Since they were old enough to decide, Maggy and Sharon have always gotten to choose what they want for their birthday dinner. I especially remember all the years Sharon requested roast turkey with all the trimmings for her July 20th birthday!
This year Maggy requested fried chicken. I was thrilled because everyone in our family loves it, and frying is probably one of the simplest, cleanest ways to cook chicken. I developed this recipe nearly twenty years ago when I was the food editor at Cooks Illustrated. Over the years I’ve made a few tweaks to further improve the recipe, but I believe this method makes the best classic fried chicken.
First, the preparation is neat and tidy. For the chicken’s briny buttermilk bath I use a zipperlock bag (a used one is fine, just test it for pin holes first). For shaking the parts in flour, I suggest doubled brown paper bags. No wash up required. When you’re done, simply toss both bags in the trash bin.
The process is equally efficient. I use a wire rack set over newspaper for laying out the flour-coated parts and the same set up for draining the fried chicken. Don’t use separate racks for each process. Simply wash the rack in between. If you want to keep the chicken warm, just place the wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and set it in a 200 degree oven.
Covering the chicken the first half of frying not only helps the frying oil return to temperature, it also holds in the moisture, giving the chicken a wonderfully crunchy—not just crisp texture. Frying chicken in batches doubles the cooking time, which is why this recipe calls for a small chicken, which fits nicely in a large skillet in one batch.
And don’t toss that frying oil. Strain out the crumbs and refrigerate it, because now that you’ve realized how simple and clean frying is, I’ll bet you’re going to be doing it a lot more of it.
Classic Buttermilk-Fried Chicken
Serves 4 to 5
Remove the skin from the breast and thigh pieces, if you like.
1 whole chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds), cut into 10 pieces (2 wings, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, and 2 breast halves, halved crosswise) neck, giblets, wing tips, and back reserved for another use
11/2 cups buttermilk
4 teaspoons fine salt, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
A generous 2 cups vegetable oil (or enough to measure 1/2-inch deep in a 12-inch skillet)
2 cups all-purpose flour
Place chicken pieces in a gallon-size zipper-lock bag. Mix buttermilk with 2 teaspoons of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Pour over chicken; seal and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
When ready to fry chicken, measure flour and remaining 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper into a large doubled brown paper bag; shake to combine. Working in 3 batches, drop chicken pieces into the flour mixture and shake thoroughly to completely coat. Place coated chicken pieces on a large wire rack set over newspaper.
Meanwhile, measure oil to 1/2-inch deep in a 12-inch heavy bottomed skillet (preferably cast-iron); bring to 350 degrees over medium-high heat.
Drop chicken pieces, skin side down, into hot oil (It will be a tight fit.); cover (with a cookie sheet or pizza pan) and cook for 5 minutes. Lift chicken pieces with tongs to make sure chicken is frying evenly; rearrange if some pieces are browning faster than others. Cover again and continue cooking until chicken pieces are evenly browned, about 5 minutes longer. Turn chicken over with tongs and cook, uncovered, until chicken is browned all over, 8 to 10 minutes longer. While chicken fries, wash wire rack and set over fresh newspaper near skillet. Remove chicken from skillet with tongs and drain on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Strained cooled oil into a heat-safe container and refrigerate for future frying.)