Fried chicken is one of those foods that you’re just straight-up “not allowed” to have as an adult, according to bullshit diet culture. You learn to convince yourself it’s not that good. Fried chicken is for children, drunk college students, and people stuck at bowling alleys.
You can have chunks of over-breaded industrial protein composite, aka “boneless wings” (they’re NUGGETS, just call them what they are!!!) while “watching the game”, or you can have an artisanally-priced sandwich with too many garnishes and breading that slips right off that greasy thigh like a stocking off of an overheated lady at a brothel in the Old West.
What is even the point. This is why everyone gets all riled up when the good chicken sandwiches come from people who suck (Chick-Fil-A).
The best fried chicken is, of course, homemade. Having a Southerner in the family means that all of a sudden you have access to an entire repository of new powers, like being able to make fried chicken from scratch. This is why I love my brother-in-law Dave’s fried chicken: you just cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts (yeah, I know, spare me your gasps of horror) into tendo-sized strips, coat them with milk, egg, and flour, and fry them until they’re “brown enough” (his words), which usually means just a hint browner than golden. Boom. Done. Good.
I don’t want to hear it about how you’re only supposed to fry bone-in chicken. That is terrifying and I do not want to, even though I have seen it done well with my own eyes (at the best house party I’ve ever been to, because said party featured a beautiful handsome man frying bone-in chicken for everybody because he “didn’t want to talk to anyone.” Marriage material. Anyway.)
Frying stuff in a vat of hot oil is scary enough, and I’m not here to tell you the “right” way to cook. I’m here to tell you how I cook. I want you to be able to have fried chicken as god intended: hot, fresh, light, crispy, with the Right Amount of breading and a Minimal Amount of fuss.
“But Katie” you are asking me. “Katie, if I am Not Allowed to have fried chicken out at restaurants and restaurant fried chicken isn’t even that good anyway, isn’t it Bad and Dangerous to know how to do it at home from scratch? If it’s good won’t I make it for myself all the time and then Die of Fatness?”
Dear friend. Fret not. You have been being Good and Not Allowing Yourself to have the Forbidden Fried Chicken, so you probably think you can take down an unlimited amount of it and eat it until you die. I am here to tell you this is not the case. When fried chicken stops being forbidden, it also stops being the Shameful Jezebel Temptress on the Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks, and starts just being a nice treat you can make for yourself sometimes. Also, frying chicken takes forever and is annoying as fuck, but god damn if it isn’t delicious.
My sister Alice made some excellent tweaks to the original recipe– some cayenne and paprika in the flour mixture for color, some panko breadcrumbs for crunch. Alice’s Fried Chicken is what I think of as my baseline perfect homemade fried chicken – all the ease and straightforwardness of the Dave recipe, with a little spice and flair to make it pretty much irresistible. Eat with barbecue sauce, honey, hot sauce, and maybe mashed potatoes and peas if you’re feeling really put together that day. Perfection. Plato’s Ideal Fried chicken dinner, eat your heart out Cracker Barrel.
But because in our family cooking is a sport and we are competitive, Molly and I have taken it further.
Molly turned to me today and said “I think this hot chicken recipe is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”
This recipe came from one of our earliest fantasy-based Quarantine Cooking challenges. Last spring, when Molly realized she wasn’t going to have Nashville hot chicken any time soon, she went hunting for a good recipe and discovered something crucial. The Flavor that makes the good restaurant chicken so good is… pickle brine. It’s not impossible to replicate, and you never have to give those homophobes at Chick-Fil-A your money ever again! The only secret up their sleeve is pickle juice. Surprise!
Pickle brine draws out the meat juices and replaces them with salty goodness, seasoning the chicken and helping to keep it juicy during cooking. She’s giving you salt, she’s giving you acid, she’s giving you TEXTURE. And she’s giving you structure: I can’t make fried chicken all the time, but every time we run out of pickles, we get to celebrate. It’s like a snow day, but crispier.
I’m a Jew, despite the fact that the last recipe featured on this blog literally involved boiling meat in milk. Nevermind. I know from pickles. Pickles should be punchy, salty, vinegary but not too vinegary, they should be garlicky and peppery and dilly and bright and fresh and crisp enough to cut through any amount of extra-juicy processed deli meat.
It pains me to say that British pickles are absolutely useless for this. If you’re making this in the UK, you have to get dill pickles from your friendly neighborhood American-stuff supplier. This is no place for a sweet, flaccid, insipid little gherkin whose only contribution is a cloying, metallic sugariness. No cornichons. No piccalilli. Get actual Vlasic dill pickles.
