicken placed on two plates, each the same diameter as the interiors of the frying pans, placed nearby the stove, and ready for what St. Julia would call ‘the order of battle’. (And, as a matter of fact, those without a half sheet and wire tray could probably use plates for the breading instead.)

When the chicken was ready, I turned on the burners under the pans, and used a metal candy thermometer to tell when the temperature had gotten up to 375° F. (or 190° C.). At that point, I started putting the pieces from each plate into each pan, one piece at a time. I used my bare hands, but the sane might want to use both metal tongs and a heat proof cooking glove that allows you to handle the tongs well. The trick is to place each piece in gently, so that the oil does not splash. Boiling oil on skin is almost as much fun as burning napalm. Not.

And, at this point, a paragraph or two about safety in cooking with oil is in order. The reason you put in only three quarters of an inch of oil in the pan is that, between the displacement which the additional chicken causes, and the furious boiling and bubbling of the oil, the chicken will be more than halfway immersed in the frying fat. If you put too much oil in, you run the risk of the oil overflowing into the fire of the burner underneath the pan. Also, if you put the chicken in too fast, you run the same risk.

You most definitely do NOT want to run that risk. If that happens, you get an oil fire. The flames of Purgatory are far preferable. But if that should happen, either put a METAL lid on the pan and turn off the gas, or throw baking soda or salt to smother the fire. If that does not work, a class B or C fire extinguisher is in order, or 911. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, throw water on a oil or grease fire. This is what happens if you do.

Once the chicken was in, I watched it, but I made the mistake of using the timing that I found in several recipes: 12 to 15 minutes per side. That resulted in chicken that was overcooked and brown nearly to the point of being black. I found I got better results by waiting about eight minutes, and then using a CLEAN, DRY pair of metal tongs gently to lift the first piece of chicken I put in to see how it was doing. When it was a deep golden brown, I turned the piece over, again using the metal tongs, and then the remaining pieces, in the order that I had put them into the pan. I then checked again periodically, until the first piece was done.

At that point, I had already placed a tray with a large flat brown paper grocery bag in the oven. As each piece was done, I lifted it with the tongs, gave it a few seconds to drain, and then put it in the oven on top of the bag. Then I let the chicken cool to room temperature. In the meantime, I turned off the fires under both frying pans until it was time to cook the next batch.

I then repeated the whole process mentioned above with the buttermilk soaked chicken, and then the yogurt soaked chicken. I found that neither of those batches needed the egg wash, and one could simply spice and then dredge them in flour, and then they would be ready for frying. I also found that it was wise to use a metal ‘spider’ or strainer to get out as much of the excess breading in the oil as possible. Otherwise, the breading would burn and darken the oil. Finally, I found that storing the cooled chicken in clean gallon zip lock bags caused the formerly crispy breading to become soggy. But a gallon paper paint bucket, or the kind of bucket used by KFC, covered with a sheet of tin foil, kept the breaded crust crisp and dry in the refrigerator.

I took that chicken over to my friend Larry’s house, and the general consensus among the those at the party was that the salt brined chicken was good, the buttermilk soaked chicken was better, but the yogurt soaked chicken was by far the best. So, last Saturday, I did the whole thing over again, but I used liquid yogurt for the entire batch, and stored the chicken in two paper buckets. I took some to my neighbor and to two friends, but most of it to my little church’s monthly charity luncheon.

The general consensus was that it was the best fried chicken that they had eaten.

AFTERWORD

Now, some might say: ‘That’s all very well, Bernie, but I don’t want to go to the trouble of cooking sixteen freakin’ pounds of chicken at a time. How about a recipe for the rest of us?

Well, gentle reader, here it is:

Ingredients:

5-6 pounds chicken pieces (2-3 pounds if you don’t want to do two batches)

1 pint Sadaf liquid yogurt (unflavored Greek yogurt drink or kefir works too)

All purpose white flour (Trader Joe’s has a gluten free flour that works well here)

1 quart vegetable oil (Canola works best, as some folk have allergies to corn, soy or peanut)

Small jar of spices (I use one part each ground pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and chili powder)

Implements of Destruction, er, Confection:

Gallon plastic zip lock bag

Small shallow bowl for breading

12″ cast iron or stainless steel pan

2 twelve inch plates

Metal candy or electronic thermometer (which can resist damage from hot oil)

Metal tongs (heat resistant cooking glove optional)

Metal ‘spider’ or strainer

Large grocery brown paper bag

Large bucket or bowl

Order of Battle:

Wash the chicken pieces and put them into zip lock bag. Pour yogurt/kefir into bag, make sure all pieces of chicken get coated, seal, and refrigerate overnight. Then drain chicken and put on plates (one plate if 2-3 pounds, two if 5-6 pounds of chicken). Sprinkle spices on one side of chicken on plate(s), turn pieces over, and sprinkle on other side. Dredge each piece in flour, preferably using clean tongs. Put back on (preferably dry and clean) plate(s).

Place pan on oven burner and pour in oil until oil is 3/4″ or so deep (pan should be at least three inches deep). When chicken is breaded, plated, and ready (see above), turn on burner under pan. Use thermometer to determine temperature. When temperature reaches 375° F. (or 190° C.), gently put chicken pieces one by one into pan. Make sure to put pieces in slowly enough so as to prevent overflowing the pan because of the bubbling oil. Let cook for about six minutes, then use tongs every thirty or so seconds to check first piece of chicken. When that piece is a rich, golden brown, use tongs to turn chicken pieces over, following the order in which they were first put in. When chicken is golden brown on all sides, lift each piece out with tongs, allow a couple of seconds to drain, and then place on flat brown paper bag. Allow to cool. If eating immediately, wait at least until cool enough not to scald your flargh hole. Otherwise, put in paper bucket or large bowl and refrigerate until later. If making two batches, use spider/strainer to scoop out as much excess breading from the oil as possible. When done cooking, let oil cool to room temperature and then bottle for reuse or discarding.

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