There are about as many ways, opinions, theories and suggestions for frying chicken as there are stars in the universe. Everyone’s got a secret method, ingredient or technique, and as near as I can determine, most of them turn out fantastic-tasting fried chicken. And while everyone seems partial to fried chicken the way “grandma used to make,” or fried chicken that tastes “just like mom’s,” I believe it’s the memories we associate with grandma’s (or mom’s) fried chicken that make it so darn incredible.
That said, I’ve never been one to ignore varying recipes or how-to’s on frying chicken. Whether a recipe calls for the exclusive use of a seasoned cast-iron skillet, or using a certain unusual ingredient (like Captain Crunch cereal, even though I’ve always heard you should only fry using unsweetened cereal) I’ll usually give it a go. At least once. Call me curious, but I like to know what things actually make a difference in creating great fried chicken.
But what I really appreciate, is when I discover a technique or method of frying chicken that makes it less of a pain in the @$$. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time than spend it scrubbing splattered oil off my stove and surrounding counter tops. AND if that same method makes my fried chicken taste oh so very delicious, then I’m doubly happy.
And this is where our tutorial begins, for this is exactly what I discovered while adapting an oven-fried chicken recipe from the lovely and talented Ina Garten and her 2002 cookbook, Barefoot Contessa Family Style. I’ve taken what I knowledge I had, combined it with what I learned, did even more research and condensed it all into this in-depth tutorial for creating awesome fried chicken, the kind you’ll be proud to serve your family and friends time and time again.
While I invite you to apply this tutorial to any kind of chicken you deem appropriate for frying, keep in mind I’m using boneless, skinless chicken tenders as the basis for this guide.
Learn How To Make Great Fried Chicken
Let’s start this tutorial by addressing where to begin: (1) Should I marinate the chicken I’m going to fry? and (2) What’s the best method for marinating that chicken?
Answer: (1) Yes. I believe that marinating chicken before you fry it creates a proper foundation for fried chicken. (2) While some might argue that brining your chicken (soaking briefly in salted water, no more than a couple of hours) before frying is the key to good fried chicken, I have discovered that soaking the chicken in buttermilk overnight is the definitely the way to go. An overnight soak in buttermilk will help produce fried chicken that is moist and flavorful, two of the most desired qualities all cooks of fried-chicken strive to attain. If you’re feeling highly ambitious, you may want to consider brining your chicken first and then giving it a buttermilk soak. But be forewarned, adding salt to food before frying does not come without its drawbacks: salt draws moisture to food’s surface causing increased splattering when frying, and also lowers oil’s smoke point causing the frying oil to break down more quickly.
After marinating the chicken tenders in buttermilk (I even suggest experimenting with a buttermilk marinade prior to baking chicken as well,) it’s time to start frying! Begin by preparing a flour mixture to dredge your chicken in, considering the importance of when to season your chicken.
For seasoning, you have two options: (1) season the marinated chicken with salt (remembering what we just learned about using salt in foods to be fried), ground black pepper, and whatever seasonings you prefer and then dredge the chicken in (plain) flour to coat, or (2) add salt, ground black pepper, and other seasonings to the flour prior to dredging and skip further seasoning the chicken first. I have tried both methods and found it makes no significant difference either way. That’s not to say it makes no difference, just not a significant one. My suggestion is this: if you prefer your fried chicken to have a hint of seasoning, use method 2; if you prefer your fried chicken to have a more seasoned flavor, use method 1, (i.e. seasoning the chicken prior to dredging creates a more flavorful effect, while seasoning the flour and then dredging the chicken creates a more mild effect. Your tastes – your call. You could also choose to salt and season the chicken after it finishes frying.)
Now that we have covered the basics of dredging & seasoning, it is imperative to address what types of seasoning are best for creating truly delicious fried chicken. Experience has taught me that the simpler the seasonings the better, but a well-chosen herb or aromatic can pack a pretty serious, much-desired punch when used correctly. While the goal isn’t to knock anyone down with flavor (or heat,) we do want them reaching for a second helping and exclaiming, “Mmmm… this chicken is soooo good. What’s your secret?”
So what seasonings make for great, fried-chicken flavor? Salt and pepper, without a doubt, are the most popular. But you might also want to consider one or more of the following: paprika, taco seasoning, curry (for an awesome tutorial on creating “curries” as well as super “c” spices, click here,) rosemary, powdered garlic, crushed red pepper, Cajun seasoning, cayenne, ground mustard, thyme, basil, oregano or ground ginger. And that’s just for starters. I’ve even heard of cooks who swear by a dash of sugar, honey (be sure to use a low frying temperature if frying chicken with honey, about 300 degrees) or cinnamon. Again, your tastes, your call.
