The Fried Chicken Conundrum
Fried chicken is one of my favorite foods. And beer is my favorite beverage. One way to bring these two together is by brining your chicken in beer prior to frying it. Today I’ll give a quick primer on making great fried chicken, with the focus on overcoming the major hurdle to frying chicken in this day and age. Tomorrow, I’ll give the full recipe and procedure.
Most fried chicken recipes involve soaking the bird in something before frying it. Buttermilk is probably the most common marinade, followed by a vinegar and salt brine. I use a vinegar and salt brine often, and I wondered if replacing some of the water with beer would make a difference. I decided to try it out with a hefe-weizen (a wheat beer) and a gueuze (a sour wheat beer).
The biggest problem people encounter when frying chicken these days is getting it to cook through without burning the outside. Or sometimes they cook the outside to perfection while leaving the inside nearly raw.
When my grandmother made fried chicken, she went out to the chicken house, chopped the heads off of a couple birds, plucked the feathers, disarticulated the pieces, and fried them. The chickens she fried were probably in the 2.5 lb. (~ 1 kg) range. Today, most supermarket birds are in the 3.5–4.0 lb. (1.6–1.8 kg) range.
In addition, when we fry chicken today, the pieces are cold from being stored in the fridge. Even after dredging the pieces in flour, the inside of the chicken pieces stay very close to refrigerator temperature. When our grandmothers fried chicken, the meat was slightly warm before it went in the pan. [A chicken’s body temperature is around 107 °F (41 °C).]
Some modern recipes call for frying the bird until the outside is nearly done, then finishing it off in a 350 °F (177 °C) oven. This works, but you need to clean an extra cookie sheet (or cover it aluminum foil). And to me, this just isn’t as satisfying as simply frying the chicken.
So, when frying chicken, your best bet is to find the smallest chicken you can. I can usually find birds around 3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) at the supermarket if I look. In addition, you want to bring the bird to near room temperature (or slightly above) before you put it in the hot oil. To do this, I use a “hot wash” before dredging the pieces in flour.
After brining, you need to rinse the excess brine off the meat. To do this, I pour the brine out of the plastic bag, then fill the bag with hot (~120 °F/50 °C) tap water and let it sit for 5–10 minutes. This warms the meat, but doesn’t really begin cooking it. The outside of the meat turns white, but that’s it. The “hot wash” kills two birds with one stone — it rinses the excess brine off the outside of the bird and warms it to the point that it can be fried successfully. The inside temperature of the pieces usually rises to around 75 °F (24 °C).
To be sure, there are other ways to warm the bird before frying. I have seen recipes that call for leaving the dredged chicken out for a couple hours at room temperature before frying, but that seems like a recipe for food poisoning to me. Likewise, I thought about warming the pieces slightly in a microwave. However, unless the microwave heats very evenly, you will likely get chicken pieces with hot spots (the bones, esp.) and cold spots. Warming the chicken in water heats it very evenly.
So, that’s the main hurdle you face and how I get over it. Once you’ve got room temperature chicken pieces, dredge them in flour and fry them in peanut oil (or lard) at 350 °F (~180 °C). Pull them out of the oil when their interior reaches 170 °F (77 °C). I’ll give a full recipe tomorrow, plus tell you how the two brines compared. (I’ll also tell you one way to deal with frying enormous chicken breasts.)