Sometimes it’s the simplest recipes that take the longest to master. I struggled for nearly five years to find a recipe for really crispy fried chicken that I could make at home and be fully satisfied with. More often than not the results turned out tasteless, soggy and grease slicked pieces of chicken that after hours of soaking, breading and frying in batches were hardly worth the effort. Disillusioned by how something so simple could be such a trial to decode, I gave up the effort for awhile in hopes that with some distance the recipe might just dawn on me. Then on one fateful afternoon, after returning home from lunch with a girlfriend, I learned that my husband had ventured out for a KFC fix. At my wits end, I pulled down the most basic cookbook I had on my shelf, knowing that if The Joy of Cooking didn’t break down old fashioned fried chicken into a tried and true recipe, nothing would. I knew I could tweak a good basic method to add more flavor, and make it my own, but it was the nuts and bolts of truly perfecting the texture that I needed a handle on.
Past the basic version for Southern Fried Chicken, I found an extra crispy variation that revealed an important nugget of information. Instead of just being soaked in milk and then dipped once in flour before frying, the chicken pieces go through an additional standard breading process to form that oh so important outer layer of crispiness. Armed with this new information, I set out to put the fried chicken conundrum to rest once and for all.
An overnight bath in tangy buttermilk, which I laced with my own spice blend of ground cumin, coriander, cayenne and smoked paprika, ensured the bird’s flesh was succulently enriched and moistened for frying. After quickly straining the chicken pieces, they went through a methodical dip in flour, beaten eggs and a final dusting of seasoned flour with spices that mirrored those chosen for the buttermilk soak. Since cooking the chicken entirely in oil would take more time and pot space than I was willing to give, I opted to brown the pieces in a shallow depth of oil on each side before transferring them to a rack lined baking sheet to finish the cooking completely in an oven. This enabled me to work in batches, making the whole process much less of an undertaking. The short baking period not only brought the internal temperature of the chicken up to snuff, but also maintained the crispiness of the outside skin.
Biting into a drumbstick it became unequivocally clear how much tenderness and flavor the buttermilk imparts. It was a stark contrast to the all too common stringy and dry chicken which, while incredibly crispy, had no doubt been left in the fryer way too long. My version of fried chicken is both juicy and crisp, with a distinguished complexity of heat and spice and despite its rather lengthy recipe development, it certainly gives the fast food version a run for its money.
Home Fried Chicken
2 large chickens, butchered into thighs, drumbsticks, breasts and wings
1 qt buttermilk, preferably whole fat
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cayenne
kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
8 eggs, cracked into a bowl and slightly whisked
3 C all purpose flour
1 qt canola oil
Soak the chicken pieces in the buttermilk along with 1 tsp each of cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Add ½ tsp of cayenne and allow the mixture to sit overnight, or at a minimum of 4 hours before frying.
Mix remaining spices along with 1 tsp of salt and pepper to the flour in a large bowl.
Pour the oil into a deep, wide pot and heat it over a medium flame for about five minutes. The oil will be ready when it reaches 350 degrees, or a test piece sizzles moderately immediately upon contact. The oil should shimmer, but not smoke. The oil will also expand once the chicken is in, so make sure there is enough depth in the pot for it to at least double in height without overflowing.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with foil, and baking racks over top.
Drain the excess buttermilk off the chicken in a colander, but do not rinse it. Piece by piece, dredge the chicken into the flour, then into the whisked eggs and back into the flour. Make sure each part is coated well enough in each stage that the final layer of seasoned flour thoroughly encompasses the outside.
Once all the pieces are coated, start to fry them in the oil, being careful not to over crowd the pan. When each side is golden brown, remove the chicken part, place it on one of the prepared baking sheets and season with a pinch of salt. Repeat until all the chicken is fried, then place both trays in the oven for about 20 minutes. The chicken is done when the internal temperature (from the center of a breast AND thigh) reaches 165 degrees. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.