Look at that fried chicken sandwich. Check out the crisp, craggy crust with that come bite me sheen that promises juicy, tender meat underneath. Look at that potato bun, its buttery, golden dome beckoning to you. And then...the pickles. The most playful little pickles! Cradling the chicken in a bosom of brine and dill.
Close your eyes and imagine biting into it, the soft, sweet pillow of bun giving way to the intense, peppery crunch of the crust, a torrent of chicken juices gushing forth and mingling, dancing on the palate in a complex symphony of flavors so satisfying, so delicious, that they make you wonder if there truly is some perfectly designed underlying order to the universe.
Now open your eyes and listen to this: All of that can be yours. And it can be yours, top to bottom, with just five simple ingredients. Chicken, a jar of pickles, a bag of self-rising flour, some buttermilk, and a bun. Okay, eight ingredients if you want to be pedantic and count salt, pepper, and oil as well.*
*Nobody ever counts salt, pepper, and oil.
Here's how you do it.
Step 1: Brine
I've already dived deep into the ultimate fried chicken sandwich in a process that requires considerably more ingredients and work than this one. But this recipe will get you about 80% of the way there with about 20% of the work, which is a damn good tradeoff for a busy week in my book.
Start by seasoning boneless, skinless chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Next, transfer those seasoned chicken thighs to a plastic zipper-lock bag. Wash your hands, then fold over the outer edge of the bag. This is a little trick that helps the mouth stay open and keeps any drippy juices from getting on the exterior of the bag. Pour in the brine from a jar of sliced dill pickles until the chicken is mostly submerged. This is where the real magic in the recipe comes in. We know that brining can help meat stay extra moist during cooking by breaking down its muscle structure, thereby allowing it to cling to more moisture as it cooks. Pickle juice, with its intense saltiness, accomplishes the same goal, while simultaneously adding a pleasant tangy flavor to the surface of the chicken.
Seal the bag up, leaving about a half-inch gap in the zipper-lock to squeeze out any extra air trapped inside. Your goal is for the contents of the bag to be as close to pure seasoned chicken and pickle juice as you can get. Once the air bubbles are out, seal the bag completely. Let the chicken soak in the pickle juice for at least an hour and up to overnight for the brine to work its magic. (Let it sit too long, and the chicken will start to get a ham-like texture.)
Step 2: Dredge
When you're ready to fry, out come the next two ingredients. Plain old buttermilk is the first. This is what will give your dredging mixture a nice thick base to cling to. For the dredge itself, I started with varying blends of all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt before I realized that self-rising flour, straight from the supermarket shelf, basically had all the qualities I was looking for: light and salty, with a good puffy texture when fried. All I had to do was season it aggressively with freshly ground pepper, and my chicken was ready to dredge.
The other key to really great fried chicken—whether it's in a full-fledged Chick-Fil-A knockoff, real Southern fried chicken, or even a chicken-fried chicken with country gravy—is building up a nice, thick layer of flour to help it get extra crisp.
To do this, I drizzle some of my buttermilk mixture into my flour mixture (about one tablespoon per half cup) and pinch it to make little nubs of breading that lodge themselves on the surface of the chicken, adding crunch. Your chicken should come out of the breading bowl looking like it's covered in some kind of fungal disease. A fungal disease that's gonna taste awesome.
Step 3: Fry
With the chicken coated, it's time to fry. Here I'm frying one piece at a time in a small cast iron skillet, but you can simply use more oil and a larger pan (or, better yet, a wok!) to fry your bird. Temperature control is the key to good frying. I start by preheating my oil to around 425°F as measured on an instant-read thermometer. That way, when I add my chicken, the temperature will drop to a comfortable 325°F or so, just where I want it to be to ensure that the crust crisps up golden-brown just as the chicken finishes cooking inside.
When you first add the chicken, it's a good idea not to touch it until the crust has had a chance to set nice and firm on the bottom side. The last thing you want to do is scrape off that crust that you've been diligently building.
Once both sides are fried, transfer the chicken directly to a paper towel–lined plate. Paper towels wick away excess grease better than simply letting the chicken rest on a rack.
Step 4: Bun 'em Up and Open Wide
From here, there's a clearly defined and very swift course of action. First, open up the buns, which you've thoughtfully toasted while your chicken was frying so that they'd be warm and ready as soon as the chicken was. Place a few pickle slices on the bottom bun. I know, I know: Chick-Fil-A uses two. Good thing we're not Chick-Fil-A so we can use a proper pickles-to-other ratio in our sandwich, right? I aim for TPC: Total Pickle Coverage of the bottom bun, making a comfortable bed for my chicken.
And that's it. This is by far the least fussy fried chicken recipe I know, and I've made a lot of fried chicken in my day. Is it the absolute best? No. But it's crunchy, juicy, and well seasoned, which is more than even most restaurants manage to hit, and it's pretty darned great given the amount of work it takes (or, more precisely, the amount of work it doesn't take).
Now go make it. I expect to hear a lot of sizzling today!