The Food Lab: The Best Southern Fried Chicken

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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The ultimate fried chicken. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

My publishers over at W.W. Norton were kind enough to let me share one of the new recipes from my upcoming book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science with you guys here, which is good news because I've been DYING to share my Southern Fried Chicken recipe with you.

Here is the section and recipe from the book, in near-complete form. In the book, you'll also find a few extras, like instructions on how to double-fry your leftover chicken for even more crunch, a gallery of the more than 50 whole chickens I fried in the process of writing this recipe, and a do-it-yourself experiment that shows you the pros and cons of resting your chicken after dredging it in flour and before frying it. I hope you enjoy it. (And look out for my book in stores on September 21st, or preorder it through the link below to be the first kid on your block to get a copy!)

Southern-Style Fried Chicken

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I know how passionate people can get about fried chicken, and I'm not one to tell you who makes the best, but if you were to ask Ed Levine, the Serious Eats overlord, he'd tell you that it's Gus's, a sixty-seven-year-old institution in Mason, Tennessee. They serve fried chicken that he describes as incredibly crunchy, with a crisp, craggy crust, juicy meat, and a "cosmic oneness" between the breading and the skin. We're talking fried chicken so good that you have to resort to metaphysics to make sense of it.

For me, as a kid growing up in New York, fried chicken came from one place, and one place only: those grease-stained cardboard buckets peddled by the Colonel himself. To my young mind, KFC's extra-crispy was about as good as it got. I distinctly remember eating it: picking the coating off in big, fat chunks; tasting the spicy, salty grease; and shredding the meat underneath with my fingers and delivering it to my waiting mouth. It was heavenly.

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But times have changed, and as is often the case, revisiting those fond childhood memories results only in disappointment and disillusionment. All over the country, there's a fried chicken and soul food renaissance going on. Even the fanciest restaurants in New York are adding it to their menus. My eyes and my taste buds have been opened to what fried chicken truly can be. I may still dig the ultracrunchy, well-spiced crust that KFC puts on its birds, but that's about the only thing it has going for it. Flaccid skin, dry and stringy breast meat, and chicken that tastes like, well, it's hard to tell if it really tastes like anything once you get rid of the crust.

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Even the breast meat should be juicy in good fried chicken.

That said, stylistically, it can't be faulted. So I figured that I could somehow manage to take what the Colonel started and bring it to its ultimate conclusion—that is, deep chicken flavor; a flab-free skin; juicy, tender meat; and crisp, spicy coating—I might just be able to recapture those first fleeting childhood tastes of fried chicken as I remembered them.

Inside Out

I started with a working recipe of chicken pieces simply dipped in buttermilk and tossed in flour seasoned with salt and black pepper, then fried in peanut oil at 325°F until cooked through. A few problems immediately became clear. First off, timing: By the time my chicken was cooked through (that's 150°F in the breasts and 165°F in the legs), the outer crust was a dark brown, bordering on black in spots. Not only that, but it didn't have nearly as much crunch as I wanted. Finally, the meat underneath the crust wasn't completely desiccated, but I wouldn't exactly describe it as moist, not to mention its rather bland flavor. I decided to fix my chicken from the inside out.

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Looks crisp outside, but inside this chicken is dry.

*For those of you squeamish about "undercooked" chicken or who insist that breast meat must be cooked to 165°F to be safe and tasty, please read this discussion on real world food safety, which is quite different from what the U.S. government would have you believe.

The problem is that with fried chicken, the crisp well-seasoned coating is merely a surface treatment. None of that flavor penetrates very deeply. Surely brining and/or marinating should help with that problem? Brining is the process by which a lean meat (most often chicken, turkey, or pork) is submerged in a saltwater solution. As the meat sits, the saltwater will slowly dissolve key muscle proteins—most notably myosin, a protein that acts as a sort of glue, holding muscle fibers together). As the myosin dissolves, three things take place:

  • First, the ability of the meat to hold onto moisture increases. You can imagine meat as a series of long, skinny toothpaste tubes tied together. As you cook the meat, the tubes of toothpaste get squeezed, pushing out valuable juices. Breading will help mitigate this effect to a degree by slowing down the transfer of energy to the meat, but a significant amount of squeezing is still going to occur regardless of how well breaded the chicken is. Myosin is one of the key proteins responsible for this squeezing action, so by dissolving it, you prevent a lot of moisture loss from taking place.
  • Second, brining alters the texture of the meat by allowing dissolved proteins to cross-link with each other. This is the main principle behind sausage making—dissolved proteins can bond with each other, creating a pleasantly bouncy, tender texture. By brining a chicken breast or a pork chop, you're in effect giving it a very light cure—the same process that converts a raw ham into a supple prosciutto.
  • Third, as the brine slowly works its way into the meat, it seasons it beyond just the very surface. An overnight brine will penetrate a few millimeters into the meat, giving you built-in seasoning before you ever get to the breading. Brines also improve juiciness by increasing the muscles' ability to retain moisture. My normal brining for chicken breast is anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. In this case, however, a much, much longer brining time was necessary in order to completely mitigate the effects of high-temperature frying, delivering a uniquely smooth, juicy texture to the meat.

