If I asked you about your favorite fried food guilty pleasure (and you couldn’t say French fries as we’ve already covered those), what would you say? For a lot of people that I’ve talked to, myself included by the way, the answer fell promptly: Southern Fried Chicken!
Juicy, tender chicken, breaded in flour, dusted in spice and fried to a state of golden brown, crunchy, delicious perfection just seems to hit some sort of universal nerve in people across the globe. Call it junk food, call it soul food, call it comfort food, call it whatever the hell you will, Southern Fried Chicken – that simple combination of chicken, spice, breading and love – holds a special place and a special meaning in many people’s hearts.
In this lengthy feature, we will dissect the components of Dixie’s favorite comfort food: the spice, the marinade, the breading and the frying process itself to eventually create the ultimate Southern Fried Chicken recipe. Before we get that far, though, let’s have a look at the shocking history and somewhat surprising social impact of Southern Fried Chicken.
If you’re only here for the recipe and procedure, you may jump ahead… But be warned that you will miss some pretty vital culinary history.
Soulfood: A brief history of Southern Fried Chicken
Given that a lot of us associate Southern Fried Chicken with a certain Kentucky salesman turned self-proclaimed Colonel, we would all be forgiven for thinking that Southern Fried Chicken is a relatively new invention – when in really it’s anything but. The roots of Southern Fried Chicken as we know it go far back, you see. An astonishing 1600 years at least!
Indeed, the first written record of fried chicken, or Pullum Frontoniaum as it was at the drive-ins back then, dates back to the fourth century Roman cook book Apicius. Whether the dish originated in Rome and spread from there or it was the other way around, we can only speculate. What we do know for certain, however, is that throughout the early Middle ages and onwards, fried chicken, in a much simpler and obviously less flavorful version was vastly popular mainly throughout the once very outer reaches of the Roman empire: Scotland! Here, the dish led a relatively isolated life until the great mass exodus happened and fried chicken landed on the shores of the would-be United States along with several Scotsmen and their various other customs and traditions from back home.
Queue a declaration of independence, a bit of a war and a few other events, and Fried Chicken, as so many other great things, were now an American invention! (Fuck yeah!)
Be that as it may, the recipe was still the same and while the Scots are known for a lot of great things… Such as…. Haggis, deep-fried Mars bars and err… umm, they’re not exactly known for tasty, flavorful and enticing food. (sadly so, as there are actually great eats to be found) So, how and when, then, did this switch from relatively dull traditional Scottish food to spicy Southern staple and world-famous comfort food take place? The answer to this question, and to many other bittersweet Southern culinary traditions such as gumbo is as simple as it is uncomfortable: slavery!
A slave auction house in the American South, circa 1894. Photo credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain
In that dark period from 1776 to 1865, European culinary tradition and African soul and spice fused at the hearths (pun intended) of plantation kitchens as African slaves mixed the traditional food of their masters with the equally traditional spices and flavors from back home. The result was a host of new dishes, one such being the prototype of what we have now come to know as Southern Fried Chicken: spicy, seasoned, breaded chicken fried in oil.
A simple everyday meal by any stretch of the imagination today, but a meal that started out as everything but simple and every day to its inventors. To truly understand the impact and historical influence of fried chicken we need to understand three important aspects of the world before our own:
- In the dark days of slavery, slaves were all but banned from ownership and land, real estate or well, just about anything, including most forms of livestock. As a result, chickens were generally the only household animals that slaves could freely keep.
- In the days before industrial farming, birds weren’t turbo-bred specifically for frying. You would eat according to natures cycle, making fried chicken a dish of the spring or early summer when younger, tender birds were available – provided, of course, they hadn’t been earmarked for other intends and purposes.
- Cooking fat, be it animal or vegetable, quite simply was not mass-produced, readily available and cheap as it is today, making not only the procurement but also the preparation of fried chicken a somewhat complicated process.
So as it was, the cheap, filling and hearty weeknight meal that helped first grow and since severely overfeed a region started out as a rare treat reserved for very special days. Essentially and ironically, this makes Southern Fried Chicken the original comfort food: the much-treasured rarity of a luxury meal in a world of darkness.
