A few years ago I had the pleasure of working with Chef John Wilson of Water Street Kitchen in Woods Hole. In the off-season most Island residents scramble to find what work they can, and as someone who isn’t afraid of a hard day’s work, I decided to commute across Vineyard Sound for a bit. During my time at Water Street Kitchen I came to appreciate fried chicken like I never had before. Of course I had made fried chicken before, and even spent a few years living in the South (the comfort food epicenter of America), but my love for fried chicken was cemented during my time at Water Street that off-season.
Every Wednesday, John cooks up a fried chicken meal inspired by cuisines from around the world, complete with flavorful sauces and thoughtful sides. I spent many Tuesday nights, after service, breaking down whole chickens and marinating them in various brines, and buttermilk concoctions. It opened my eyes to the diversity in crusts, flavor profiles, and overall deliciousness that fried chicken has to offer.
So let’s get to the point. We’re all living through a pandemic, and some of us have all-purpose flour, while some of us are searching desperately for an online retailer that isn’t sold out — myself included. Allow me to first tell you that you don’t need all purpose flour for delicious and perfectly crispy fried chicken (or most fried things for that matter). In fact, you probably get the crispiest result using corn starch. You can use wheat flour, self-rising flour, most flours really. Be sure to check the freshness of your flour. If it has a rancid, or off-putting smell that will come through in a pretty profound way when you deep fry it for several minutes. You can mix rice flour and cornstarch, get creative . . . Again it’s a pandemic, all bets are off, rules are falling by the wayside, and we have the time to experiment.
Classic recipes in the U.S. call for buttermilk as the prefered first dip, creating a nice coating for your flour to stick to, and it works beautifully. But what if you don’t have buttermilk? Yogurt works very well, you can dilute it a bit if you like. Milk does well if you add some acid to it and allow it to curdle first. Non-dairy “milks” like almond milk also work well if you add some egg to it. Again, there are no rules, work with what you have.
You can fry lots of things in the “chicken” style. As a kid we often visited the little town in Kansas where my father grew up. There was at that time one restaurant in this tiny town, and their specialty was “Chicken Fried Steak.” Fire up your imagination and fry tofu, pork, or the Onaga Kansas favorite steak.
Basic Fried Chicken
Chicken: Whatever cuts you can get your hands on. Smaller pieces like tenderloins take less time.
Frying oil: Neutral oils of most kinds work (vegetable, canola, grapeseed, safflower, peanut, etc.) You can reuse this oil for frying if you strain it, and store it properly.
Buttermilk (or alternative) enough to cover (approx ½ cup per lb.)
Salt (aprox ½ tsp. per lb.)
Black pepper- dealers choice
(Optional) Additional spices ie. cayenne, curry spices, cardamom, chipotle adobe, whatever floats your boat.
Dredge (dry ingredients):
Flour (roughly a cup per lb… you can make more as you go)
Spices (approx. ½ -1 teaspoons total per lb.) Garlic powder & paprika are traditional additions to classic buttermilk fried chicken, but you can get creative here as well.
*A note on baking powder. Some recipes call for it, I am not opposed to it, however if you are using self-rising flour it already has a leavening agent in it. This addition will help achieve an extra crispy crust. If you want to add it use approx. 2 tsp. per lb.
Place chicken in a sealable container, cover with marinade ingredients, and refrigerate for at least an hour (overnight is best).
Preheat oil to 350 F. Use a heavy-bottomed pot, and leave plenty of room for the chicken as the level will rise. Keep in mind that the oil will boil up, and over the sides of your pot if you do not use a large enough pot, or leave enough room by adding too much oil.
If you don’t have a thermometer you can test the oil by putting the end of a wooden spoon into the oil. If it bubbles steadily, the oil is roughly the right temp. If it boils wildly, it is too hot. If it doesn’t bubble it isn’t hot enough.
While the oil is heating up, set up your dredging station.
Mix dredging ingredients in a large shallow bowl or casserole. And place it near your frying oil.
Place your chicken on the outside of the dredging ingredients furthest away from the oil.
Once the oil is hot and ready to fry, it’s time to dredge.
Remove the chicken from the buttermilk one at a time.
Cover completely in flour mixture.
Dip the chicken back in the buttermilk, letting the excess liquid drain back into the container.
Put the chicken back in the dredge, covering the chicken very well (you can push it into the flour a bit for a thicker crust alla Popeyes).
Repeat the breading process with all of your chicken pieces.
Once it is out of the dredge, carefully and slowly lower the chicken into the oil. Be careful not to drop it into the oil. If you slowly introduce the chicken into the oil it will not bubble as vigorously in the first few minutes of frying.
It is OK to fry the chicken in batches if you don’t have much oil.
Cook the chicken for about 15 minutes, being careful to move it around the oil. If you are using a small amount of oil, the crust tends to burn close to the heat source if it isn’t turned regularly.
If you have a thermometer, you are looking for an internal temp over 165 degrees. If you don’t and you are not sure, you can carefully cut a piece open to check.
Place the chicken on something to allow the oil to drain (I didn’t have a rack so I used a muffin tin).
Let it rest for at least 5-10 minutes, or serve cold
Now that you have successfully made fried chicken you can top it with whatever you like. Personally, I am a big fan of honey and hot sauce, though that is probably influenced by my time living in Georgia. This is another opportunity to use some pantry ingredients or pre-made sauces to bring another level of flavor to your chicken. Barbecue sauce, yogurt based sauces, vinegar based sauces, the sky’s the limit. Get creative and make yourself some comfort food.