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!!
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?
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.
Buttermilk Brined Southern Fried Chicken
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)
1 quart buttermilk (I used Cruze Farm’s, if you can get it, I recommend it)
As for the recipes for the potlikker greens, spicy chocolate soufflés, and ice cream…. they will be posted in the future!