December 31, 2013

Amendment To My Original Riff on the Fried Chicken Blog

Notes for  a future article

I have always liked fried chicken. Who in the South doesn’t? It goes double for Texas.

One of my earliest memories, when I would spend the summers with my grandparents in Shiner would be when we would go to one of the Sunday Czech/Catholic church picnics in the immediate area for fried chicken and picnic stew (Schuster’s stew or picnic stew is a whole ‘nuther story for another time). You see, in central Texas most of the Catholic churches do an annual fundraiser that includes a fried chicken dinner, bingo, and polka bands throughout the day. This tradition is still carried on to this day (more on this later).

Over the years, in my own personal preparation of fried chicken, I have defaulted to a classic double dip buttermilk batter recipe. And this is the one that shows up most often on the internet. It consists of placing the chicken pieces in a seasoned buttermilk bath (seasonings vary depending on the recipe) for around 2 to 4 hours (some recipes call for a longer time, as much as ‘overnight’ but a chef friend who has never misinformed me tells me that the acidity in the buttermilk can turn the chicken to mush if left in the buttermilk too long). Next, after draining all excess buttermilk, a quick dredge in seasoned flour, a return to the buttermilk and a second dredge in the flour before frying at 350 degrees F. My current ‘go to’ version to recommend to newbies is in Donald Link’s terrific book, “Real Cajun” (and be sure to try the German chocolate cake recipe in the same book).

A few years back (it was Easter week-end) my wife and I were on a road trip. We had been in La Grange to hear the great Tom Faulkner (“Lost in the Land of Texico”) perform the night before and were cruising the back roads, the farm to market roads between La Grange, Gonzales, Moulton, Moravia and Schulenberg to check out the bluebonnets. We ended up in Moulton around lunch time and spied a sign that announced a Knights of Columbus chicken dinner at the community center. We went and when I went to the back to see where they were frying the chicken, my jaw dropped. Lined up in rows were big cast iron kettles, probably over 100 years old, fed by propane burners, and they were being used to fry up more chicken than I’d ever seen in one place. I grabbed my camera and started snapping pictures (I was to learn later that these kettles are still used at most of the church picnics in the area).  We had such a good time that we went back to Moulton for their festival days later on in the year. It was this experience that got me interested in making road trips every few Sundays to a different small town for fried chicken. I learned that, when I was at one event, there were usually posters up for other town’s events in the area and by photographing these at each event I could put together a list to go to. (Also, there are a few places on the web that list the events but they often are not up to date. Good places to check are www.texasczechs.com/events; http://www.czechs.org/pages/toca01.html; www.festivalsoftexas.com, to name three).

If you are planning to only go to one or two, I would recommend the one in Praha, date of which the day varies each year as it is tied to a religious holiday but is always on August 15. And the St. John’s (between Flatonia and Schulenberg) one on July 4th. Or the Shiner festival on Sunday, Labor Day week-end.

Another must visit, although it’s kolaches and sausage (and more polka bands than you can imagine) is the East Bernard Kolache and Klobase festival the 2nd Saturday in June every year (June 8 this year). As mentioned above, once you get to your first festival you will see announcements for others. The majority of these occur on a Sunday as you will see.

John T. Edge made a road trip across America to sample fried chicken and the result of that is his excellent book, “Fried Chicken, An American Story”. My next project happened with the release of this book as I decided to ‘cook the book’ and try every recipe in it. That was when I realized that I had crossed over and that frying chicken would be a hobby that would keep me going for years.

So by then I was at a point where: 1. I was frying chicken at home 2. Going to as many church picnics as I could 3. Talking about fried chicken with just about anyone who had a family recipe to share.

