December 31, 2016

Pollo Campero Fried Chicken Update (and Chik Fil'A from Serious Eats)

Today, I think that I cracked the code for the Pollo Campero Fried Chicken recipe. 

The secret is that it is a dry mix of wheat flour and bread crumbs, very finely ground such that if you tasted a bit, it would dissolve in your mouth. I had been theorizing that it might be based on a non-wheat flour such as potato flour, corn flour, tapioca flour or such. But I've come to decide it is just wheat flour and bread crumbs.

To this are added such additional seasonings as garlic powder, onion powder, MSG, paprika, maybe some black or white pepper and salt for sure. All ground into a fairly fine powder to stick to and coat the raw pieces of chicken as they are turned in the proprietary Pollo Campero tumbler.

I tried it by processing some home-made bread that I had made into small bread crumbs which I then dried out in the oven at 215 F for an hour. I added spices without really measuring and I left out the MSG. I also under salted. Fried the chicken at 325F and confirmed the crust to match up. Noting a slightly different flavor, I made a note to myself that the type of bread used and the amount of toasting before turning it into a powder will affect the final flavor unless you've dumped enough garlic powder, onion powder, salt and MSG into it to mask the taste.

Here is the actual ingredients list for Pollo Campero chicken. As you can see, the Bon Appetit recipe called "in the spirit of Pollo Campero" really doesn't have anything in common with the actual recipe. It may be good, but it isn't Pollo Campero.

Bon Appetit Pollo Campero "Recipe"

And while we're on major chains, here is a spectacular article on reverse engineering the Chik Fil'A recipe from Serious Eats:

Here  is a copy/paste of the article, but by all means go to the link as the comments section is great reading:

The Food Lab: How to Make a Chick-Fil-A Sandwich at Home

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]



Tips and tricks for making the best sandwiches at home.
We've been hearing an awful lot about Chick-Fil-A—the Atlanta-based fried chicken sandwich fast food chain—in the news recently, and it's notbeen about how awesome their chicken sandwiches are, which is somewhat unfortunate, because those sandwiches areawesome. But we'll get back to that in a moment.
Chick-Fil-A's got quite a bit in common with California burger chain In-N-Out burger. Both serve reasonably priced tasty food of a markedly better quality than your typical fast food establishment. Both harbor a cult-like following of zealots. Both hire and retain extremely upbeat and friendly staff—you can't help but feel just a little more gay after stepping into a Chick-Fil-A. And of course, both restaurants were started by families with extremely conservative Christian principles.
The difference is that while In-N-Out limits its proselytizing to inconspicuous bible verses referenced on the bottom of its cups, the higher-ups at Chick-Fil-A are a little more outspoken in their stance, actively speaking against equal marriage rights for homosexuals and donating millions of Chick-Fil-A dollars to organizations with strong anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-abortion histories.
I don't normally like to mix my food with my politics, but the thought of where my chicken sandwich dollars might be going is enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how crispety-crunchety, spicy-sweet and salty that juicy chicken sandwich may be.
So in the interest of keeping my Chick-Fil-A consumption at a reasonable level, I did the only logical thing: figured out how to make them at home. Here's how it's done. And yes, you can even make 'em on a Sunday.

The Archetype

The classic Chick-Fil-A sandwich is a thing of simple beauty. A juicy, salty, crisply fried chicken breast. A soft, sweet, buttered and toasted bun. Two dill pickle chips. That's all there is to it.
What makes it great is the perfection of each of the elements. That crisp golden brown crust spiced just right with a perfect sweet-salty-savory-hot balance. The way it coats that breast underneath; a chicken breast that defies all we know about chicken. This is no dry, stringy, bland chicken bosom, this is a breast of unparalleled juiciness, with a dense, meaty texture and deeply seasoned flavor.
Bring all of the elements together, and you've got a sandwich that is nearly impossible to improve upon.
I began my quest for chicken sandwich perfection with the easiest elements: the bun and the pickles.

