How to Fry Better Chicken at Home

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


After nearly seven years of blogging I still only have the patience to test fried chicken recipes a couple times a year, tops. And it's not just because of the mess or the lingering smell of oil left in our home, days later. It's because the technique for frying whole chickens is trickier than most folks like to admit. Wings were slight work in comparison. I've toyed with various fried chicken dishes that I thought for sure would end up on the blog, everything from sweet tea brined chicken to sous vide chicken. It was my fried chicken and waffles creation that finally crossed the finish line. I split that tutorial into two parts to make it easier to follow, so this post covers the fried chicken.

After years of practice, my most important takeaway is that smaller whole chickens (under 5 lbs) are best for frying. Chickens raised on commercial factory farms have gotten to be freakishly huge. I'll spare you the rant on that here, but for the purposes of the recipe just understand that bigger isn't better for fried chicken. You'll run into more issues with the chicken burning on the outside before the meat is fully cooked on the inside. Smaller, younger chickens are also much more tender, which is what you want. It's really hard to find that in pre-cut packs of chicken parts, but breaking down a whole chicken is a skill your grocery budget will thank you for learning.

Sweet tea brined fried chicken
Now, here's my insider secret. Cornish hens are great frying chickens! When I can't get to a butcher for normal-sized chickens, I buy Cornish hens. Many people wouldn't think to try those in a fried chicken recipe but split in half, they're perfectly portioned for two people and taste the same. Because they're younger birds, the meat stays incredibly tender if you treat it right. The bones are also very easy to cut with poultry shears, so I think Cornish hens are a great place to start if you've been scared to hack away at a whole bird with your chef's knife. This recipe will work for either Cornish hens, or a small whole chicken. The process to break the bird down is relatively the same, so use the photos as a guide if needed and adjust to the bird that you have.



I'm not gonna lie to you, fried chicken is work. It's the kind of thing I'll only take the time to do for folks I love, or who are paying me to cook. There's nothing wrong with not being interested in frying chicken at home when it's cheaper and faster to buy it somewhere else. But if you're here, I'm guessing it's because you still really want to be able to do it yourself, and I admire the passion behind that! I'm excited to wrap up several years of testing in order to give you my best advice on how to fry some amazing chicken at home, with standard cookware essentials. (We'll revisit the fancy sous vide chicken in the future though!) All you've gotta do is promise me you won't cut corners. I'm not adding steps to be more complicated, so if I included it below it's because that step made a difference for me in the results. You'll be disappointed if you end up with fried chicken that's not better than what you could have picked up from a fast food drive-thru window. I was annoyed with myself for the many, many times my fried chicken didn't come out quite right and usually, that happened when I tried to rush things. If you're ready to commit to the time and work involved, here are my tried-and-tested tips for frying better chicken at home:

