Believe it or not, I’ve never made American-style fried chicken. My husband loves to chide me about how the recipe that I included in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen is fried chicken light, the modest pieces coated in bread crumbs or panko and fried to a crisp, served with a fish sauce-inflected sweet-and-sour sauce. He grew up with large pieces of chicken coated in flour and fried to a crisp. While that was a standard for him, it was exotic to me. When we shared an apartment in college, my brother and I sometimes ate Kentucky Fried Chicken as a novelty splurge.
Chinese lemon chicken and Korean fried chicken were good but not the same as old-fashioned American fried chicken, my husband contends. While we were in the South last year, we had wonderfully salty, crisp fried chicken at Uncle Lou’s in Memphis. I was looking for a good guide to making American-style fried chicken and decided to let Michael Ruhlman lead me.
Fried Chicken Brilliance
I was drawn to Michael’s Rosemary-Brined, Buttermilk Fried Chicken because he boldly touted it as "the best fried chicken, ever" but more importantly, it incorporated this technique: brining the chicken. One of my beefs about fried chicken is that underneath the crisp coating skin, the chicken isn’t often well seasoned. (For my Viet fried chicken light, the chicken is marinated with lots of garlic!) Michael credits the brining approach to the Chefs Jeff Cerciello and Dave Cruz at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Napa. Brilliant.
The other point of brilliance is letting the chicken air-chill after brining. Remember how I do that with Peking duck? Air-chilling the chicken dries up the surface moisture, allowing for the flour coating to adhere well. The flesh, after brining, is juicy and flavorful.
Good recipes and cookbooks explain techniques so that you understand the cooking process and feel comfortable about doing your own thing. Ruhlman’s Twenty empowers cooks with confidence and encourages them to practice and learn. You can’t ask for much more than that from a cookbook.
Adding Asian Elements
After getting my chicken legs, I studied Michael’s recipe and decided to veer a bit from it. Why? Because we’d just finished eating a pork roast that had been seasoned with rosemary from the garden. My rosemary bush is ironically right next to the kaffir (makrut) lime tree. The swap suddenly seemed natural. It was kismet.
Based on Michael’s original recipe, I guesstimated the amount of lime leaf needed. I also halved his recipe, which fed 6 to 8 people. We are a family of 2 hungry adults so a yield of 4 servings made more sense for our situation. In addition to substituting the lime leaf for the rosemary, I took these steps to further Asianize the chicken:
- Doubled the garlic in the brine
- Replacing some of the kosher salt with fish sauce in the brine
- Using Korean red pepper powder for the paprika and cayenne in the flour coating
- Serving the fried chicken with Thai sweet chile sauce
What was cool is that the brine ended up tasting like a Vietnamese/Thai soup. I could have added some seafood to it and been happy as a clam. (Ha!) But instead I let the chicken sit in the brine overnight.
Timing and Ideas for Tinkering
I started the chicken two days before I wanted to eat it to allow for brining and air-chilling. You could do it just a day ahead. In any event, when I went to fry, all I had to do was flour, dip, flour and heat up the oil. Most of the prep had been done in advance so it was no sweat. Very smart cooking to produce truly excellent fried chicken. Once fried, the chicken kept well at room temp for about 2 hours. Frankly, it smells so good you can’t resist eating it for that long.
After I made the chicken, I thought of a few ways to change things up the next time around. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section:
- Instead of the lime leaves, use lemongrass or more garlic.
- Tinker with the flour coating. Keep the salt because it gives the fried chicken that bad-ass saltiness but use other seasonings in place of the pepper and chile. Add them to the flour and taste the flour. Sounds weird but you can gauge the overall flavor that way.
- Instead of the Thai sweet chile sauce, you could eat the chicken with one of the Korean fried chicken sauces, a sweet and sour sauce (see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen or Asian Dumplings for recipes on pages 312 and 217, respectively), or even Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) with lime juice and chile slices.
- Serve the kaffir lime fried chicken with coconut pandan waffles and Thai sweet chile sauce for an Asian take on Roscoe’s chicken and waffles.
You get the idea. Here’s the fried chicken recipe for you to play with:
Kaffir Lime Fried Chicken
As for the two kinds of salt, the Kosher has a sweet-saltiness. If you replace it with regular salt (e.g, uniodized table salt) or sea salt, use 1 1/2 teaspoons. For a bad-ass saltiness, use sea salt as it lends a nice savory depth.
Do your best to get medium size chicken legs so that the chicken cooks through. If you end up with some large legs (that sounds awful, doesn’t it?), halved the thighs along the bone to create smaller, manageable pieces; punt with the drumstick.
1/2 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
12 kaffir lime leaves
2 1/2 cups water combined with 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce and juice of 1/2 lime
6 medium chicken legs, drumsticks and thighs separated
1 1/2 cups all-purpose bleached or unbleached flour
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Korean red pepper powder, or 1 tablespoon paprika plus 1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup buttermilk
Canola oil, for deep-frying
Thai Sweet Chile Sauce, optional
1. For the brine, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring for about 30 seconds until the onion starts to soften, then add the Kosher salt. Keep stirring and cooking for about 3 minutes, until the onion is translucent. The bottom of the pan may look a little funky and gummy.
Add the lime leaves, cook for another 30 seconds, until you can smell their fragrance. Then add the seasoned water. Bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat. Let cool completely, uncovered, before moving on.
2. Put the chicken into a plastic zip-top bag and set the bag in a bowl. Add the cooled brine and all the aromatics. Seal the bag, expelling the air well. The chicken should be more or less surrounded by the brine. Refrigerate the bowl for 8 to 24 hours. Occassional agitate the bag so ensure even exposure to the seasonings.
3. Remove the chicken from the brine and discard the brine. Rinse the chicken under cold water, pat dry with paper towel, then put the pieces on a rack positioned in a rimmed baking sheet. Slide the chicken into the refrigerator, uncovered, for 8 to 16 hours. This allows the chicken to dry out. If you like, flip the pieces over midway. You’ll see the skin darken a bit and feel just slightly moist to the touch. If you fear the chicken over drying, cover it with a piece of parchment or wax paper but keep the chicken chilled.
4. About 30 minutes before frying, remove the chicken from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature to remove some of the chill.
Meanwhile, set up your frying station. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, black pepper, red pepper, sea salt, and baking powder. Pour the buttermilk into a small bowl. Have a different rack set in a baking sheet ready near the stove for draining and cooling the chicken.
Dredge all the chicken pieces in the flour, shaking off the excess, then set them aside on a dry surface. Now coat each piece in buttermilk, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, before re-dredging the chicken in a second coating of flour. I usually work with 2 pieces of chicken at a time. Place the coated chicken back on the rack.
5. Heat 1 3/4 to 2 inches of oil in a large wok or dutch oven to 350F. Fry the chicken in batches of 4 or 5 pieces, turning occassionally, until cooked through, 10 to 14 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. The finished chicken should be crisp and a rich golden brown.
The oil temperature will decrease during frying and in general, I like to keep the temperature between 300F and 320F, or the chicken browns too quickly. If your chicken browns too quickly, lower the temperature to coax it to cook longer. Return the oil to temperature between batches.
Let the chicken cool for 5 to 10 minutes on the rack before serving with the sweet chile sauce on the side.
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