Until a couple weeks ago, I had never heard of Maryland fried chicken, which is embarrassing given that I consider myself an honorary Marylander as far as food is concerned. See, my mom grew up in Maryland, down on the Eastern Shore in a tiny farming town of about two-hundred. Even though I was born and bred in Brooklyn, she had me picking crabs from the moment I had the dexterity to hand-feed myself, and taught me to shun over-breaded crab cakes before I even had the teeth to chew them. She even made sure to instruct me on the finer points of how to make beaten biscuits with the blunt side of an axe and a tree stump, even though I had no hope of finding my own axe and tree stump in New York City to beat my own.
So when, over the holiday, I picked up and restored a vintage cast iron skillet, and then queried my Facebook friends for suggestions on how to inaugurate it, I was totally at a loss when my Aunt Susan replied that I should make Maryland fried chicken. Why had I never heard of this stuff?
I set to work researching it, while my aunt reached out to old Maryland friends for their input. The first thing I discovered is that, like many regional culinary icons, there are many, many versions of this dish, with each household doing it a little differently. Here's what one of my aunt's former classmates had to say:
As for Maryland fried chicken...hmmm, a tough one. I can only respond by stating how my mother fixed it (then again, she grew up in Pennsylvania!). I do know she dipped it in milk, dredged it in flour, salt and pepper, then fried it in very hot lard until it was golden brown. The finishing touch was to put a small amount of water (a tablespoon or so) in the skillet, cover it, and "braise" it until the water disappeared and the chicken "crisped." Then came the gravy made in the skillet, scraping up the residue with some milk and adding a water-and-flour combo until slightly thickened. I have no idea what made it Maryland fried chicken, but I venture a couple of guesses...the chicken was what we now call organic, the lack of seasonings, the braising...overall, simple preparations.
That lines up somewhat well with the recipe in my copy of Cooking in the Chesapeake County, a community cookbook published in 1967 by the Galena Volunteer Fire Department. It describes dredging the chicken in a coating of flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, frying it in a deep layer of fat until browned, adding that same small amount of water mentioned above, and covering and steaming until tender. It's then fried for a few more minutes uncovered until crisp, but strangely there's no mention of the gravy.
That gravy, though, seems to be a feature in most of the other sources I've come across, and is one of the details that makes this fried chicken different from most others out there, so I'm considering it essential. In some ways, the gravy makes Maryland fried chicken surprisingly similar to Chicken-Fried Steak, except with chicken instead of steak (I had always wondered why chicken-fried chicken didn't exist...turns out it does, as Maryland Fried Chicken).
Most sources also agree that lard is the fat to use if you want the most traditional flavor. For ease, I fried it in vegetable oil in my recipe, since that's what most of us keep on hand, but if you have lard, consider using it here.
Two other details pop up regularly in descriptions of Maryland fried chicken. First, it's common for people to insist that the chicken must be a good quality, free-range one, given the dish's old-time farm origins, but that could also be said of just about any recipe that's been around longer than industrial agriculture. Regardless, it's just a generally good tip; for reasons too lengthy to list here, I think we should always try to buy the best quality chicken we can afford. The other is that a cast iron skillet is the most authentic cooking vessel for the recipe; this is a pretty common tip with fried chicken in general, and I see no reason to disagree with it—I love cast iron.
Let's take a closer look at the recipe.
A lot of fried chicken recipes use either a batter or a multi-part dredge that includes, egg, flour, and sometimes milk, which forms a thicker fried coating. Maryland fried chicken, on the other hand, uses a much simpler coating, often nothing more than seasoned flour. I kept mine very simple with just salt and pepper, but garlic powder, Old Bay, or cayenne would be nice touches if you want to go a more assertive route.
Recipes differ to some extent on how to approach this. Aside from the fat itself, which I discussed above, I saw some recipes that called for a deep layer of fat, while others insisted on a shallow layer. Meanwhile, many suggested adding a tiny bit of water—a tablespoon or two— midway through cooking, and then covering the chicken to steam, before uncovering and allowing it to crisp for the last few minutes.
Against my better judgement, I tried adding the water in one of my test batches and almost lit my kitchen on fire from the explosion of violently spattering oil. I don't think it's a great idea, and I also don't think it's necessary: covering the pan for a portion of the frying traps more than enough of the steam generated by the chicken without pouring in additional water. I have a few theories about what this covering/steaming step accomplishes, the main one being that it helps the chicken cook more evenly despite its not being fully submerged in oil. It essentially helps simulate the benefit of deep-frying without having to use nearly as much oil. I haven't tested it, but I wouldn't be surprised if it also ensures extra juiciness in the meat as compared to a lengthier period of uncovered shallow frying.
Covering and steaming may seem antithetical to the goals of frying, but it's pretty amazing how crispy the chicken ends up after the final minutes of cooking while uncovered.
I also settled on a shallow layer of fat: given the covering step, I didn't see the benefit of pouring more than a quarter-inch into the pan.
Once the chicken is fried, I transfer it to a warm oven to keep warm and quickly whip up the gravy. I start by pouring out the fat in the skillet. You should see some brown bits.
Following the basic method of a white sauce, I melt butter in the pan, scraping up those browned bits.
Then I add flour and whisk it into the butter to make a paste.
I cook it, whisking, until some of the raw flour smell has cooked off.
Then I add milk, whisking to blend.
I let that simmer until the gravy is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, then season it with salt and plenty of black pepper.
Once the gravy is ready, it's time to eat.
Don't wait, eat it fast, and passionately—this won't get any better sitting around being gawked at.