The Food Lab: Chicken-Fried Chicken Is Country Cooking at Its Most Comforting

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I remember a day in college when a Texan friend of mine was trying to teach me the basics of Texas cuisine. There were a few things, she said, that I had to get right. Barbecued brisket. A good Texas-style barbecue sauce (none of that sweet Kansas City stuff, thank you). Real Texas-style chili (walk away from the beans and tomatoes). And, of course, chicken-fried steak, and its cousin, chicken-fried chicken.

By the latter, she meant thin chicken cutlets marinated in a buttermilk-based brine, dredged in seasoned flour, deep-fried until golden and crisp, and served with a peppery white gravy.

Wait, what? Isn't that just fried chicken with gravy?

No. It's chicken-fried chicken, you silly Yankee.

I'd heard the term "chicken-fried steak" in the past, and to me, that was confusing enough. But chicken-fried chicken? That's just plain silly.

Turns out there's a completely rational etymological explanation for the phrase. Chicken-fried steak hearkens back to the 19th century, when German immigrants to Texas brought with them Wiener schnitzel, the classic Austrian dish of pounded veal that's breaded and fried. Adapting it to local ingredients and tastes, those immigrants first pounded tough cuts of Texas beef into tender submission, then coated them not in breadcrumbs, but in the seasoned-flour dredging mixture commonly used for fried chicken. Thus chicken-fried steak was born. (Read up more about its fascinating history here.)

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What's New On Serious Eats

Fast-forward to this century, when chicken becomes the most popular meat across all of the U.S., and we have another update on the dish: In place of beef, cooks started using chicken breasts split in half horizontally and pounded out flat. Served with a peppery cream-based gravy, it's, er, a lighter and healthier take on the dish, perhaps.

These days, chicken-fried steak and chicken-fried chicken have spread far beyond the boundaries of Texas, and you'll see the latter on menus as either "chicken-fried chicken" or "country-fried chicken." The gravy is also served under a range of monikers. Cream gravy. White gravy. Sawmill gravy. Country gravy.

Whatever you want to call it, this is stick-to-your-ribs country cooking at its finest and most comforting. The method is largely based on my Southern Fried Chicken technique, though a few minor details have to change to make it work with boneless, skinless chicken pieces. Here's how I do it.

Choosing Chickens

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First off, I'm throwing tradition right out the window here. Even though chicken breast is the meat of choice for most chicken-fried chicken, I prefer boneless, skinless chicken thighs (check out our Knife Skills entry on how to debone a chicken thigh if you can't get them at the supermarket). Not only is the meat juicier, more flavorful, and more forgiving, but it also has a much more uneven surface, which means that there's more surface area for breading to cling to.

Of course, if you do want to use chicken breasts, feel free—you may want to consult our instructions on how to cut a chicken breast into cutlets first.

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I start by pounding the chicken into an even quarter-inch thickness by laying it inside a plastic zipper-lock bag that I've split in half. I find that the thicker-gauge plastic on a zipper-lock bag works better for pounding meat than thin plastic wrap, which has a tendency to crinkle and leave imprints on the surface of the chicken, or, even worse, tear.

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Next, I start making my spice blend. The coating for this chicken is exactly the same as for the Southern Fried Chicken recipe from my book. It's a blend of paprika, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, oregano, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. I mix the spices separately because part of the blend is going to go into the marinade, while the rest will get added to the dry flour mixture for dredging.

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The marinade consists of buttermilk—the acid in it helps tenderize the chicken, while the thickness of it allows the coating to adhere in a substantial layer—an egg for structure, some of the spice mixture, and plenty of salt. Using about 6% salt by weight gives you a solution that breaks down the muscle proteins in the chicken, allowing them to retain more moisture as it cooks. This is important not just for juiciness, but also because it ensures that the coating stays in place—excess moisture expelled from the meat as it fries can cause that coating to slough off.