Bun and Pickles

With some of these reverse engineering project, getting the condiments and sauces just right are as much of a challenge as working on the main ingredient (see my In-N-Out clone recipe, for example). Not so with a Chick-Fil-A.
The bun is your typical hamburger-style bun. Soft and slightly sweet, with a fluffy, Wonderbread-like texture. It measures up at around 4 1/2-inches in diameter, which puts it right in the range of Arnold Hamburger Rolls. Toasted in a skillet in just a bit of melted butter, they're a perfect taste-alike to the real Chick-Fil-A buns.
As for the pickles, I tried out a few different brands of dill crinkle-cut chips. Heinz had the right flavor, the but chips were too small—I could've added a few extras, I suppose, but I feel like the two-pickle-per-Chick-Fil-A-sandwich rule is an unbreakable law. Instead, I turned to Vlasic Ovals Hamburger Dill Chips, which have a larger surface area and the same salty-vinegary-garlicky flavor.
Now, on to the hard part: the chicken.

Don't Forget Your Coat!

So what exactly goes into that uniquely flavorful Chick-Fil-A coating? It's obviously a standard breading procedure of some form or another—chicken dipped into a thick liquid followed by a dredging in seasoned flour before being deep-fried.
My normal course of action in a situation like this would be to pull off some high-level espionage, playing both sides of the game, perhaps wooing a particularly woo-able employee into a romantic tryst in an attempt to get her (or him!) talking about breading while we're bedding.
But alas, the higher-ups at Chick-Fil-A have obviously foreseen this potentially scandalous scenario and nipped it in the bud by listing their ingredients on their website, making the whole process far less titillating, but far far simpler.
Here's what we've got:


100% natural whole breast filet
seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika]
seasoned coater [enriched bleached flour, sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening, spice, soybean oil, color]
milk wash [water, whole powdered egg and nonfat milk solids]
peanut oil [fully refined peanut oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness and dimethylpolysiloxane an anti-foaming agent added])
The ingredients confirm it: they start with a chicken breast, season it, dip it into a milk and egg-based wash, dredge it in a flour-based "seasoned coater," then fry it all in peanut oil
The salt, MSG*, sugar, and paprika in the basic seasoning and seasoned coater are easy. The problem is with that catchall term "spices." We all know that the Coloneluses a secret blend of 11 different herbs and spices, but Chick-Fil-A makes no such claim.
I pulled out my spice drawers and got to concocting.
*MSG—monosodium glutamae—gets a bad rap. This is simple fear of the unknown. It's a purified chemical product originally harvested from giant sea kelp and has many analogues that occur naturally in foods we eat. When used in reasonable quantities, it is about as dangerous for you as regular old table salt. It's the chemical that triggers the sense of savoriness (or umami) on our tongues, and as such, is a great flavor enhancer in any sort of meaty dish. I keep a jar of it right next to my salt cellar.
Clearly black pepper forms the bulk of the backbone, and I'm fairly certain there's a touch of cayenne in there as well. Paprika is listed, so in it goes.
Did I detect some garlic in there as well? I wasn't positive, but a quick look at the FDA's labeling rules answered the question for me. According to the FDA, "Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried or dehydrated onions and garlic are not considered to be spices. When used as an ingredient in foods they should be declared on the label by common or usual names."
No garlic listed on the label? No garlic in the food.
I tried various combinations of celery seed, dried oregano and basil, mustard powder, even coriander and cumin. In the end, I found the simplest mix was actually closest in flavor to the real deal. Salt, sugar, MSG, black pepper, cayenne, and paprika it is.
I've heard it on good authority that each Chick-Fil-A sandwich uses an entire chicken breast half. I don't know where the heck they're getting those tiny chickens from, but in order to get my massive 8-ounce supermarket chicken breast halves down to the right size, I had to split them in half horizontally. (Perhaps next time I'll go with a Cornish hen breast).
With my spice mix assembled, I fried off my first batch of chicken: I seasoned a chicken breast cutlet with my spice mix, dipped it into a whisked mixture of milk and eggs, dropped it into a bowl of flour to which I'd added some nonfat milk powder, baking powder (the leavening), and a couple tablespoons of my spice mixture, pressed on the breading until it adhered, then carefully lowered it into a wok-ful of hot peanut oil and fried it until it was golden brown and crisp, about 4 minutes total.
What emerged was distinctly... meh
There were two major problems.
First, the coating lacked major crispness. Thanks to my carefully concocted blend of spices, the flavor was all there, but take a look at a Chick-Fil-A chicken cutlet, and its got big, crisp nuggets of breading with tons of surface area for extra flavor and extra crunch. Mine, on the other hand, had a smoother texture and a sandier look.
The second problem? Welcome to dry-city, population 1: chicken.

