Fry Hard II: The Chicken

The Kitchen

[Alton is reading, "On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," by Harold McGee]

GUEST: Chicken

[voice over]

Once upon a mid-morn dreary, as I pondered with eyes quite bleary,
Over many a curious volume of culinary lore,
On a latte I was sucking, and yet suddenly there came a clucking,
As if some salesman were a-mucking, mucking about my kitchen door.

AB: 'Tis some salesman. Only this, nothing more.

And yet presently the noise repeated. So I hollered, no longer seated.

AB: Beat it, pesky husker, mucking about my kitchen door.
      At my business I'm now working, so my chain you'd best stop jerking.

Then throwing wide the kitchen door, I found there a chicken and nothing more.

AB: Eeeh.

Leapt a back I then with a stutter, as the phantom bird did with a
Mount the folk-art bust of Julia Child there upon my kitchen floor.
Perched and sat and nothing more.
Then the palled poultry most perplexing did set my meager mind to guessing ...

AB: From whence did you come to perch upon the bust of Julia on my kitchen

Quoth the chicken,

CHICKEN: Fry some more.

As certain as my heart is ticking, I'm certain no living chicken
Has ever so clearly commanded a living cook before
With an utterance so clear and shocking that even I could not ignore.
Quoth the chicken,

 C: Fry some more.

Then thought I, perhaps she's on to something.
For too long now I have been supping
On feed incapable of nourishing my anguished soul.
Perhaps some truly good eats my hungry soul could restore.
Quoth the chicken,

 C: Fry some more.

AB: Good eats, that is.

The Kitchen

    When properly prepared, fried chicken is poetic poultry. The problem is in the last few years there are a lot of chefs and a lot of health pundits have attempted to update it to modern tastes. Well, to me, that makes about as much sense as hanging a drop-tile ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Especially when you talk about pan-fried chicken which besides being a completely different animal than deep fried chicken, it's not only delicious but it isn't bad for you.
    Of course, the first thing you're going to need is a chicken.

AB: Of course, you being a talking chicken maybe I'll hold off on the LIzzie Borden routine.

    Besides, of these six main market varieties of chicken odds are very good that your local mega-mart is going to have three of them.

    So right in the middle of the chicken continuum we've got the broiler/fryer. Okay. A pretty good balance of taste and flavor. It's called a "broiler/fryer" because when properly dissected its surface- to- mass ratio is such that when cooked in 325 to 350 degree oil the meat on the inside and skin on the outside are done at exactly the same moment. It's magical.


average weight 3.5 lbs

    Now, if you were to try that with a larger stewing chicken, you'd find that by the time the outside was done the inside would still be raw. Besides, with a chicken this age whenever you try to cook it in a hot, fast method the meat ends up kind of [rubber ball bounces past], I don't know, rubbery, I guess. So, it's out.

Stewing Hen

average weight 5 lbs

    On the other end of the continuum we have a rock/ game Cornish hen. It goes by a lot of different names, it's still a chicken. By the time the meat is done on the inside the outside is toast and vice versa. It's just not a very good candidate.

Rock / Cornish Game Hen

average weight 2 lbs

    So, the first piece of the puzzle is in place.

 C: Fry some more.
AB: Hush, foul fowl.

    First step, move your bird to a board. Oooh. Wobbly. Wobbly boards are very dangerous boards. But you know that stuff they sell down at the Z-mart. Oh, you know. It's kind of a liner made for shelves so you don't mess up your china. Well guess what. It makes a really great non-skid surface. Put that underneath your board. Voilà. Rock steady.

    Now, why exactly would you want to cut up your own chicken? After all, the market will do that kind of thing for you. Well, one it's cheaper. In fact, if you do your own chicken you'll usually pay a few cents a pound less. Number two is, of course, the fact that if you want free range birds they only come whole. Number three, retail butchers generally use meat cleavers which can create little shards of bone. That's not good eats. And number four, the longer you keep a bird intact, the longer it will stay fresh. Now just relax.

Why cut your own?
  • cheaper
  • some birds only come whole
  • better portioning
  • whole birds stay fresher longer

    You know, before we start surgery maybe we'd better get a look at what we're cutting ourselves into. Come on.

The Hall

    Although we did disassemble a duck on a recent episode, as Confucius said, "the duck is not a chicken."  [whistles, wood dinosaur exits from closet] The dinosaur, however, is ... at least if we are to trust all the hip paleontologists these days.

