You might remember a couple months ago when I did a little piece about making Chinese-American food using Popeye's chicken nuggets as a start. It's a simple way to get that fried chicken nugget crunch factor without actually having to heat up a wok of oil and worry about the messy business of battering chicken chunks.
A couple days later, I got a letter in my inbox from none other than Anthony Myint, co-owner at Mission Chinese Food (one of the best restaurants I ate at last year). Here's what he had to say:
In case you get the urge you can also try twice fried popeyes—my personal favorite. Allow dark meat pieces to cool completely, even overnight in the fridge. Fry at 350 F for 2-3 minutes and then allow to drain/rest for 3 minutes. Crunch Factor! Once for a night at Mission Street Food we served the twice fried in a shallow pool of chicken-bacon consomme with greens and a slow-egg—probably the high water mark in my career...
After such a ringing endorsement, how could I pass it up?
It's a really fascinating method that takes some cues from traditional french fries or Korean fried chicken. A bit more testing is in order to really clear up exactly what's going on, but my off-the-cuff hypothesis is this:
Frying is really a process of dehydrating and coagulating protein matrices. The longer and hotter you fry, the dryer the coating gets, and the crisper is becomes.
Unfortunately, overly long frying periods can also cause your crust to brown too deeply and develop bitter flavors. Additionally, extended frying will eventually heat up the interior of your chicken too much, causing it to dry out. By frying your chicken once (or letting Popeye's fry it once) and letting it cool completely before frying it a second time, you're basically dehydrating the very outer layers more than you'd be able to with a single fry, while at the same time mitigating the ill effects of overfrying, resulting in a perfectly golden brown crust and meat inside that's still ultra juicy.
So does it work? I tried it out in the office (that is, before my vegan experience started) by buying a box of fried chicken and leaving it in the fridge overnight. After managing to safely protect the box from a hungry Ed in the afternoon (not a trivial task), the rest went off without a hitch. I re-fried the chicken the next day in a pan of 350°F canola oil.
Though the test was hardly rigorous (we didn't actually taste it side-by-side with a new batch of Popeye's), I'd venture to say that it was a resounding success, providing extraordinarily crisp and crunchy fried chicken that got finished off pretty darn fast.
Of course, all this begs the question: why not double fry all fried chicken?
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor 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.