Crispy, crunchy, juicy. Delicious hot from the frying pan or cold from the fridge, fried chicken pleases with every mouthwatering bite. But it’s not just Southern home cooks enamored of its charms. New fried chicken joints are opening up around the country, and chefs are having a ball putting their own stamp on it. I asked a few pros, all of whom either have a fried chicken place or are in the throes of opening one, to share their best recipes. Robert Stehling from Charleston, South Carolina, Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp from Chicago, and Ed Lee from Lexington, Kentucky, happily obliged.
Which was my favorite? Whichever one I was eating. Prepare to get hungry.
The three recipes vary in dramatic (and delicious) ways, but the chefs behind them all agree on these basic fried chicken tenets:
Brining is critical
Brining is critical not only for creating the juiciest chicken, but also for seasoning it to the bone. Though salt is a constant, the brine can take several forms. One recipe uses a liquid brine scented with citrus and spiked with red pepper; another offers a dry brine packed with spices; and a third calls for semi-poaching the chicken in a brine-like broth before frying.
A coating adds crunch
Another key component (and for many fried chicken lovers, the most important) is the crisp coating. Not only does it add another layer of flavor, but it also helps keep the chicken juicy. All of the chefs do this step a little differently, but they agree that it’s important to let the coated, uncooked chicken sit for a little bit before frying so that the coating sets up and sticks to the skin rather than sliding off into the hot oil.
Frying in batches prevents greasy chicken
There are two ways to fry chicken: deep-frying, in which the chicken is fully submerged in hot oil, and pan-frying, in which the chicken is partially submerged and flipped during cooking. With deep-frying, it’s easy to fry chicken evenly, but you end up with a lot of leftover oil. Pan-frying uses less oil, but because the oil spatters more, it can be messier. No matter the method used, it’s important to fry in batches so the oil’s temperature doesn’t drop too much when the chicken is added to the pot and to adjust the heat to maintain a hot frying temperature. If the oil cools down, the fried chicken will be greasy and soggy (and so sad!).
Cooling on a rack keeps it crisp
All the chefs recommend elevating the chicken on a rack after frying so that it doesn’t get soggy while it cools. Not that it’ll be cooling for long. Once these juicy fried pieces come out of the oil, they’ll go fast.
What exactly is a brine, and how does it work? A brine is most often a salt and water solution in which chicken rests for a few hours up to overnight, but dry brines, in which the chicken is rubbed with salt and spices, are also an option. Whether the brine is liquid or dry, the salt helps to denature proteins in the meat, meaning that the tightly wound muscle fibers loosen and then are able to take in not only the salt, but also any other flavors in the brine. In the case of a wet brine, the meat also absorbs some of the brine, making it more juicy. One benefit of a dry brine is that it draws out the chicken’s own juices, which are then reabsorbed into the meat along with the flavorings, keeping it intensely chickeny.