A Fried Chicken Research Department Update
I recently spent several days deep in fried chicken R&D for a consulting project and thought I would share a few insights that might be actionable for home use. This recipe development work was for a restaurant with a fryer, so home cooking will require a little adaptation. The fundamentals are solid and transferable though, and fried chicken is about technique anyway. Rather than give specific recipes we should summarize points of controversy and their possible solutions. #1 To brine or not to brine While doing field research (ahem) I was surprised by the amount of unbrined chicken being fried. Why? I see two fundamental problems with brining (which are also triumphs) at work. Problem #1 is that brining is brining, and it does create the famed brined texture which is not a pure one. It is not clean and metaphysically true. Brining means admitting the existence of sin. In order to get the proteins to do what you want and hold moisture you will inevitably get some quantity of that steamed cardboard brined chicken character. Careful sous vide then chilling and breading might be a way around this, but that was not an option for this particular kitchen or price point. Brining is not about meat-and-fire sensual immediacy, but we must choose priorities. Problem #2 is more important to me. By holding more moisture within the chicken you create more difficulty in getting a crisp crust to adhere to a steaming, moist mass. The chicken will essentially steam within its shell near the crust interface due to a higher heat gradient. Unbrined chicken demonstrably holds its crust much tighter. Now, there are fancy starches derived from corn that can do all sorts of magical things, including acting as a technological batter-binder, but we also decided not to pursue specialty ingredients here.
Intermediate solution - buttermilk brine and hold. Unless you are using an extremely acidic buttermilk you can hold the chicken in the buttermilk indefinitely provided the weight of the chicken exceeds the buttermilk. That is to say if you use one quart of buttermilk, which weighs approximately two pounds, put in over two pounds of chicken, ideally three. Dissolve 4 tsp. blue box kosher salt (5 1/2 tsp. if using red box diamond, slightly under 3 tsp. if using regular table salt due to different crystal shapes and volume displacement of the types) in the buttermilk, giving you a two-pronged strategy that both enzymatically tenderizes and brines at the same time. A rough sodium percentage is 2% of the total weight. Leave chicken in buttermilk overnight and up to 5 days. Voila. Note - you still have not added any flavor - so make a kick-ass spice mixture to blend with the buttermilk, equalling FLAVOR.
Failure of crust adhesion due to brining #2 Frying temperature A 12 oz. monster random industrial breast takes about 9 minutes at 300F with a 1.5" thick upper lobe. 7 minutes if halved laterally. A 6 ounce whole breast should be just right at 7 minutes (you should be frying thighs anyway of course). This assumes you have a deep fryer and any temperature loss from a cold breast going into hot oil is negligible. If you are shallow frying at home in an inch of oil your temperature drop will be significant and could lead to crust failure. In a fryer you are closer to suspended animation ideally, which is one reason why pan-frying can be challenging. Do everything possible to maintain steady temperature. And remember that poultry can overcook, but also remember that there will be some carry-over cooking from the hot oil. Let the chicken rest on a rack or in a warm oven (convection is even better) for a minute to carry over from pink to just cooked 165F. 350F overcooked the crust. #3 How to bread What to use is the big question? Traditional deep frying often uses AP flour, then egg, then crumb - like a chicken strip. Egg wash was too heavy and not crisp enough. It is out. I worked with rice, cornstarch, potato, corn flour, and a few others. With fine flours a gummy layer appears between the crust and the moist brined chicken. Panko can be added to flour to create a more jagged and crisp effect but does not help adhesion. Potato starch increased holding time by creating a harder crust but seemed to increase gumminess at the interface. Rice just wasn't right, though it can be great for other things, like shallot frizzles. There are pricey manipulated starches that the fast food chains use (like Batterbind) but that is very specialized. What to do, what to do... Solution - do nothing, for you have already exceeded expectations. This is why I fully endorse the buttermilk method outlined above in #1. Here are the steps. Remove chicken from from butermilk. Squeegee it mostly dry with your other hand. Then put mostly dry chicken into your crust mix. Coat surface and shake off excess flour. Then redip chicken into buttermilk mixture which will cling aggressively to the flour coat. And then dip back into the breading mix being sure to get solid adhesion. In effect you have doubled both the buttermilk (layer 1 and 3) and the flour (layer 2 and 4). Bonus - to get extra craggy texture sprinkle a few tablespoons buttermilk into the flour mixture and work in to make a shaggy mass. That shag is extra crunch. Fry away. #4 What to use for breading This was the largest challenge that ended in a very anticlimactic "oh yeah" moment. As mentioned above some Panko can be mixed in without attracting too much attention and holding more crunch. But, all of the flours I tried had a clear shortcoming, leading me back to regular wheat flour and lower gluten pastry flour. It was still not right though. Solution - Wondra. Stupid Wondra flour. Why? There are two reasons. First, look at that large, granular grain on the Wondra. Now that is fry friendly. More importantly Wondra is a pre-gelatinized starch with low protein. It has already been cooked once reducing the gumminess and increasing the crisp love. It adheres to the chicken tightly. Bonus - add a little seasoning to it, avoiding garlic powder which will burn. No point in having awesome chicken and forgetting the final flavor layer. Since this was a basic operation I put together my own faux-KFC spice blend, making sure it wouldn't burn, and suddenly there it was. Fried chicken is a technique sport, and there are a lot of flavor directions that can be taken with such a blank canvas. I might put up a recipe or two later but I swear that buttermilk, Wondra, and temperature control are the key to a basic approach. This particular recipe survived two more owners of the spot I discovered later, and was the most common Yelp mention. Of course, if you live in Oakland you know that there is a fried chicken sandwich every 200 feet, some certainly better than mine. By the way, I doubt any of this information is my discovery so I make no claims to pioneering anything. I just put in a little time to affirm what those smarter than myself already know.