Emancipation and widespread appeal: Modern history of Southern Fried Chicken
It took essentially three key events to turn chicken from slave food to classic food for the masses, the first, obviously being the emancipation of the slaves in 1865. The second important factor in the transition from seasonal rarity to food for the masses was the farming revolution which did two very important things for Southern Fried Chicken: it spawned the broiler/fryer chicken, a quick-growing inexpensive breed created nearly specifically for frying, and it created larger, fattier pigs!
What on earth do fat pigs have to do with fried chicken, you may be wondering? Elementary, dear reader, it created the soul of the south: lard, or rendered pig’s fat if you will! Liquid gold usable for frying and all sorts of other useful purposes (biscuits, anyone?). In this way, the farming revolution gave a suddenly expanding, largely poor population access to relatively cheap protein and a relatively cheap way in which to prepare it in a way that it would stand up well to both storage and transportation in a pre-refrigerator area American south.
Which leads us to the third and perhaps most surprising factor in the rise in popularity of Southern Fried chicken, the second dark age of the south: segregation! Fried chicken, relatively inexpensive as it now was to make, kept well and traveled well – which made it a key staple for black people on the move in a “Separate but Equal” American south in which black people were by no means guaranteed the same privileges as their white counterparts.
Be it anything from a decent wage with which to buy a meal or even a place to eat while traveling. Calorie-dense fried chicken, quite simply, became a perfect go-to meal for a growing black population on the move in search of a better world.
Segregation in the American South. Photo credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain
Thankfully, things have changed down yonder, and while slavery and segregation are now things of the past, the comfort food which it helped spawn still reigns supreme. Southern Fried Chicken is the king of comfort food not only down south but across the world from Atlanta to Seoul (but that’s another story) and not surprisingly so as it’s simply one of those perfectly satisfying foods: Crunchy, juicy, spicy, wholesome, filling, addictive and, well, finger-licking good as a certain Kentuckian insurance broker and gas station attendant cum colonel would’ve said.
So, leaving for now the atrocities of the past behind, let’s have a look at a bit of modern fried chicken magic in this, our quest for Perfect Southern Fried Chicken.
What makes great Southern Fried Chicken?
What is it that makes Southern Fried Chicken so great? Well, Southern Fried Chicken is, in essence, a great culinary juxtaposition (oh, how I love that word!): dry, crispy and perfectly crunchy on the outside yet, at the same time soft, juicy, and fall-apart tender at its core. Spices, flavoring and everything else aside, this seeming impossible combination of soft and tender, crispy and crunchy is what sets truly stellar Southern fried chicken apart from regular fried chicken.
Southern Fried Chicken – the great juxtaposition!
Flavor and spice are very important factors in the fried chicken equation, but flavor and spice will never save neither dry chicken nor soggy breading. Therefore, our quest today will focus as much on the subjects of texture and frying as it will on boosting flavor.
So how do we make perfect Southern Fried Chicken? Well, surprisingly enough, it’s (probably) easier than you’d think. All we need is a few good ingredients, some basic science, a bit of time and – most importantly of all – proper heat management and a general understanding of the frying process.
Super-charging Southern Fried Chicken: tips and tricks
Proper fried chicken starts with proper chicken and as with all other dishes we’ve been over in the past, your fried chicken is only as good as the chicken you put into it. Surprisingly so, right? Even so, at the risk of repeating myself and just about every recipe post I’ve ever made, spend a few bucks here and get yourself some properly raised free-range chicken for the job. Proper chicken equals better textured, more flavorful and eventually more tender chicken which is exactly what we’re after here.
Traditionally, Southern Fried Chicken is made by butchering a whole chicken into cuts (breasts, thighs and drumsticks), breading each and then frying. In Johan-land, we do things a bit differently and only use legs and thighs. You see, as much as I love breasts, there’s nothing terribly exciting about chicken breasts. They’re lean, lacking in flavor and dry out quite easily during frying. Furthermore, if cooked along with dark meat chicken, you’ve got various differences in cooking time, temperature management and other factors to account for. The solution, I say, is to turn your focus to that other male focal point: legs!
