Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pan Fried Chicken - Extra Crispy and Delicious

Summer seems to me the perfect time for pan fried chicken. I suppose that's because my mother made it regularly but only in the summertime, when she could prepare it early in the morning and then let it sit on the cook top until we wanted to eat. She said she did this as she didn't want to heat up the house in the hottest part of the day and neither did she want to be cooking over a hot stove then. We did have air-conditioning by the time I was born, but she had of course been raised and spent her formative cooking years when no such cooling appliance was available. So when I think of this favorite, I think summer.

Julian's Pan Fried Chicken - Extra Crispy
Making a great fried chicken is a easy, but it helps to understand the various options that face you in frying chicken. Many cooks have recipes handed down by family. I've tried the various methods and come up with one that I think provides a superior fried chicken. If after reading this you think the hot grease is too much for you, then use my crispy oven fried chicken recipe. Many have mistaken it for fried and it's equally delicious.

Buttermilk Bath vs. Brine
Some people believe strongly in using a buttermilk bath for a  chicken soak prior to frying. I've tried it both ways, and it does improve both flavor and texture, keeping the chicken moist. However, there is a difference between soaking chicken in a brine and soaking chicken in buttermilk. Soaking chicken in buttermilk is mainly used to tenderize, while at the same time adding a slightly tangy flavor and moisture. Whereas, soaking chicken in a brine is used just to add moisture to the chicken through osmosis. If you're doing a whole chicken, or lots of white meat, you definitely need to use the buttermilk or the brine. White meat simply dries out badly if not pre-soaked using one of these methods. If you are just doing dark meat, then you can likely skip this pre-step to frying. I soak chicken in butter milk for 1-2 hours, and brine 6-8 hours prior to frying.


Techniques
My mother typically boiled the chicken before pan frying. This had two purposes. First, it cooked the chicken through, which meant frying took only the time to brown the exterior. Second, it made chicken stock for her to use in other dishes and soups. I rarely do this as I think it does remove some of the flavor and also dries out the chicken, as you might expect. But because I do not boil the chicken first, I also have to fry slower and longer, and then place the chicken in a warm oven afterwards to continue cooking through, especially for larger pieces.

As today I'm making chicken for a picnic and my diners prefer the dark meat, I'm only using thighs and legs. So these will cook more quickly. So I'll just finish them for 20-30 minutes in the oven to reduce greasiness, as noted below. Adapt your technique as necessary to ensure all of the chicken is well cooked through. No one likes under-done chicken.


Best Fat for Frying
My mother used only a small amount of fat for the frying. She preferred lard (rendered pig fat), which she accumulated from other cooking activities (usually bacon). If she didn't have that she dropped back to Crisco (a solid vegetable shortening-based lard substitute). Regardless of which she used, she used them sparingly. Her goal was to have enough fat in the pan (perhaps only 1/4 inch deep at the start) to brown the chicken while regularly turning it. When it was done cooking she sought to have no significant amount of fat left, as she would then use the drippings to make white chicken gravy. I also rarely make gravy for service with chicken, so I will use more fat in the pan than she would have which requires less turning and gives me more temperature control.

Like my mother, I prefer a type of lard as well. But instead of pork fat, I'm using duck fat, which is widely available now even on Amazon. However I'm using D'Artagnan brand duck fat as it was the first type I ever used and feel better about it always being refrigerated or frozen. Duck fat is one of those ingredients that cooks are deeply passionate about: it is one of the best animal fats for frying. It has a subtle flavor and a high smoke point, so it's perfect for pan frying chicken. As my mother though, if I don't have it on hand, I drop back to Crisco.

If you are frying a large batch of chicken, you will need to periodically stop and, using a slotted spoon or skimmer, remove the solids that have been left behind in the hot grease.



De-Greasing
Some fried chicken just seems to be greasy. That's usually because either a) the chicken piece had a good bit of fat under the skin to begin with or b) the fat you fried it in was absorbed into the breading, which is usually caused by a low frying temperature. To deal with this matter, I've tried several techniques, including draining on towels but this one seems to work best.

Keep the temperature between 325-350F
After the chicken is fried, place it on a baking sheet fitted with a cooling rack. Place the chicken on the rack and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for a minimum of 5-10 minutes. The grease will drip from the chicken onto the sheet below. As noted above, this method also helps if the chicken browns on the outside before it is fully cooked on the inside, as often happens with large pieces. In this case, keep the chicken in the oven as long as necessary (perhaps another 30 minutes or more) to cook through and also remove excess fat.

