My grandmother, Nancy Lloyd Suitt, of Hillsborough, North Carolina, taught me how to fry chicken in her farmhouse kitchen. As a child, I loved to stand on a chair beside her at the stove and watch her put a big batch of chicken in the pan to fry. At first she worked over a woodstove, but by the mid-1960s, an electric range had taken its place. Either way, the pan was a big, black, cast-iron skillet, and the chicken was fresh from her henhouse.
Her chickens were small, sturdy, and lean, akin to today’s free-range chickens. (Back then “free-range” wasn’t a word we used; hunting and pecking freely around the barnyard was just what chickens did.)
For my fried chicken, I generally buy a whole broiler-fryer, free-range when I can find it. I like to cut the chicken into pieces myself so I can use the neck and giblets for making stock, and I love nibbling on crispy, fried wings. But if I’m feeding a crowd, I’ll buy one of those “best of the fryer” packs that contain more of the favored pieces: breasts, legs, and thighs.
You’ll need one good, heavy pan—maybe two
My grandmother’s wiry chickens were more likely to fit in one skillet than the buxom superchickens we find in today’s supermarkets. Unless you’re only frying a few pieces—and why bother doing that as long as you’re already making a mess?—you’ll need either one very large, heavy skillet or two medium ones to fry a whole chicken. I prefer a big, heavy, cast-iron skillet for frying because it’s so efficient at absorbing and maintaining the heat. But any heavy-based pan will do the job: just be sure it’s deep enough to contain the fat and broad enough to hold the chicken pieces without crowding. If you don’t have two heavy pans, cook the chicken in batches. If you cheat and try to squeeze in too many pieces, you’ll be punished with chicken that takes forever to cook and—worse— whose skin is flabby, not crisp.
I sometimes pull out my great big electric frying pan when I’m making an extra-big batch. It does a fine job, and it frees up the stove for the potatoes, green beans, and sweet corn that keep my fried chicken company at the table.
A simple coating and then into the pan
Many fried chicken recipes call for all sorts of elaborate batters. Those are great—if you like fried batter. My recipe (if you can even call it that, it’s so simple) is all about the chicken. A quick dredge in flour seasoned amply with salt and pepper is all the coating my chicken gets. This way, the delicious flavor of the crisp skin and tender meat prevails. Many cooks add paprika or garlic powder or both to the flour mixture. That’s fine with me. I can live with most variations, except those that add a whole lot of work.
Use enough fat to come about halfway up the chicken pieces, about 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Before you put the chicken in, let the fat get hot enough so that when you drop in a pinch of flour, it “blooms” or swells at once, or a cube of bread sizzles on contact and browns in just under a minute, about 365°F. (Set your electric pan at 375°F, but give the oil the same test.) Lard—rendered and clarified pork fat—was once the favorite cooking fat for the southern kitchen, but solid vegetable shortening made its way into the pantry several generations ago and has gained loyal followers. Liquid oils work well, too, but choose those with a high smoke point, such as peanut, corn, canola, grapeseed, or safflower. Avoid olive oil; I think its smoke point is too low.
Give each piece the attention it deserves
If the chickens, the stove, and, in most cases, the fat and the pans have changed over time, it makes sense that the cooking times have, too. Old southern recipes allow 25 to 30 minutes for the entire cooking process. Today’s chickens will usually need more time than that. Yet the traditional formula still serves me well: an initial browning of all of the pieces in very hot fat, followed by a longer cooking session at a somewhat lower heat. Some recipes suggest covering the pan at this time—not this one. While that may keep your stove a little cleaner, I find you get crisper chicken with an uncovered pan. A good pair of tongs will give you some distance from the sputtering fat while allowing you to easily turn each piece of chicken so it gets evenly browned and cooked.
The meat is done if the juices run clear and there’s no pinkness when you cut it to the bone. A meat thermometer is really handy here; look for an internal temperature of 180°F. Each piece will cook a little differently. Most likely the legs and wings will be done first, big thighs last, and breasts—who knows? Breasts used to cook more quickly than thighs, but today’s big-bosomed chickens have changed that old rule. As each piece is done, transfer it to a brown paper bag to drain any excess fat. Don’t pile up the chicken until you’re ready to serve it or it will “sweat” and soften.
Expect the stove to end up with a dew-like coating of grease when the job is done. This mess is worth the little trouble it takes to clean up and can be wiped away in the time it takes to say, “Would y’all kindly pass me another piece of that chicken?” The kitchen smells like fried chicken the next morning, too, but the aroma is gone by supper time. Too bad.
Gravy for supper, not for picnics
The main reason for making gravy after frying chicken is that it would be such a shame not to. You’ve created the main flavor ingredient—pan drippings—for which there is no substitute. Another reason is that you really should be serving the chicken with such classic sides as biscuits, mashed potatoes, or rice, all of which cry out for the sweet southern baptism of cream gravy. In tight economic times, gravy was also a way to stretch the meal, helping to prolong the chicken flavor even after the bird was reduced to bones. Finally, because many people think that gravy this delicious must be hard to make (it isn’t), you’ll receive tremendous appreciation for your handiwork.
Although the gravy is just fabulous, the chicken is still delicious without it. In fact, when we take fried chicken along on picnics, we leave out the decidedly unportable gravy, and we don’t look back.