When it comes to fried chicken, drumsticks and thighs are the perfect meat choices. They’re full of muscle tissue which in chicken cooking terminology translates into flavor and juiciness and they cook slower than breast meat while standing up easier to high heat. We can cook thigh meat slowly and steadily at high enough heat to slowly crisp and brown on the outside without worrying about the insides overcooking – instead of running the risk of under cooked chicken or burnt breading as we rush to properly brown the coating before destroying the delicate meat inside.
Ah yes, my fellow men, legs are a wonderful thing. And for Southern Fried Chicken, they’re just perfect! Oh, have I mentioned they’re (comparatively) dirt cheap as well? In a world where boneless, skinless chicken breast is the queen of the supermarket counters, a lot of stuff simply gets left behind… Two such things are thighs and drumsticks which can usually be picked up for next than nothing… Score!
The spice must flow: The perfect spice blend for Southern Fried Chicken
While texture is of the utmost importance, Southern Fried Chicken is really nothing without spice. Lots of spice! To make fried chicken, we must first create a custom spice blend. You can season your chicken any which way you want, from a simple and traditional mix of paprika and salt to the Colonel’s now not so secret mix of 11 herbs and spices. What matters the most is that you make enough of your spice blend to go around. No less than four or more tablespoons will do the trick.
Sometimes to achieve success, you’ve got to play with fire…Maybe not this much fire, but I’m not gonna lie, I like my food (and my women) on the hot side!
If you’re looking for a bit of input, I’ve done my fair share of research on the subject of fried chicken and seasoning, and have come to the realization that I personally like my Southern Fried Chicken like I like my women: sizzling hot and on the exotic end of the scale! As a result, my custom spice blend contains everything from garlic over chipotle to cayenne and we will use it for seasoning the chicken inside and out.
Inside and out I say? Well yes, bear with me as the plot thickens!
The perfect marinade for Southern Fried Chicken
Just about every recipe you’ll find for Southern Fried Chicken starts with a lengthy soak in a buttermilk marinade. Why? Well, duh! Flavor, of course! And texture, right?
Hands up if you’ve ever hear me throw out the following statement: A marinade is primarily used to create flavor, and will not tenderize tough cuts of meat. And this case of Southern Fried Chicken, as we would say in Denmark, is the exception that proves the rule!
While an acidic marinade will not generally help tenderize meats and might actually cause the polar opposite effect (as discussed in this lengthy post), an overnight soak in buttermilk will certainly to some extend help denature tougher cuts of chicken, making them seem more juicy and tender. This is owing to our old friend lactic acid whom we spoke of in more detail in our recent Butter Chicken post.
As it turns out, marinades rich in lactic acid such as yogurt and buttermilk *will* indeed have a tenderizing effect on protein when applied over lengthy periods of time. And while we do desire that extra bit of juiciness, it’s not exactly the main reason why we’re sending our chicken in an overnight milk bath. We’re doing so because a lengthy soak in a *seasoned* buttermilk-based marinade is a wonderful way of slowly adding flavor and seasoning to fried chicken, especially if we add salt to the equation!
We’re going to exploit this fact by first and foremost adding rather a lot of salt to the buttermilk marinade, to the tune of 1 tablespoons per 250 milliliter, essentially turning our marinade into a brine. Adding such a hefty dose of salt to our marinade will trigger an effect known as osmosis on the submerged protein which slowly draws moisture from the cells of the meat to have said moisture replaced by our salty marinade… Isn’t applied science wonderful when applied in the shape of seeming culinary magic? Our salty culinary magic trick quite simply lets us salt our chicken from the inside out before frying, creating a more evenly salted and more flavorful piece chicken through and through.
But wait, there’s more! An obvious added benefit of this culinary bit of magic is that as the salty marinade penetrates into the meat, it carries with it whichever additional flavors we might want to introduce to the mix.
