Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Almost to the Half-Way Mark for 2013 - What I Have Learned So Far


After reviewing many many recipes and creating a spreadsheet so that I can compare and contrast them, I can conclude that the most popular wet bath for the chicken prior to dredging in flour is buttermilk. Other options include ice water, milk and eggs, canned evaporated milk and eggs, canned cream of chicken soup (really), and no liquid at all except the moisture that has occurred naturally on the chicken surface before dredging.

The most popular dry ingredient for the batter is all purpose flour. There are (as yet untested) indications that a very low protein flour such as cake flour may be excellent for fried chicken. The dry ingredient choices break down as to whether you want to go with a gluten based flour such as all purpose which will produce a crust similar to Church's or Popeye's fried chicken, or, cracker like coatings from gluten free options such as rice flour, potato flour, tapioca flour, corn flour, cracker-meal, chick pea flour, corn starch, etc. that will be reminiscent of weinerschnitzel or milanesa. Third, but still pending are tempura style batters.

Brining shows up in some recipes, including a most famous one by Thomas Keller. A good brine recipe will add flavor and moisture to the chicken. Done wrong, it will make the chicken too salty. In my opinion, brining doesn't seem to be critical for great fried chicken. Sous vide is a waste of time.

Fry temperature is pretty much established as 350 F.

Deep frying does a good job of sealing the whole chicken piece at once and is preferred. Pan frying has the potential for greasy chicken as the top portion that is not immersed in the oil will absorb a lot of grease. Plus, the bottom is going to burn a bit based on my experience. But some people like that.

What happens in the frying process is that the batter seals the chicken and allows it to steam cook. (Update: Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking says "no", it doesn't "seal in the moisture". It provides a buffer layer between the chicken and oil), Flour batters that are not as porous as cracker like batters do a better job of keeping oil out. The internal steam pressure acting on the crust keeps oil out.

There is a real danger of the chicken looking cooked if judged by the color of the crust, but still be raw in the center. Best to cut large pieces into smaller portions. You can also finish the chicken in the oven or a microwave to assure it is cooked throughout.

Seasoning is tricky. You need to season both the chicken and the flour. My experience has been that, after you remove the chicken from the wet bath, that this is a good time to season it, before it is dredged in flour. Be careful about over-salting. One time, I dusted the wet chicken with Tony Chachere's before flouring and it was way too salty. So, lesson learned, make you own Cajun spice mix and leave out the salt. The Tony Chachere cookbook has a recipe as do Donald Link, Justin Wilson and Emeril Lagasse. I garontee!

Two recipes remain mysteries: Korean fried chicken at Toreore and Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis, Tennessee. I cannot figure out how to duplicate these perfectly. I can come close but no cigar.

Several restaurants pre-fry the chicken in large batches and then do a second fry just before serving.

Try to serve any flour based fried chicken immediately. If you store it, especially if you store it covered, there is enough residual moisture to soften the crust and the chicken will not be as crisp. I discovered this when I was visiting the various parish picnics around Texas. They would fry the chicken perfectly, then transfer it to line boxes for serving. As the chicken sat in the boxes, the crust lost its crispness.

This is not as much of a problem with cracker like crusts. But personally, I don't like cracker like crusts.

By going with either ice water or just the moisture from the chicken instead of milk you will get that crunchy crust. When wet batter comes into contact with the hot frying oil, the moisture in the batter is going to vaporize, and that will leave behind the solids to adhere to the chicken. When you are using milk, there are sugars in the milk that are going to brown quickly and probably result in a softer crust. I have seen milk used in many of the parish picnics I will be visiting. And I've seen that they have to fry the chicken to a much darker crust to assure the chicken is fully cooked. 

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