Flour, Breadcrumbs or Both
My mother just used seasoned flour on her pan-fried chicken, making it distinctly different than a deep fried chicken which she usually breaded or battered. After trying multiple methods, I recommend the classic breading technique, called “a l'anglaise” in French for “in the English fashion”. This involves, dredging dried pieces of chicken in seasoned flour, then an egg wash and finally into seasoned bread crumbs. If you are sometimes frustrated that your breading comes off of the chicken when frying, it is likely you are not following this culinary practice, which is noted below in the recipe.

Production Line
Ingredients
1 whole chicken, cut up or pieces as you prefer
1 quart or more, buttermilk

2 cups flour
3 tablespoons seasoned salt
fresh ground pepper
2 cups bread crumbs
3 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons basil, chopped
3 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons onion powder, chopped
2 cups milk
3 medium eggs

2 cups duck fat, lard or vegetable shortening (Crisco)


Instructions
Note: Wash, cut up and dry the chicken and set aside the giblets for use at another time.  For picnics, I often just use legs, wings and thighs. For these small, juicy pieces, I sometimes skip the buttermilk bath as noted above. 

Place the chicken in a water tight container or zip locked back and pour in the buttermilk until covered. Rotate or turn the chicken periodically if not fully submersed in the liquid. Let rest for 24-48 hours.

Remove chicken from the refrigerator and drain. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes as you prepare for the breading.

In a pie plate or other similar dish, mix the flour and a generous portion of salt and pepper. In a similar sized dish, mix bread crumbs with the seasonings. Feel free to add more or less of the seasoning and to substitute them for your favorites.  In a pie plate or casserole dish, mix the eggs and milk.  Make an assembly line in this order: seasoned flour, egg/milk mixture, seasoned breadcrumbs. Keep the ingredients handy in case you need to make more of any of the items, as individual usage varies.

Place the duck fat, lard or vegetable shortening into a deep sided skillet (usually called a chicken fryer, black cast iron skillet or Dutch oven). The fat should be about 1/2 to 1 inch deep in the skillet. Heat over medium high but do not let the shortening start to smoke or exceed 350F. Use a candy thermometer and ensure it does not rest on the bottom of the skillet.

Cook the chicken in order (see production line photo above) based on this formula. Darker meat takes longer to cook than white, larger pieces take longer to cook than smaller. So if you are doing a whole chicken, thighs first, then breasts, then legs, etc.

Shake off the excess buttermilk from the chicken and, starting with the largest pieces of chicken first, dredge through the flour, then wet with the egg/milk mixture, then coat with the seasoned breadcrumb mixture, making sure all sides of the chicken are covered. Use one hand for the wet ingredients and the other hand for the dry ingredients. Keep a tub of dishwater handy to rinse your hands as needed throughout the process. Preheat your oven to 300F degrees.

Repeat to bread all pieces placing them directly in the hot skillet as soon as each is finished breading. While each piece cooks, quickly prepare another piece.

Using a candy thermometer, attempt to keep the melted shortening around 350F (not letting it go above 375F or below 325F).  Adjust flame/heat as necessary.  Add more fat/shortening as needed to maintain depth of 1/2 to 1" deep, which is usually only necessary for very large batches. Pause and allow fat to come back up to temperature if you add more to the skillet.

Place no more than 2-4 pieces of the chicken (meatiest side down) into the skillet, being careful not to splash yourself.  Do not overcrowd the pan as it will not be able to maintain temperature. Allow to cook until brown on the cooking side. Turn and brown the other side(s). Remove chicken pieces from the skillet and place on a cookie sheet with a wire rack and place in a 300F degree oven while you continue cooking the remaining chicken.  This will allow the larger pieces to cook through and remain hot while you finish the next batch and also permit excess grease to drain from the chicken. If you have a large quantity of chicken place the rack with the first few pieces in the hot oven. As more finishes frying, transfer to a plate then onto the oven rack.

Place the last pieces of fried chicken on the cookie sheet in the oven for a minimum of 5-10 minutes. Check to ensure the largest pieces are cooked thoroughly using a meat thermometer (white meat should be at 165F-170F degrees) or by breaking open the crust and checking to ensure it is not pink at the joints or near the bone. This could take up to 30-40 minutes for larger dark meat pieces. Remove individual pieces from oven when done (especially the white meat) and allow the larger pieces and dark meat to continue cooking. If it starts to become too brown, loosely tent with foil during baking. Remember, dark meat benefits from being cooked well done (195F degrees), because it contains a much higher amount of collagen which when it breaks down, makes the meat more juicy and tender.

If you are serving the chicken hot, remove from the oven and let it sit on the rack for at least 10 minute prior to serving. If you are serving the chicken cold, allow the chicken to cool to room temperature on the rack before placing it in container. Use parchment paper between layers for storage. Ideally storage for picnic service is best in a non-airtight container so as not to collect moisture and soften the chicken crust.  



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