A full six hours submerged in salt/sugar water produced the beauty below. Weighing the meat confirmed that an overnight-brined-then-fried bird loses about nine percent less moisture than an unbrined bird does and is significantly tastier.

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Unbrined chicken on the left versus brined chicken on the right.

I've experimented with tossing certain animal preparations with a mixture of baking powder and salt a day in advance in order to improve their crispness. The salt acts as a brine, while the baking powder raises the pH of the skin, causing it to brown more efficiently and the thin film of protein-rich liquid around it to form microbubbles that can add crispness. I tried this method on my fried chicken, but it ended up drying the skin out too much, making it tough to get the breading to remain attached down the line.

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Knowing that I'd be soaking my chicken in buttermilk the next day anyway, I wondered if I'd be able to kill two birds with one stone by replacing the water in the brine with buttermilk. Not only did the chicken come out just as moist as with water brine, it was actually significantly more tender as well, due to the tenderizing effects of buttermilk on food (soaking it for more than one night led to chicken that was so tender that it bordered on mush). Finally, hitting the buttermilk with spices helped build flavor right into the surface of the bird. I played around a bit with the mix before arriving at a blend of cayenne pepper and paprika (for their heat and peppery flavor), garlic powder**, a bit of dried oregano, and a healthy slug of freshly ground black pepper. The Colonel may use eleven secret herbs and spices in his chicken recipe, but five was quite enough for me (and both my wife and my doorman heartily concurred).

**Some folks shun garlic powder, saying that it's nothing like real garlic. I agree: garlic powder is nothing like real garlic. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its culinary uses. It's particularly effective in spice rubs and breadings, where fresh garlic would be difficult to incorporate, due to its texture.

Crust Lust

Next up: add some extra crunch to that crust. I reasoned that there were a few ways to do this. First off, I wanted to increase the crust's thickness. I tried double-dipping my chicken—that is, dredging the brined chicken in flour (seasoned with the same spice blend as my brine), dipping it back into the buttermilk, and then dredging it once more in flour before frying, a method chef Thomas Keller uses for his justifiably famous fried chicken at Ad Hoc. This worked marginally better—that second coat definitely developed more crags than the first coat did. But it also made for an extremely thick breading that had a tendency to fall off the breast because of its heft.***

***You may notice the redness of the center of the chicken. This is not because it is undercooked, but because I cracked the bone when cutting it open, revealing some of the chicken's red marrow. Occasionally bones may snap or crack on their own, or while you are breaking down the chicken, leaving a few red spots inside the chicken even when it is fully cooked. This should not alarm you.

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A double coating of flour creates a thick crust that falls off the chicken.

Much better was to simply add a bit of extra structure to the breading in the form of an egg mixed into the buttermilk.

My crust was certainly thick enough now, but I ran into another problem: rather than crisp and crunchy, it was bordering on tough, almost rock-like in its density. Knowing that gluten—the network of proteins formed when flour meets water—was the most likely culprit, I sought out ways to minimize its formation. First and foremost: cut the protein-rich wheat flour with cornstarch, a pure starch that adds moisture-absorbing capabilities to the breading without adding excess protein. Replacing a quarter of the flour worked well. Adding a couple teaspoons of baking powder to the mix helped bring a bit of air to the mix, forming a crust that was lighter and crisper, with increased surface area (and we all know that more surface area = more crispness, right?).

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Adding buttermilk to the dredge creates the extra-craggy surface on the left.

Finally, I used a trick that a friend, a former employee of the Chick-fil-A Southern fast-food fried-chicken chain had told me about. He'd mentioned that once the chicken was breaded, the later batches always come out better than the earlier ones as bits of the flour mixture clumped together, making for an extra-craggy coat. Adding a couple tablespoons of buttermilk to the breading mix and working it in with my fingertips before dredging the chicken simulated this effect nicely.****

****This method is also employed in Cook's Country magazine's fried chicken recipe.

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The last problem—the coating overcooking long before the chicken is cooked through to the center—was simple to solve. Just fry the chicken until golden brown, then transfer it to a hot oven to finish cooking at a gentler pace. The result is chicken with a deep brown, craggy crust that's shatteringly crisp but not tough and that breaks away to meat that bursts with intensely seasoned juices underneath.

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