Fried Chicken: A Recipe-Free Guide to Improvising In The Kitchen
Good fried chicken is often considered the test of a good home-style cook. Once you read this, you’ll be able to make delicious fried chicken with whatever you currently have in your kitchen cupboards. And you’ll be able to do it without measuring and following recipes! This is more than a recipe for deep-fried chicken; it’s a theory manual.
There are five simple steps for making fried chicken (and one is optional).
The first thing you need, of course, is the chicken. Make sure your chicken is as fresh as possible. Check the expiration date and make sure to wash it well when you take it out of the packaging. If you defrost frozen chicken be sure to fry it within 24 hours of defrosting. Refrigerate chicken until one hour before you are ready to fry it. Remember: always fry chicken at room temperature. This will help you avoid raw spots in the middle of the chicken and overcooking on the outside.
The Marinade (Optional)
You do not have to marinate, but they often add tremendously to the taste of the chicken. You can marinate chicken in almost any edible liquid and you don’t have to measure amounts. Make sure to match the flavor of your marinade with the flavor of your seasonings (see below, under SEASONINGS). If you want classic Southern Fried Chicken taste, marinate in milk. If you want an Asian flavor, marinate in teriyaki or soy sauce. If you want an exotic Indian flavor to your chicken, marinate in a mixture of milk and curry powder. If you’re looking for Mexican flavor marinate in your favorite salsa, with or without hot chilis. Be creative; you can add wine, honey, vinegar, or just about anything else you like to the mix.
You need to deep-fry the chicken in some kind of oil. My favorites are shortening, canola oil or ghee (either vegetarian or butter). Heating the oil properly before cooking is essential. When the oil isn’t hot enough the coating will fall off your fried chicken and it will come out very greasy. When the oil is too hot, the chicken will burn. Different kinds of oils can be heated to different temperatures so there is no hard and fast rule for the frying temperature. My suggestion is to get the oil very hot, but not smoking and test it by dropping in a small ball of the BATTER you will use. When you add your fried chicken, make sure to lower it slowly and gently into the oil so it doesn’t spatter. If pieces of batter break off during the frying process remove them from the oil as soon as you can; otherwise they will burn and flavor the oil and chicken with a burnt taste. Put the chicken in one piece at a time and make sure no piece is touching another. Fried chicken is often ruined by crowding in the cooking process. Your chicken can’t cook evenly if it’s all crowded together.
Battering fried chicken is a two-part process. First, the skin must be moistened, and then the dry ingredients must be layered over the wet. This is easier than it sounds.
The usual strategy for moistening chicken and creating a “glue” so that the dry ingredients will stick is to use egg. Simply break some eggs into a bowl and pour in some water, vinegar or milk (depending on your seasonings) to thin the egg out. Use liquid at about a 1:5 ratio with the eggs. Most cooks can just do this by feel, but if you’re nervous, after every five eggs add a 1/4 cup of liquid. When you’ve made up as much egg batter as you think you’ll need, pour it into a deep bowl. You’ll need to dip the chicken in this before you roll it in the dry ingredients.
The dry ingredients are the heart of the batter. Again, you have a lot of room for experimentation here. You can use breadcrumbs, matzoh meal, cornmeal, flour (of any kind), or any other sort of meal you like. Into whatever meal you choose, you should mix the spices that you think will go with your marinade in the proportions you think you will like. This can be as simple as salt and pepper (for Southern milk-marinated fried chicken), or as complex as curry powder (for fried chicken with an Indian flavor). For Mexican taste I toss in cumin and a little cayenne. It is best not to use leafy spices like oregano, basic, or marjoram because they burn in the oil. Stick to durable spices ground from seed or dried roots. Add about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda for every 2 cups of dry batter. Mix up the batter so that it is spicier and stronger tasting than you actually like, because the taste will be less strong once you’ve spread it out on the chicken. Place a heaping pile of the dry batter in a pie pan or other shallow tin.
Now… roll the chicken pieces first in the wet batter and then in the dry batter. If you run low on either batter you can always make more. I always make a lot of the dry batter because I can store it in the freezer to use next time.
When your chicken is battered, you are ready to put it in the already hot oil. Cook until the chicken is golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Adjust the heat of the oil if the batter browns too fast or too slowly. Your first couple of pieces of chicken will not be as pretty as all the rest, so don’t panic.
You’ll know that the chicken is done if the juice runs clear when you remove it from the pan and pierce it with a fork. Set the finished chicken on paper towels and let them drain. Then… eat and enjoy!
[Note: There is a dish people call “Oven-Fried Chicken.” Strictly speaking it is baked rather than fried and so it is not covered in this article.]
In addition to being a scholar, Shawn Scott, Ph.D., is a culinary enthusiast and has worked as a professional caterer and chef. Now retired from teaching, Scott has decided to share the collected wit and wisdom of almost forty years of cooking and food lore. You can read more about Scott’s ideas on innovation and improvisation in the kitchen at “Recipe-Free Cooking“.