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Al on Cast Iron

Kynn Posted: Thu Jan 01, 2004 9:29 am    Post subject: Fry Hard 2 Chicken: The Verdict

Happy New Year, everybody! I hope you all had fun last night. I sure did.

For our NYE dinner I made Fry Hard 2's fried chicken recipe (along with collard greens with bacon and baked sweet potatoes). The results for the chicken were mixed. The best part was that the dark meat, particularly the one in the drumsticks, was as good as I've ever had. Scrumptious. The white meat, on the other hand, was a touch dry. But the worst part of the outcome was that the crust was greasy (I think I know why), and when the grease in question is shortening, that's really bad news. Also, I had to open all the windows even though it was pretty cold outside, because the entire apartment smelled like a KFC joint.

The main lesson I learned from this experiment is that cast iron and electric ranges don't play well together. The thermal mass of the cast iron and the sluggishness of the electric range make it nearly impossible to control the temperature of the shortening. Thanks to this I managed [the] feat of ending up with crust that was both greasy and at some points borderline burnt.

Before adding the meat to the skillet I had the shortening at around 350*F. When I added the chicken, the temperature plummeted to around 265*F and took forever to get back to the 325*F ballpark, even with me fiddling with the range's temperature control. This accounts for the greasiness of the crust. In my efforts to get the temperature up, I cranked the knob apparently a bit too high, because eventually, the shortening's temperature came galumphing back past 325*F, all the way up to around 360*F, even after I removed the skillet from the heat. Again, it took an eternity for the temperature to begin coming down. This accounts for the borderline burnt bits of crust. And again, it galumphed past the target temperature. This comedy routine went on throughout the entire frying session.

My conclusion is that cast iron may be great if one is cooking with gas, but if one is cooking with an electric stove, cast iron has just too much "thermal momentum". It is impossible to control. Too unresponsive.

Next time I try this recipe, I'm going to use a stainless steel skillet for better control of the frying fat's temperature, and I'm going to use either peanut or canola oil as the frying fat. My plan is to get the oil to a temperature of around 400-410*F before adding the chicken pieces to the skillet (one couldn't do this with shortening, because it begins breaking down at around 360*F), then I will add the chicken and simultaneously lower the temperature setting to that corresponding to an oil temperature of around 325*F. I expect that adding the chicken will cause the oil's temperature to drop to around 320*F, and that the range will then keep it there.

Does anybody know what brand or type of fry thermometer AB used in the Fry Hard 2 episode? I've never seen the episode, and the GEFP equipment page does not mention any specific fry thermometers. (The fry thermometer I used last night sucked; I'll return it to the store tomorrow.)


Al Posted: Thu Jan 01, 2004 11:25 am    Post subject: Re: Fry Hard 2 Chicken: The Verdict


The trick with electric stoves is just experience and a gentle hand. You kinda have to KNOW to where to turn the dial once you put in the chicken. Furthermore, you should turn the dial there AS you put in the chicken (to cover that big action-to-response lag). A well-made and maintained electric range should NEVER have to go all the way to HIGH during cooking.

Oh: maintained! Your equipment has to be working correctly, too: The big burner on my range (ooh -- my OLD range -- landlord and I went in together and bought us a new range for Christmas) was nearly impossible to adjust to a 'simmer.' It was either HARD BOIL or OFF, pretty much. How's yours working??

Second: Check this out as to why you should use cast iron:

Unless you have a REALLY BIG, MANLY ... errr PERSONLY ... stainless steel fry pan, you're probably NEVER going to get the the temperature back up after you drop in the chicken. It'll still taste good, but the cards AND physics are stacked against you. It's that very slow-heat-up-ramp that the cast iron does when you turn up the heat that makes it possible to stack up enough energy to get the job done.

As an example: If you're at Medium (which on my new range is STILL a rolling boil for spaghetti, and on my old range I could lay my HAND on for a bit without damage) (ok - without MUCH damage. It was an Ok range. For an antique), Try turning it to medium-high just before you start putting in the chicken. As the temperature starts going up, start nudging the knob back down. Nudge faster if the temperature does NOT go down or starts going up.

