The best fried chicken is very simple to make, but like all simple recipes, the details matter. First thing you want to do is go get a whole chicken and cut it up yourself. I would love to explain how to do that, but it really takes some practice and you’re best off watching a YouTube video instructing you how to do it, like this one from Alton Brown (who uses a model T-Rex skeleton to show you what you’re doing). This is a skill that will save you a ton of money in the long run, so I highly recommend that you learn basic butchery at home if you can. And chickens are a great place to practice since a whole bird usually only costs $4-5 (I break down beef tenderloins, which is usually $40, but I end up with like 5 pounds of filet mignon with I’m done and scraps that make some other delicious dishes and would cost me $100-150 if I bought them pre-cut). If you’re not in the mood to experiment, you can buy pre-butchered chicken, but you’re going to pay more per pound and I guarantee that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll probably end up with something better than what you’ll get at the store.
Either way, take your chicken pieces and put them in an airtight container with 2 cups of buttermilk, then park in the fridge overnight (try for 24 hours total). The acid in the buttermilk will denature proteins in the chicken as well as give it a uniquely southern flavor that makes the best fried chicken on the planet.
While you’re waiting, you might as well get your seasoning mix together.
2 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp paprika (smoked paprika if you can find it)
2 tsp garlic powder (roasted garlic powder if you can find it, but even I rarely can unless I order it online)
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Once the twenty-four hours are up, drain the chicken but do not rinse it (we want that thick covering for what’s to come). Here’s the rest of what you need.
All Purpose Flour (about 2 cups, maybe more maybe less)
Vegetable shortening or lard (various depending on pan size)
You’ll also need a cast iron skillet that’s 12″ across (you can get by with a 10 1/4″ one like I have if you forget about the wings or work in batches), a half sheet pan or cookie sheet, a cooling rack, some paper towels, a fry or instant read thermometer, and 2 sets of kitchen tongs (one set to put the raw chicken in the pan, another set to flip and retrieve the cooked chicken to avoid cross-contamination). Something that’s also very recommended is a splatter guard to keep grease from getting over every horizontal surface of your kitchen.
Aside: Okay, I haven’t really talked much about kitchen hygiene yet in this column and it really deserves its own column because it’s that important. The short, short version is that you should always wash everything (except cast iron) in hot soapy water including your hands, and the same tools should never touch stuff raw and cooked foods. I’ve gotten food poisoning before and it’s not fun, the last thing you want to do is give it to your gaming group.
Now for the cooking. Take your spice mixture and liberally season all sides of the chicken. You want to focus on the meaty parts, but even the ribs on the breast need some. Next, dredge in the flour (basically put in a dish with the flour in it and shake it around a little, then flip over and sprinkle/gently pat flour into any parts that aren’t covered). Make sure it’s thoroughly covered, but also make sure to shake off any excess. Do one piece at a time, then let them sit for at least 5 minutes. If you have a second cooling rack, I’d suggest using that to rest them on.
Put the cast iron skillet over medium heat and add in your shortening or lard. You want it to come a little less than halfway up the side of the skillet. Once it’s melted, leave it on medium heat and bring it up to 325 degrees (this is where the thermometer comes in, as temperature control is very important).
Once you’re at 325 degrees, boost the heat just a tiny bit and start adding the chicken. The breasts and thighs should go in the center because they need the most heat to cook. Add the drumsticks and wings to the edges but make sure not to over-crowd the pan. Keep an eye on the oil temperature because you don’t want it to go over 350 degrees or under 300 degrees. Higher means the oil will smoke and start to taste nasty, while under means the chicken won’t brown properly and will be more likely to end up greasy.
Here’s where cast iron is important. Because it’s so dense, it holds onto heat very well so you shouldn’t have to fiddle with the burners nearly as much as you would if you used stainless steel or aluminum. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, I highly recommend you pick one up. A 12″ pan costs a little more than $20 and it’s hands down the most versatile cooking vessel on the planet, and I guarantee it will come up again in future installments. If you’re using anything other than cast iron, you’re going to have to watch the oil temperature like a hawk. Use a fry thermometer, or test it with your instant read every 30-60 seconds.
After about 8 minutes, gently lift one of the breasts to see if the bottom is brown yet. If it is, go ahead and turn everything. If not, give it another minute or two then turn. After another 8 minutes, take the temperature of the breasts, thighs, and legs to make sure they’ve hit 180 degrees.
Once they’re finished, place them on a cooling rack turned upside down inside a half-sheet pan lined with paper towels. Okay, that was awkwardly worded. Take a cookie sheet. Line it with two layers of paper towels. Then take your cooling rack and put it so that the grid is making contact with the paper towels. This will help pull oil away from the chicken faster and keep the skin from getting greasy. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes, and make sure to serve hot.
Advanced Option: If you like your chicken extra-crispy, save some of that buttermilk when you drain the chicken, and use it to dredge the chicken a second time. I’ve had iffy results doing this, because sometimes the crust won’t hang on if it’s too thick. So be careful!
Anyway, fried can be a pain in the ass to make. The instructions I just gave you get you 8 pieces: 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, and 2 wings. Based on the appetite of the typical gamer, that’s good for two or maaaaybe three people. So you’ll have to make two, three, or four batches even with sides to feed everyone depending on the size of your group. Makes that $4.99 deal from Churches or KFC look appealing However, if you have real homemade pan-fried chicken, it puts that fast food shit to shame. It’s juicy, flavorful, tender, and just amazing. There’s nothing like it on the planet, and I’ve only had fried chicken better than what I make using this recipe two other times in my life. One is a restaurant that charged $16-18 for half a chicken, and the other was made by my grandmother with the filter of childhood nostalgia. So trust me, your extra effort and time will be greatly rewarded.
The only downside? Once someone eats your amazing homemade fried chicken, they’ll bug you constantly to make it for them. That’s why I make sure that anyone who has my fried chicken has already eaten my gumbo, slow cooked pork, or my braised pork ribs so they can’t decide which to bug me for at dinner parties. Oh, wait, I haven’t told you how to make baby back ribs yet have I? Oh…guess you’ll have to check out next week.