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updated: 7/30/2014 6:13 AM

Five steps to great fried chicken

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  • Video: Making fried chicken

  • Tom Leavitt of White Oak Gourmet in Arlington Heights soaks chicken in buttermilk before it hits the hot oil.

      Tom Leavitt of White Oak Gourmet in Arlington Heights soaks chicken in buttermilk before it hits the hot oil.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Deborah Pankey
Daily Herald Food Editor

When it comes to summer picnics, fried chicken frequently finds itself on the table.

It's one of those foods that tastes great hot, and maybe even better cold, so as long as food safety rules are followed (see sidebar), it's a great option for forest preserve gatherings and post-softball game parties.

But how do you get that perfect piece of fried chicken? That piece that's golden crisp on the outside but still juicy on the inside? Here are five things you need to know to achieve fabulous fried chicken:

The bird

Drumsticks may be the most popular part, but the whole bird can be fried, just not whole, mind you.

"Buy a whole chicken, a fryer or a toaster, and cut it up," says chef Tom Leavitt, owner of White Oak Gourmet, a private chef and catering service in Arlington Heights. "I enjoy working with whole chicken; it makes a lot of sense."

Separate the thighs from the drumsticks and slice large breasts into smaller pieces so they'll cook faster, notes Rochelle Bilow with Bon Appétit magazine.

Do not remove the skin; it plays a crucial role in the crispiness factor.

The brine

This salty soak is what will keep the lean breasts from drying out, so don't skip it. Even a four-hour bath will help, but Leavitt recommends 12 to 24. Dried thyme and some bay leaves added to the mix will help flavor the meat.

"The light meat really needs the brine, but the dark meat won't suffer," he says.

The batter

"There are so many different ones," Leavitt says.

Buttermilk is a popular addition, with its acidity helping to tenderize the meat and its thick body helping the mixture cling to the meat.

Once Leavitt pulls the chicken from the brine, he soaks it in buttermilk for one hour at room temperature. The milky pieces then get dredged in flour that's been mixed with granulated garlic, onion powder, cayenne, paprika and baking powder.

Dozens of other recipes call for a three-step breading process: dust pieces in a bit of flour, dunk into buttermilk or beaten egg (a little hot sauce or extra pepper here might not be a bad thing), and then roll into a second pan of seasoned flour. The first coat of flour gives the egg/buttermilk something to cling to. Go ahead, use your hands to really pack on the breading so you get a nice, craggy crust.

The oil

Save your olive oil for other recipes. For frying, go for a flavorless oil with a high smoke point. The meticulous testers at Cook's Illustrated favor vegetable oil and peanut oil; Leavitt is partial to grapeseed oil.

"It's a neutral oil and it fries well; it has no scary properties and isn't as highly refined as soybean or vegetable oil," Leavitt adds.

The oil does not have to be poured into a countertop deep fryer; a deep cast iron skillet or Dutch oven will work just fine. Frying the chicken with the lid on will reduce cooking time, keep the oil hot and reduce splatters.

When you remove the pieces from the oil, don't set them on paper towels to drain; doing so will turn that beautifully crisped coating all soggy. Instead, put them on a wire cooling rack to allow any excess oil to drip off.

The temperature

"Don't cook cold chicken," Leavitt advises, and his one-hour soak in room temperature buttermilk ensures this.

And don't put chicken into the oil until the oil temperature reaches 350 degrees; you'll need a candy thermometer or digital thermometer to check it. Maintaining that temperature is key; don't think that upping the temperature will mean better, faster fried chicken.

"The batter could be dark brown, but the chicken could still be raw inside," Leavitt says. "I use a digital thermometer to check the chicken." Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees.

When he has the time, Leavitt says he cooks the chicken at 300 degrees for about eight minutes; removes it from the oil; brings the oil up to 350 degrees and cooks the chicken the rest of the away, about another five minutes. He said that dual dip in the oil makes for extra crispy chicken.

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