Buttermilk Brined Fried Chicken

 
Buttermilk Brined Southern Fried Chicken
Hoe Hop Valley Farm’s Chicken brined & battered in Cruze Farm’s buttermilk
 
In the south, fried chicken is like religion, and like religion everyone believes that their way is The One True Way. When Patrick requested it for his birthday I felt a twinge of terror. I’d never fried chicken before. I’d never deep fried anything before. So I did research, a lot of research. I read about fried chicken for days. And it seems I’m no different than everyone else because I have emerged from my chicken meditations, and I’m here to tell you that I have found the One True Fried Chicken. May it keep us always.
 
Speaking of chicken and religion, when my mother called to ask how the party went, she told me she actually prayed for my fried chicken to turn out well. Well, evidently the God of Chicken & Biscuits (a very prominent deity in this part of the country) heard her, because this is momma slappin’ chicken. That is to say it’s chicken that “tastes so good, it makes you wanna slap yo momma”. I give you Urban Dictionary’s break down for your edification:

1. Tastes so good, it makes you wanna slap yo momma 

When you try some new food that tastes so delicious it makes you wonder “why can’t my mom cook this well?”. This thought makes you so angry that you feel like slapping your mom for feeding you mediocre food…

Kid 1: Yo dawg, I’m tired of eatin’ at home. My momma feeds me the same ol’ grilled cheese sandwich for lunch every-damn-day. 
Kid 2: Don’t sweat it home slice. Why don’t you come on over to ma crib after school? I’ll make you to best PB & J sandwich you’ve eva tasted. Tastes so good, make you wanna slap yo momma! 
Kid 1: Yeaaah boii!!

Uh-huh. That good. The thing is, I thought I could never achieve my ideal fried chicken, and I’ve had a very particular ideal for a long time: Lamar’s fried chicken. Lamar’s Bar & Restaurant, with a seedy pay by the hour motel in the back, is Chattanooga’s (perhaps self-proclaimed) “favorite place after dark” and a veritable temple of soul. You enter Lamar’s up a flight of stairs beneath a striped awning, walk through the front room with its (usually unoccupied) booths down a darkened hallway lit by the green glow of a 50 gallon fish tank and into the “Chrystal Lounge”. You’ll usually find Gerald behind the bar in a tux, mixing drinks and polishing glasses. Curt, efficient, and skilled, he mixes the best (and stiffest) drinks in town. The lounge is dimly lit by flickering candles & colored Christmas lights and is shrouded in velvet wallpaper. The purist jukebox in the corner contains nothing but jazz, blues, soul, and R&B. This is a place that exists outside of space-time, untouched by the cheap, aseptic commercialization that has mostly wiped out the fine tradition of the dive bar. And when you go, there is no point in ordering anything other than the fried chicken which is served up late into the night.

Always piping hot, succulent, and intensely flavorful (the meat as well as the breading), theirs is the only fried chicken in the world I’ve ever really cared for. I can honestly say I’ve never had fried chicken that was as juicy, tender, and well seasoned. And I lived a block from the famous Dunbar’s in New Orleans. And I’ve had fried chicken at Ad Hoc. Don’t get me wrong Dunbar’s was fantastic, and Ad Hoc’s fried chicken was delicious. The evening I ate at Ad Hoc I even saw the man himself, Chef Thomas Keller, walk through the dining room in a Giant’s baseball cap. I felt like a teenage girl in the 70’s catching a glimpse of David Cassidy. But still, neither experience lived up to Lamar’s. Maybe, I worried, Lamar’s fried chicken can’t exist outside the Chrystal Lounge. Maybe jazz, velvet wall paper, Christmas lights, and life ruining white Russians are essential ingredients in their fried chicken. Maybe you have to be young, drunk, and in the dark for fried chicken to taste that good. And if Dunbar’s & Keller couldn’t satisfy me, how could I ever hope to?

Buttermilk Brined Southern Fried Chicken

Yeaaah boii!!

Well it turns out, thank the God of Chicken & Biscuits, that I could. I’m not claiming this is a replica of their chicken, only that I like it just as much. I knew for sure I was going to brine my chicken. But I also knew I wanted the chicken to sit in a “buttermilk bath”. So why not just create a buttermilk brine, I wondered? Most recipes I read used one or the other. Well, at first I feared that the dual action of the acid, enzymes, and calcium in the buttermilk along with the tenderizing effects of salt penetrating the meat via osmosis would render my meat mushy. So I kept reading.