  • Start with the best quality chicken you can source. That means you do want to spring for the organic, air-chilled chicken you think is overpriced at the store. If you have access to a local farm or butcher, by all means, take advantage of that instead. Not only will your chicken taste better because it was raised responsibly, but it will also most likely be smaller than standard grocery store chickens, which goes back to my advice above.
  • Use flour with lower protein content. Y'all know I sing praises for White Lily in biscuits, cornbread, and pancakes, and it holds true here too. Soft winter wheat flour creates a lighter, flakier crust. If you aren't able to get your hands on a bag, replicate the effects by subbing cake flour for half of the all-purpose flour in this recipe. (Sometimes you can find White Lily flour online, but you'll pay a premium. Make sure you aren't grabbing the self-rising kind.)  I have not had consistent results with gluten-free flours; they all behave a little differently and sometimes resulted in gummy fried chicken coatings. I do, however, incorporate a little cornstarch into my dredging flour, which helps make the chicken even crispier. 
  • Use a cooking oil with a high smoke point. My top choice is always peanut oil or grapeseed oil for frying. Grapeseed oil is the better choice if there's any chance of feeding people with peanut allergies, plus it has a very clean, neutral flavor. While canola or vegetable oil will work, I've found those to be the culprits in leaving behind odors in the kitchen. Olive oil is too strong of a flavor and is more likely to degrade at higher temps. (If you do want to safely enhance flavor, add some duck fat, lard or ghee to neutral cooking oil, which all have high smoke points. None of those are required for the technique though.)
  • Use the right cooking vessel.  I've found Dutch oven pots easier to work with than cast iron skillets, but either is good for the job. The higher sides of a Dutch oven mean less splattering and less of a chance that the oil will spill over when chicken is dropped in. I love to use my enameled cast iron pot or hard-anodized aluminum pot, both of which are heavy bottomed and regulate temperatures evenly. A decent wok is also an option. You could use a deep fryer if you have one, which will also regulate the temperature for you - but I wrote the post with standard cookware in mind. I can't leave a fryer out on the counters here, so it's more work to empty the oil and clean it out for a one-time job. Whatever you decide to use, just know that cheap cookware will inevitably fail and poses a huge safety risk. Grease fires are no joke. So if you decide to do something stupid like putting disposable pans on the stovetop, I hope you have really good renter's insurance.
  • Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the oil and the chicken. I can't stress this enough. People will tell you they never check the temperature of the oil, they know when it's hot enough, the chicken will float when it's done, etc etc. Ignore them. An instant-read thermometer will tell you everything you need to know without the guesswork. Don't waste all your hard work on oil that was too cold (or too hot) to fry in. More importantly, there is no way to tell if the chicken is fully cooked by looking at it, so why take chances?
  • Speaking of safety - no, you don't need to wash your chicken first. Doing so can unnecessarily spread dangerous bacteria everywhere around the kitchen. Argue with the USDA, not me. After trimming the parts on a non-porous cutting board or metal pan, transfer the chicken right into the brine. Of course, you can pluck any visible feathers left behind if you see them, and pull off excess fat. But your chicken doesn't need a jacuzzi bath, and it certainly doesn't need soap. (Just trying to cover everything wrong I've seen on social media in the last year!)
  • Brining is a way of life. More specifically, buttermilk saves lives and fried chicken. I do a salted buttermilk soak, which both tenderizes the meat and seasons it all the way through. Don't bullshit your way through this recipe with a homemade milk and vinegar substitute. If you can't get real buttermilk where you live (either low fat or whole), then plain yogurt or kefir are better alternatives. And despite what I previously thought about wet brines, there isn't much impact from adding spices or aromatics, because they don't penetrate past the outer surface of the meat. Instead, save the seasonings for your flour dredge. All you need is buttermilk and salt. An overnight soak won't hurt, but for smaller pieces of chicken, a few hours is sufficient. I wouldn't leave the chicken in a heavily salted brine for more than twelve hours, which could result in salty or mushy textured meat.
  • Take the time to air chill the chicken after brining, and again after dredging. This is probably the step I've overlooked in the past which gave me the most trouble. The downside to soaking in buttermilk is soggy skin, but this can be remedied by letting the chicken chill uncovered for a few hours (or even better, overnight.) This will give you crispier skin when it's fried. Likewise, after you've dredged the chicken in flour, let it rest for at least 30 minutes. Giving the time for the batter to adhere to the chicken means the coating won't fall off when you fry it.
  • An egg wash makes for a more flavorful, crispier crust. In my unscientific tests, it also adhered to the chicken better than dipping it in buttermilk alone. If you have an egg allergy, of course, leave it out, but give it a try otherwise. I was on the fence about this but after having the best chicken of my life at Dooky Chase Restaurant last fall, I looked up Leah Chase's recipe. Since she says to use eggs, I'm using eggs. 
  • Rest fried chicken after frying. For one, the chicken will be way too hot on the inside when it's fresh out of the grease. But resting for a few minutes before serving also helps make sure that freshly fried coating stays put. Instead of draining grease by setting the fried chicken on paper towels, try a metal rack. Because air can circulate around the entire surface of the chicken, the bottoms won't get soggy. This also enables you to pop it right into the oven to keep warm, or to rescue chicken parts that fried too fast before cooking through.

Sous vide fried chicken, greens, black eyed peas, skillet cornbread, smoked maple syrup

Other aspects of the recipe are negotiable. Switch up the spices if you'd like; Many all-purpose rubs can work nicely in fried chicken. That means if you want a curry flavored fried chicken, or ras el hanout, or berbere, season accordingly. Just keep the same Kosher salt measurements in proportion to the flour, and make sure your other spice blends don't already include salt. If you want a spicier fried chicken, double the cayenne and hot sauce. Sugar is tricky, because it will cause your coating to burn a little faster, so I skip it. It's easier to add sweetness in the form of drizzled honey or maple after the chicken is cooked. I also avoid using dried herbs that aren't finely ground, because those little pieces will also burn in the oil. The blend I've provided below is going to give you more of a traditional soul food flavor. I love using smoked paprika, but a sweet Spanish or Hungarian paprika works too. Just note that some paprikas may darken the color of the oil and chicken coating slightly, so don't be alarmed into thinking things are burning. (Remember to use your thermometer, and only your thermometer, to monitor progress!)