Be neither PROactive (your temperature will race past your goal, as it did) nor REactive (the temperature will never get NEAR the goal). Just be ACTIVE. Stay in touch with your cooking, and watch the temperature and mind the knob. Take notes, too: Write down where you landed when you turned the knob, and take critique notes on the finished product.

Remember that, once you get past the chemistry of the paint, the physics of capillary action and adhesion of the brush and the physics of pressure, friction and dispersion of the brush on the canvass, painting is an ART. So's cooking. (Life is like a simile, don't you think?)

A delicate hand and an outline will get you where you're going.

Kynn Posted: Thu Jan 01, 2004 12:01 pm    Post subject: Re: Fry Hard 2 Chicken: The Verdict

Hi, Al and Pam. Thanks for your comments. Clearly I"ll have to get to know my electric stove a lot better, but I'm still skeptical about cast iron, at least for this application.
Al wrote:
Check this out as to why you should use cast iron:
OK, I did. Very illuminating. But still there's something that doesn't look quite right to me with this picture: Everything is at 350*F, OK? You add the chicken, and here you have this massive cast iron skillet, bravely holding its temperature close to 350*F, while the shortening has dropped its temperature to the mid-200s. Not only that, it will be a long time before the shortening (not the skillet) reaches 350*F again, because the heat is being sucked out of it by the water-dense chicken about as fast as the CI skillet can deliver it. After all, CI has a lot of thermal mass, but it is a mediocre thermal conductor. In the end, the question remains what good is the thermal inertia of the CI if the chicken is in contact mostly with the 275*F shortening?


Al Posted: Thu Jan 01, 2004 12:48 pm    Post subject: Cast Iron Capacitance


Aha - that's part of the trick: The pan, if treated correctly, should stay hot enough to deliver enough energy to keep the fat hot enough to crunchy-up the chicken. The WHOLE pan shouldn't be at 350 - just the part touching the oil. The heating-element side of the pan should be at 450 - 500. Maybe even hotter!

The heating element produces heat (electrical resistance expressed as heat), the cast iron soaks up energy (capacitance AND resistance, which accounts for the longish delay), then the oil picks it up (conduction) and delivers it (convection) to the chicken (conduction). On most non-cast-iron pans, the goal is to get the heat from the element to the pan's contents as quickly and efficiently as possible, while spreading the heat around so you don't actually get heating-element-shaped cooking marks.

It's a BATTLE, you see! The trick is to get enough troops in the field, initially, to support your front-line without overwhelming it, then have your reinforcements there in a timely manner.

Once the water-dense chicken hits the pan with its shock-troops (surface and near-surface moisture, and the moisture from the breading) and it's reserves (moisture inside the chicken), you have to have enough front line troops (heat in the oil) and reserves (that extra hundred, hundred and fifty degrees of heat making its way through the pan) to defeat the chicken's shock-troops and establish the no-man's land (get the outside started up nicely - another reason for breading or battering the chicken ...), and then you have to have enough reinforcements coming in (bumping up the heat from the element) to hold the thermal line against the further encroachments of the enemy's reinforcements (escaping steam)!

That's what the cast iron does: It lets you build up that reserve, and helps you line up your reinforcements.

One problem, as you have noted, is that having enough capacity for the reserves means a long-ish delay in getting more reinforcements in.

Another problem arises when you lose the demarcation line (the temperature goes down OR UP too much)! It's very hard to push the line back to where you want it without pushing too far. That's where the experienced field commander checks the maps, military history and troop movement manifests (cook's notes). It lets the field commander know how many reinforcements may be needed, and when to get them started towards the front line.

Hmmm ... Ok ... sorry - I got carried away with the metaphor.

But it's all about balance, you see: Energy, in the form of heat goes in one side, is delayed and stored (with length of delay being [usually] directly proportional to amount of storage), then released out the other side. The trick to making it work right is how MUCH energy you provide, how much of it you can store for immediate use, and how quickly it can be released. With cast iron, you pay for HUGE storage with LONG delay.

The trick, in fried chicken AND in battle is to know your tools and troops.

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Last Edited: 08/27/2010