Cooking Techniques for Making the Best Southern Fried Chicken

Follow these tips and techniques for making a favorite comfort food.

A platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits makes a delicious meal.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/bhofack2

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Traditional Southern fried chicken is a comfort food everyone loves, but many cooks end up with disappointing results. Oftentimes the chicken looks beautiful on the outside, but it's bloody near the bones. Other times, when the cook monitors the internal temperature of the chicken, the outside will be extremely dark, almost burnt, before the proper internal temperature is reached.

The reason for such disappointing results is that today's chickens are enormous. An article in the December 2014 issue of the journal Poultry Science stated that in 1957, a grown chicken weighed about 2 pounds before slaughter. By 1978, the average weight was twice that. By 2005, it had more than doubled again, to 9.3 pounds. This means that the chickens we cook nowadays are literally more than four times the size of chickens 60 years ago.

In addition, most people don't go out to the chicken house with an axe to get their dinner, but instead get it out of the refrigerator and fry it while it's cold. This creates a problem because, when a piece of chicken is fried, the hot oil begins heating the meat from the outside, and the heat flows into the meat until it reaches the thickest part. This process takes time, and if the pieces are both large and near refrigerator temperature, the outside will be overcooked long before a safe internal temperature is reached.

There are a couple of things you can do to ensure delicious fried chicken every time. First, use a small chicken – one that weighs around 2 1/2 pounds in the package is ideal, but up to 3 1/2 pounds will work. Since the breasts are the largest pieces, cutting them into two or three pieces also helps. I usually cut them into three strips. Secondly, let the chicken warm up before frying it.

I placed a large chicken thigh on the counter in the kitchen, where the room temperature was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and inserted a thermometer into the meat. The temperature climbed from 40 F to 50 F in an hour. During the second hour, it rose another 4 degrees. It should be noted that letting raw chicken sit out at room temperature longer than two hours is not recommended by the USDA, due to the possible risks of Salmonella and other chicken-spoiling bacteria.

If your chicken is between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds, setting it out for an hour is all that's needed. If your chicken is larger, you can warm the chicken more quickly by placing it in a plastic zipper-seal bag, squeezing all the air out, and placing the bag in a sink full of warm (100 F to 110 F) water, which should warm it to 70 F in about 15 minutes.

Marinades

You can fry chicken straight out of the package, but marinating it first is traditional, and it makes the meat juicier. Buttermilk – which has sodium in it – is the classic marinade, but a mixture of water, vinegar, and salt also works well. Marinating in buttermilk will yield a darker coating, but it's also quicker to burn if overcooked.

A lot of recipes instruct to marinate the chicken for at least three hours, but go on to say that overnight is better. I personally don’t think that's the case. Other than the salt, nothing in the marinade is going to penetrate deeply into the meat, so three hours is plenty of time to marinate the pieces.

To marinate, simply place the chicken pieces in a plastic zipper-seal bag, and then pour the marinade in. You’ll need about 1 quart of marinade and two gallon-size bags per bird. Squeeze as much air out of the bags as you can. Seal them, and let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator. You can also marinate in a glass or stainless steel bowl, but you may need more marinade to cover the chicken. If you use a bowl, cover it with cling wrap while the chicken marinates.

Spices & Coatings

Before frying, the chicken pieces should be coated to give them a flavorful crunch. The basis of the coating is flour, occasionally mixed with some other starchy, grain-derived powder such as cornstarch. All-purpose flour is typically used, although some cooks prefer to use self-rising flour, which creates a slightly less dense coating. To make your own self-rising flour, combine one cup of flour with one and half teaspoons of baking powder and one-quarter teaspoon salt.

Any spices used are mixed in with the flour. Typical spices include salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper. You can get all these spices mixed together, except the cayenne, by using seasoned salt and seasoned pepper.

Getting the right level of salt is the key to making great Southern fried chicken. It doesn't need to be as salty as fried chicken from fast-food restaurants, but too little salt makes for a bland dish. Through trial and error, I've found that four teaspoons of salt per cup of flour is ideal for my flavor preference – and a coating starting with one cup of flour is about right for one small chicken. However, I tend to go easy on the salt when I cook, so five teaspoons per cup of flour might be a more crowd-pleasing level. When it comes to pepper, go heavy – at least two tablespoons per cup of flour.

Salt and pepper alone make a great seasoning mix, but if you choose to add onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne, one-half teaspoon of each, per cup of flour, is the right amount for most taste buds. If you want to give your fried chicken a more orange-red color, increase the amounts of paprika and cayenne, but be aware that adding additional cayenne will also make the chicken spicier.

There are several ways to coat the chicken, including the shake method, the dredge method, the roll and coat method, and the batter method.

