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For Perfect Fried Chicken
This Summer, Break the Rules

by Mark Bittman

I am here to argue that when it comes to a Memorial Day feast, fried chicken is a legitimate alternative to grilling. If there is one food that is more easily and reliably fried than grilled, it is chicken, which often as not is incinerated when cooked over flames. And if there is one special home-cooked dish that has near universal appeal it is fried chicken, not grilled hamburger.

What makes it necessary to argue in fried chicken's favor is not its appeal. No, what holds fried chicken back is the perceived challenge of preparing it.

You say: It's messy, it's smelly, it's scary, and it might not work. I say: I can minimize the mess, reduce the smell, remove the fear and nearly guarantee perfection.

I can even offer you a surprisingly good version of oven-roasted "fried" chicken. Want to try?

Never mind your grandmother's secret formula of spices or your uncle's special batter. There are several keys to good fried chicken, and none have anything to do with the kind of coating or batter you put on the bird. The coating can be as simple as a roll in flour or cornmeal or as complicated as a 12-hour brining session followed by batter. The important thing is technique. And developing a good frying technique does not take much at all.

As is sometimes the case in cooking, frying chicken correctly requires breaking a couple of basic rules. First off, do not deep-fry your fried chicken. Shallow-fry it instead, in about a half-inch of oil. It is simply unnecessary to bathe the chicken parts in hot fat when turning it once or twice serves the same purpose.

The second rule-breaker is more controversial. I want you to cover the skillet during the first few minutes of cooking. I'm not sure when or why covering the pan during frying became taboo, but it makes sense from every perspective.

First, it conserves heat, keeping the oil's temperature from plunging during the critical initial period. More important, it reduces indeed, practically eliminates spattering, which, as with almost all fried foods, is a problem until surface moisture has been cooked off. Chicken that does not spatter takes much of the fear out of frying chicken, not to mention how it makes cleanup about 10 times easier, and significantly reduces odor. (To eliminate spattering and odor problems entirely, you might take a portable burner outside and fry the chicken there.)

The next rule you might consider breaking is a contemporary and faintly ridiculous one, which mandates frying in vegetable oil, notionally for health reasons. To which I say: It's fried chicken. For the best crust and flavor, the ideal medium for frying is a combination of lard and clarified butter. (You need not clarify the butter in advance; as it heats with the lard, simply skim the butter foam as it forms.) Indeed, in their new book, "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf), Edna Lewis, the grande dame of Southern cooking, and her friend and co-author, Scott Peacock, suggest adding cubed country ham to the fat as the butter foams, to add an additional layer of flavor. This is painting the lily with gilded gold, to be sure, but the results are terrific.

I realize that calling for lard and butter as a frying liquid may stimulate open-mouthed gasps, but vegetable oil, by comparison to the lard-butter combination, is an efficient and cheap but entirely unexciting substitute. If you don't want to go on the saturated fat diet (and, no matter what anyone says, the chicken crust does absorb some of the cooking fat during frying), stick with a neutral oil, like corn, grapeseed or canola.

Now, about the pan. I have fried chicken in nearly every type of metal vessel imaginable. And I know that a nice black cast-iron skillet is the paradigm. But really, there are few skillets, casseroles or saucepans that will not work, if not well. The key is that the pan be heavy enough to conduct and retain heat, so you are better off not using thin cheap aluminum (though if that's all you have, just be careful to keep the heat up).

Much more important, from a practical point of view, is size. Deep pots, like those you would use to cook pasta, reduce spattering almost to zero, but it can be difficult to manipulate the chicken pieces in them. Furthermore, deep pots tend to be narrow, which means you will inevitably have to cook the chicken in batches. (If you are frying more than one chicken at a time, you will cook in batches anyway.) Wide skillets with covers are better, as long as they have some depth to them; with a shallow one you run the risk of overflowing oil. Close to ideal is a wide casserole, the kind of thing in which you might braise a brisket. No matter what you choose, bear in mind that narrower pots require less oil; wide ones allow you to cook more chicken at once.

And of course there is the chicken itself. Needless to say, there are some lousy chickens out there. I rely on kosher chicken almost exclusively. The breeds are somewhat better, the handling is unquestionably better and the koshering process means that the bird is prebrined, giving it better texture and flavor. Free-range and organic birds also can be good for frying, but be careful of the word "natural" and the phrase "minimally processed" on labels. They mean next to nothing.

You need not buy whole birds, either. The butchering is not worth the time spent and indeed, these days, I don't even fry chicken breasts. They cost a lot and do nothing but dry out in the pan. What you want instead are bone-in thighs and drumsticks, which become tender and remain juicy during frying.

After all of these factors, the coating issue becomes practically a red herring. Those who prefer something light, crisp and unobtrusive should try the recipe for cinnamon-scented fried chicken I have provided below (feel free to substitute any dry spice you like for the cinnamon). But eat quickly, since the only disadvantage of flour (or, for that matter, cornmeal) coatings is that their crunch is short-lived. As soon as they approach room temperature, the exterior softens.

Thick, slightly eggy coatings are the solution if you like crunch and want it to last. These batters gain so much crispness during frying that they retain their crackle for hours even up to a day at room temperature or in the refrigerator. The spicy combination is my current favorite, a mixture that looks like a sodden mess when you put it together but fries up beautifully.

Finally, for those still reluctant to fry at all, I do believe that my refinement of the classic 1950's Rice Krispies chicken is the ultimate version of shake-and-bake. (Of course, it violates the original spirit of that dish: there is no margarine or artificial flavor involved.) By soaking the chicken in an acidic spicy marinade for a while, then turning it in crumbs of Rice Krispies (or corn flakes, which are sold precrushed) both flavor and crispness are assured. A drizzle of melted butter just before cooking improves the coating enormously and gives the chicken pretty good staying potential.

While best hot, fried chicken is still quite good three or four hours later in the park, on the roof or even down at the beach.

Recipe: Spicy Supercrunchy Fried Chicken
Recipe: Rice Krispies or Corn Flake Chicken

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