A Fried Chicken Conundrum
Deep-fried drumsticks and thighs glistening just after their turn in the hot oil
I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit like a traitor when I made this fried chicken dish.
Growing up, I loved my mum’s fried chicken. In fact, I worshiped it. To me, there was no comparison. Mum made two versions of fried chicken: one, we called ayam goreng kuning (yellow fried chicken) that was tinged with turmeric, and ayam goreng manis (sweet fried chicken), which was made with palm sugar. Both were braised in a rich array of spices before being deep fried to a crisp.
I always ate both fried chickens with my fingers, and still do to this day. Licking the juices and spices off my fingers at the end of the meal was part of the sublime experience. I would tear away some succulent flesh from the bone and scoop it up with a handful of rice. I loved the meeting of crispy skin and fluffy, white rice in my mouth, as well as the taste and texture of the fried bumbu (or seasoning) bits that added flavor and crunch to each bite.
Yes, my mum’s fried chickens were the end-all and be-all until … I discovered Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken.
I was longing for fried chicken but didn’t want to attempt my mum’s long and laborious recipes so I did what everyone does nowadays. I sent a request out to the Twitter universe, asking for easy yet tasty fried chicken recipes. Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl fame came to my rescue and suggested I try this recipe.
The recipe didn’t require any pounding of spices and while there’s no instant gratification (the whole process took about 24 hours), most of the prep time was taken up by passive brining and soaking. It seemed pretty simple to me, and simple was what I was looking for. I also got to try my hand at deep frying with lard, which I’ve not attempted before.
Fluffy, white-as-clouds lard sizzling in my Staub with butter
The resulting chicken had tasty, tender, and juicy meat (because I used only dark meat, it was all the more luscious) and a crusty coating that fell apart as I crunched into it. As my husband and I sat there enjoying our meal in silence, I consoled myself that Southern fried chicken was worlds apart from Indonesian fried chicken and there was still no comparison to mum’s.
I have to admit though, that the flavor of the lard was a little overpowering and next time, I’ll try using a combo of butter and cooking oil instead. There is a limit to how much my arteries can take after all.
Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken
Adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking”
This recipe blends the authors’ best chicken-frying tips from Virginia and Alabama. The chicken is soaked twice: first in brine, Alabama-style, and then in buttermilk. The brine helps the flesh retain moisture and season it all the way through; the buttermilk adds a tangy flavor and helps tenderize it. The Virginia-style frying fat originally includes country ham but I figured the lard and sweet butter would make the chicken rich-tasting enough. I couldn’t help but embellish the recipe with a couple of Asian twists by using soy sauce to inject some rich umami into the brine and tapioca starch instead of cornstarch in the dredge.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours, plus 24 hours or more for brining
3 tablespoons sea or kosher salt (don’t use table salt for brining as the iodide will discolor)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1 quart cold water
3 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks
1 to 2 cups buttermilk
1 pound lard
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Make the brine: In a large nonreactive bowl or pot, stir the sea salt and sugar into the cold water until dissolved. Add the chicken, making sure the brine covers the pieces completely. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.
Drain the brined chicken and rinse out the bowl it was brined in. Return the chicken to the bowl, and pour enough buttermilk over to cover. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Drain the chicken on a wire rack, discarding the buttermilk.
Prepare the fat for frying by combining the lard and butter in a wok or large cast iron pot (my 2 liter Staub pot worked beautifully). Cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, skimming as needed, until the butter ceases to throw off foam.
Just before frying, increase the temperature to medium-high and heat the fat to 335 degrees F. Prepare the dredge by blending together the flour, tapioca starch, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Dredge the drained chicken pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, then pat well to remove all excess flour.
Prepare a plate covered with crumpled paper towels or a wire rack to drain the fried chicken.
Using tongs, slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. Do not overcrowd the pan or the cooking fat will cool. Fry in batches, if necessary. Regulate the fat so it just bubbles, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels, and serve with mashed potatoes and braised greens.
Some useful tips for frying chicken from the book:
-Be sure to pat off all excess dredge.
-Drain the chicken well on crumpled-up—not flat—paper towels or a wire rack.