Surface Issues

So why was my breading so wimpy? It could have been a number of factors. My first thought was that the milk dip was simply too loose—it needed more body in order to be able to hold more breading. I tried lowering the ratio of milk to eggs by a few tablespoons at a time until I was basically dipping my chicken in straight up beaten egg before flouring them.
The resulting fried breasts got thicker and thicker coatings, but just plain thick is not what I was after: I wanted extra surface area, and that means more crags and crevices.
My next thought was to go double dipping. That is, dipping my chicken in the milk mixture first, followed by the flour, followed by another trip to the milk and a final trip to the flour before hitting the fryer. This worked marginally better—that second coat definitely developed more crags than the first coat did. It also made for an extremely thick breading that had a tendency to fall off of the breast because of its heft.
That ain't good.
But then I noticed something: the reason that second dip into the flour was giving my chicken so much more surface area was not just because I was doubling up on breading. It's because the second time around, there were already moist little nuggets of breading in the flour mixture
It's these nuggets that stuck to the outside of the chicken, increasing its crunch factor. The easiest way to get'em?
Simple, just do this:
By adding some of the milk mixture to the flour mixture and working it around with my fingers before I dip the chicken into it, I could create an extra crisp coating that fried up with enough nooks and crannies and make an English muffin hide with embarrassment.*
*A number of readers have pointed out that this technique is not novel and is used at quite a few fried chicken outfits as well as being presented in Cook's Country magazine. True enough!
Check out the difference. Same exact chicken, same exact ingredients, slightly different process, very different results:
This is a technique I plan to use for all of my breading and frying projects.

Brine Time

With my flavoring and crust perfected, there was one last issue to address: juiciness.
I know that part of my problem is that I don't own a pressure fryer, the device that Chick-Fil-A (and many other fried chicken restaurants) use to cook their chicken extra fast. But with care and attention, that shouldn't make or break the process in the end. There's something more important at hand here.
Cut a normal cooked chicken breast in half and you expect to see some amount of stringiness—there's a definite grain to chicken meat. Cut a Chick-Fil-A sandwich in half, on the other hand, and you'll be struck by how smooth and grain-free the meat is, with a nearly translucent, pearly white color to it.
Now I wouldn't bet my life on it, but these signs point to one thing: brining.
Brining is the process by which a lean meat (most often chicken, turkey, or pork) is submerged in a salt water solution. As the meat sits, the salt water will slowly dissolve key muscle proteins (most notably myosin, a protein that acts as a sort of glue, holding muscle fibers together). As the myosin dissolves, two things take place.
First, the ability for the meat to hold onto moisture increases. See, you can imagine meat as a series of long, skinny toothpaste tubes tied together. As you cook meat, the tubes of toothpaste get squeezed, pushing out valuable juices. Myosin is one of the key proteins responsible for this squeezing action, so by dissolving it, you prevent a lot of moisture loss from taking place.
Secondly, it alters the texture of the meat by allowing dissolved proteins to cross-link with each other. This is the main principle in sausage making—dissolved proteins can bond with each other, creating a pleasantly bouncy, tender texture. By brining a chicken breast or a pork chop, you're in effect giving it a very light cure—the same process that converts a raw wet ham into a supple prosciutto.
To confirm my suspicions, I spoke with a former Chick-Fil-A employee, who was able to walk me through the process:
We handled a significant amount of the process.  The chicken arrived frozen.  They had been brined already, but that was it.  We defrosted them, ripped the tendons so they would lie flat, and dipped them in the milk wash before dredging them in seasoned flour.  The milk wash and the seasoned flour was prepared elsewhere and we just opened the packages.
Unfortunately all that really tells me is that yes, they are brined. The contents of that brine are still up in the air, but it's safe to say that at the very least salt and sugar are part of the mix.
I went through a dozen different iterations of the brine, using both water and milk as my base, as well as using a technique called "dry-brining" (in which the meat is heavily salted, then allowed to sit until the salt dissolves in extracted juices, effectively producing a brine without any added liquid). I tried adding various amounts of spices, changing up the quantity of salt and sugar. (For more on brining, check out this article).
In the end, I found that a milk-based brine offered no real advantages over a water-based brine, and that adding the spices to the briny liquid was largely a waste of time and resources: much better was to just brine the chicken breasts in a salt and sugar solution and to sprinkle them with the spice mixture just before breading them.
My normal brine for chicken breasts lasts for anywhere from half an hour to two hours. In this case, however, a much, much longer brining time was necessary in order to match the saltiness level of a Chick-Fil-A sandwich along with that uniquely smooth, juicy texture.
A full six hours submerged in salt/sugar water produced the beauty below:
Now that, my friends, is positively exuding juiciness. I don't know about you, but I've already had to wipe my computer monitor four times from where I've accidentally found myself licking it. Oops.
So there it is. A thing of simple beauty. A sandwich unparalleled in its chicken-ness. And one worth making any day of the week.
And before the comments devolve into the inevitably political back-and-forth, may I quickly say that this sandwich—the beauty you see right above—is what this is all about. Let's try and see the joy inherent in that concept, alrighty?

