Done right, fried chicken possesses all the mystery and magic of Keebler cookies - it must be made by elves. How can mere mortals take an ordinary piece of poultry and really do justice to an otherworldly combination of crisp and juicy, salty and tangy, with opportunities to gnaw on both meat and bone? In between arguments with my father over then-President Nixon, I did wonder if anyone other than my friends Roy or the Colonel knew the secrets.
Most home cooks tell me that in spite of their love for fried chicken, they avoid it for fear of less-than-magical results. If you're game to give it another try, I've got a few tricks that may earn you some mama-slapping fried chicken honors:
First, bathe the chicken in buttermilk, which tenderizes the meat. I season it with (among other things) celery seed, which lends an earthiness that still comes through after all the frying.
Next, use salty dredging flour, which you should taste even though it's gross to taste raw flour.
Try peanut oil, which has a good flavor as well as a high smoking point - a key asset when frying.
Finish the chicken in the oven after both sides have achieved crispy-coated status in the frying pan. This method allows meat to be thoroughly cooked while minimizing burning of that precious coating.
Let the magic show begin. And pour me some lemonade, will ya?
Fearless Fried Chicken
4 pounds chicken parts of your choice, or about 12-14 pieces
1 quart buttermilk
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1-1/2 teaspoons ground celery seed
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
Place chicken parts in a nonreactive (plastic, glass, ceramic) bowl or container. Pour buttermilk on top and add garlic salt, celery seed, cayenne and paprika. With a large spoon, stir to disperse seasonings in the buttermilk bath. Cover chicken and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least four hours and up to overnight.
When ready to fry, combine flour, salt, thyme and black pepper in a container large enough for dredging (flour coating) the chicken. Taste the flour; you should be able to taste the seasonings, particularly the salt. If not, add an additional 1/4-teaspoon salt.
Remove chicken from buttermilk mixture, piece by piece, allowing excess liquid to drain off. Place drained chicken in a clean container.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and heat a large cast-iron skillet or frying pan that's at least 3 inches deep. Add at least 1 inch of oil, on high heat.
Dredge chicken separately in flour mixture, completely coating, then shake off excess. Set aside.
Oil should be hot (but not smoking). Test it by dropping a piece of loose chicken fat or flour nib into the oil; it should sizzle. Add chicken, skin-side down, being careful not to crowd the pan, which would cause steaming. Turn heat down to medium and let chicken cook for about eight minutes on the first side. With tongs, turn over, but only if first side is golden brown. Cook on second side for five minutes. Chicken should look crispy.
Remove chicken from oil and transfer to a baking sheet for finishing in the oven. Estimate 20 minutes for oven time, or until an instant-read thermometer, placed in the middle of a thigh or breast, indicates 165 degrees.
Remove chicken from oven and let cool for a few minutes before digging in. Serves one to four, depending on how hungry you are for fried chicken.
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