My best suggestion is this: try not to use seasonings that contradict themselves excessively. For example, while some folks love the combination of sweet and salty flavors together, I suggest choosing one or the other for frying, and using the other for an accompaniment, i.e. a dip, relish or garnish. That way you obtain the best of both worlds without confusing the chicken with conflicting flavors. What also works nicely is creating a monochromatic scheme, i.e. layering the same types of flavors to build a bigger picture. For example, if you choose taco seasoning for frying your chicken, try a green chili queso sauce or a spicy ranch for dipping, and let the similar scheme of flavors build upon themselves.
Now that we’ve seasoned and dredged, what’s the best way to fry chicken and what oil should you use? Again, good questions. Since there are as many possible answers as there are cooks in kitchens, let’s take the questions in two parts.
(1) What should I fry my chicken in? Some cooks swear by cast iron skillets, while others use deep fryers, high-sided skillets, dutch ovens, electric frying pans, etc. What I learned from Ina Garten, was to fry chicken in a heavy-bottomed, tall stockpot. This seems so obvious now, but I had never tried it prior. Why fry in a heavy-bottomed, tall stockpot? Because it has ideal heating properties for frying and high enough sides to contain any oil splatter. Less mess!
(2) What oil should I use to fry chicken? The short and most healthful answer is to use a natural, non-hydrogenated vegetable oil, low in trans-fats. This could be non-hydrogenated corn or soybean oil (or a mixture of the two,) canola oil, peanut oil (be mindful of those with peanut-related allergies,) sunflower oil, olive oil, safflower oil or perhaps even grape-seed oil. I strongly suggest using an oil with a high smoke point—examples of these would be peanut oil, canola oil and soybean oil. Oils with high smoke-points are ideally suited to high temperature frying (particularly if using a deep fryer) because this type of oil can take a lot of heat before it begins to burn. FYI: the definition of smoke-point is the temperature at which oil begins to decompose. Also be aware, some oils impart a mild but detectable flavor—taste before use.
It’s also important to consider oil’s flash point (about 600 degrees for most oils) and fire point (about 700 degrees for most oils) so as not to start a kitchen fire. Hey, it can happen. Make sure you keep a kitchen (grease) fire rated – Class B or K at minimum – extinguisher on hand before frying anything. (For more information on household fire extinguishers, click here or here.) Since the temperature you’ll use for frying most chicken is in the 360-375 degree range (usually not less than 325 degrees and usually no higher than 400 degrees,) you’ll want to select an oil with a smoke point considerably higher than this temperature range. For more in-depth information on choosing oil for frying, I urge you to check out this helpful guide entitled Deep Frying Tips (in pdf form.)
Once you have chosen an appropriate oil, fill a heavy-bottomed stockpot with just enough oil to fry the chicken tenders, approximately 1/2 inch to 1 inch deep. Think of this as shallow-frying. Using a high-quality cooking (or candy) thermometer (a quality thermometer will provide you with a more accurate temperature,) heat the oil until it reaches 360 degrees. When the oil reads 360, use stainless steel tongs to place as many of the dredged chicken tenders as will fit comfortably in the stockpot without overcrowding. You may need to turn up the heat momentarily to ensure the oil stays at 360 degrees, or consider covering the stockpot with a lid to maintain the temperature, as the temperature of the oil will drop momentarily when cool, moist food is added. Just be sure the oil stays at a constant temperature as possible and continue to watch the chicken carefully, turning if necessary to ensure all sides fry evenly to a nice, golden brown.
(If you are interested in oven frying this chicken instead, you would fry the tenders in oil for about 3 minutes (until the coating turned a light, golden brown,) and then remove them from the stockpot and place them on a large, metal, baking-rack set on a sheet pan and bake in a hot oven (350 degrees) for 30-40 minutes (or until the chicken is no longer pink inside.)
When the first batch of chicken tenders is done, remove to a paper-towel lined plate to drain and cool slightly while frying the second batch (if necessary.) If you do need to fry another batch, make sure the oil heats to 360 degrees before adding more chicken.
After all of the chicken is fried and has had an opportunity to rest, grab your tongs and place the tenders on a serving platter and get ready to enjoy!
Have your own tips for creating delicious fried chicken? Be sure to share them here by responding to this post. I’d love to hear your ideas!