The Family Meal Deal
Yesterday was Family Day in Ontario. This is a newish holiday that was bequeathed to us by our conservative government when they took over a few years ago so that we would be okay with the conservative government taking over. Giving people a day off is an easy way to make people like you. Yes, the name is simplistic and hokey. And it lacks the gravitas of a holiday that is about ‘independence’ or ‘winning a war’ or ‘eating turkey.’ But no matter the hokey name and the political motivations behind the holiday, a day off from work is nothing to roll your eyes at. And a day off work in mid-February, when my winter depression is full-blown and when I’m bone tired of being cold, there’s even more to be thankful for. A day when I don’t have to wake up in the dark, stand outside freezing, waiting for the streetcar that feels like it’s never going to come so I can roll into work frozen and late is a good day indeed.
So, as the three-day weekend approached, I immediately thought, what will I be cooking this weekend now that I have extra time off. I’ll take a page out of the Colonel’s playbook, where a bucket of fried chicken is the best way to unite loved ones around a dinner table. It doesn’t take much for me to justify making fried chicken.
I have previously relied on trusty Cook’s Illustrated for my fried chicken recipe. That recipe results in delicious fried chicken. Then I was introduced to Thomas Keller’s fried chicken recipe. That recipe results in really delicious fried chicken. Either recipe you choose, you have a winner. But the Thomas Keller version is a bit more winning. The chicken has more flavour and is juicier. However, it comes at a cost: time. It just takes more time and patience to produce Keller’s version. When I made it the first time, I had to make a timetable counting back from when I wanted to eat to when I had to begin prep. Keller’s fried chicken is a two-day process. With Cook’s Illustrated, you can have the chicken done in one day, albeit a longish one.
Both recipes are listed here. You’ll have to scroll down a bit since there’s lots to each recipe.
Ultimate Crisp Fried Chicken
From Cook’s Illustrated American Classics 2008 by Kay Rentschler and Bridget Lancaster
For the brine:
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons table salt
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
3 medium garlic heads, cloves separated
3 bay leaves, crumbled
7 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 whole chicken about 3 ½ pounds cut into 12 pieces*
For dredging and frying:
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
3 – 4 cups peanut oil
*The 12 pieces are 2 legs, 2 thighs, 4 roughly equal pieces of breast (each breast cut in half), 4 wing joints (each wing split in half).
Make the buttermilk brine:
In a large zipper lock bag, combine salt, sugar, paprika, garlic, and bay leaves. With a rubber mallet or flat meat pounder (nothing that will rip the bag), smash garlic into salt and spice mixture thoroughly. Pour the mixture into a large plastic container or nonreactive stockpot. Add 7 cups of buttermilk and stir until the sugar and salt dissolve completely.
Immerse the chicken pieces in the brine and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Remove the chicken from the brine and shake off excess and pick off any papery garlic peel. Place the chicken on a wire rack set over a baking sheet (to catch any drip) and refrigerate the chicken for two hours so it can dry.
Measure the flour into a large shallow dish. Beat the egg, baking powder and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Add 1 cup buttermilk to the egg mixture.
Working in batches, drop the chicken into the flour and coat completely. Shake off excess then dip into the buttermilk, coating well with the liquid. Shake off excess then back goes the chicken into the flour again for another proper coat. Shake off excess flour and place the battered chicken on the wire rack.
Adjust the oven rack so that it’s in the middle position and place a wire rack over a baking sheet in the oven. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. You’re going to transfer the fried chicken into the oven to keep warm once it’s done frying.
Layer paper towels on a large baking sheet so its ready to receive the newly fried chicken out of the oil.
Now you’re ready to fry.
In a high-sided large Dutch oven about 12 inches in diameter, add 3-4 cups of peanut oil. I like the high-sided pot as it keeps the splatter down a bit. The oil should come up the sides about 2 ½ inches. Heat the oil to 375 degrees over a medium high heat. Use a thermometer to gauge the temperature correctly.
Place half of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the oil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pot with a lid, and fry until deep golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. But after the first 3 minutes of frying, check if the chicken is browning evenly, by lifting each piece out of the oil with a pair of tongs. If some pieces are more advanced than ours, move them around so that everything is cooking evenly as much as possible. The temperature at this point should be 325 degrees. If not, adjust the burner. So after 6 to 8 minutes since the chicken went into the oil, flip the chicken over and continue frying, uncovered until all of the pieces are a deep golden brown. This should take another 6 to 8 minutes. Once ready, remove the chicken from the oil with a pair of tongs and place on a paper towel lined baking sheet. Then transfer the fried chicken to the awaiting wire rack in the oven.