We’re going to heavily exploit this fact by adding a fair amount of our custom seasoning mix described above to the marinade allowing us, again, to season our fried chicken from the inside out rather than just the surface, creating a more prominently flavored piece of fried chicken that has soul and spice in every bite and not just in the breading. Cooking, it’s (science) magic!
How to make extra crispy fried chicken
Having tackled the issue of a marinade/brine, it’s time to ponder the second step to great Southern Fried Chicken: the perfect crust! To achieve a perfect crust for our perfect crust, we’re going to have to tackle the subject of breading: that is, covering our chicken in a combination of adhesive and starch – usually in the form of flour and eggs. And like our marinade, the breading serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, it coats and protects the chicken during frying, which helps our chicken pieces remain moist and tender and, in doing so, it creates (if we play our cards right) a crunchy and irresistible layer of crust and texture to our chicken. Last but not least, it provides an opportunity to add yet another layer of flavor to our chicken by seasoning our breading components.
So… Incredibly… Crispy…
Now, breading comes in a number of ways shapes and forms, using anything from flour over breadcrumbs to popcorn or crumbled chips – and any combination thereof. For the sake of tradition, history and manipulability, however, we’re going to keep it simple in this post and use a classic combination of flour and egg. We will, however, use a few supercharging tricks to turn relatively basic fried chicken into the best, crispiest and tastiest fried chicken at this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Flour essentially is a pretty bland thing, so the first thing to do when breading anything is to season the flour. In our case, we will start our seasoning with a little more salt (for strictly health-related reasons), followed by a fair amount of our seasoning mix which we’ll simply whisk into our flour for additional flavor and heat.
The second step to a great crust is to apply our now well-seasoned flour to our chicken in the best possible way. Usually, a so-called double breading technique is applied here in which the chicken pieces are first dusted in flour to create a dry surface, then covered in egg wash (beaten eggs) to create a binder for a final layer of seasoned flour. Through this technique, we create a thicker coating for our Southern Fried Chicken, creating – possibly – a crunchier crust, but also introducing a larger margin for error:
Double-breading, you see, leads to a heavier crust which may separate from the chicken during cooking and in the end simply fall off. Furthermore, a large amount of flour leads to a greater risk of soggy crusts. This is because flour contains gluten which given the right circumstances bind with water, creating more of a dough than a crispy crust. Obviously, neither a flaky and brittle nor a soggy crust is desirable in fried chicken, but luckily we can apply our custom blend of science, know-how and magic to create what is, essentially, perfect fried chicken every damn time without resorting to double breading and the dangers it introduces!
That’s right, we will forego the tried and tested double-breading process altogether and use only a single coating of flour for our chicken. To ensure proper adherence of this single layer, we will introduce an egg to our always reasonably complex marinade which will greatly help the flour stick to the chicken during the breading process. This should ensure a thick, but not too thick crust, eliminating the risk of the crust falling apart due to its structural integrity, but till does not negate the risks of a soggy crust.
To address this issue, we will cut our flour (and hence the gluten) with a small amount of cornstarch which has many of the properties of flour, without the gluten. While we’re at it, we’ll add a bit of baking powder as well, for extra lift and crisp without added weight. Our custom spice mix goes in as well, of course and then things get a little weird as we steal an old trick from the book of legends to create an extra dimension of flavor and crunch to our crust.
Legend in the fast food industry has it, you see, that many years ago, a group of employees at a Chick-Fil-A noticed that the last batches of chicken in a day always came out crispier and tastier than the first. Through major investigative efforts (one would assume), they came to the realization that throughout the day, little drops of buttermilk marinade would drip steadily into their seasoned flour mix, creating little nuggets of dough that would cling onto the next batches of chicken, resulting in little bubbles of flavor and extra crispiness as they fried.
This knowledge was subsequently exploited for home use by Serious Eats and Cook’s County both whom we are now about to blatantly rip off by stirring a few tablespoons of our marinade into our flour mix before starting the breading process, creating a course mix of flour and doughy bits. It’s all going to look a bit weird, but please trust me on this one, guys! No, really!