Last December my wife and I did a road trip that had us ending up in Memphis. Too many people had good things to say about Gus’ Fried Chicken there. So we went. And it was different and unique. The closest comparison I can come up with is that the crust is similar to that of Pollo Campero, but different. And spicy. I peeked into the kitchen. I saw some stainless steel tubs with cut up chicken covered in a thick red sauce. I spied bottles of Louisiana hot sauce in a back room. To me it looked like they were frying the chicken without dredging it in flour. It was deep fat fried as opposed to pressure fried like at Pollo Campero. I was intrigued. Searching the web, I could not find one copycat recipe. True, there was a Saveur recipe and a Nora Jones recipe, but I could tell from them that they weren’t the same. How did Gus make his chicken? And it was during this search that I realized that there was scant technical information on how different flours affected the end product. I realized that a great New Year’s resolution for myself would be to test different ratios of corn flour, brown rice flour, AP wheat flour, cake flour, etc. and to make notes on how each combination affected the end product. I started haphazardly. The first deviation from my standard buttermilk double dip method was something that I picked up from an old Julia Child show with a New Orleans chef who used cans of evaporated milk and eggs for the wet before dredging in flour. It wasn’t bad. But I’ve found that egg based batters don’t have that crunch that I like.

I also discovered that no one had really captured the name The Fried Chicken Blog and so I set up my own (first time) blog: www.thefriedchickenblog.blogspot.com in order to document my experiments. The results of my tests of different combinations of wheat flour, brown rice flour and corn flour are there. I’ve also done a Japanese style of fried chicken that uses potato flour and the result is a very potato chip like flavor. Not unpleasant. But not spectacular. Of these experiments I really like a 2/3 AP flour to 1/3 corn flour ratio. Corn flour you ask? Yep. Not corn starch (which shows up in most Asian stir fry recipes) but the actual ground up corn. Probably a dent corn similar to what is used for masa harina in Mexico.

And now I am at a new phase. The church picnics are about to get into full gear starting in April with the first being April 28 at St. Michael's in Weimar. And I am moving on to test out published recipes by Thomas Keller, a new recipe from John T. that brines the chicken with sweetened tea as one of its components, several other variations based on what I observe at the church picnics.

Some Science: what is happening when we fry chicken? Well, we are creating a batter which will allow the chicken to poach. Additionally the steam being produced by the cooking chicken should, if the temperature is right and the batter is right, keep the oil out from penetrating too much, resulting in a less greasy chicken. So a smooth batter like a flour batter where the gluten has developed is going to create a different barrier than a batter that lets more oil in. For lack of a better description, a cracker-like batter or a particulate batter like  you would find with corn flour or rice flour (or crackers, potato chips or corn flakes). You see, when the battered chicken goes into the hot oil, there's some dehydration on the surface. This causes a crust to form and as the frying continues, any sugars or proteins in the batter are going to break down and create the flavor and color we are familiar with. Now, this crust also helps prevent oil absorption and at the same time you have the internal steam working from the other side to keep the oil out. Since you have less of a barrier when using starches besides flour you have more spaces for the oil to enter. It's also why it's best to eat chicken right out of the fryer as that internal moisture is going to soften the crust to the point of sogginess. This is what happens at the various chicken fries I've been to where the fried chicken is dumped into carrying boxes to go out to the line of waiting, hungry people. That being said, if one wanted a crispier crust that wouldn't go soggy, one would want to use a lower protein flour such as cake flour or one of the rice or corn flours. I will be experimenting with cake flour as the year progresses.

I have been underwhelmed by some the fried chicken I’ve sampled around town at "upscale" restaurants. Mostly just “meh” experiences. Because, you see, if you are the chef at an upscale restaurant you should understand your science and be committed to turning out chicken that is spectacular, certainly better than Churches or Popeye’s. Now I will say that I indeed have found some mighty fine fried chicken in Houston. On my recommendations short list are: Barbecue Inn on Crosstimbers at Airline is the real deal. My trick: order your chicken without salt. They’ll make a batch fresh for you. And the recipe used at Max's Wine Dive is excellent. And based on a recent trip to Federal Grill their fried chicken has become one of my top favorites. It has an exquisite flavor from the herb seasonings and an excellent crunch. It is a buttermilk marinade and I learned a little bit about their dry mix, which I will keep a secret. Frank's Americana Revival Restaurant uses a brine to buttermilk to flour dip method that results in an excellent fried chicken. Thin, crispy, crunchy crust and very good flavor. There are some other things that they do, secrets of which are safe with me. Talk about a turn around. The new chef at Liberty Kitchen is making great fried chicken. Possibly my current favorite. And it tasted better the next day cold.