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Then I add the chicken and transfer everything to a zipper-lock bag for a rest in the fridge. At least four hours is ideal for optimal juiciness and tenderness, but if you've got the time, an overnight rest will get you even more flavor.

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When the chicken is done marinating, I start my cream gravy. Traditionally, the gravy you'd use to top chicken-fried steak or chicken is made with milk and cream thickened with pan drippings and flour. It may be traditional, but fryer grease is not my idea of tasty. I prefer the cleaner flavor you get from a straight-up fresh butter and flour roux, and, at the risk of certain shunning from folks in some regions of this country, I'm also adding onions and garlic to my gravy. Deal with it.

I cook down the onions and garlic in butter...

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...then add a couple tablespoons of flour...

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...before whisking in milk and heavy cream.

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Once it comes to a simmer and thickens, I add a TON of black pepper and just the right amount of salt. With the gravy made and ready, it's time to focus on the chicken.

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The remaining spice blend goes into a bowl, along with flour, cornstarch, and baking powder. The latter two ingredients both help the batter stay extra light and crispy.

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As I mentioned in my piece on how to improve any fried chicken recipe, adding some liquid (in this case, some marinade straight out of the chicken bag) to the dry dredging mixture creates lumps of flour that fry up extra crisp. I add one tablespoon per half cup of flour in my mixture.

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I then use my fingertips to work the liquid into the flour until the flour forms moist clumps when I squeeze it. If you've ever made a good pie crust, it should feel pretty similar to how pie dough feels before you add the liquid, though a touch dryer.

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In goes the chicken, after I drain off a little bit of the excess marinade.

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The goal here is to get a really thick coating of the flour mixture, so don't be shy. Get in there with your hands and really press the mixture against the chicken until it adheres firmly.

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Lift up the chicken and shake off any excess flour (that dry, loose flour will severely shorten the lifespan of your fry oil), then transfer the chicken to a plate.

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This is what the surface of that chicken should look like when it's properly coated.

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Now we're ready to fry. I heat up a quart of fat (highly saturated fats, like peanut oil or shortening, produce the crispest crusts) in a chicken fryer or a wok, bringing it all the way to 425°F. The goal is to fry the chicken at between 300 and 325°F, and since the chicken will cool the oil when you add it, you have to overheat the oil before adding the chicken so that it settles down to the right temperature afterward.

This is one example of a situation where using a thermometer is a good idea. Overheating the oil will lead to smoking (not to mention burnt chicken), while underheating will make the coating slough off the chicken as you add the pieces or try to turn them. I recommend using a Thermapen or Thermopop.

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Once the fat is ready, lower the chicken in, a couple of pieces at a time. And I mean lower it in. Don't drop it from high up. Get your fingers right there close to the surface of the oil to prevent splashing. Hot oil can sense fear. Don't give in to your fear.

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I like to let the chicken sit untouched in the oil for a couple of minutes, giving the crust an opportunity to set up nice and firm. You don't want to risk breaking it off after all that hard work!

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After the first side is cooked and the crust is firm, I carefully flip the chicken with a set of tongs to finish cooking on the second side.

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When the crust reaches a completely irresistible shade of golden brown, the chicken is done. Well, close to irresistible. Just resistible enough that you can wait until the gravy is added.

Some folks rest their fried chicken on paper bags or paper towels. Others use a rack, claiming that paper can cause it to trap steam and soften. I use a combination. First, I transfer the chicken to a paper towel–lined plate in order to wick away some of the excess oil.

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After that, I transfer it to a rack set into a rimmed baking sheet in order to keep the chicken elevated. This produces the crispest, most grease-free crust. If you have multiple batches of chicken to prep, you can also keep the chicken in a low oven while you fry the remaining batches.

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Just look at those cracks and crevices!

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We're on the home stretch here. I put the chicken on a plate while I reheat and stir up my gravy...

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...then I spoon it on. Generously.

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Now that is what I call irresistible.