Wylie Dufresne, celebrated mad-scientist chef of NYC's WD-50, has a thing for Popeyes fried chicken. So much of a thing that he reportedly served it at his wedding. So for Lee Brian Schrager's cookbook, Fried & True: More than 50 Recipes for America's Best Fried Chicken and Sides, Dufresne was given a mission: recreate those golden tenders and buttery, soft biscuits, because Popeyes is not about to cough up their recipe! Unsurprisingly, Dufresne rose to the challenge, though with stipulations to keep his molecular techniques at bay so that the average cook could achieve the same results at home. You might be able to guess how this ends...with fried chicken and biscuits that puts the original inspiration to shame, or at least firmly into second place.
The tenders first get an overnight soak in buttermilk and hot sauce that makes them juicy and, um, tender. To nail the perfectly seasoned crust, he eventually landed on a breading that includes a packet of onion soup and a hefty dose of McCormick's Italian Herb Spaghetti Sauce Seasoning Mix. (If this makes you cringe, remember who we're talking about here, and trust.) Cornstarch, potato starch and baking soda added to the self-rising flour mixture ensure the signature craggy texture and exceptional crunch. Finally, after much experimentation to find the perfect frying temperature, he settled on a relatively low 300°, which renders the crust a deep golden-brown and keeps the lean meat moist.
As for the biscuits, Dufresne's shortening-based version took down Popeyes' without a fight—their delicate, pillowy interior is surrounded by a gently crisp crust. I was dubious about the addition of powdered milk to the mix, since this can sometimes toughen baked goods, but it most certainly didn't do so here; it added just the right amount of sweetness and a pleasant, subtle cooked-milk flavor.
And so, the student becomes the master—if we can wrap our minds around Wylie Dufresne being Popeyes' student to begin with.
Why I picked this recipe: Wylie Dufresne takes on Popeyes? That's something I want to see.
What worked: The tenders were exceptional. Even during the preparation, I was skeptical about the seasoning mixes; the breading smelled like straight spaghetti sauce. Until it hit the fryer, that is, at which point all the ingredients fused into the perfect, savory, fried chicken-y crust. Despite being up to my eyeballs in fried chicken this week, I did feel it was my duty to hit up a Popeyes and do a side-by-side comparison. While Dufresne's tenders certainly harken to the fast food version, there's no question his get the blue ribbon.
What didn't: I found the converted measurements of the dry ingredients for the biscuits to be off. Since Dufresne created the recipes using weighed amounts, those are what I went by. For the given weight of flour, however, I measured 3 1/2 cups, as opposed to the 4 cups listed. And even more significant, it took double the amount of powdered milk (1 cup) to meet the weight measurement; this varies tremendously, I imagine, depending on the coarseness of the brand you use. The biscuits were perfect using the weighed amounts, so stick with those. Also, the recipe says it makes 12 biscuits, but I could get at most 6 plus scraps out of the single batch of dough. There is enough dry base for a second batch, so maybe that's where the count got confused.
Suggested tweaks: If you have a kitchen scale, use it, particularly for the biscuits. If you want a dozen, use all the dry base and double the wet ingredients, and I suggest brushing the tops with more melted butter once they're out of the oven for an even more authentic Popeyes experience.
Reprinted from Fried & True by Lee Schrager with Adeena Sussman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Lee Schrager. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, LLC.
- For the Brine
- 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 12 2-ounce chicken tenders
- 4 cups buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon Louisiana-style hot sauce, such as Crystal (or more to taste)
- For the Breading
- 3 cups (13 1/2 ounces) self-rising flour
- 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) cornstarch
- 1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) potato starch
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) sea salt, plus more for seasoning
- 4 tablespoons (1 ounce) paprika
- 1 teaspoon (.176 ounce) baking soda
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) onion soup base, ground in spice grinder until fine
- 7 teaspoons (1 ounce) Italian Herb Spaghetti Sauce Seasoning Mix (see Note), finely ground
- Canola oil for frying
Brine the chicken: In a large, nonreactive bowl or Ziploc bag combine the chicken, buttermilk, and hot sauce; cover and refrigerate overnight.
Bread the chicken: Sift all breading ingredients 3 times through a flour tamis (see Note) or very fine mesh strainer into a large bowl, discarding any lumps. Working in batches, remove 4 or 5 tenders at a time from the buttermilk marinade and toss in the breading, coating well. Transfer to a baking sheet and let rest until the breading adheres, 15 to 20 minutes.
Fry the chicken: While the chicken rests, add 2 inches of oil to a large (at least 6-quart) pot and heat to 300°F. Working in batches, fry 4 to 5 tenders at a time until brown and crisp, 5 minutes per batch. Remove to a paper towel to drain. Once all the chicken is fried, season lightly with salt and serve with the biscuits.
NOTE: Dufresne found the flavor combination in McCormick's Italian Herb Spaghetti Sauce Seasoning Mix (available in most grocery stores and online) to be the most pleasing for its blend of traditional chicken breading spices. If you can't find it, grind 2 teaspoons each sugar, salt. and dehydrated onions with one teaspoon each dried basil and oregano and 1/2 teaspoon each chile flakes, black pepper, and garlic powder.
Candy or deep-fry thermometer