"Never in my life did I ever expect to ingest something called 'The Colonel's Special Sauce,' much less spend a morning trying to recreate it."
By now, everyone knows what this is, right? It's the new Double Down "sandwich" from KFC. Two slices of bacon, two slices of cheese, and a big squirt of the "Colonel's Special Sauce" sandwiched between two deep-fried chicken cutlets in lieu of bread. Most people online seem to be in agreement, with Sam Sifton leading the charge: This thing is gross.
Most of the panty-twisting revolves around its nutritional qualities. But is it really that bad for you? After all, conceptually and nutritionally, it's no different than a Chicken Cordon Bleu, right? Is there no room in our diet for fried chicken or bacon?
To me, the grossness of this sandwich is the same as what's gross about all fast food: convenience and quality. It's simply too easy to walk up to a window, hand over five bucks, and get 600 industrially produced calories prepared by a worker who couldn't care less.
As a culinary concept, on the other hand, chicken, bacon, and cheese sounds pretty good to me. So what if I were to recreate the Double Down with time and care using quality ingredients? How would it compare to the original? Find out, after the jump.
This morning, we did just that (yes, I was up frying chicken before 8 a.m.). Here are the results.
KFC's Chicken cutlets are not bad as far as fast food goes. They are clearly made from whole (albeit grisly and slightly dry) pieces of chicken breast, not ground and formed chicken meal. The problem is the crust. In the two sandwiches I had, it lacked crispness except around the very edges. It also seemed to be adhered to the breast with some sort of industrial-strength food glue. Finally, while the Colonel is proud of his secret 11-herb-and-spice blend, it overwhelms not just the chicken but the bacon, sauce, and melted cheese, as well—not a minor feat!
To improve matters, I started with good, air-chilled chicken breasts, which I split in half horizontally into cutlets and soaked overnight in buttermilk seasoned with black pepper, fresh garlic, and paprika in order to help tenderize and flavor the meat. I also added plenty of salt to the mix, turning the buttermilk into a brine, helping the chicken breast pieces retain more moisture as they cooked, ensuring juiciness.
Standard fried chicken breading will have you drop the buttermilk-soaked pieces into seasoned flour. To get a bit of extra crispness, I worked a bit of extra buttermilk into the flour mixture with my fingertips before adding the chicken. This creates little crisp nubs that stick to the exterior of the chicken for extra crunch. I tried frying in lard and shortening, but they proved too heavy, leaving an offputting waxy coating on your tongue. Peanut oil fared much better.
Since the chicken breast cutlets are so thin, I didn't even need to break out the deep fryer—they stayed submerged just fine in a 12-inch skillet, making cleanup much more appealing.
I once had a chef who used to yell at cooks, "I don't care if you're cooking fried dogs**t. If it comes out of the fryer, you salt it the second it comes out!" He's right: Salt sticks much better when the food's still hot and slightly greasy.
KFC's bacon was by far the most disappointing part of the sandwich. After digging through the cheese-mayo mixture with a pair of tweezers, I was finally able to locate the two floppy, anemic slices. Even when tasting them on their own, it was tough to discern any particular pork flavor. All I got was a vague hit of chemical smoke. Blugh.
In order to stand up to the flavor of the chicken, I decided to go with thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon. My normal go-to method is to lay the strips out on a sheet tray in the oven, but it makes collecting excess fat a little more difficult, and I had definite plans for that bacon fat. Instead, I cooked the bacon (two full slices cut in half per sandwich, plus three extra for my wife*) in the skillet, reserving the fat to combine with my chicken-frying oil, rendering the chicken extra-crisp and flavorful.
KFC claims to use a slice of Monterey Jack and a slice of pepper Jack. Though I did see vague flecks of green and red in the pepper Jack, I honestly could taste no difference between the two slices. Not only that, but by the time the chicken had cooled sufficiently to eat, the cheese had solidified into a solid plastic sheath. Not for me, thank you.
Instead of going with slices, I figured I'd get better, more even coverage by applying a layer of grated pepper Jack directly to the fried chicken and melting it with a brief stay in the oven. I didn't even both with two different cheese. After all, pepper Jack is just Monterey Jack with hot peppers added to it. Did the chefs at KFC really decide that two full slices of pepper Jack was just too spicy? Really?
Never in my life did I ever expect to ingest something called "The Colonel's Special Sauce," much less spend a morning trying to recreate it. Unlike the sweet and sour McDonald's Special Sauce, the Colonel's got a spicier background. I did ask the employee at KFC what kind of sauce it was. His response: "Special," along with a smug "look-at-that-joke-I-just-made" smile on his face.
Clever. Very clever.
In the end, I went with a mix of mayo, ketchup, fresh garlic, paprika, and a dash of Frank's Red Hot sauce. Exactly the same? No, but trust me—you don't want your sauce to taste exactly the same as the Colonel's.
There's not much to the assembly. I cooked the bacon, fried the chicken, melted the cheese, slathered the sauce, then put it all together. Was it better than the original? How could it not be?
The main advantages were that in the original, everything kind of melts into one salty, spicy, mealy bite, whereas with the homemade version, all the elements are of a high enough quality that they remain distinct, while still managing to come across as a harmonious whole. Aside from the absurd portion size, I'd happily make this for myself a couple of times a year.
And as luck would have it, I think I've discovered a portion-size solution as well: The Double Down Junior.
Made from the tenderloins that I removed from the chicken breasts before cooking, each Double Down Junior is just the right size for a single strip of bacon, packs all of the flavor and excesses of its bigger brother, but can be consumed in two single bites. How's that for fast food?
So what about you? If you could make or buy a higher quality version of this sandwich, would you be more likely to try it?
* Who would leave me if I ever cooked bacon without making extra for her.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.