    Of course, a few things have got to go. For instance, T-Rex's head definitely not in the mix and I've never seen a tail like this on a chicken except in a side show once. Well, you don't need to know about that. Of course, I usually don't buy a chicken with his entire legs on. There. Now roll him over and that's pretty much a chicken. Look. You've got thighs, drum sticks, rib cage, breast bone, wish bone, wings. Looks like the perfect road map to poultry world.

breast (keel) bone

   [voice over] Now once you've got your board set up, approach your bird with the neck facing you. Grab a wing and lift the bird off the board. Let gravity do some work for you here. Just open up cutting from the back towards the front and the knife will slide through what used to be the joint. Repeat on the other side. Remember, gravity is the butcher's best friend.


      Now, we've got to get the wishbone out. So, place your knife inside the neck cavity facing upwards and with downward motions scrape the little bit of meat off of the wishbone. You'll see it almost immediately. Turn around and scrape in the other direction. Don't worry. It won't hurt your knife. Ah, there we get dino-cam.. Very helpful. Now reach in with two fingers, just wiggle them in, and work your way up to kind of dislocate the wishbone at the top. There. Now you can make a wish with yourself.
    Next the legs. Just make an incision just through the skin on either side where the little depression forms between the breast and the drumstick. And make sure you've got good separation there. Then roll the bird over and feel for where the thigh bones meet the back. Just feel around for them. There they are. They'll be right underneath the skin right off the spine. And simply grab the leg quarters and bend backwards. Again, the thing is to pop the socket. You literally want to dislocate that joint. Then there's going to be absolutely nothing to cut through. You're not going to have to literally sever the joint with the knife. And make sure you slice far enough ahead to get the oyster. Yeah. That little piece of meat that poultry lovers everywhere give their eyeteeth for. Yeah. There it is. Right there. Repeat on the other side.
    Now, as far as separating the thigh from the drumstick, again we're going to let the joint tell us where to go. So just squeeze the two together and you'll feel the joint start to open up kind of like a little depression. Place your knife there and very carefully cut down no more than about half an inch. Remember, you're cutting towards your hand. Once the joints open you'll see how to finish the job. There. Nothing but meat. Now repeat on the other side
    As far as the breast, you want to cut right down one side of the keel bone. It doesn't matter which side you start with. You're going to cut all the way down the keel bone—the breast bone—to the ribs. Then ... ah there, dino-cam, very helpful ... you see that you have to literally peel the breast meat off the ribs. This is a skill that takes a little bit of practice. Use very, very shallow cuts and literally peel it away. Think of it like an orange peel. Ah, there with the wishbone gone it is a piece of cake. We've got a nice clean breast with skin intact. Now repeat on the other side and just keep opening it up and looking at what you're doing and off it comes. Now very rarely do you see a chicken breast that nice in a grocery store.

    Next up, a nice long buttermilk soak. Now low fat buttermilk is more viscous than fat-free buttermilk and when it comes to fried chicken, viscosity is a very good thing indeed. Actually, the manifest benefits of buttermilk will not show themselves until after about 12 to 24 hours soak in the refrigerator. And be sure that you flip the meat over at least once so that you get a nice coverage.

2 cups low-fat buttermilk

refrigerate 12-24 hours

    In the meantime that carcass and those wings should be in your stockpot. And if you're not making stock, they should be freezing for stock making later. Oh, and would you clean up this chicken-y board.

The Etruscans started making wishes and
breaking wishbones over 2500 years ago.

The Driveway

AB: [to the chicken in a cage] Now let's see if that won't keep you quiet.

    This big black pan is the little black dress of the culinary world. Which means that it is perfectly suited to a wide range of situations, especially frying chicken. Of course, if we are to fully appreciate its magnificence we're going to have to take a pilgrimage to the place of its birth, South Pittsburg, Tennessee and Lodge Cookware.

South Pittsburg, TN - 7:51 pm

GUEST: Mike Whitfield, Metallurgist

    [voice over] South Pittsburg, Tennessee where over a hundred years ago, Joseph Lodge founded the foundry that bears his name. Today, his descendents oversee the production of the only cast iron cookware made in the U.S. Upon arrival I was greeted by my tour guide who kicked off the tour by explaining how casting iron is a lot like cooking.

    It starts with a recipe. Pig iron from Brazil, scrap steel from local machine shops and Lodge's own leftovers are carefully weighed out before being dropped into a furnace which uses electromagnetic fields to reduce the metallic mass into a glowing goo. Once it hits a simmer, impurities either cook off or rise to the top where they can be skimmed off just like a stock.

pig iron ingots
scrap steel
casting leftovers

    The iron is then hauled into an automated casting machine. Here, two patterns representing the top and bottom of the finished piece are loaded into a molding chamber. A mixture of sand and clay is injected in then squeezed against the patterns producing a single serving mold called a "cake."  A pre-measured dose of iron is then poured into the cakes which cruise through a cooling tunnel. When they tumble out the other end, the cakes break open revealing the rocket hot but now solid cookware within. What sand isn't dislodged by the shaking troughs is blasted off by steel buckshot and recycled.
    Each piece is then inspected and hand ground to perfection before being washed with soap, water and river rocks which create the unique Lodge look. A rust retarding dip in food grade wax is followed by packaging and shipping to a grateful planet.