Trust me? Good! Now, all that remains is to take our chicken pieces one by one out of the buttermilk marinade, allow excess marinade to drain off, then dump them in the supercharged seasoned flour, tossing and turning until evenly covered and using our hands to press on as much breading as will stick without resorting to violence.
Southern Fried Chicken before frying… Notice all those little nuggets of extra flavor and crispiness to be?
Once done, observe for a while your breaded chicken pieces. See all those little specks and knobs of doughy buttermilk weirdness covering the surface? These will pop up during frying, creating extra texture and little bits of extra crispy fried dough, adding even more crunch and flavor to our already super-crunchy chicks! Cooking, it’s magic!
Speaking of frying? Frying is, essentially, the last *and most crucial step* towards ultimate Southern Fried Chicken perfection.
Perfect fried chicken every time? The subtle art of deep frying
The frying process is *the* single most important part of making Southern Fried Chicken. I mean, they probably wouldn’t call it Southern *Fried* Chicken, were the frying not important. The frying process (or mistakes therein, I should say) is, however, also what turns a lot of people off fried foods.
“I don’t like fried foods,” they’ll tell you, “it’s greasy, unhealthy and bland at best.” Oh, trust me, I should know, I used to be one of those people. Then I took a tour of the Southern United states and discovered that deep-frying is an art. A craft to master. A craft that when mastered produces some truly spectacular eats. I learned that the reason myself and my peers did not care for fried food is because of simple mistakes made in the frying process. Small mistakes which may yield decimating results.
Deep frying, it’s an art form!
Indeed, frying has its obvious pitfalls and many of them lead to complete and utter destruction of the dish you are cooking. If you get the temperature too low, you’ll end up with soggy crust or greasy foods. If, on the other hand, you get the temperature too high, you’ll have either darkened, burnt crust or overcooked chicken on your hands. These are the simple facts and problems that keep most home cooks from ever messing with deep frying as a cooking technique, but they are also simple problems that are easily negated.
The obvious solution to these problems is, of course, to fry things just right. But how? It’s easier than you think and will require only a thermometer and a clock or other accurate timekeeping device of your choosing. When deep-frying, you see, temperature control and timing IS everything and basically all you need to make perfect fried food at home is a watch (for the millennials out there, a cell phone will do the trick just fine) and a reliable way of checking the temperature of the oil you’re frying in. For those serious about home frying, a thermostat-controlled deep fryer would obviously be the best tool for the job, but a large Dutch oven and a reliable thermometer will do the job just fine.
Once our chicken is ready and our equipment list checked, we are going to negate all fried chicken problems by putting the chicken through a patent-pending frying method referred to as fry-bake-chill-fry:
Triple-cooked chicken: The best Southern Fried Chicken you’ll ever have!
In the first step of our patent-pending plan, we first seal and set the crust by frying in relatively cool oil for about 6-8 minutes. This initial cooking allows the crust to crisp up and gain the beautiful golden-brown color we so desire, but doesn’t exactly cook the chicken through. When the crust is golden brown and delicious, but the insides not yet cooked through, we evacuate our chicken bits. We let them drain for a few seconds and transfer to a 175C oven and let then bake for an additional eight minutes, this allows the chicken to finish cooking through to perfection while maintaining a beautifully golden crispy crust that is neither under-cooked nor overly browned or burnt.
Now, at this point in the process, we could technically serve the chicken as is with some pretty great results, but for those willing to sacrifice a bit more time, we have one more trick up our sleeves for supercharged, extra crispy chicken:
To achieve truly spectacular results, we evacuate the chicken from the oven after baking, place it on a cooling rack to cool slightly and then onwards to the fridge to cool completely and dry out the crust. For this step to work, it is important that the chicken pieces cool and dry out completely, but in reality, the chicken could rest in the fridge for anywhere from 2 hours to a full day.
Once ready to eat, gather yourself, your guests, or that special someone you’re looking to impress, evacuate the chicken from the fridge, heat a pool of oil to 180C and fry the chicken full blast for about 5 minutes or till a dark, golden brown and provocatively crispy. Serve immediately and get ready to sink your teeth into the best damn chicken you’ve ever had. Promise!
