It had been a while since I made fried chicken so a couple weeks ago, I decided to fete two friends who are moving away by making Korean fried chicken. It’s crunchy, spicy, and tangy. It’s festive, slightly messy, and crazy red from the pepper paste sauce. I’d made the chicken years back using a recipe that a Korean friend’s mom shared with me. In 2009, I thought it was the best recipe but seven years make a difference. This one is better because it blends Mrs. Lee’s marinating method with a coating and sauce by Maangchi in her terrific cookbook.
Mrs. Lee marinated the chicken beforehand and I like the flavor. In her cookbook, Maangchi promised to deliver a crunchy coating and a sauce that’s just like what you’d get at Korean fried chicken joints. Instead of wings or bone-in chicken, I opted for boneless skinless thighs and fried them up as nuggets. They cooked up faster and made for great finger food. Plus, the seasonings penetrated a touch more than usual, making the chicken more flavorful. (If McDonald's picked up on this, they could call it "KFC McNuggets" but they'd likely get customers confused and Kentucky Fried Chicken angry.)
I was a little confused by the coating instructions in the original recipe and combined the coating ingredients before adding the chicken. It was shaggy and initially clung onto the chicken as clumps (mine expanded a little as it sat waiting for the oil to heat to temperature). However, the coating worked in combination with double frying to create a crunchy exterior. Even the next day, the exterior was still hard. The chicken is not greasy whatsoever.
On a second try with this recipe, I coated the chicken with the dry ingredients then added the egg but the result was not as jagged and crunchy. Maangchi fried chicken wings which offer extra texture because their shape and skin. My confusion worked in my favor because I was frying boneless skinless thighs, which are smoother. If you fry skin-on, bone in chicken, do as you see below. Otherwise, follow the instructions in my recipe in this post. (A good recipe is one that inspires your curiosity and teaches you something new.)
As for the sauce, you can make it days in advance. I had a medium-hot Korean chile pepper paste (gochugaru) and it was a little bit of a burn. Back off if yours is on the fiery side. As for the corn syrup vs. brown rice syrup, I tried both. Karo light corn syrup and Lundberg “Sweet Dreams” brown rice syrup both worked fine in the sauce. Of course, if you have Korean rice syrup (ssal-yeot), try it! I wouldn’t use sugar. My friend Mary-Frances Heck noted that some recipes use strawberry jam, but I’d rather trust Maanchi and Mrs. Lee for their sauce recipe. Both have similar ingredients.
I’ve made this twice this month and I’m thinking I may repeat it for New Year’s Eve (the diet starts January 1). You can have this Korean fried chicken with a cold lager-style beer or a rose or white wine, but it’ll seem extra extravagant with champagne.
Korean Fried Chicken Nuggets
Serves: 10 to 12 as a snack, 4 as a main course
- 1 1/2 to 1 2/3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, grated (use largest hole on the grater)
- 2 cloves garlic, put through a press or finely chopped and mashed into a paste
- 1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 teaspoons canola or other neutral oil
- 3 cloves garlic, put through a press or finely chopped and mashed into a paste
- 1/3 cup ketchup
- 1/3 cup brown rice syrup or corn syrup
- 3 to 4 tablespoons Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang)
- 2 teaspoons distilled white or apple cider vinegar
- 1 to 2 teaspoons fish sauce (optional)
- Sugar (optional)
Coating and frying
- 1/2 cup cornstarch or potato starch
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg, well beaten
- Canola or other neutral oil, for deep frying
- 1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
- Cut the chicken into 2-inch chunks, then put into a bowl. Add the onion, garlic, salt, and pepper in bowl. Mix well, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to marinate at room temperature for 1 hours. (Or refrigerate overnight, letting the chicken sit out for 30 minutes to remove the chill before frying.
- For the sauce, combine the oil and garlic in a small saucepan. Heat over medium until gently sizzling and no longer raw smelling. Slide the pan off heat, wait for the sizzling to subside, then add the ketchup, syrup, pepper paste, and vinegar. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 to 8 minutes, until thick and slightly glossy. Let cool a few minutes before tweaking the flavors as needed with fish sauce and sugar. Aim for spicy-sweet heat. Pour into a large bowl and set aside to later coat the chicken. (The sauce can be made several days in advance and kept refrigerated; return to room temperature to use.
- In a bowl, combine the starch, flour, salt, pepper, and baking soda. Add the egg and stir. Things will look jagged. Add the chicken and mix with your hands or a spatula. Set aside
- Pour the oil into a 5-quart Dutch oven or wok to a depth of 1 1/2 inches. Heat over high heat to 350F degrees; stick a dry chopstick in and bubbles should immediately rise to the top and surround the chopstick
- To avoid crowding and lowering the oil temperature too much, fry the chicken nuggets in batches. Fry until crunchy and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a rack or paper towel in a baking sheet to drain. Return the oil to temperature and repeat to fry the remaining chicken. The chicken can be fried up to an hour or so in advance
- The crisp coating softens a touch during cooling so when all the pieces are done, increase the oil temperature to 350F and refry the chicken in batches for 1 to 2 minutes, until super crisp. Drain, then add to the bowl of sauce. Turn to coat well. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle on the sesame seeds to garnish. Eat immediately.