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Let's Make An Enormous Mess, And Also Some Incredible Fried Chicken

Illustration by Sam Woolley

Generally speaking, there are three common reasons to make something at home that you could otherwise easily have made for you by someone else: because it is cheaper; because it is more convenient; and because you can turn the thing you’re making into the gravy-soaked, caramel-coated, cheese-laden monstrosity you’ve always imagined.

Occasionally there is a fourth reason too, but it’s not all that common: because the thing you are going to make will be better and more delicious for having been made fresh in the manner that things are made at home, with zero modifications aimed at improving the thing’s storability or prolonging its edibility. Like, buying a tomato is incredibly easy. Growing a tomato is also easy, but hundreds of times more complicated than buying one. But! The homegrown tomato will be hundreds and hundreds of times better and more delicious than the store bought one, every single time.


That is why we are going to make fried chicken. All fried chicken is delicious. Homemade fried chicken is much, much, much more delicious than all other fried chicken. So much better, in fact, that it is worth all the effort, which, I’m afraid, will be substantial. Let’s jump right in.

Here’s what you’ll need: some chicken parts; some buttermilk; some all-purpose flour; some cornstarch; some cayenne pepper; some smoked paprika; some salt; some cooking oil.

Look. We aren’t just here to make fried chicken. I want you to trust me when I say that this is going to be an awful lot better than virtually all of the fried chicken you have ever eaten. I wouldn’t get you involved in this sort of thing if I didn’t believe that to be true in a firm, evidence-based, non-Trumpian sort of way. The end result of this project is going to be really totally worth it.

I say that because, man, there’s a fair chance your kitchen is going to look like Slimer went nuts on a bag of flour when all is said and done. And the cleaning of sprays and spatters and dustings of oil and flour—from walls and stove burners and the backsplash and the floor and the ceiling and from the dog and the cat, and from your hair and fingernails and shoes and blistered forearms—is a hateful, miserable assignment, far worse than actual death. This is why frying chicken is often left to people who do this shit professionally, in industrial kitchens. The potential for a truly epic post-cooking cleanup project is significant.


And so another part of our task, today, is to do this in a way that will mostly spare you from this fate. At the end of this we should have accomplished a pile of kick-ass fried chicken worthy of all the effort, and a kitchen that doesn’t need to be razed and salted and scrubbed from memory at the end. That’s it.

So, we’re gonna need some chicken. A certain kind of chicken dingus is going to bleat about the superiority of dense, hearty white meat. A certain other kind of chicken dingus is going to huff about the richness of fatty dark meat. All chicken dinguses are going to raise hell about bone-in, skin-on chicken parts, because fried chicken skin is one of life’s great pleasures, and you will have no luck finding boneless chicken parts that are not also skinless.


You should know going in that most chicken parts are good for frying. The white meat parts and the dark meat parts and the sinewy parts and, yes, even the boneless, skinless parts. And we know this because all parts of the chicken are routinely fried and eaten by smart people who know what is good—boneless, skinless cutlets are fried and used in chicken piccata and chicken parm without any chicken dinguses batting an eyelid. This is because fried chicken is good, even when it runs afoul of some hyper-specific, personalized fried chicken ideal.

So! We are going to base our selection of chicken parts entirely on what makes the most sense for frying, so that our fried chicken is as close to perfect as is possible. Toward that end, we are going to eliminate straightaway the bone-in, skin-on chicken breast. One of the consistent failures of buckets of fried chicken is keeping the white meat from drying out, and this is because the meat of the bone-in, skin-on chicken breast has a totally uneven conical shape, making even cooking basically impossible, especially during the super-intense cooking that takes place in a pot of boiling oil.


But let’s say you’re the kind of weenie who must eat white meat. That’s fine! We’ve got a solution for you. No, you are mewing, in fact I am the kind of weenie who must eat bone-in, skin-on chicken parts. That is also fine—we have solutions for all weenies. If you are the sort of weenie who must eat white meat, get some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or some cutlets or tenderloins. And if you are the sort of weenie who must eat chicken skin, get yourself some chicken thighs. Skin-on thighs are better than skin-on breasts under all circumstances, and never more so than when frying—thighs have a mostly even shape and thickness, and because of their internal fat content, will hold up better against the assault of hot oil.