If you can get the right kind of pickles (and if you’re in the US you easily can), the centerpiece of the festival celebration when you finish the jar is the most addictive fried chicken I’ve ever had. The quasi-ceviche process of brining the chicken pieces in pickle juice overnight gives a mouthwatering acidity to the meat that, when combined with the rich, crispy breading does something so powerfully compelling to your reptilian hindbrain that our ancestors who crawled out of the sea would have retreated immediately out of sheer awe if they had any inkling of what was in store for them.
Do you then “need” to paint this already-fried chicken with a hot, spicy-sweet melted butter concoction? Let me ask you this: do we really “need” to do anything in this life? Additionally: what are you, chicken?
Yes, there is a Jackie/Marilyn dynamic going on here. The hot pickle chicken is the Elizabeth Taylor to the Alice Chicken’s Debbie Reynolds. Alice Chicken is Jennifer Aniston, Hot Pickle Chicken is Angelina Jolie. And, unlike with real human people, you do not have to reduce complex individuals to objectifying stereotypes! You don’t even have to pick between them! You can have both.
The Best Homemade Fried Chicken
So, there’s two versions to this. For the Extreme Sports: Tastebud Edition version, follow the whole recipe. For the Alice version, skip the brining and the spicy sweet butter part at the end. Or do any combination thereof, you’re the boss.
Also, this is one of those fun recipes that Alice just described to me in person as we made it together, and so a lot of it consists of “just add in the right amount, and then cook it til it’s done!” I have tried to be as specific as I can, but absolutely read the whole thing all the way through before you attempt.
1 or 2 packages boneless skinless chicken breasts (3-4 or 6-8, depending on how many you’re feeding. I think this is great cold the next day for breakfast, or heated up in the oven, but it’s not something that’s gonna last long-term). You can also buy the chicken that’s already cut up into strips or nugs if you want
1 cup pickle juice for the brine, or however much you have once you’ve eaten all the pickles in the jar. (the original recipe also calls for smashed garlic cloves and hot sauce in the brine, which is cool, but made absolutely no difference that I could taste)
For the milk mixture:
1 cup milk
For the breading:
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs (panko, or similar). If you don’t want to buy breadcrumbs just for this you totally don’t have to, it works fine with just flour. The breadcrumbs do help make a crunchier and more robust coating, though
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons paprika
Just a whole buttload of vegetable oil (buy a bottle just for this)
For the spicy butter:
1 tablespoon cayenne
3 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
- If you’re brining, take your chicken and cut it up into tender-sized strips, about an inch or two thick, cut lengthwise down the breast. Kitchen shears you can separate and put straight in the dishwasher are great for this. Or just use pre-cut nugs. Dump chicken into a bowl and cover with pickle juice. Give it a stir to make sure everything’s well-coated, then cover and put in the fridge for at least two hours or, better, overnight.
- When you’re ready to fry, pour your vegetable oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. I use a Dutch oven/Le Creuset knockoff, the same thing I bake bread and roast chickens in. Alice and Dave use Dave’s trusty cast iron, which is probably about 5 inches deep. You’re pouring in about a 2 and a half to 3-inch depth of oil, enough for the chicken to be completely covered without resting on the bottom of the pan, and without the oil coming up too high. Anything large, wide, and heavy will do – not a stockpot because the sides are too high and you’ll burn yourself turning the chicken.
- Turn the heat on medium-low – NPR and its technical correctness say that I am supposed to tell you to heat it to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and you totally are supposed to do that. But I do not own a thermometer, candy, meat, or otherwise, so I follow the Alice rule which is “If you put it on medium-low and then get the rest of your stuff together, it should be good to go by the time you are.” I realize a big pot of boiling oil is a scary thing to deal with, but as long as you go low and slow you should be fine. Don’t hang any dishcloths near it, don’t pour cold water in it, don’t put it on high so it smokes and spits. Admittedly you are getting this advice from a scaredy-cat who once spent an hour and a half oil-poaching 5 pounds of potato batons instead of actually turning the heat up high enough to make fries, but I have also never had a grease fire, so. Knock on wood.
- Get the rest of your stuff together:
- Get the chicken out of the fridge and pat it dry on paper towels. If it’s not dry, the breading won’t stick.
- Pour your milk into a wide, shallow dish (I like using my loaf pans for this), crack your eggs into it and stir them all up together.