Other restaurants haven’t fared so well with me. Now, a food critic typically will visit a restaurant three times. I'm paying my own way so my observations following are based on only one visit so, caveat emptor y’all. The recipes may have changed, personnel may have changed. My observations may no longer be valid. Plus, all of these places turn our really good food. It’s just that I’m obsessed with fried chicken and that is all I am considering at the moment. Out of respect for the restaurants I am not naming names for the duds.

I usually apply the following criteria: Did I like it? Would I order it again? Would it taste good cold?

Restaurant One: The night I went the chicken came out so overly browned that it tasted burned. When they saw that I wasn’t eating it and I explained why, the told me that they pre-fried the chicken in the afternoon and then finished it in the evening due to the heavy demand. They kindly offered to do a fresh batch for me. Unfortunately the second batch was pretty bad, too. It was also overly browned. I made a note to myself that it might have been pan fried (and from that day on I determined that total immersion deep fat frying is actually probably better for chicken as it seals the batter all over at the same time). They kindly comped my meal since I hadn’t enjoyed the chicken. I then did a silly thing. I went home, fried up a batch of the most golden brown buttermilk double dipped I could and took it to them with the recipe. In case they wanted to play around with their house recipe. The front of the room probably ate it and the kitchen never saw it or my recipe. I haven't been back to see.

Restaurant Two: The chicken crust fell off from the skin. It was thin and there wasn’t any adherence to the chicken. Underneath, the skin was greasy and had no crispness. It tasted like I was chewing on boiled chicken skin. The person I was dining with had some pieces that were pinkish toward the bone and he worried that the chicken was raw. It. Looked. Raw. To. Me. Someone later told me that they believed that (name with-held) does a sous vide on the chicken first. Thus, nothing to worry about, but without knowing this we didn’t want to take a chance and we left most of our chicken on the plate, unfinished. Neither of us thought very much of their recipe.

Restaurant Three: The chicken was advertised as having a 48 hour marinade in buttermilk and this immediately raised a flag as that seems like a really long time. What came out was a chicken with a crunchy, cracker like crust consistency, but one that had soaked up so much oil that one could actually squeeze the crust and extrude oil. I was not happy. But for some reason I didn't send it back. But then, when a party of four walked by and remarked on how good the chicken looked, I told them that it was not and I couldn't recommend it. One of the managers came over to talk to me and advised me that they were using the recipe from Bouchon, as the owner was a friend of Thomas Keller’s. This raised a second flag because Keller brines his chicken in a salt water, herb, spice and lemon bath and then does a seasoned AP flour and buttermilk method similar to the ones I’m familiar with. And so I will be trying the Keller recipe to see if the end result is the same as at this restaurant. The chicken itself, well, there wasn’t much meat and there was a lot of bone. It was hard to eat. Makes me think it was a very young, free range organic chicken. And it was firm enough that I couldn’t tell if it really had sat in buttermilk for two days. 

Restaurant Four: Now I can confidently pin point the worst fried chicken in Houston. What was this Indian restaurant thinking when they decided to go with a chick pea crust seasoned with just about every masala spice that burns at high heat. And then to fry the chicken at a lower temperature? Complete disaster. Looked burned, tasted burned, with scorched sour tasting spices. Horrible.

Update: As you will see in several future blogs where I test out the Thomas Keller recipe, the result is a crust similar to the one at (with-held) but much much less greasy. Hence, they may be doing some Thomas Keller things but not all of them (I suspect). And I thus confirmed that the AP flour will produce this kind of crust, indicating that their batter wasn't necessarily a cracker or non-flour only batter.

Next on my list after doing some brining experiments will be to move forward with ratios that involve a low protein flour such as cake flour and regular AP flour. 

That's all for now.

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