Here’s what I recommend: get a couple boneless, skinless breasts; get a couple bone-in, skin-on thighs; and get a couple boneless, skinless thighs. There’s a good chance you will like one of these things more than the rest, but they will all be good, and, anyway, this will be how you will learn which one you like best.


The thighs, because they’re rich with fat and dark magic, will require absolutely zero prep work before they get breaded and fried, but the breasts for sure need some attention. White meat cooks fast, and is finished at a lower temperature, and so the margin between perfectly cooked and terribly overcooked is narrow as hell. And frying is an intense enough process that even well-cooked white meat chicken stands a good chance of being dry. We’re gonna take some wisdom from the Italians, here, and treat our chicken breasts as we would for, say, Chicken Parmigiana. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and grab a warhammer and pound the fuckers into shape.

A clean way to do this is to drop a breast into a freezer bag, lay it onto your cutting board, and gently hammer away at it with, you know, a mallet, until its thickness is as close to perfectly even as you can manage. A slightly less clean way to do this is to drop the breast directly onto your cutting board, lay a sheet of plastic wrap over it, and give it the mallet treatment. A totally not clean at all but still fine way of doing this is to just drop it onto your cutting board and hammer it into shape. There is an advantage to doing it this way: you can use a tenderizer mallet—one of the ones with little spikes on its face—and not worry about puncturing plastic wrap and pounding little pieces of plastic into your chicken. The spikes will help do what tenderizing is supposed to do: break down the chicken’s fibers, so that the finished product resists your teeth a little less, which, after all, is what is meant when people describe food as “tender.”


However you choose to do it, use a tenderizer mallet or a CLEAN regular mallet or something reasonably flat and heavy that is not a dictionary to flatten and tenderize your chicken breasts. This should take, like, one minute per breast, and most of your pounding should be done on the top, non-cut side of the breast, where the fibers are thicker and tougher. If your chicken breasts wind up being, like, half an inch thick, that’s great. If, when you’ve finished pounding them, you can read the newspaper through them, that’s less great.

In addition to gently tenderizing the white meat, we’re going to subject all of the chicken to a relatively brief buttermilk brining. This will mostly not do much to the internal structure of the dark meat, and it will mostly not do much to the internal structure of the tenderized white meat. Partly this is because we already pounded the hell out of the white meat, and partly this is because we’re not gonna brine it long enough for the acid to break down the meat. What it will do, though, is soak into the meat a little and flavor it, and also coat the meat, giving the finished product a better flavor and a much better texture. Drop your chicken parts into a deep bowl or pot and cover them with buttermilk, then sock the bowl away in your fridge for, say, 90 minutes. 90 minutes is a really quick brining, but I promise it will make a very positive difference.


While your chicken is brining, now would be a good time to assemble your breading mixture, and get your oil going. Before you do that, stand in the middle of your kitchen and take a moment to appreciate its relative cleanliness in this final moment before you cast it at least into purgatory, if not hell. Decide now—right now!—whether you are going to work to preserve this state of cleanliness, or whether you are going to accept chaos and deal with it later, possibly by packing a few things into a knapsack and walking away from your home forever. If the flame of defiance burns in your heart, cool. If not, also cool. Either way, you will finish this project with a pile of really good fried chicken, and possibly a new life on the rails.

Frying in oil without ruining your arms and your stovetop and your home will require an appropriate vessel. I basically use my deepest, heaviest pot. In general, this means I will be using more oil than I would in a more modest vessel, but it also means virtually all the oil action will take place inside the vessel, including any unexpected spatters or splashes of scalding oil that would otherwise find their way to my arms and neck and send me into a blind, white-hot rage, if not the emergency room.


As for oil, you’re going to need to use something with a high smoke point, like canola oil or sunflower oil or peanut oil, and you’re gonna need to buy one of those big, detergent-sized bottles. These oils all have different aromas and flavors, but this should be minimally important to our finished product, because, if we do this at the right temperature, the heat of the oil will go to work on the breading and the exterior of the chicken fast enough that no oil is absorbed by the actual chicken, and so you taste very little of it, and mostly experience it as a pleasant, mild unctuousness. Having said all of that, peanut oil is sort of a classic choice, and certainly has the most appealing flavor and aroma characteristics, if you happen to enjoy peanuts.