The Kitchen

    Time to talk fat. My favorite frying fat by far is solid shortening. Now it really doesn't take much. You only need enough to come about a third of an inch up the side of this pan. And since I know that this is a 12 inch pan and that's going to take 16 ounces of shortening, I also know that I can just use this number 16 disher, 8 times in fact. I'll let you do the math. I like to completely liquefy the oil over very, very low heat before turning it up for cooking.

16 oz. vegetable
shortening for a 12" pan

    Now, why use shortening which has got a relatively low smoke point? Why not go with one of those monster oils like canola oil, safflower oil or even peanut oil? Well, it all comes down to refinement. You see, shortening is usually used as an ingredient by bakers so it's got to be very, very, very refined, okay? And that will translate here into a very nice golden brown skin on the chicken and more importantly, no frying smell in the air. Which is a very good lesson to remember when you're frying chicken or fish.

 C: Fry some more.
AB: I'm getting to it.

    Let's meet the hardware lineup while we're here. First, the raw zone. The bird hunks drain here through this colander. We then move to a three phase treatment area. Seasoning happens here, dredging here in this lidded container, and there's the pre-fry holding area, very important for crust formation.

drain excess buttermilk

    Then there's zone 2, the hot zone. That's where our pan lives with our tongs, our fry thermometer—capable of reading at least 350 degrees—and last but not least a splatter guard, very important for clean up.

splatter guard

    We've got zone 3, recovery. Where you'll note the chicken will drain above the pan so that it doesn't have to sit in its own grease.


    Now beside the fact that this is a logical progression, this system spits in the eye of cross-contamination. So what you say? Hey, you mess around with this stuff and you, too, will know the special joy that comes from counting your bathroom floor tiles for the third time ... in one seating. I mean it. Okay.
    Now that the fat has melted, up the heat to medium high. Target temperature: 350. Now shortening starts to break down and get nasty at 370 so you want to keep an eye on it. But you don't want to leave the probe in here all the time or it will start to read the bottom of the pan which is not the same thing as reading the oil. Let's get the chicken.

Keys to safe "zone" use:  Only move the food in one direction and
never use the same tools to touch both raw and cooked foods.

    After a night's soak, the acid and sugars in the buttermilk have actually invaded the chicken meat which is going to give it a nice tangy flavor. Now the buttermilk itself has formed a kind of thick batter. That's what viscosity buys you. You can't pull that off with regular milk.

    This is a poultry shake and everybody ought to have one. My shake is two tablespoons each kosher salt and Hungarian paprika, two teaspoons of garlic powder and one teaspoon cayenne pepper.

2 Tbls kosher salt
2 Tbls Hungarian paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper

    I dispense said shake with a buck fifty pizzeria shaker. By the way, to keep this fresh in between shakings, a piece of wax paper under the cap does the job. Just don't forget to take it out before you shake. Now liberal seasoning is advised. Not only are you seasoning the meat, but the crust that will soon be forming on top. So go for the gusto.

    Now a quick dredge in all purpose flour. Now you can augment this with anything from corn meal to corn flakes but this is tradition for a reason, it's good. Now, a lot of cooks would season this flour but I don't like to do that. I've got two good reasons. One, you waste a lot of seasonings and two spices like paprika burn. By stashing them under the crust, they'll be protected.

All Purpose (AP) flour

    Now, this may be the most important point. You want to get as much of the extra dredge off as possible. Any excess will fall off in the pan and burn. That's not good eats.

    A lot of recipes, including this one, recommend a post dredge rest period to let the coating set. But I don't give it more than a couple of minutes because "set" is exactly what this cousin of library paste will do.

rest 2-3 minutes

Since it's insoluble in cold water, alcohol and most
solvents, common plant starch makes great glue.

The Kitchen

    I can see by the little wisps of smoke starting to form on the surface of the shortening that this is ready to go. And indeed, the thermometer confirms temperature of 352 degrees. Now remember, it's got a low smoke point and about 360 it's going to start smoking heavily and that means it's chemically breaking down and that's going to smell bad and that's going to taste bad. So, we've got to get this stuff in the pan.