Is your mouth watering yet? Want all the juicy details? Let’s get cooking!
Southern Fried Chicken: The Perfect Comfort Food
Southern Fried Chicken is the perfect comfort food - and this ultimate version gets extra crispy and tasty every damn time.
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp hot paprika
- 1 tsp ground ancho chili
- 0.5 tsp ground chipotle chili
- 0,5 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 egg large
- 250 ml buttermilk
- 1 tbsp salt
- 200 grams flour
- 50 grams corn starch
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp salt
- 6 chicken thighs
Combine all seasoning ingredients in a bowl and whisk till thoroughly combined.
Marinating the chicken:
Combine one egg, buttermilk, salt and two tablespoons of the spice mixture into a bowl and whisk until combined and perfectly smooth.
Add chicken thighs to the marinade stir/toss to coat.
Add chicken thighs and marinade to a large ziploc bag and refrigerate for at least four hours but preferably overnight, flipping the bag occasionally to assure perfect distribution of the marinade.
Whisk together flour, corn starch, baking powder, two teaspoons of salt and remainder of the spice mixture in a large bowl.
Remove chicken from the fridge and add three tablespoons of the marinade to the flour mixture. Use your fingers to work the marinade into the breading.
One by one, remove chicken pieces from the marinade, allowing excess marinade to drip off. Then add to the flour mixture and toss to coat evenly. Use your hands to squeeze on as thick a layer of breading as possible and continue with remaining pieces.
Heat your oven to 175C.
Heat deep fryer or a large pot of oil to 175C. It should drop to about 150C as you add the chicken.
Working in batches if you must, fry chicken pieces at 150C for eight minutes until the crust is a light, golden brown and evenly set.
Remove chicken pieces from the oil, and let drain evenly. Then transfer to the oven and cook for another eight minutes. If playing it safe and using a thermometer, it should read 72C.
Move chicken pieces to a wire rack to drain and cool for a few minutes. Then transfer rack to the fridge and allow to cool completely for anywhere from two hours to overnight.
Remove chicken from fridge and heat fryer or oil to a blazing 190C.
Add the chicken and fry for about five minutes or until a deep golden brown and insanely crispy.
Transfer to a wire rack to drain and serve immediately.
Serving fried chicken: What sides should you pick?
So, you’ve gone did it! You’ve learned how to make the world’s best supercharged Southern Fried Chicken and you’re ready to impress your guests… But there’s one minor subject we still haven’t touched upon: What does one serve with fried chicken?
Being such a traditional dish, Southern Fried Chicken really screams for traditional side dishes. Tried and tested sides include mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese, potato salad or even collard greens, green bean casserole or any combination of the above, really. You can get more ideas over at The Weary Chef, or just keep it simple, fried and dirty:
For my final test run of this recipe, I went all in on grease-love and have never looked back. I simply (cough) cooked up a batch of my exceedingly popular triple-cooked French fries to go along with the chicken… Plus a few pickles for the sake of, well… pickles are a vegetable, right…? Seriously, though, fried chicken is heavy food, as are many traditional soul food sides, so a sharp bite of acidity, be it in the form of pickles, coleslaw, even sauerkraut or what have you, really does help loosen things up and create a bit of balance… If you’re into such things…
Or, in all honesty, you can go ahead and do what my date and I did for the final test and completely disregard the presence of greens, use hot sauce for a bit of acidity and balance, add a bottle of Champagne for good measure and just not tell anybody… Err, whoops!
Southern Fried Chicken, Triple-cooked chips, hot sauce, Champagne… And she was all smiles! Photo credit: Iben Miené
The point I’m trying to make here is that no matter the greatness of your sides, the real queen of the ball in this constellation is the perfect Southern Fried Chicken: spicy, juicy, piping hot and crunchy, served piping hot straight out of the fryer. And that’s perfectly okay. As far as comfort food goes, it doesn’t get much better than this, or in the sweet words of my co-diner: “this is the sort of recipe to reach for if you’re looking to impress!”