Haul out your deepest, heaviest pot, pour three or four inches of peanut or canola oil into it, and set it over medium high heat. While that’s heating up, let’s assemble some breading. We’re going to combine two starches, here: cornstarch and all-purpose flour. In my experience, cornstarch makes a crispier crust. They say that this is because cornstarch will not form gluten as it gets wet and fries, which, sure, whatever you say, science. It makes a crunchy, crispy crust. But! It also makes a thin, crumbly crust, whereas the gluten content of all-purpose flour makes a more substantial crust.


And since what we want is a crust that is thick and decadent but also crunchy and fun, we’re gonna mix the two. In a big cake pan or baking dish or a goddamn wheelbarrow, mix together a big handful-sized pile of all-purpose flour and a big handful-sized pile of cornstarch. Please do not do this on a plate or in a shallow bowl. I am warning you. You are going to have an incredibly hard time keeping this breading mixture from turning your kitchen into Tony Montana’s desk at the end of Scarface, even without dumping it onto a flat surface lacking the depth to even hope to contain it.

We’re not gonna bother salting the dry breading mixture—are you gonna be the person to taste-test dry flour for appropriate saltiness?—but we are gonna add some flavor stuff. Drop fat pinches of cayenne and smoked paprika into your flour and stir them in there with a fork. This won’t be enough to make the chicken spicy, but it’ll give it just that tiny little capsaicin note that wakes up your mouth, and the smoked paprika will, you know, make it a little smoky, which is good. If this doesn’t sound like your bag, skip it. My wife likes to add dry mustard and granulated onion. There’s no harm in trying different shit, here, so long as you’re not adding, like, cinnamon and brown sugar. Shit man, don’t you eat anything without cinnamon and brown sugar?


Now that your flour mixture is ready, let’s prep your work space. Line a big plate or a cookie sheet with paper towels and set it on your counter or stovetop not more than a couple inches away from the oil pot. Now, set your breading mixture not more than a couple inches from the other side of the pot. You see where this is going? Haul the brining chicken bowl out of the fridge and set it not more than a couple inches to the side of the breading mixture, so that you have a neat little assembly line that goes brine bowl to breading to oil to paper towel-lined plate. We’re going to go in exactly that order, and we want everything reasonably close together to minimize the opportunities for buttermilk or breading or oil to find surfaces other than those directly involved in the process. Have your salt shaker close by. Also, hang a kitchen towel or rag from your oven handle, or a cabinet handle, or somewhere within arm’s reach. And, finally, tear off two paper towels, get them damp, and set them on the counter next to the bowl of buttermilk and chicken parts.

Meanwhile, your oil is heating. What we’re aiming for is around 325 to 350 degrees, but anywhere in that range or just north of there will be fine. If you’re using canola oil, the smoke point is around 400 degrees, which is too high for good frying. But! Your oil is going to drop temperature precipitously once chicken is dropped in there, and so you could, in theory, wait until the very first wisps of smoke rise from the surface of your canola oil, drop a couple white meat chicken parts in there right away, and let it rip. I have done this, and it is dicey. I don’t recommend it. The danger is in losing track of the oil, and turning around and finding that smoke is billowing out of it. For the love of god, do not drop anything in the oil if this happens. Just carefully move the oil off the heat, turn off the range, and stand there breathing heavily while your heart rate falls back into the non-cardiac-arrest range.


Here’s what I like to do: hover over your oil as it heats, occasionally dipping a wooden spoon or chopstick into it and looking for little bubbles rising off the wood. This is a totally imprecise way of doing this, but it will keep you involved in the state of your oil. If you notice little bubbles, you are maybe getting close. A good thing to do here would be to drop, say, a pickle slice into the oil—you will know the oil is ready if the oil starts to boil right away around the pickle slice. Also, fried pickles are delicious.

OK. Time to bread and fry some chicken. Use a fork or tongs or ONE HAND to remove a piece of chicken from the buttermilk, let some of the buttermilk drip back into the bowl, then gently lay the chicken part down on top of the breading. The more gently you do this, the better you will preserve the breading mixture and the less cleanup you will have to do later, so take it easy, tough guy. Use ANOTHER FORK or YOUR OTHER HAND to scoop breading from around the chicken onto the top of the chicken, and then use THAT SAME FORK OR HAND to press this breading down into the top of the chicken. Chef types call this the wet-hand/dry-hand method, and it is how you will prevent your fingers from becoming useless cement-coated drumsticks as you cook. Now, use the dry hand to lift the chicken and gently flip it over in the mixture, then repeat the piling and pressing.