Buttermilk fried chicken thigh, spicy sweet potato caramel sauce, cheddar cornbread waffle, roasted collard greens


Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Ingredients:
1 whole chicken (4 to 5 lbs max weight), or 2 Cornish hens (approximately 2 lbs each)

For the brine:
2 cups buttermilk
2 tbsp Kosher salt

For the seasoned flour:
2 tbsp paprika (smoked or sweet)
1 tbsp finely ground black pepper
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp salt-free poultry seasoning, such as Bell's
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp coriander
2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably While Lily*
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tbsp Kosher salt

For the egg wash:
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1 tbsp hot sauce

For frying:
4 to 6 cups neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed or peanut (enough to reach about 2" high in the pot)
1/2 tsp Kosher salt

Note: 1 cup of regular all-purpose flour + 1 cup cake flour can be substituted for White Lily. Do not use self-rising flours.

Active Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 24 hours
Yield: Serves 4
Special Equipment: poultry shears, Dutch oven or other large heavy potheavy duty sheet pan fitted with a metal rack, instant-read meat thermometer (check that it's safe for temps up to 400°F or higher), spider strainer or skimmer


If you've never broken down a whole chicken, fear not. It really is easier than it sounds, especially if you've already learned how to spatchcock. Once you've removed the backbone, it's actually not too much more work to separate the parts. In the photos here, I'm butchering a 2.5 lb Cornish hen using nothing more than poultry shears and my hands.

1. Start by placing the chicken breast down. If there's a bag inside containing the neck and gizzards, remove that. Cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it; on a Cornish hen, it's only about an inch wide. (Pro tip: freeze all the parts you discard to use for stock!)


2. Open the chicken up like a book, pressing down on both legs so it lays flat. Cut a small slit above the breast bone so that it can pop out. Tug on it to remove the bone. If you're lucky, you can also pull out the strip of cartilage along with the bone. If not, use your poultry shears to carefully cut it out in the next step. Always try to avoid trimming off any of the actual meat.

3. Once the breastbone is removed, use your poultry shears to cut down the center of the chicken to split it in half. Trim off any remaining cartilage that was left from the breastbone. Fish out the wishbone; it may be necessary to break it in half to remove it more easily. 

4. If you flip the halves over and pull back the skin over the thighs slightly, you should be able to see the line of demarcation that naturally separates the breast from the leg. That's where you're going to cut. I start by cutting between the meat, leaving the skin intact. Then I flip the chicken back over and cut the skin. This way helps to make sure even pieces of skin are left covering both the breast and thighs.


5.  Optionally, you can also trim off some or all of the rib cage if the bones are sticking out awkwardly. I like to leave only what's really necessary to hold the breast together so that fewer bones are in the way of eating. If you have a Cornish hen, this is a fine place to stop. Repeat for the second hen, for a total of 8 pieces. 


6. To continue breaking down a larger chicken, cut around the drumstick of the wing to remove the whole wing from the breast. To separate the leg quarters, grab a hold of the leg and thigh with each hand. Bend the leg backward until you hear the joint pop out. You'll then be able to easily run a knife around the bone between the leg and thigh, separating the parts. This will leave you with 8 pieces in total. (You could break it down further into 10 parts by cutting the breasts in half, but if you stuck with a chicken under 5 pounds this isn't entirely necessary.)


7. Prepare the buttermilk brine in a container that will fit all of the chicken pieces. Whisk well to dissolve two tablespoons of Kosher salt in two cups of buttermilk. Submerge the chicken parts into the brine. They don't need to be swimming in milk; buttermilk is thick enough to coat chicken pretty well. You can top off the container with a little extra buttermilk if you fell short.

8. Allow the chicken to soak for 4 hours, or up to overnight (no more than 12 hours.) After soaking, carefully drain the buttermilk and discard. Transfer the chicken to a pan and pat the skin dry with paper towels. Return the pan to the fridge and allow it to chill for at least 4 hours, either uncovered or very loosely tented with plastic wrap. If you have time to leave the chicken in the fridge overnight, even better.


