Fried chicken is as deeply rooted in Southern culture as sweet tea and biscuits. Oil-stained two-piece snack boxes and wax-paper lined brimming buckets can be found all over the South: In national corporate franchises, grocery stores, mom and pop cafés, meat-and-three diners, regional and local chains, food trucks, and even rural gas stations.
Commercially made fried chicken can be pretty good, but homemade fried chicken is on a whole other level. It’s a greasy, labor-intensive, time-consuming mess—and because of that, it’s undeniable proof of epic, unconditional love.
To this day, If I were forced to choose my last meal, of all the tasty, tantalizing treats I have enjoyed in my entire life, hands down, my first and last choice would be my grandmother’s fried chicken. My grandmother knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home.
My dear friend Rebecca Lang shares a similar memory of her grandmother, and she knows more about frying chicken than anyone I've ever met! Not only is she a 9th generation Southerner, she also cut up and fried over 200 pounds of whole chicken for her book, “Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic.” I recently talked to Rebecca about her best tips for making fried chicken at home, and the global techniques she learned while writing her cookbook.
First of all, how on earth did you manage to cook so much chicken?
Well, I knew it would ruin the house! So, I made an open-air kitchen in the yard with folding tables and had cords running all over. I had two stations going at once and tested two to three recipes a day. That winter I fried chicken in four inches of snow in long johns and got a sunburn on the back of my neck in the summer. I tested frying in 10 different types of fat and used over 50 gallons throughout the process.
Do you have a favorite oil for frying?
It depends on the method. For deep frying, I prefer canola oil. It is flavorless, has a high smoke point, and is readily available. My preferred fat for skillet frying is vegetable shortening! Generations of Southern women knew what they were talking about.
Why did you write a book about fried chicken?
The whole idea started with my grandmother, Tom. Her fried chicken lives in my soul. It defines me and my entire life. For me, no food elicits such happy memories as golden, crispy, tender, juicy fried chicken. It wasn't a Sunday if my grandmother Tom's perfectly crisped chicken was not already on the table when we got to her house for our midday meal. It was her cast-iron skillet filled with fried chicken that first taught me how comfort and love could be tasted and shared without saying a word. After church in McRae, Georgia we’d go home and there’d be a platter of fried chicken alongside creamed potatoes, green beans, deviled eggs, and homemade pickles. There’d be no evidence of her cooking—not a splatter of grease or a spot of flour. I was too young to understand how much work that all was, because it was always there like magic.
Any big fried chicken surprises while writing your cookbook?
I had always assumed Nashville Hot Chicken would be easy to make hot and spicy, but it’s not! I probably tested this recipe more than any recipe in the book. Even if you marinate the bird in hot sauce and season the flour heavily, the hot oil pulls the heat out. I would be astonished because the batter would be on fire, but once cooked it tasted just like normal fried chicken. The traditional technique is to save some of the cooking oil and season it with a potent combination of hot and sweet spices such as cayenne pepper and brown sugar. Then, that is drizzled or brushed on top of the already cooked chicken.
There’s a big difference in deep-fried and skillet-fried chicken. What did you learn cooking up your flock of birds?
Deep-fried chicken is quicker and easier. It’s a vat of oil and the chicken is submerged. It floats in the oil and cooks without touching the pan. Skillet-fried chicken, the kind our grandmothers made, is more difficult. The oil doesn’t cover it entirely and you have to know when to turn the chicken for even cooking. Sometimes when Tom wasn’t paying close enough attention, she’d leave a piece in the skillet too long and it would cause a dark black spot on the skin. She’d call that “the kiss of the skillet.”
What are your top tips for frying chicken at home?
- Fry outside if at all possible! You can use a portable burner on a table, electric skillet, fry daddy, or the side burner of a gas grill. No matter how good your vent hood is it is impossible to get the aroma of frying out of the house—it will last for days. Even now when I am not cooking hundreds of chickens, when I fry chicken, I fry it outside!
- It is very important to always start with what is labeled “fresh chicken.” A fresh chicken has never stored below 26°F; it cooks up juicier and has more flavor. If a chicken has been frozen a chicken will say “keep frozen” and if it states “fresh” or “keep refrigerated” it means that it has never been frozen.
- To prevent oil from splashing when you place the pieces in the skillet, make certain to lay the chicken in the pan angling away from you, not towards you, so if any oil splashes in the pan it is going in the opposite direction–and not on you.
- Maintaining temperature is imperative to good Southern fried chicken. Use a frying or candy thermometer that attaches to the side of the pan to measure the temperature of the oil. And, when you attach the thermometer, make certain that it does not touch the bottom of the pan.
- Generations of Southern women have drained freshly fried chicken on paper towels or brown paper grocery store bags. Instead, drain chicken on cooling rack set over a rimmed sheet pan—it will stay crispier and actually drain, not sit atop soggy paper! This is also the best way to reheat fried chicken—on a rack over a rimmed baking sheet.
Let’s talk a little about the different ways of frying chicken.
The size of the pieces are really all about the age and size of the bird. Many African and Asian recipes were traditionally for older birds so the chicken is cut into smaller pieces and either fried twice or blanched or roasted before frying. Recipes with European origins usually involve larger pieces. I'm convinced I could fry for a lifetime and still discover new ways to prepare fried chicken, one of the world's favorite foods. It's a crunchy and comforting journey, no matter where you choose to start.
Did you learn any new techniques while frying chicken around the world in your skillet?
Yes! Southern fried chicken is pretty simple. [Both Rebecca and I grew up with 5-ingredient fried chicken: chicken, flour, oil, salt, and pepper.] There’s either what might be called “original” like the one we both grew up with, or “extra crispy” that has been marinated in buttermilk. Both techniques are simple and stream-lined. Globally, the recipes can be much different!
For Brazilian fried chicken the bird is cut into 20 small pieces! Most likely, this technique was originally the answer to tough, old birds. Smaller pieces would make the chicken seem to be more tender. The smaller pieces have also made it extremely snack-able, so Brazilian fried chicken is now a popular bar snack.
Korean recipes typically use a technique to actually remove some of the crust. Halfway through cooking the fry basket is removed and given a good shake. This action removes any tiny bits and makes a more brittle, less thickly crispy coating that shatters.
Indonesian fried chicken is a popular street food. It’s first par cooked in a flavorful broth then fried “naked” without any dry coating. The poaching liquid, however, is used to make a slurry with flour and seasoning. The slurry is cooked separately from the fried chicken then those crispy bits are served with the dish.
Why do you think Southerners are so connected to fried chicken?
Southerners are connected to fried chicken in our DNA. We’re built to love fried chicken because of the person who made it for you. There’s a practical side, too. Before air-conditioning and electricity, people were looking for fast ways to cook. Oil heats fast and cools fast, it was easier to fry than to heat up an oven for baking or roasting.
Yet your book contains global-inspired fried chicken recipes, not simply Southern recipes.
Southerners certainly weren't the first to fry chicken. Name a country and very likely fried chicken is part of its cuisine. If I did a book only about Southern fried chicken it would be 50 variations of the same recipe! My cookbook contains recipes for Southern, Guatemalan, Brazilian, Indian, Thai, Argentinian, Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Jamaican, Filipino, West African, and Indonesian fried chicken. All over the world at any time in history that there have been birds and grease, there has been fried chicken. If we’d all focus on the commonality of fried chicken for a few minutes and sit together at the table, we'd be in a better place.