Get on with the second batch of chicken. Bring up the oil temperature back to 375 degrees. Add the remaining chicken into the oil and fry using the same method as with the first batch. Once the chicken is done, lay it on fresh paper towels. Remove the first batch of chicken from the oven, transfer the second batch onto the wire rack and let cool for a few minutes before you dig in.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken
From Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller (Artisan, November 2009)
For the brine:
1 gallon water (16 cups)
2 lemons halved
12 bay leaves
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 handful thyme sprigs
¼ cup clover honey
1 head garlic, halved through the equator (so the two halves still retain their cloves and shape)
6 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt
1 3 to 4 pound chicken*
For dredging and frying:
2 cups buttermilk
salt and pepper
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons cayenne
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Ground fleur de sel or fine sea salt for finishing
3 – 4 cups Peanut oil for frying
*Keller calls for a 2-3 pound chicken but smaller birds are hard to find. I’ve successfully used a 3-4 pound chicken that is readily available from my butcher or grocery store.
For the Brine:
Combine all the brine ingredients in a pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before using. The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Cut the chicken into 10 pieces: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 4 breast quarters, and 2 wings. Pour the brine into a container large enough to hold the chicken pieces, add in the chicken, and refrigerate for 12 hours. Keller advises not to go over 12 hours as the chicken may become too salty.
Take the chicken out of the brine and rinse it under cold water, removing any of the herbs or spices sticking to the skin. Discard the brine. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels or let it air dry. Put the chicken on a wire rack and let it rest at room temperature for 1 ½ hours, or until it comes to room temperature. I have a drafty screened in porch area that works well in the winter that isn’t too warm to let the chicken sit out. If it was summer, I probably wouldn’t leave the chicken out for the allotted time as my place is really warm.
When you’re ready to fry:
Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet. Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper.
Combine all the dry coating ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer half of the coating mix to a second large bowl. Pour the buttermilk into a third bowl and season it with salt and pepper. Now you’re ready to organize your dredging station: the chicken pieces are set first, one of the bowls of coating is second, the bowl of buttermilk is third, the other bowl of coating is fourth, and then the parchment lined baking sheet is last.
In a high-sided large Dutch oven about 12 inches in diameter, add 3-4 cups of peanut oil. I like the high-sided pot as it keeps the splatter down a bit. The oil should come up the sides about 2 ½ inches. Heat the oil to 320 degrees over medium high heat. Use a thermometer to gauge the temperature correctly.
When your oil is at the correct temperature and you’re ready to fry, it’s time to batter up the chicken. Dip the chicken thighs into the first bowl of coating, turning to coat and patting off the excess; dip them into the buttermilk, allowing the excess to run back into the bowl; then dip them into the second bowl of coating. When all done, transfer to the parchment-lined pan.
Carefully lower the thighs into the hot oil. Adjust the heat as necessary to return the oil to the proper temperature of 320 degrees. Fry for 2 minutes, then carefully move the chicken pieces around in the oil and continue to fry, monitoring the oil temperature and turning the pieces as necessary for even cooking, for 11 to 12 minutes, until the chicken is a deep golden brown, cooked through, and very crisp. Meanwhile, coat the chicken drumsticks and transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Transfer the cooked thighs to the cooling rack skin-side-up and let rest while you fry the remaining chicken. Putting the pieces skin-side-up will allow excess fat to drain, whereas leaving them skin-side-down could trap some of the fat. Monitor the temperature so that it remains at 320 degrees. Cook the chicken drumsticks. When the drumsticks are done, lean them meat-side-up against the thighs to drain, then sprinkle the chicken with fine sea salt.
Turn up the heat and heat the oil to 340°F. Meanwhile, coat the chicken breasts and wings. Carefully lower the chicken breasts into the hot oil and fry for 7 minutes, or until golden brown, cooked through, and crisp. Transfer to the rack, sprinkle with salt, and turn skin side up. Cook the wings for 6 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Transfer the wings to the rack and turn off the heat.
Before you dig in, let the chicken rest for 7 to 10 minutes after it comes out of the oil so that it has a chance to cool down. If the chicken has rested for longer than 10 minutes, put the tray of chicken in a 400°F oven for a minute or two to ensure that the crust is crisp and the chicken is hot.