When the chicken is adequately and fully coated, use the dry hand or the dry fork or tongs to lift it from the mixture, gently shake off any loose breading, then very gently slide the chicken into the oil. Hey! You’re frying! Look at you. I like to give the chicken a couple minutes to fry in whatever attitude it takes upon rising to the surface of the oil, then flip it over so that both sides spend some time fully submerged in there. You’re gonna need to keep an eye on your heat—flattened, tenderized boneless white meat chicken probably needs, say, four or five minutes in the oil. If the breading is getting very brown before it’s spent at least that much time in there, you probably need to lower the heat. If it’s been in there for five minutes and it’s only a pale off-white color, you probably need to bump up the heat. While the chicken is in there, you’ve got a couple minutes to do two things: bread another piece of chicken and leave it in the breading plate, ready for frying; and wipe your fingers with the kitchen towel and quickly wipe the countertop with the wet paper towels where flour and buttermilk have inevitably sought freedom via the ruination of your home. Please do this.

A good general rule is to fry all the dark meat in one sequence, and all the white meat in another sequence. The dark meat needs more time in the oil, and so will for sure not stand up to heat that is much higher than the desired temperature. In the 325 to 350 range, your thighs are gonna need somewhere around eight to 12 minutes in there. I like to start with the thighs—I’ll drop one in there and immediately start adjusting the heat, and by the time the first thigh comes out, I’ve got a pretty good handle on the rhythm and timing and heat. Maybe, for the next batch, I’m comfortable doing two at a time, or even three.


At any rate, once the chicken has achieved a nice, rich brown color all over, carefully use tongs or a fry basket to gently haul it out of the oil and onto the paper towels. Now, right away, before it has a chance to cool, shake some salt onto it, so that the hot oil will absorb the salt and the salt won’t just lay on the surface, waiting to fall off, leaving you with oily salt on a paper towel and bland, flavorless fried chicken, and a great big empty hole in your heart.

If you started with a tenderized breast, there’s almost no chance it’s undercooked, but if you started with a thigh, maybe give it a minute or two to cool while your oil reheats, then cut into it. Is it cooked through? Awesome. No? Good lesson. You will need to work at a lower heat for the next one.


Proceed in this fashion with all the chicken parts: pull them directly from the buttermilk into the breading; use a dry hand or fork to pile and press breading onto and into it; shake the loose breading off; slide the breaded chicken into the oil; move the heat around to keep it in the sweet spot; turn the chicken once or twice to make sure it cooks evenly; haul it out of there and onto the paper towels when it’s done; salt it immediately. If you’re comfortable and have the space for doing this two at a time, you’ll be done in half an hour, and it will have been exhilarating and fun and before you know it you’ll be staring down a feast of golden fried chicken.

Which, hey, lookit, that’s it! That’s the whole deal, right there. When all the chicken is out of the buttermilk and has gone through the process and is now on the paper towels, turn off the heat, dump the buttermilk down the drain, toss the extra breading in the trash, and use the wet paper towels for one final wipe down of the countertop. Not too bad! What you’re left with is a big bowl and a cake pan to wash, and a cooling pot of perfectly biodegradable cooking oil (later you can sneak off into the night and dump the cooled oil on some poor unsuspecting pile of leaves). And, of course, a heaping pile of crispy, crunchy, moist, richly flavored, perfectly salted, brand new and screamingly fresh fried chicken. Take a bite.


The first thing you should notice is how crunchy the breading is, without being dense and dry, followed by how juicy and tender and hot the freshly cooked meat is, followed by the creamy transition layer between the meat and the breading, made of hot chicken juice and fat and buttermilk. Oh man, that is really fucking good. That’s just the beginning! There’s a whole pile of this stuff!

Here’s what you do: grab a potato roll, some dill pickle slices, some honey, and your favorite hot sauce. That’s all you’ll need for the very best fried chicken sandwich in the history of fried chicken sandwiches. And, hey, aren’t you glad you added some boneless, skinless chicken parts to your chickening? Can’t make a killer fried chicken sandwich with bones in there, no sir.


See, I told you it’s all good. Nice job.

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