    But we can't just chuck it in willy-nilly. I mean, cast iron is a righteous conductor but there's still going to be a hot spot right here, right in the center near where the burner is. But we can take advantage of this. Here's how: take the faster cooking pieces, the breasts, we're going to put them skin side down at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock, away from the hottest part of the pan. Now the drum sticks take a long time to cook but they're small. So we'll put them at 7 o'clock and 5 o'clock. That's going to leave the hottest part right here in the center available for the longest cooking pieces, the thighs. Put them down right in the middle so they're not touching anything. There.
    Now notice the fat only comes halfway up the sides of the food. Herein lies the essence of pan frying. There are two special things going on here. First, well, you know when you deep-fat fry, the heat attacks the food on all sides and it tends to create a very hard shell by crust which traps in moisture and that means that it doesn't adhere well. So as soon as you take a bite the whole thing comes off in your hand. Pan frying give moisture a way out, at least during the first phase of cooking. And that's going to help the crust to really hold on to the food which means you'll get some crust in every bite.
    The other thing is that the food is actually barely resting on the bottom of the pan. The bottom of the pan is hotter than the oil so it's going to create little caramelized bits of goodness on the crust. Um, you'll see later.
    You want to cook this until it's golden brown and delicious on side A and you see a lot of moisture pushing up on side B. It's going to take about 12 minutes depending on the size of the pieces.

The term "Southern Fried Chicken" didn't appear in print until 1925.

    Twelve minutes is up and all looks well. First, we have tell-tale little pools of moisture here and some of that's probably accumulated steam but most of that pushed up from inside the meat. Then, of course, we've got the golden brown crust with the nice little dark areas. That's from sitting on the bottom of the pan. That stuff tastes good. So, roll everything right where it is.
    Now, since we're about to introduce a whole cold surface to the oil, we're going to get a little bit of a temperature drop. So, before we leave we're going to turn the heat up again to medium-high, just for a few minutes to help compensate. Remember, the pan's holding on to a huge amount of heat so it's going to do most of the work for you. Check in a couple of minutes.
    By the way, this little baby here [splatter guard] is the best 15 dollars you will ever spend. Unless cleaning every horizontal surface in the kitchen sounds fun. Doesn't to me.

As long as the water in the meat is kept above a boil,
outward pressure will prevent oil from soaking in.

The Kitchen

    Well, another 12 minutes have rushed by here in TV land and if we've controlled our fat temperature properly side B should be just a little bit darker than side A. That's because there's more stuff floating around in the shortening on the second pass. Most importantly the insides should be done. Only one way to know for sure. [checks with probe thermometer] 183. Fine.
    I usually don't advocate taking dark meat beyond 175 or light meat beyond 165 but I find that another 10 degrees makes a big difference in how the crust adheres to the meat post pan. And since fried chicken must ...

 C: Fry some more.
AB: ... yes, must be eaten with the fingers ...

... slightly firmer meat will be a plus.
    Now, zone 3. Post-op. Recovery, if you like. If you do not have a rack that looks like this, please resist the temptation to follow other recipes which would suggest you drain your bird on paper towels or brown bags—as if there were difference. Put these aside and go with the rack from your oven. You'll be glad you did.
    Now, since they are crust encased these will stay rocket hot for a good 20 minutes. So don't stash them in a warm oven, especially a gas oven, okay? When natural gas burns it creates water vapor and water is the sworn enemy of fried foods. Some connoisseurs would even argue that this will be better at room temperature which explains fried chicken's picnic popularity.
    My favorite service scenario? Well ...

The Kitchen Refrigerator - midnight

    Umm. That's good. You know, you don't have to be a Kentucky Colonel to know that a bucket is the best receptacle for fried chicken. This snappy little model came from my local hardware store. It's just a paper paint bucket. What's nice is that the paper will actually wick away excess oil and moisture which is kind of nice.

    Now let's review, shall we? For perfect pan fried chicken start with a broiler/fryer. Cut it up yourself, soak it overnight in low-fat buttermilk. Then drain it, season it liberally with a shake of your own design. Then dredge it all purpose flour and then fry it in a cast iron skillet containing a mere third of an inch of shortening maintained at an average temperature of 325 degrees. Turn it one time and one time only. Then drain it and eat it. I might add that, umph, there's not bad time for fried chicken.

  • Broiler/Fryer

  • Dissect at home

  • Soak overnight

  • Drain

  • Season liberally

  • Dredge

  • Fry in shallow shortening

  • Turn once

  • Drain

  • Eat

    Speaking of chickens ...

The chicken, never flitting still is sitting, still is sitting
On the folk-art bust of Julia on my kitchen floor.
In her thighs I see the quiver of a future pan- fried dinner
Whose crunchy, golden goodness does my appetite implore
To go ahead and fry some more.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010