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Friday, August 17, 2012

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, Part 3: Frying

by Panda

Be sure to check part 1 and part 2 first.

Yes, that's exactly what you think it is.
And here we are at the best part.  Frying!  Well, ok, the best part is eating, but this is the part leading up to the best part.

There are a few things one needs to take into consideration when frying chicken (or anything, really):
  1. What am I going to use as a coating?
  2. What do I use for seasoning?
  3. How will I get the coating to adhere?
  4. What do I use as a cooking vessel?
  5. How do I work bacon into this?
All good questions.  First, let's talk about the coating.  I have tried many different coatings for fried chicken.  There was even a point at which I experimented with corn meal in my fried chicken coatings, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Fried Chicken Gods for not striking me down for this blasphemy.  After much experimentation, I've settled on a 2:1:1 ratio of all purpose flour, corn starch and rice flour (kudos to my friend Etoilles for the rice flour tip).  This seems to result in a nice, crunchy coating.

I bust this up with my stone motar and pestal, but if you don't have that, just run your chef's knife through it until it's fine, and then use the side of your knife and salt to grind it up.  However you want to make it, just make sure everything is well incorporated.
Second, let's talk seasoning.  There are many, many seasonings that work well with fried chicken.  In my humble opinion, less is more.  I like to go with lemon zest, salt, black pepper and fresh thyme.  Maybe also cayenne and paprika if I'm feeling frisky.  Many recipes will call for the seasoning to be mixed into the flour mixture, and possibly also the wet mixture... I don't do this.  I feel like mixing the seasoning into the flour just results in a waste of seasoning - you have to toss your leftover flour mixture after you're done coating, and if you mix your seasoning into it you'll be tossing that, too.  I prefer instead to sprinkle the seasoning on prior to coating, and then again after it's done frying.

Now let's talk adherence.  In the world of frying, the standard procedure for adhering a coating is dry, wet, dry.  In this case, our "dry" is the flour mixture.  The wet mixture should be some type of flavorful liquid that has a decent viscosity - the viscosity is important, because this is what will help it develop a nice crust.  I remember when I went to my friend John's house, and I got to try his mom's fried chicken. The chicken was sitting in a big bowl, swimming in hot sauce.  I thought it was nuts, and that the chicken would end up tasting more like buffalo wings than fried chicken, but it was great.  It wasn't really even spicy or tangy - just a hint of heat and a really nice flavor.  I like to go with a mixture of buttermilk and sriracha; if you don't have sriracha then, well, go get some!  Any hot sauce will work, but sriracha has a ton of flavor.

Buttermilk and sriracha - good friends.
As far as cooking vessels go, cast iron is your friend.  It heats evenly, which makes for some fantastic fried chicken.  So technically, you won't be deep frying your fried chicken, because it won't be entirely submerged in the oil.  Trust me on this, though - it'll turn out great.  And if you don't have a cast iron pan, shame on you... You could probably do this in a heavy pot, but come on, go get a cast iron pan already.

And now the most important consideration...... bacon.

Lard can be used instead of peanut oil.  Or... how about duck fat?  Eh?  EEEEHH??
This, my friends, is an entire package of bacon being cooked in an inch of peanut oil. What we're doing is flavoring the oil, so that the oil will then flavor the chicken.  As a bonus, when you're done, you have cooked bacon!  Medium low heat is plenty for this procedure.  Just keep cooking the bacon until it's nicely browned and has rendered its goodness, remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, then cover the pan and turn off the heat to let it cool.  I may or may not have considered crumbling the bacon into the dry mixture for the coating...  Maybe another time.

Before you begin assembly, make sure you have a nice, clean area to do all of this in.  Have a rack ready to set your chicken on after it's been coated.  Take your chicken out of your brine and dry it with paper towels, then set it in a bowl.  Have another bowl ready with your dry mixture, and a third bowl ready with your wet mixture.

Dry bowl, wet bowl and rack.
First, season your chicken evenly on all sides with your seasoning mixture.  Then add your chicken pieces to the dry mixture.  I like to assign a "wet" hand and a "dry" hand - if you try to do both with either hand, you end up with wet and dry on your hand, resulting in a giant clump of goo on your hands that just doesn't like to come off.  Use your wet hand to add the chicken to the dry mixture, then use your dry hand to scoop the dry mixture up and get it all over the chicken.  Feel free to shake the bowl around to ensure even coating; just don't shake too hard, or you'll end up looking like Casper the Friendly ghost.

Next, take your chicken out of the dry mixture, shake the excess flour off, and add it to your wet mixture.  Move the bowl around or move the chicken around with your wet hand to evenly coat everything. 

Use your wet hand to move everything back into the dry mixture.  Again, shake the bowl around or move the flour around with your dry hand to coat everything evenly.  Once that's done, shake off the excess flour and move the chicken pieces to your rack.  Setting your chicken on a rack for a while is a pretty important step, because it allows your coating to set.  You'll see its appearance change from white and powdery to pink and even after it sits for a while.  This also gives the chicken an opportunity to come up to room temperature, which will allow for even cooking.

Almost ready for a dip in the hot oil.
Before frying, make sure you have your frying station set up in assembly-line fashion: your chicken, a pair of tongs for cooking, another pair of tongs for removing the cooked chicken (to avoid cross contamination), another rack to set the cooked chicken on (place a sheet tray under it to catch any oil), and your seasoning mixture.  Make sure it's all right in a row to facilitate easy cooking.  It's very important to get everything ready prior to cooking... you really don't want to get confused while you're frying stuff in hot oil!

