If you live in the South, you had better know how to make fried chicken.
Your “friends”-–all excellent home cooks--will be persnickety, so you have to get it right, especially if you’re a Johnny-come-lately who didn’t learn how to make perfect fried chicken standing at her Mama’s elbow. The meat must be succulent, enveloped in rich, crispy, golden brown skin, fried but lightly so, with just enough grease to make you whimper with pleasure as you’re devouring your third piece. And you’d do well have a little twist—a mystery ingredient--that makes your chicken different from your neighbor’s.
I’ve been told that I make great fried chicken and I owe it all to Salli. It started one foggy morning in Nantucket, when my children and I were curled up in bed watching a fried chicken cook-off between Martha Stewart and her friend Salli LaGrone. Martha’s dark mahogany-colored chicken, which had soaked overnight in buttermilk and was dusted with cayenne-spiked flour, reposed magnificently on a platter, garnering lavish praise--while Salli’s plate of fried fowl was almost licked clean by a hungry crew who couldn’t wolf it down it fast enough. (Go here to see Salli’s original recipe.)
One of Salli’s secrets is a pinch of cinnamon added to the flour in which the chicken is coated. Over the years, I’ve gradually increased the pinch to a scant teaspoon. I love the way cinnamon’s sweetness coaxes out the natural flavor of the chicken, while its astringent edge contrasts pleasingly with the luscious fried skin. One other change I’ve made is substituting peanut oil for the shortening, which I dislike on principle. Peanut oil is great for frying and gives the chicken a tasty flavor. I’ve developed my own timetable for turning the chicken as it cooks, but these are minor tweaks to a truly stellar recipe.
One shouldn’t fiddle with success, but last week I added a teaspoonful of ras-el-hanout, the robust Moroccan spice blend that works so well with chicken cooked in a tagine, to the flour. It too contains cinnamon, but also black pepper, nutmeg, mace, allspice, ginger and turmeric. The results were subtly different, the chicken even more devilishly delicious than usual. “Your best ever,” said my husband, reaching for a forbidden fourth piece.
Now that’s my secret for great fried chicken.
Recipe: Southern Fried Chicken with Moroccan Spices
(adapted from Salli’s Fried Chicken on Martha Stewart Living)
3/12 to 4 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Salt to taste
1-3/4 cups flour
1 scant teaspoon cinnamon
1 scant teaspoon ras-el-hanout (see note)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
Lemon wedges (optional)
Siracha or other hot sauce (optional) (see note)
Cast iron frying pan
Deep frying thermometer
1. In the refrigerator, soak the chicken overnight in a bowl of cold water covered with plastic.
2. When you are ready to cook, pat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt to taste. If the breasts are large, cut them in half with kitchen shears.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, ras el hanout and black pepper. Dip each piece of chicken into the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Let the flour dry for 15 minutes. Pour the buttermilk into a large bowl and set aside.
4. In the meantime, pour about 1 inch of peanut oil into a cast iron frying pan and turn the heat to high. When the oil reaches 350 degrees on a deep frying thermometer, adjust the heat to maintain that temperature.
5. Dip half of the chicken pieces in the buttermilk and then into the bowl of flour, shaking off the excess. Carefully place them in the hot oil, skin side down, using tongs if necessary. Fry the chicken until it is light golden brown, turning frequently.
6. Place the chicken skin side down, cover the pan and turn the heat to low. Cook the chicken for 6 minutes, then turn and cook, covered, for another 6 minutes. Remove the top and turn the heat to high. Cook the chicken until it is crispy, about 2 minutes, then turn and cook until the other side is crisp, about 1 minute.
7. Remove the chicken from the pan and drain on several layers of paper towel. Place them on a baking sheet in a 250-degree oven to keep them warm.
8. Repeat steps 5-7 with the remaining chicken. Be sure to bring the temperature of the oil back to 350 degrees before putting the second batch of chicken in the pan.
9. Serve the chicken on a platter with wedges of lemon and small bowls of siracha, the Vietnamese hot sauce, if desired. I like to accompany it with a bowl of cole slaw made from red and green cabbage dressed with a white balsamic vinaigrette.
Note: I made Kitty Morse’s recipe for ras el hanout. You can also buy good ready-made versions from www.chefshop.com and www.herbies.com.au. Siracha, the fiery Vietnamese hot sauce, can be found at most Asian markets.