- Measure out your flour and breadcrumbs into another wide, shallow dish (loaf pan #2!), and sprinkle with salt, pepper, cayenne, and paprika. A note about amounts: the amounts I have above are handwavey guidelines, because this all changes based on how much you’re making and how spicy you want it to be. I have never managed to make fried chicken without having to top up the flour mixture and sometimes the milk mixture if it’s a really big batch, and when you’re in the middle of stuff you don’t have time to go wash off your chickeny quarter-teaspoon measure. So what I do is shake in enough flour to coat the bottom of the loaf pan by about an inch, add as many breadcrumbs as seems good (like, some? Half a cup?), and then shake in a hefty pinch or so of the spices. If you’re not brining, your primary source of flavor is going to be the breading, but either way Do Not Forget to Salt and Pepper the Breading. The cayenne and paprika add color as well as being tasty, but remember you’re gonna have to top-up halfway through with more spices and flour. If you’re reading this like “Good, this is the most useless recipe of all time, nice one, thanks”, just make your flour mixture ahead of time with the full amounts above and then pour in half to start and the other half when you start running out.
- By this time your oil should be hot enough to start frying. I like to make an assembly line of chicken – milk – flour next to me by the stove. At this point you have to decide which had is going to be your Gross Hand, and which is your Pure Hand. If you have two pairs of tongs I guess you could use them to bread the chicken strips, but I think your hand makes a better tool for assessing how good your coverage is, and not gripping too hard so all your coating falls off. I usually make my left hand the Gross Hand, and begin by picking up a tendo strip, coating it in the milk, then dredging in flour, then milk AGAIN, then flour AGAIN, then into the oil. The double-dunk is tried and tested for getting the best coating. I like to get a group of strips ready to go and then take them all from the flour into the oil as quickly as I can, so they all cook in the same amount of time.
- Putting chicken into oil by hand is tricky but doesn’t have to be scary. You’re essentially trying to slip it in gently so it doesn’t splash, without burning your fingers or letting go too early. Easy peasy. I usually grab the thin end of the strip and ease the heavy part into the oil, letting go at the very end. Think “Achilles’ Mom”, but you let go at the end instead of holding onto the heel of your nearly-invincible demigod son. It’s fine. You can do it.
- When your first batch of chickens are frying away, get your next batch dredged and ready to go while your Gross Hand is still Gross.
- Make sure your chickens have a place to land when they’re done: either cover a large serving platter with paper towels, OR, even better, cover it with a metal cooling rack. This helps keep the breading from falling off or going soggy, and is a tip I learned from Jacques Pepin that he learned from a trip to South Korea (his Facebook videos are a delight).
- Meanwhile, your chickens are still frying. If it’s been about 2-3 minutes, give them a poke with your tongs (NOT the same tongs as your dredging tongs, I hope it goes without saying) just to make sure they haven’t stuck to each other/the bottom of the pot. Frying chicken takes forever, usually about a good 10-12 minutes per batch, or 5ish minutes a side. You’re looking for a really nice deep golden color, and it takes longer than you’d think. Your meat thermometer (another thing I do not have) should register an internal temp of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but in my experience if you go by color and not time, you’ll never have undercooked chicken. If you’re not sure, just take one out, cut it open and check. I’ve also never burned chicken in the fryer – the worst thing that happens is you overcook it a little and oh no wait there’s an entire dip industry created around solving this non-problem? Great. Cool.
- While your tenders are frying, make the spicy butter. Add cayenne, sugar and butter to a saucepan and melt together, then take off the heat. When the tenders are done but still hot, you can brush this concoction onto them in order to see the face of God. It is also good brushed on later, or used as a dip, if people want to control their own levels of spice.
- When your tenders are a good color (the best approximation I can come up with is “cardboard box”), take them out to drain and get your next batch going. If you’re brushing with butter, brush now. The later batches will take on color more easily because the spices in the breading leach into the oil. Your oil should be at a lively bubble around your chicken pieces, but not spitting or popping.
- When you’ve finished frying, serve with whatever feels right. I like to have a leafy salad for contrast, mashed potatoes and peas is traditional, but many times we’ve just torn right into these as they are, with nothing but barbecue sauce, hot sauce, and honey as accompaniments.
A NOTE ABOUT OIL: Don’t pour it down the sink. You will create a fatberg, you will make your plumber cry, you will rue the day you made this recipe. Wait for the oil to cool in the pot, then pour it out into a bag and throw it out with your trash.