Two essential pieces of equipment you should have on hand - a deep fry thermometer, and a meat thermometer.  The deep frythermometer will let you know when the oil is at the right temperature.  You can guesstimate this (I have done this before), but it takes a bit of trial and error to know when the oil is at the right heat level.  If the heat is too low, the coating will absorb a lot of the oil and may even be soggy.  If the heat is too high, the coating will cook and brown before the meat has a chance to cook all the way through. Just set your burner on medium high and allow your oil to come back up to temperature until your thermometer reads 350F, which seems (to me) to be the best temperature for frying chicken.  The meat thermometer will let you know that the chicken is done... again, you can guesstimate this if you have enough experience cooking chicken, but otherwise it's really a good idea to have one of these on hand to know when your chicken is done.  Alternatively, if you just really need to know, you can cut open a piece of chicken (close to the bone) and see how it looks - if the juices run clear and it looks done, it's done.

When you add your chicken to the oil, do it slowly - don't toss it in there.  Lay the chicken down away from you so that there's no chance of splashing oil on yourself.  And be sure to only do a few pieces at a time, otherwise the pieces may stick together.

Bubblebath for chickens.
Keep an eye on the temperature of the oil with your deep fry thermometer.  You'll see the temperature take an initial dip (the chicken will bring the temperature of the oil down), but then it should come back up.  You may need to lower your burner to medium to keep the temperature from going too high.

Not every piece of chicken cooks in the same amount of time.  White meats cooks faster than dark meat, and smaller pieces cook faster than bigger ones.  I like to put in the thighs first and give those about 2 minutes of cooking time.  Then I add the legs and wait for another 2 minutes.  Then the breast pieces, and wait another 2 minutes.  Then finally the wings.  Check the undersides of your pieces occasionally to see how they're doing - if they've become a nice golden brown (see the picture above) it's usually time to flip.  From experience, I would say that thighs take about 12-13 minutes, legs take around 11, breast meat about 9, and wings about 7, but this can vary greatly depending on the size of your bird, what kind of bird it was (roasted vs. fryer), and how cold your chicken was prior to putting it in the oil.  Again, if you haven't cooked too many batches of fried chicken, a meat thermometer is your friend.  If the color of the chicken starts to get too brown for your liking, just lower the heat a bit.

When your chicken's done, remove it using your other tongs and set them on a rack.  Dust them evenly on all sides with seasoning immediately after doing this.  If you're making a lot of chicken, you can hold the chicken in your oven on the rack on warm until all of it is done.

And there you go.  Time to dig in.  Don't burn your lips.

Fried Chicken

1c all purpose flour
1/2c corn starch
1/2c rice flour 
8 pieces of chicken, brined and patted dry
Zest of 1 lemon
1 small bunch fresh thyme
3tbsp kosher salt
1tbsp peppercorns
1c buttermilk
1/4c sriracha
1 package of smoked bacon
Peanut oil or lard for frying

Pour enough oil into a cast iron pan to fill the pan up to 1 inch.  Separate the slices of bacon and all them to the oil evenly.  Turn your burner on medium low heat, and let the bacon render until it's crispy.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon.  Cover the oil with a lid, turn off the heat, and let it cool.

Meanwhile, grind together lemon zest, thyme, salt and peppercorns in a mortar and pestal; alternatively you can  use a chef's knife to chop the mixture up, and then grind the mixture together using the salt and the flat side of your chef's knife.  Side the seasoning mixture aside.

Mix together the all purpose flour, corn starch and rice flour.  Put this in a bowl and set aside.

Mix together the buttermilk and sriracha.  Put this in a bowl and set aside.

Dust the chicken evenly on all sides with the seasoning mixture.  Add chicken pieces to the dry (flour) mixture.  Toss to coat evenly.  Shake off excess flour.  Add the pieces to the wet (buttermilk + sriracha) mixture.  Toss to coat evenly.  Shake off excess flour.  Let the chicken pieces rest on a wire rack for about an hour to allow the crust to develop.

Set up your frying station.  Bring the oil up to temperature over medium-high heat, checking it with a frying thermometer until it reaches 350F.  Slowly lower your chicken pieces into the hot oil - start with pieces that take longer first (thighs, then legs, then breasts, then wings).  Cook evenly on both sides until a thermometer reads an internal temperature of 165 using your meat thermometer; or, if you cut into the meat close to the bone, the juices should run clear.  If the frying thermometer reads higher than 350, or crust begins to brown too quickly, lower the heat.

When the chicken is removed from the pan, place it on the rack and immediately dust it with more of the seasoning mixture on all sides.  Hold the chicken in a warm oven (200F) until it's ready to serve.


So if you don't want to think too much about getting the oil to the right temperature, there is a way around this.  Cook your chicken first by braising it or roasting it, let it cool, coat it, let it rest on a rack in the fridge, and fry it.  Use a hotter temperature (370 or so) for your oil.  Since the chicken's already cooked, all you have to do is fry it long enough to give it a nice, crispy coating, and keeping it cold in the fridge until you're ready to cook will keep the meat from overcooking (and frying it will bring it back up to temperature).  No one will be the wiser.

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