Shake: Put the flour and spices in a paper or plastic bag – or in a large food storage container with a tight-fitting lid – and shake to blend the flour and spices evenly. Drop the chicken pieces into the bag, one at a time, and shake to coat each piece thoroughly. Place the coated pieces on a plate to allow the liquid from the chicken skin to soak into the coating, making it look wet.

Dredge: Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Dredge each piece of chicken in the coating. Place pieces on a plate until coating looks wet.

Roll and Coat: Place two eggs in a bowl, and whisk until frothy. Combine flour and spices in a bowl or bag, and mix thoroughly. Roll the chicken pieces, one at a time, in the eggs, and then coat them with the flour and spice mixture. The method gives the chicken a crispier coating.

Batter: Make your flour and spice mixture, then blend in two eggs to form a batter. Dip the chicken pieces in the batter, and fry them. Oftentimes, cooks have problems with this method because sometimes the batter doesn't want to stick to the chicken.

If you're using the shake method, the dredge method, or the roll and coat method, and you like your coating thick, you can coat the chicken a second time before frying it, if desired. Wait about five minutes between coating the pieces a second time, though, so they have time to absorb the first coating.

Fats & Oils 

Although chicken can be fried in almost any fat or oil, the best choices are lard, shortening, or peanut oil.

For a novice cook, peanut oil, which imparts a very mild flavor, is an excellent choice, because the smoke point – the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke – is 450 degrees, which is well above the ideal temperature for frying chicken. The smoke points of lard and shortening are significantly lower, at 370 degrees and 360 degrees, respectively.

Shortening is often used when the chicken is rolled in egg and coated in self-rising flour, when a light, crunchy coating is desired. Butter, with a smoke point of 350 degrees, can also be used. It lends its characteristic taste to the chicken, but it can easily smoke if the temperature creeps too high. If you mix two or more oils, the oil with lowest smoke point places the limit on your frying temperature. 

Frying

Chicken should be fried at 350 degrees. The reason is because at this temperature, the water in the chicken will be converted to steam, and will be removed as it fries, which will cause the chicken to bubble furiously. The water exiting the chicken will form a physical barrier, letting very little oil soak into the meat, which means your chicken will be nice and crispy. If chicken is fried in oil less than 350 degrees, that barrier will not be formed, and the end result will be extremely greasy chicken.

To fry chicken, place enough oil in your frying pan so that the chicken pieces will be half-covered, and heat the oil to about 360 degrees – the temperature of the oil will drop drastically when the chicken is added. Place your chicken pieces in the oil, being careful not to crowd them in the pan. Immediately turn up the heat to bring the oil back up to 350 degrees. Once there, wait 30 seconds, then flip the pieces using tongs. Continue to fry the chicken, turning the pieces every two minutes, and monitoring the oil temperature to keep it at 350 degrees.

Chicken should reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degree before it's considered cooked through. In terms of flavor, however, I prefer the dark meat to reach between 185 and 195 degrees, and I like to cook the white meat to between 170 and 175 degrees.

Frying times will vary, depending on the size of the chicken pieces. As a general guideline, you can expect to fry wings in as little as three minutes, legs and thighs in about 15 to 18 minutes, and whole breasts for 20 minutes or more. If you've cut the breasts into two or three strips, they should take somewhere between three and six minutes, typically. Always check the internal temperature of the chicken before serving it, though, to be absolutely certain it's cooked through.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. To preserve the crispiness, place the chicken on a rack to cool. If you prefer your chicken a little less crispy, let it cool on a plate covered with a couple layers of paper towels.

While the above process is the preferred frying method, some cooks would rather fry the chicken in a skillet until the outside looks done, or almost done, and then transfer it to the oven to finish cooking it. If you choose this method, the oven should be preheated to 350 degrees. When the chicken is ready to come out of the skillet, transfer it to a cookie sheet lined with foil, and bake until cooked through. Finishing chicken in the oven is a great way to make sure the coating is cooked to a golden brown, instead of being darker in color. To ensure a crispier coating in the oven, place the partially fried chicken on a metal rack, set inside the cookie sheet.

Serving

Fried chicken is often served with mashed potatoes and cream gravy. Other popular sides include green beans, collards, coleslaw, potato salad, hush puppies, biscuits, or cornbread. In the summer, a slice of watermelon is a great accompaniment. Fried chicken will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, and cold fried chicken makes a great snack or picnic meal. If you’ve made crispy fried chicken, the coating will have lost its crunch, but it'll still taste good.

HOW TO DEBONE A CHICKEN BREAST

• Remove the wing from the breast.
• With the breast skin-side up, start at the breastbone and cut the meat away from the ribs, using a knife to make short cuts.
• While cutting, use your other hand to pull the meat away from the ribs.
• Once the meat has been separated from the ribs, cut it into two or three strips.

RECIPES:

Classic Southern Fried Chicken
Crispy Fried Chicken