Books and food are two of my most very favorite things, so it should come as no surprise that I have amassed a modest collection of cookbooks and books about food. Some books I turn to often for recipes – Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything houses my always impressive sauteed pork chops with white wine recipe, The Joy of Cooking offers endless insight into anything I’m even thinking of making – but others spend the majority of their time looking pretty on my shelves. In effort to change that, I want to spend time focusing on each of my books and trying my hand at the recipes therein. For this year, I’ll concentrate of The Science of Good Cooking, by the good folks over at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated.
My first foray into the book – fried chicken.
(Note: I’m terrible at taking photos of food. I’m even worse at remembering to take photos of food before I start eating it, so any photo that I manage to get is good in my book.)
Special equipment purchased: Instant read thermometer that goes to 450° ($13.49).
Large quantities of hot oil scare me. The fear was drilled into me by my mother, who suffered a grease burn when she was young, and later from a cooking class in which hot oil splashed onto my arm, leaving a guitar-shaped mark. (Side note: Mederma works. You would never know this happened to me.) Although fried foods are hardly known for their health factor, sometimes you want to cook something impressive. Sometimes you need to conquer your fears. Sometimes you just want fried chicken.
This recipe comes from concept 13: Salty Marinades Work Best. The idea is that by combining a marinade – a highly seasoned soaking liquid that imparts flavor to meat – with a brine – which allows meat to hold more moisture – you end up with a highly flavored, juicy piece of meat. Though the book contains a recipe for a more classic fried chicken, I chose the Easier Fried Chicken because it requires a shorter frying time in less oil (3-4 minutes per side in only 1¾ cups of oil, compared to 5), employing the oven to finish cooking the chicken.
I prepared the marinade the night before – 1 cup buttermilk, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, ¼ teaspoon garlic powder, ¼ teaspoon paprika, a pinch of cayenne, and a dash of hot sauce – and gave the chicken a turn in the morning to make sure it had an even soak. I got out my mother’s old cast iron skillet, filled it with 1¾ cups of vegetable oil, set the burner to medium high, and nervously waited for it to come to temperature while battering the chicken.
The secret to a crispy crust here is a bit of baking powder and buttermilk in the batter. The baking powder’s leavening action raises the crust and keeps it light, while adding a bit of buttermilk to the flour allows the batter to clump together, making the crust better adhere to the skin. I combined 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons pepper, ¾ teaspoon of garlic powder, ¾ teaspoon paprika, and ¼ teaspoon cayenne in a bowl, added ¼ cup buttermilk, and gently mixed it together until it came together in small clumps. I dipped the drumsticks and breasts I had purchased in the batter, having asked the butcher to cut the breasts in half so I’d have four smaller pieces, then set them aside on a baking sheet to wait.
Although I already owned a probe thermometer, the one I ran out to purchase at Target that morning was crucial because my probe thermometer only went to 212°- perfectly sufficient for gauging the doneness of meat, not so much for anything above that. Maintaining oil temperature is crucial when frying. Too low and you won’t get that good exterior crunch. Too high and things start to burn. I periodically stuck the new thermometer in the oil, waiting until it reached just below 375°. Before picking up my tongs, I pulled a large pizza pan out of a cabinet and thrust it into my Eating Companion’s hands.
“If anything catches on fire, throw this over the top,” I instructed him. I made a mental note of the fire extinguishers in the building hallway. Safety first, you know.
It was game time. I picked up the first drumstick, laid it carefully in the oil, and stepped back…and it was beautiful. The oil sizzled up around it, hissing and popping in a gleeful, even melody. I added two more drumsticks and let them brown a few minutes before giving them a turn. As instructed, the browned chicken went on a rack placed over a baking sheet. I did the same with the remaining drumsticks and pieces of breast, letting the oil come back up to 375° in between batches, then placed the sheet in the oven for the chicken to come to its final temperature (160° for the breast, 175° for the drumsticks) for about 20 minutes. Then I sat down and breathed.
I did it! I’d set nothing on fire. Nobody had gotten burned. Nary a smoke detector had gone off. On the potential catastrophe side of things, it had been a complete success.
Tastewise, it was a complete success, as well. The chicken came out of the oven looking lovely and golden. Biting into it revealed juicy, tender meat, fully permeated with the saltiness of the marinade and capped by the bit of heat in the crust. I served it with my mother’s holiday recipe for macaroni and cheese, and this Serious Eats recipe for braised green beans (which were wonderful and spicy and a recipe I will repeat), and it was fantastic.
I’ll be honest, fried chicken never has been nor will it ever be a regular player in my eating repertoire. What we ate that night is what I call a “once-in-awhile” meal, like homemade tamales, or Thanksgiving, or a pint of chocolate peanut butter ice cream for dinner. But, I am so pleased with the way the chicken turned out, with how relatively easy it was to prepare, that I know I’ll bust this out again when a special occasion warrants. Consider my fear of frying overcome.