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J. Kenji López-Alt is the Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, where he unravels the science of home cooking. A restaurant-trained chef and former Editor at Cook's Illustrated magazine, his first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science is a New York Times Best-Seller, the recipient of a James Beard Award, and was named Cookbook of the Year in 2015 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Woot! The Article on Me in My Table Magazine Came Out This Week!

August 30, 2016

Hot Thai Chicken Recipe - YouTube Video

I enjoyed this recipe. When I first heard her say "Flour", I thought, "Hmmm, why not a Korean style batter with cornstarch and/or egg whites?" But then, she did add some corn starch to the dredge. And then, I had an "aha moment" when she said, "If you want an even crunchier crust, add a little water as that will cause the flour on the chicken to clump a bit." And I realized that I should try 'misting' my chicken in a future experiment to see how that will affect the ultimate crunch. Comments? You can reach me at:, or, here on my blog.

Cook's Country Recipe - Latin Style Fried Chicken

What interests me about this recipe. The spicing of course. And the fact that it is designed to be fried at 325 F. And that it is an egg wash with a flour/cornstarch batter, which they say results in a thin and crunchy crust. On the show, I was impressed that the 15 minute fry at 325 F didn't over brown the crust. It came out looking very golden in color. Which is a good thing.

Weekend Recipe: Latin Fried Chicken

Photo courtesy of Cook's Country
Photo courtesy of Cook's Country
Sometimes we crave the familiarity of crispy fried chicken, but the unexpected Latin flavors make this batch especially drool-worthy. This makes a great summer meal and is pretty great as picnic food, too. Cook's Country says to be sure not to marinate for more than two hours or the acid from the lime will toughen the chicken.
Latin Fried Chicken 
Serves 4
2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 garlic cloves, chopped coarse
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons grated lime zest plus 1/4 cup juice (2 limes)
3 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (split breasts cut in half crosswise, drumsticks, thighs, and/or wings), trimmed
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 large egg whites, lightly beaten
Frying oil 3 quarts vegetable or peanut oil
For the marinade: Combine salt, garlic, pepper, cumin, paprika, oregano, and lime zest and juice in bowl. Add chicken and turn to coat thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours.
For the coating: Whisk flour, cornstarch, pepper, granulated garlic, baking powder, white pepper, salt, cumin, and cayenne together in bowl. Place egg whites in shallow dish.
Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet. Remove chicken from marinade and scrape off solids. Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Working with 1 piece at a time, dip chicken into egg whites to thoroughly coat, letting excess drip back into dish. Dredge chicken in flour mixture, pressing to adhere. Transfer chicken to prepared wire rack and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Add oil to large Dutch oven (6 quarts or more) until it measures about 2 inches deep and heat over medium-high heat to 325 degrees. Add half of chicken to hot oil and fry until breasts register 160 degrees and drumsticks/thighs register 175 degrees, 13 to 16 minutes. Adjust burner, if necessary, to maintain oil temperature between 300 and 325 degrees. Transfer chicken to clean wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Return oil to 325 degrees and repeat with remaining chicken. Serve.