It seemed that, while less common than you would think, people do brine their chicken in buttermilk and it doesn’t make it mushy. So, I was set. I consulted Keller’s recipe and created a brine using his approximate ratios for liquid, salt, and honey with my own flavorings, and after reading his recipe along with countless others I decided I would also “dredge, dip, dredge” in flour and buttermilk prior to deep frying at around 325° F in an enameled cast iron dutch oven. I’d also read that baking powder and cornstarch in your dredging flour led to an extra crispy coating, and that nutmeg was cited as a “secret ingredient”. I love nutmeg, so I was sold on that idea, and I decided to use unbleached all-purpose flour plus a teaspoon of baking powder and a tablespoon of cornstarch per cup as my dredging base. Lastly, I’d read in The Pioneer Woman’s recipe and in others that mixing the final dredging flour with a bit of buttermilk till “shaggy” led to a nice coating on the chicken.  I found this naturally occurred in the second dredging dish as I dredge, dipped in buttermilk, and dredged again. I think when doing so much chicken (I did a double recipe) it would have gotten too clumpy if I’d added buttermilk beforehand. I might add a tablespoon or two if I were doing less.

Because I was cooking a double recipe for a group and also due to the fact that I had rather large chickens that I’d gotten from Hoe Hop Valley Farm at the Main Street market, I knew I wanted to hold and/or finish my chicken in the oven. I was worried this would result in a soggy exterior. It did not. I will say that detail is not my ideal. Ideally the chicken would be cooked through in the oil, rest on a rack over paper towels for about ten minutes and be served immediately thereafter. But on this point I had to compromise. Michael Ruhlman said it was okay, so obviously it’s okay. The Pioneer Woman, Ree, also says it’s okay. The benefit of finishing in the oven is that you can pull your chicken out of the oil at its golden peak and then finish it without having to worry about overcooking the exterior or undercooking the interior. Also, there’s the obvious benefit of being able to serve it when you want and keep 16 pieces of fried chicken hot. So, conceptually I had in my head the blueprints for perfect buttermilk brined fried chicken for a crowd. But as you know, cooking is something learned by doing and all the reading in the world can’t guarantee a successful result. You just have to do it and use your intuition & five senses along the way.

When I wrote about my first layer cake experiment, I mentioned that I, up until this year, had a pension for celebrating birthdays with “death knells and banshee wails” not things like cake baking & dinner parties. That wasn’t to imply that birthdays bothered me, that aging was some terrible fate that I lamented. I was feeling far too youthfully immortal to concern myself with the inevitable march of time. Instead it was to say that my particular brand of celebration was a brutally wild sort. Now things are different, more civilized. It’s a novel, calm reality that has settled on me softly this past year like waking up in your own bed after a terrifying dream. In contrast to years past, we celebrated his 26th with a small dinner party of his closest friends replete with tea lights in mason jars, tiny vases of Crayola colored flowers, and a large pitcher of hibiscus honey iced tea. As per his request I made buttermilk biscuits, potlikker kale, and a salad of vine ripened local tomatoes with Bonnie Blue herbed goat cheese, basil from my porch garden, and fleur de sel. For dessert he requested bittersweet spicy chocolate soufflé (better and far easier than cake for me!) with homemade Lapsang Souchong ice cream. And, of course, there was buttermilk fried chicken.

mason jar tea lights & flowers centerpiece

tin of dream buttermilk biscuits

all natural buttermilk “dream biscuits” in my grandmother’s biscuit cloth

vine ripened tomatoes from the Thursday market on Signal Mountain with Bonnie Blue herbed goat cheese & fresh basil

mason jar candles tea lights table setting

His birthday gift (other than fried chicken!): 3 chocolate bars and a vintage Oxford English Dictionary (not pictured) with it’s original magnifying glass
 
 
Buttermilk Brined Southern Fried Chicken

 

milk bottle bouquet

Buttermilk Brined Fried Chicken

Print Recipe
Course Main Course
Keyword buttermilk, chicken, southern fried
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 8 pieces of chicken I cut up whole chickens from Hoe Hop Valley farm, and used the breasts, legs, and thighs. I also cut the breasts in half horizontally because they were large

