The country's gone mad for fried chicken and so far I've kept my mouth shut. Truth be told, I'm a bit of a hater. It all began back in third grade when my class had a family recipe day. I cast my vote for chocolate donut cake (so named because it was baked in a tube pan), but my mother insisted on making the fried chicken she grew up with in Virginia.
I remember shaking the raw chicken pieces in a brown paper bag filled with breadcrumbs, and watching safely from across the kitchen as my mom dropped each breast and drumstick into a hissing pot of hot oil. The next day I carried a platter of cold fried chicken into school, where it languished until lunch and then was completely overshadowed by someone else's "heirloom" Rice Krispie treats.
Since then I've done my best to avoid fried chicken, opting for the rotisserie alternative or simply filling my plate with sides. I have never been to KFC, except once to use the bathroom on a long car trip. That may not be much of a loss, but I've also never had chicken and waffles, and once left a James Beard event ravenous because of the buttermilk-battered main dish.
So last week, when Ed sent a fried chicken mix to my office (by messenger no less) with a note requesting that I review it as soon as possible, I was more than a little reluctant. I had been planning on chocolate chunk cookies or maybe lemon-poppy scones. But upon closer examination I realized this wasn't just any fried chicken mix. It was the Ad Hoc fried chicken mix ($14.95 for enough brine and mix to make two chickens, available at select Williams-Sonoma stores). As in Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc. Hell, if Thomas Keller came out with a line of cat food you could probably convince me to try it.
First of all, this is not a simple mix. You will need to begin preparations a day in advance. You will dirty a lot of bowls. You will need to find a way to properly dispose of nine cups of frying oil. It will all be worth it.
To begin, I bought a whole chicken that weighed a little over four pounds. Using my sharpest kitchen sheers and biggest knife, I hacked it into ten pieces. I dissolved the packet of brine mix (which was an especially aromatic combination of bay leaves, lemon, peppercorns, parsley, thyme, and some sea salt and honey powder thrown in) in 6 1/2 cups of water, allowed it to cool, then poured it over the chicken. Then I put everything in the refrigerator overnight.
The next morning I poured off the marinade, rinsed my chicken pieces, and patted them dry. They looked fat and juicy and ever-so-slightly pickled, as if they had been infused with spicy, salty flavor. Later, when I got home from work, I took the chicken out of the fridge and set it on the counter even though dinner wasn't for hours. According to Thomas Keller, chicken should stand at room temperature for two hours before frying. Who am I to argue?
When it was finally time to fry, I glugged nine cups of oil into my deepest pot—the one usually reserved for big batches of winter soup or summer lobster boils. I poured 3 cups of buttermilk into one bowl and dumped the contents of the coating mix packet (flour, garlic, paprika, cayenne, and black pepper) into another. Since I was a fried chicken novice, I followed every instruction, dredging first the legs and thighs and then the breasts and wings, though the coating, into the buttermilk, then back through the coating.
As each batch of chicken fried, I hovered over it like a mother hovering over the crib of a newborn baby. Was it OK in there? Was the oil hot enough? Was it too hot? The outsides looked golden brown and crispy, but what if the inside was still raw? I had invited two friends over for dinner. Raw poultry just wouldn't do. I gulped at a glass of wine to calm my nerves.
A little over an hour after the frying process began, we sat down to a Southern feast that would have made my mother proud—and my grandmother, for that matter. The coating crackled and shattered as I bit into a piece of chicken, then gave way to succulent meat more flavorful than any chicken I have ever prepared before. After a few minutes, we abandoned our civilized forks and replaced the bottle of wine at the center of the table with a paper towel roll. We tore through the bird like animals. It was all I could do to pause long enough to snap a few photographs.
All I can say is that I have been converted. It took Thomas Keller to do it, but I am now officially a lover of fried chicken. Unfortunately not all Williams Sonoma locations still carry the mix and it's no longer available in the catalog or online, but if you can get your paws on this, it's a delicious experience of Keller's magic at home.