Update: July 31, 2016. The recipe was tested out. Met up with good friends and we did the recipe from scratch. Everything went smoothly with no hitches. The chicken pieces were huge and we ended up cutting the chicken breasts into 3 pieces each. A group of 5 of us decided that we liked the recipe but that there wasn't an OMG moment and we probably wouldn't need to make this again. The crust was very good. This was the first time any of us had experimented with an egg white dip before the dry mix dip. Less water, less gluten development. Some real crunch in the final product.

Clarifying Used Oil With Gelatin - Mind Blown!

Kenji Lopez-Alt has published a method for clarifying used frying oil with gelatin. Here is the link, followed by the actual article.

The Food Lab: A Mind-Blowing Technique for Cleaning Deep-Fry Oil Using Gelatin

I get emails from readers packed with fun stories, family recipes, and interesting tips, techniques, and questions all the time, but it's rare that I get one with a technique that completely blows my mind. This is one of those occasions.
Here's the short of it: You can use gelatin to filter cruddy used deep-frying oil until it is crystal clear, and the technique is easier than any other method I know, requiring no wire strainers or coffee filters or extensive clean-up. If you are impatient, you can jump straight down to the directions and get to clarifying, but read on for more details on the testing.

How Gelatin Clarification Works

The email I got suggested, in a nutshell, dissolving some powdered gelatin in boiling water, then stirring that hot water into used deep-frying oil before letting it rest overnight. As the gelatin settles and sets, it should end up trapping impurities in it, leaving clean oil behind.
Wait, what? This sounded way too good to be true.
The idea of using gelatin to clarify stock is relatively new. It first came to my attention around 2009 (I probably first read about it on Dave Arnold's Cooking Issues blog). Gelatin is a protein that forms an interconnected, weblike matrix when dissolved in water. Not only does the gelatin give the water structure (think: Jell-O), it can also suspend other dissolved and undissolved solids in its matrix.
To gelatin-clarify, you first freeze a gelatin-rich stock, then slowly let it defrost in a strainer or wrapped in cheesecloth. As it defrosts, the network of interconnected gelatin proteins traps impurities, letting a crystal-clear consommé drip out of the bottom, with no need to skim, strain, or simmer.
But using gelatin to clarify oil? Now that was something really new, and frankly, if it worked, far more useful for the average home cook, who probably has no need to make consommé but often ends up wondering, "Can I use this oil again?"
I was skeptical. Stock clarification works because gelatin dissolves readily in hot water. Would mixing gelatin-rich water with oil really filter out impurities, when the gelatin is not even technically dissolving in that oil? Only one way to find out.

The Testing: Fat Clarification Using Gelatin

I happened to have a small pot of particularly well-used oil on hand (previously used to fry a few batches of vegetable tempura, as well as some chicken-fried shrimp). I dissolved a teaspoon of gelatin in a half cup of boiling water, then dutifully stirred it vigorously into the dirty oil before transferring it all to an airtight container and setting it in the fridge to encourage the gelatin to solidify.
The next morning, I pulled out the container, poured the oil out into a small pot, and discovered this:
Holy cow, this may have really worked! I was left with a solid disk of gelatin, filled with specks of burnt flour and other assorted gunk. Everything was looking great so far. Now for the true test: Could I cook in it?
I heated up the clarified oil on the stovetop and was alarmed, as it started bubbling a little while heating—an indication that there were still at least a few microscopic droplets of water in the fat—but with a little shaking, the bubbles soon completely dissipated, and the oil continued to heat up just like any fresh oil would. Once it hit the desired temperature, I fried a few pieces of green bean tempura in it, followed by a small batch of fried chicken. Both recipes came out perfect, as if they'd been cooked in not-quite-fresh-but-still-super-clean oil (bear in mind, this oil was on its last legs before I filtered it).
Incredible! Not only did the oil come out cleaner and more usable than it would with any other method I've ever tried, the process was also far easier. Instead of having to clean out a strainer (not a fun task), all I had to do was pop out that disk of hardened gelatin, complete with all the trapped flotsam and jetsam, and toss it in the compost.
Obviously this technique is going to have to be refined and codified for optimizing the gelatin-to-water ratio, the temperature of the water, how vigorously it's mixed into the oil, et cetera, but I'm just so darn excited about the prospects that I couldn't resist sharing it right away.