Brine

  • 1 quart buttermilk I used Cruze Farm’s, if you can get it, I recommend it
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/8 cup kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
  • 1 Tbsp Frank’s Hot Sauce or other vinegar based hot sauce
  • 1 Tbsp Sriracha hot sauce
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • cayenne or hot Hungarian paprika to taste optional
  • a few sprigs of thyme optional

Coating

  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp Tony Chachere’s
  • 1-2 tsp kosher salt to taste
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • oil for frying you need enough to come about 1/3 of the way up the pot or 2 inches
  • {note: I have used both vegetable and canola oil successfully}
  • kosher salt for sprinkling

Instructions

For the brine:

  • Combine all the ingredients for the brine except buttermilk in a small pot and heat over medium, dissolving all the salt and honey. Remove from heat and cool by adding ice cubes and stirring. In a large mixing bowl combine buttermilk and cooled seasoned water. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Divide all pieces of chicken between two large ziplock bags. Pour half of buttermilk brine in each, close, and place in the refrigerator over night, up to 12 hours. I have left them in there longer, 14-15 hours, with no ill effects. {note: I have also halved the brine recipe and used one large ziplock for 8 pieces of chicken and it worked out well, a good way to save.}
  • 1-2 hours before you are ready to fry: Rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry. Let the chicken come to room temperature, half an hour to one and a half hours, on a parchment lined baking sheet covered with paper towels.
  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • Mix all of the ingredients for the coating together in a large bowl, transferring half to a second bowl. {note: The measurements given for seasonings here are approximate. I season my flour to taste. Yes, I taste the raw flour. It should taste salty & flavorful.} Fill a third bowl with the 2 cups of buttermilk. The easiest way to coat the chicken is to have a line set up: uncoated chicken, flour coating, buttermilk, 2nd bowl of flour coating, wax paper lined baking sheet for the coated chicken.
  • Pour the oil into your pot (preferably cast iron enamel like Le Crueset). It should come at least two inches and no more than 1/3 of the way up the side of the pot. Turn the heat to low, clipping a frying/candy thermometer to the side of your pot.
  • Dredge each piece in the coating, dust off all excess, dip into the buttermilk, and then into the second bowl of coating, letting the 2nd coating be clumpier but still patting to get rid of excess that might fall off in the oil. Place coated chicken on the wax paper lined tray.
  • Turn the oil up to high and let it come to about 350° F. Let the coated chicken sit so that the coating will thicken while the oil gets hot. When it reaches temperature, very carefully place 4 pieces of chicken at a time in the hot oil and fry, adjusting the temperature as needed to maintain a frying temperature between 310° -325° F. I try to keep it around 320°. You start the oil at 350° because when you add the chicken to the hot oil, the temperature will drop. Fry dark meat first, as it takes longer. Fry the chicken for about 13-20 minutes, moving the chicken gently (you don’t want to knock the coating off!) after the first five to prevent sticking and burning on the bottom. Be careful to monitor your chicken, watching the oil temperature closely and not letting the chicken get too dark.
  • Remove chicken from the oil with a spider or slotted metal spoon when it is golden brown (metal tongs will knock off your precious coating), and place it on a cooling rack over a paper towel lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Check the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer. Fully cooked chicken will read 160 degrees and can be served then if desired. If it is lower than that, it must be finished in the oven. Fry the second batch and then place it on the rack. Place the rack in the oven for ten minutes. Check the internal temperature to make sure the chicken is cooked through, let rest 10 minutes, and serve hot. If all the chicken is cooked through and you want to keep it hot, you can hold it in a 250 degree oven.

Serving suggestions:

  • hot sauce, honey, jams, biscuits, and waffles are all great friends of fried chicken! Slow cooked greens, green beans, and mashed potatoes all make great sides.
  • The buttermilk “Dream Biscuit” recipe can be found here,, where they are called “All Natural Sky High Biscuit Adaptation, a.k.a. Darth Vader Biscuits”. They are called such because I believe I’m the Darth Vader to the Biscuits Lady’s (of the Big Biscuit Barn in Ft. Oglethorpe, GA) Obi Wan Kenobi. Now, I am the master. My mom prefers to call them dream biscuits because they remind her of her mother’s. You can call them what you like, but they’re some of the best biscuits you’ll ever make.
  • As for the recipes for the potlikker greens, spicy chocolate soufflés, and ice cream…. they will be posted in the future!