At the beginning of this summer, I went to the North Carolina coast to visit my family. I thought I was getting away from science, chemistry and engineering (if only for just a little bit) but I soon found myself in my aunt’s kitchen working on a science project – fried chicken.
My aunt and mom have been trying to make the perfect batch of fried chicken for years. With so many variables, there really is a science to frying chicken. The recipe first called for brining the chicken overnight. Brining is a combination of salt and water that changes the chemical composition of the chicken, allowing the chicken to hold in more moisture. After leaving the chicken overnight in the saline solution, I took it out, ran it under cold water and patted it completely dry. By getting rid of the excess water, I decreased the amount of reactions between the water and oil. So instead of standing away from the pan, with two oven mitts on at all time, long sleeves and pants, I could cook and watch right beside the chicken (with no protection needed) because the oil was not “spitting”- there were no reactions occurring between the water and oil. The next step was essential to perfectly frying the chicken. Do not, under any circumstances, crowd the pan. If too many pieces of chicken are placed in the pan, the heat of the oil (which should be roughly 350 degrees) will be distributed, therefore lowering the overall temperature of the oil. A lower oil temperature will result in soggy, greasy chicken.
For this particular recipe, it called for a very specific cook time: 6 minutes covered, 9 minutes uncovered, flip the chicken and repeat. Undoubtedly, this time sequence is the result of many trials and errors. Covering the chicken allows for the chicken to cook, but not lose its moisture. Frying it uncovered crisps the crust. The equal balance of both methods keeps the heat in the pan while allowing water to escape the crust. Adding a little bacon grease to the oil also helps the physical reaction and delicious taste.
If the science is good, the chicken is good. In this case, both were spectacular.
New York Times
Southern Living’s Best Fried Chicken
Adapted from “The Way to Fry” by Norman King (Oxmoor House, 2013)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 chicken with skin, about 2 1/2 pounds, cut up into 8 pieces (see note)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups vegetable oil, like grapeseed, peanut or canola (do not use olive oil)
- 1/4 cup bacon drippings (or use more oil)
Combine 1 tablespoon salt with 3 quarts water in a large bowl or container. Add chicken, cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Drain, rinse with cold water and pat dry. Stir together remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the black pepper. Sprinkle half the mixture evenly over chicken. In a large sealable plastic bag, combine remaining pepper mixture and flour. Add 2 pieces chicken to bag and shake well to coat. Remove chicken pieces, shaking off extra flour, and set aside. Repeat with remaining chicken.Take a large (10- or 12-inch) cast-iron skillet or chicken fryer, for which you have a lid, and fit with a candy or deep-frying thermometer. Add oil and bacon drippings and heat to 360 degrees over medium heat; the oil will ripple and possibly give off a few wisps of smoke. Using tongs, immediately add chicken pieces, skin side down (work in batches if necessary to avoid crowding pan). The oil will drop to about 325 degrees, where it should stay; adjust heat so that oil is bubbling gently around the pieces. Cover and cook 6 minutes; uncover and cook 9 minutes. Turn chicken pieces; cover and cook 6 minutes. Uncover and cook another 5 to 9 minutes, depending on size of pieces. If necessary for even browning, turn pieces over a few times toward the end. Drain on paper towels and let cool for 10 minutes.