I’ve been feeling quite confident in the kitchen recently so I decided it was time to shake things and make sure I didn’t get into a rut, so I invited 16 people round for beer and fried chicken at the weekend…
I love fried chicken, but have never really mastered the art of a light crispy coating and succulent chicken within, usually ending up with something closer to the greasy delights of KFC than I would care to admit. Obviously the way to sort this culinary blip is to put yourself under intense pressure in a very hot kitchen and then serve the results to your highly discerning friends. One of whom happens to make the best fried chicken you’ve ever eaten.
I was going to need some help to refine my recipe and get it right. I hoped Felicity Cloake over at the Word of Mouth blog on the Guardian had covered fried chicken in her ‘Perfect’ series each Thursday as she has a knack for explaining things well and giving handy hints that take a dish from pedestrian to perfection. But no such luck. I re-read the recipe I’ve been using for years from a weird little cookbook called Kenny Cooks America written by an oddly angry man called Kenny Miller who suggests marinading the chicken in milk first. I decided to take that a bit further and try using buttermilk instead to see if the extra acidity would help tenderise the chicken further.
Seeking reassurance on the internet, I Googled buttermilk fried chicken and found myself in the ever capable hands of Deb over at Smitten Kitchen with her delicious looking recipe. She suggests taking the buttermilk idea that little bit further and brining the chicken in a buttermilk brine overnight. The sheer saltiness of brining scares me slightly, but my American friends swear by it to keep meat (even a turkey) juicy and succulent. I often find frying chicken can make it a bit dry so this seemed like the perfect time to try it out.
I ran into some difficulty almost immediately though. Buttermilk is quite hard to come by here in England, even with Gin and Crumpets’ handy tip about Polish shops often stocking it and I had only ordered three small cartons online from Sainsbury’s which wasn’t enough for the both the brine and the batter. I improvised slightly and made up a brine from a mixture of natural yoghurt, buttermilk and a splash of whole milk to loosen it enough. Deb suggested mashed garlic, but I was fearful that this would jar with the mellow tastes of the dairy. Taking my cue from Nigella’s amazing Garlic Chicken from How to Eat, I boiled the garlic cloves til tender, popped them from their skins and pounded them in the pestle and mortar. This went into the marinade along with a hearty splash of Tabasco.
To this mixture I added the terrifyingly large amount of salt needed to make a brine. The recipe calls for Kosher salt, but having no idea where I could get such a thing in Brixton, I used good old Maldon Sea Salt instead. I kept the skin on the chicken (using a mixture of wings and thighs) and poured the mixture over them, rubbing it in well with my hands and then popping it all in the fridge overnight. Next morning, each piece was taken out and laid on a rack to airdry before being coated and fried. I could feel how tender the meat was even at this stage…
Despite what Deb said, I don’t have a thermometer to test how hot the oil was for the chicken, but I erred on the side of caution and heated the pan while I was making the batter because an electric cooker means everything takes longer. The batter was very quick to make, but it was here that everything started to go wrong and my confidence began to depart me in droves.
The use of baking powder in the batter means that it puffs up incredibly and it seemed very thick, almost like industrial sealant rather than batter. I can only assume that the cultured buttermilk I was using is different in texture to the buttermilk in the recipe. Mine was more the consistency of yoghurt and I think it might have needed to be more milky to get a looser lighter batter. Nonetheless I perservered and dipped my chicken thigh pieces in seasoned flour, then batter, then flour again to get a light crisp coating and put them into the hot oil.
They browned quickly and the first few pieces looked just the ticket as I turned them. Golden brown, crispy and light. I thought I might be about to give my friend D a run for her money. But then things started to go hideously and horribly wrong with the next batch of chicken pieces. The batter had continued to puff up and thicken and had become almost solid in texture, thus over coating the chicken and making it spongy and difficult to cook. I watered it down with some milk, but it didn’t seem to improve the consistency much with big globs of batter simply dripping into the dish of flour most unappealingly.
I allowed the pan to come back to the right heat and placed more chicken in it, but it soon became obvious that the coating was thick enough to be soaking up the oil and spreading around the edges so that each piece expanded in size and the batter formed a lip on each side when it was turned over, meaning each side was golden brown, but the middle still looked uncooked in colour. It was almost impossible to cook the sides evenly, having to set the pieces on the edge of the pan to try and colour it all evenly. This didn’t really work though and resulted in chicken that was overcooked in places. I then sampled one of these less alluring looking pieces of chicken and was beyond disappointed by it.
The batter was thick and bready like the stuff you get on cheap turkey shapes at a well known frozen foods store. Despite the generous amount of smoked paprika and seasoning in the flour, it tasted bland with a weird sweet aftertaste that made it seem cheap. This overpowered the amazingly juicy and succulent chicken and rendered the whole thing pretty revolting. I gave up at this point and returned the rest of the un-fried chicken to the original marinade along with some sumac and black pepper so I could cook it as yoghurt chicken rather than throw it all out. I was annoyed enough to have spoilt some good chicken and a couple of quidsworth of buttermilk without wasting anything more.
I cooled the chicken I had cooked so it could be reheated the next day, no longer caring if it wasn’t as crisp as I’d have liked since it was so rubbish to begin with. I then spent ages cleaning up the massive amount of mess the overly thick batter and hot oil had made. The lingering smell of frying food took much longer to subside.
I served the heated chicken the next day and while the batter hadn’t improved any the chicken was actually more moist and succulent than before. Very little of this got eaten and I’m not offended at all. It was mediocre at best and it is was up against the best fried chicken possible. I warned people off mine and hoped that D will give me her secret recipe instead. Hold out til then folks and don’t bother with this one unless you enjoy the faff of making disappointing poultry…