How to Gelatin-Clarify Oil

  1. After deep-frying, allow your cooking fat to cool to room temperature or slightly warmer.
  2. Measure into a small pot half a cup of water for every quart of used oil. Sprinkle it with one teaspoon of powdered gelatin per half cup of water, and let the gelatin hydrate for a few minutes.
  3. Bring the water to a simmer (you can do this on the stovetop or in the microwave), stirring, until the gelatin dissolves. Stirring vigorously and constantly, pour the gelatin/water mixture into the dirty oil. It should look very cloudy and relatively homogeneous at this stage. Cover the pot and place it in the refrigerator (or transfer the mixture to a separate container before refrigerating), then allow it to rest overnight.
  4. The next day, pour the oil from the top of the pot or container into a separate clean, dry pot. Discard the disk of gelatin that remains. The clarified oil is ready to use.
N.B.: The first time you use the clarified oil, you'll find that as it heats up, it will start to bubble a little bit. This is okay. Swirl the pan gently as it bubbles to help release any remaining droplets of water. It will eventually settle down until it's ready for frying.

Kenji Lopez-Alt (a hero of mine)

The Science (go to the Serious Eats link for the recipe)

The Food Lab: The Best Southern Fried Chicken

The ultimate fried chicken. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]


Fried Chicken
Digging into the cluckin' awesome world of our favorite fried food.
My publishers over at W.W. Norton were kind enough to let me share one of the new recipes from my upcoming book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science with you guys here, which is good news because I've been DYING to share my Southern Fried Chicken recipe with you.
Here is the section and recipe from the book, in near-complete form. In the book, you'll also find a few extras, like instructions on how to double-fry your leftover chicken for even more crunch, a gallery of the more than 50 whole chickens I fried in the process of writing this recipe, and a do-it-yourself experiment that shows you the pros and cons of resting your chicken after dredging it in flour and before frying it. I hope you enjoy it. (And look out for my book in stores on September 21st, or preorder it through the link below to be the first kid on your block to get a copy!)

Southern-Style Fried Chicken

I know how passionate people can get about fried chicken, and I'm not one to tell you who makes the best, but if you were to ask Ed Levine, the Serious Eats overlord, he'd tell you that it's Gus's, a sixty-seven-year-old institution in Mason, Tennessee. They serve fried chicken that he describes as incredibly crunchy, with a crisp, craggy crust, juicy meat, and a "cosmic oneness" between the breading and the skin. We're talking fried chicken so good that you have to resort to metaphysics to make sense of it.
For me, as a kid growing up in New York, fried chicken came from one place, and one place only: those grease-stained cardboard buckets peddled by the Colonel himself. To my young mind, KFC's extra-crispy was about as good as it got. I distinctly remember eating it: picking the coating off in big, fat chunks; tasting the spicy, salty grease; and shredding the meat underneath with my fingers and delivering it to my waiting mouth. It was heavenly.
But times have changed, and as is often the case, revisiting those fond childhood memories results only in disappointment and disillusionment. All over the country, there's a fried chicken and soul food renaissance going on. Even the fanciest restaurants in New York are adding it to their menus. My eyes and my taste buds have been opened to what fried chicken truly can be. I may still dig the ultracrunchy, well-spiced crust that KFC puts on its birds, but that's about the only thing it has going for it. Flaccid skin, dry and stringy breast meat, and chicken that tastes like, well, it's hard to tell if it really tastes like anything once you get rid of the crust.
Even the breast meat should be juicy in good fried chicken.
That said, stylistically, it can't be faulted. So I figured that I could somehow manage to take what the Colonel started and bring it to its ultimate conclusion—that is, deep chicken flavor; a flab-free skin; juicy, tender meat; and crisp, spicy coating—I might just be able to recapture those first fleeting childhood tastes of fried chicken as I remembered them.