9. In a small dish, mix together the paprika, black pepper, poultry seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, and coriander. Measure out the two cups of flour, cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of salt into a large bowl. Add 1/4 cup of the spice blend to the flour mixture, leaving about a tablespoon behind. Whisk the flour and 1/4 cup of spices together; this is your seasoned flour mix. 

Mix the remaining tablespoon of spices with 1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt and set aside to use for dusting the hot fried chicken later.

10. In a separate smaller bowl or dish, whisk the eggs until frothy, then whisk in the milk and hot sauce.


11. Dredge each chicken piece very lightly in the seasoned flour, shaking excess. This is more like a dusting of flour, and it only serves to give the egg wash something to grab onto. I like to rest my dredged chicken on a metal rack so that I don't lose all my coating to the pan.


12. One at a time, dip each piece of chicken into the egg wash so that it's fully coated. You want it to be coated pretty thick, as shown here.


13. As you dip each piece of chicken in egg wash, transfer it to the bowl of flour. Toss the chicken to coat it well in flour. Don't press the flour into the chicken too firmly with your hands; a fork is more helpful to flip the chicken back and forth, keeping the coating light. You want the breading to have some texture but not be too thick a layer of flour.


14. As each piece of chicken has received the double-dredge treatment, transfer it back to the rack. Allow the chicken to rest for at least 30 minutes. If you'll be longer than a couple of hours before frying, you can return it back to the fridge. It's best to remove it from the fridge at least 30 minutes before frying so that it isn't ice cold going into the grease. Colder chicken has a tendency to drop the oil temperature significantly.


15. Start getting the oil ready around 15 minutes before you plan to fry. Let it heat slowly over medium heat, adjusting as needed to maintain a steady temperature of at least 350°F but no hotter than 375°F. You'll need at least 2" to fry but closer to 3" will ensure the chicken is submerged. (2" may be more of a shallow fry for thicker parts, which means you'll need to pay closer attention to turning the chicken as it cooks for even frying.)

16. Fry the legs and thighs first; they'll take longest. Carefully drop each chicken part into the oil, one at a time, only cooking what will fit in a single layer at once. The oil temperature will drop but adjust the heat of your pot if needed so that it hovers around 325°F while the chicken is frying.  Give the chicken pieces a minute or two to fry before attempting to move them around, and only do so if it's because they're starting to stick to the bottom of the pan or to each other. Plan on about 15 minutes to cook through, depending on the size of your thighs and legs. After 10 minutes, or as you see the color of the chicken reach a deep golden brown, start checking the thickest part of each piece for its internal temperature. It's easiest to do this by lifting it out of the oil using your spider skimmer. You're looking for dark meat to reach at least 165°F but if you can get it closer to 180°F without burning the outside, it'll be more tender and damn near falling apart inside. This is all a matter of regulating the oil temperature, so don't be discouraged if you can't get the hang of it on the first attempt. Don't leave frying chicken unintended; check on it every couple of minutes as things can change in a short amount of time.

17. As each piece of chicken cooks, transfer it to a (clean) metal rack set over a heavy duty sheet pan. Remember that tablespoon of spices mixed with salt from earlier? Use it to dust the chicken as it comes out of the oil. Just a pinch or two while it's still hot. 

In between batches make sure you allow the oil to come back up to 350°F before adding chicken again. Repeat with the breasts (and whole wings, if applicable.) Breasts are finished cooking when the internal temperature reaches 155-160°F; they'll continue to cook from residual heat while the chicken rests. Whole wings can be treated like dark meat and cooked to or slightly past 165°F. (The wings on Cornish hens are so tiny, they'll cook in no time so long as they are submerged in oil. Simply flip the breast over halfway through cooking if the wings were poking out at all.) 


18. Sometimes you'll do everything right and still end up with chicken that is cooking too quickly before the inside catches up. If that's the case, take it out of the oil and finish by baking in the oven at 350°F until the internal temperature indicates doneness. You can tent loosely with foil in the oven to prevent excess browning.


Remember to allow the chicken five to ten minutes to rest after frying! You can keep the parts that finished earlier warm if desired by holding them in the oven, heated to 200°F. Just be careful not to overcook the breasts; dark meat is much more forgiving. If you follow those guidelines, even the breast meat of the Cornish hens stays juicy and well-seasoned with a crispy shell. The fried chicken of my dreams can be yours too, with a little time and effort!


Stay tuned for the next post, which will tell you everything you want to know about my Chicken & Waffles dish!

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