The Food Lab: Four Secrets to Improving Any Fried Chicken Recipe

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Really great Southern fried chicken needs two things: juicy, flavorful meat and an ultra-crisp and crunchy crust. Here are four quick and easy ways to achieve both. The best part? These tricks will work for any Southern fried chicken recipe you've got, whether it's the old family standard, a fried chicken sandwich, chicken fingers, or even General Tso's. They're 100% guaranteed to make you the King of Crunch.

Fried Chicken Secret #1: A Salty Marinade = Juicier Meat

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How It Works

Most Southern fried chicken recipes start with a bath in a seasoned marinade of some sort, whether it's buttermilk, milk and eggs, or even pickle juice. Adding plenty of salt to this mixture can help your chicken stay moist.

This works in the exact same manner as a brine. A standard brine is a solution of salt dissolved in water (around 6% salt by weight). As chicken sits in a brine, the salt dissolves proteins in the meat's muscle structure, loosening it and allowing it to retain more moisture as it cooks. Brined chickens lose 30 to 40% less moisture than un-brined chickens.

How to Do It

In order to make a brine with a 6% salt concentration, I add half an ounce of salt for every cup of marinade. This translates to about one and a half tablespoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt per cup, one tablespoon of Morton's kosher salt per cup, or two teaspoons of regular table salt per cup.

I've gone on record saying that I never brine my chickens or turkeys, as a standard brine can water down the flavor of the meat. For recipes that already have a marinade step built in, on the other hand, you can only benefit from adding the correct amount of salt to that marinade.

Fried Chicken Secret #2: Add Vodka to the Marinade

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How It Works

Adding vodka to your marinade mixture helps create a crust that stays light and crunchy instead of heavy, greasy, or leathery. How does this work?

As chicken fries, liquid evaporates and the breading dehydrates. After that, proteins in the marinade and flour will set and start to brown, giving the crust flavor. The more surface area you have, the crunchier the crust and the more flavorful the bird.

Vodka helps in both of these realms. First, it's much more volatile than water (which is the main component of buttermilk, pickle juice, or pretty much any other fried chicken marinade you'll be using). As such, it evaporates much more rapidly and violently. This helps drive moisture off the crust of the chicken faster, while also creating bigger vapor bubbles, adding surface area to the crust. Both of these things mean crisper, lighter fried chicken.

Finally, vodka also inhibits gluten formation. Gluten is the protein network that is created when flour and water are combined. This is important for things like bread and pizza crust, where a stretchy, chewy structure is desirable, but for crisp crusts, you want to minimize gluten development.

How to Do It

For extra-crisp crusts, I add an ounce of vodka (two tablespoons) for every cup of liquid in my marinade. (For the record, any high-proof spirit—try bourbon!—will work.)

Fried Chicken Secret #3: Add Liquid to Your Dredging Mixture

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How It Works

Have you ever noticed that if you're breading a big batch of chicken, the pieces you bread toward the end come out crisper, crunchier, and with more surface area than the ones you bread at the start? This is because as you work, bits of marinade drip off the chicken and into the dry seasoned flour mixture, forming little clumps that then stick to subsequent pieces of chicken. As the chicken fries, these clumps dehydrate, brown, and crisp, adding extra flavor and crunch.

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So why not take advantage of this phenomenon by adding some moisture to your dry seasoned flour mixture to begin with?

How to Do It

For each cup of dredging flour called for in the recipe, I drizzle about two tablespoons of marinade into it. After drizzling the marinade on top, I then work it into the flour with my fingertips or a whisk before adding the chicken pieces to coat them. Try it—your fried chicken will be crunchier than ever!

Fried Chicken Secret #4: Double-Fry It

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How It Works

Frying removes moisture from the crust and leaves it crunchy, but you can't fry it any longer than it takes the meat underneath to cook. Leave the chicken in too long, and you'll end up with an extra-crispy crust, but dry, overcooked meat. By frying once, allowing the chicken to chill completely, then frying again a second time, you end up with extra-crunchy crust and meat that's still plenty juicy.

How to Do It

Fry your chicken as usual, then let it rest at room temperature for at least half an hour before frying it again. You can even chill and refrigerate the chicken overnight and fry it a second time just before eating it. This is a wonderful way to rejuvenate fried chicken leftovers (as if such a thing exists), and your chicken will end up even better on the second day.