Inside Out

I started with a working recipe of chicken pieces simply dipped in buttermilk and tossed in flour seasoned with salt and black pepper, then fried in peanut oil at 325°F until cooked through. A few problems immediately became clear. First off, timing: By the time my chicken was cooked through (that's 150°F in the breasts and 165°F in the legs), the outer crust was a dark brown, bordering on black in spots. Not only that, but it didn't have nearly as much crunch as I wanted. Finally, the meat underneath the crust wasn't completely desiccated, but I wouldn't exactly describe it as moist, not to mention its rather bland flavor. I decided to fix my chicken from the inside out.
Looks crisp outside, but inside this chicken is dry.
*For those of you squeamish about "undercooked" chicken or who insist that breast meat must be cooked to 165°F to be safe and tasty, please read this discussion on real world food safety, which is quite different from what the U.S. government would have you believe.
The problem is that with fried chicken, the crisp well-seasoned coating is merely a surface treatment. None of that flavor penetrates very deeply. Surely brining and/or marinating should help with that problem? Brining is the process by which a lean meat (most often chicken, turkey, or pork) is submerged in a saltwater solution. As the meat sits, the saltwater will slowly dissolve key muscle proteins—most notably myosin, a protein that acts as a sort of glue, holding muscle fibers together). As the myosin dissolves, three things take place:
  • First, the ability of the meat to hold onto moisture increases. You can imagine meat as a series of long, skinny toothpaste tubes tied together. As you cook the meat, the tubes of toothpaste get squeezed, pushing out valuable juices. Breading will help mitigate this effect to a degree by slowing down the transfer of energy to the meat, but a significant amount of squeezing is still going to occur regardless of how well breaded the chicken is. Myosin is one of the key proteins responsible for this squeezing action, so by dissolving it, you prevent a lot of moisture loss from taking place.
  • Second, brining alters the texture of the meat by allowing dissolved proteins to cross-link with each other. This is the main principle behind sausage making—dissolved proteins can bond with each other, creating a pleasantly bouncy, tender texture. By brining a chicken breast or a pork chop, you're in effect giving it a very light cure—the same process that converts a raw ham into a supple prosciutto.
  • Third, as the brine slowly works its way into the meat, it seasons it beyond just the very surface. An overnight brine will penetrate a few millimeters into the meat, giving you built-in seasoning before you ever get to the breading. Brines also improve juiciness by increasing the muscles' ability to retain moisture. My normal brining for chicken breast is anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. In this case, however, a much, much longer brining time was necessary in order to completely mitigate the effects of high-temperature frying, delivering a uniquely smooth, juicy texture to the meat.
A full six hours submerged in salt/sugar water produced the beauty below. Weighing the meat confirmed that an overnight-brined-then-fried bird loses about nine percent less moisture than an unbrined bird does and is significantly tastier.
Unbrined chicken on the left versus brined chicken on the right.
I've experimented with tossing certain animal preparations with a mixture of baking powder and salt a day in advance in order to improve their crispness. The salt acts as a brine, while the baking powder raises the pH of the skin, causing it to brown more efficiently and the thin film of protein-rich liquid around it to form microbubbles that can add crispness. I tried this method on my fried chicken, but it ended up drying the skin out too much, making it tough to get the breading to remain attached down the line.
Knowing that I'd be soaking my chicken in buttermilk the next day anyway, I wondered if I'd be able to kill two birds with one stone by replacing the water in the brine with buttermilk. Not only did the chicken come out just as moist as with water brine, it was actually significantly more tender as well, due to the tenderizing effects of buttermilk on food (soaking it for more than one night led to chicken that was so tender that it bordered on mush). Finally, hitting the buttermilk with spices helped build flavor right into the surface of the bird. I played around a bit with the mix before arriving at a blend of cayenne pepper and paprika (for their heat and peppery flavor), garlic powder**, a bit of dried oregano, and a healthy slug of freshly ground black pepper. The Colonel may use eleven secret herbs and spices in his chicken recipe, but five was quite enough for me (and both my wife and my doorman heartily concurred).
**Some folks shun garlic powder, saying that it's nothing like real garlic. I agree: garlic powder is nothing like real garlic. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its culinary uses. It's particularly effective in spice rubs and breadings, where fresh garlic would be difficult to incorporate, due to its texture.

Crust Lust

Next up: add some extra crunch to that crust. I reasoned that there were a few ways to do this. First off, I wanted to increase the crust's thickness. I tried double-dipping my chicken—that is, dredging the brined chicken in flour (seasoned with the same spice blend as my brine), dipping it back into the buttermilk, and then dredging it once more in flour before frying, a method chef Thomas Keller uses for his justifiably famous fried chicken at Ad Hoc. This worked marginally better—that second coat definitely developed more crags than the first coat did. But it also made for an extremely thick breading that had a tendency to fall off the breast because of its heft.***
***You may notice the redness of the center of the chicken. This is not because it is undercooked, but because I cracked the bone when cutting it open, revealing some of the chicken's red marrow. Occasionally bones may snap or crack on their own, or while you are breaking down the chicken, leaving a few red spots inside the chicken even when it is fully cooked. This should not alarm you.
A double coating of flour creates a thick crust that falls off the chicken.
Much better was to simply add a bit of extra structure to the breading in the form of an egg mixed into the buttermilk.
My crust was certainly thick enough now, but I ran into another problem: rather than crisp and crunchy, it was bordering on tough, almost rock-like in its density. Knowing that gluten—the network of proteins formed when flour meets water—was the most likely culprit, I sought out ways to minimize its formation. First and foremost: cut the protein-rich wheat flour with cornstarch, a pure starch that adds moisture-absorbing capabilities to the breading without adding excess protein. Replacing a quarter of the flour worked well. Adding a couple teaspoons of baking powder to the mix helped bring a bit of air to the mix, forming a crust that was lighter and crisper, with increased surface area (and we all know that more surface area = more crispness, right?).
Adding buttermilk to the dredge creates the extra-craggy surface on the left.
Finally, I used a trick that a friend, a former employee of the Chick-fil-A Southern fast-food fried-chicken chain had told me about. He'd mentioned that once the chicken was breaded, the later batches always come out better than the earlier ones as bits of the flour mixture clumped together, making for an extra-craggy coat. Adding a couple tablespoons of buttermilk to the breading mix and working it in with my fingertips before dredging the chicken simulated this effect nicely.****
****This method is also employed in Cook's Country magazine's fried chicken recipe.
The last problem—the coating overcooking long before the chicken is cooked through to the center—was simple to solve. Just fry the chicken until golden brown, then transfer it to a hot oven to finish cooking at a gentler pace. The result is chicken with a deep brown, craggy crust that's shatteringly crisp but not tough and that breaks away to meat that bursts with intensely seasoned juices underneath.

The Fried Chicken Tracksuit!

Louisiana Road Trip - And A New Kind Of Batter To Try

In August, 2016, a group of five of us piled into an SUV for a day trip road trip to Lafayette and Breaux Bridge for po-boys and other Cajun/Creole deliciousness. After having terrific shrimp po-boys at Old Tyme Grocery and some classic Louisiana dishes at Des Amis we headed back to Houston, stopping at both Don's and Billy's in Scott, in order to sample and compare their cracklings and boudain balls.

While at Billy's, I came across a little self published recipe book in which a batter recipe was listed. What intrigued me was that it started with an oil base, to which one beat in flour, egg and milk. It was noted to be a thin batter. I was intrigued. Oil in a batter? Will have to try this one. If you get a chance to experiment with it, post me a note on how it came out.

Here are some photos from our road trip. Louisana cookin' is great.