My mom said that when she and my dad first lived together, practically all she made was deep fried food in a cast iron skillet, because it’s all she knew how to cook. And my grandma, from Oklahoma, has bubbling hot oil running through her veins. But I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, in the 80s and 90s. Back when health crazes were all the rage. In a time when margarine was better for you than butter (although the lower price is more likely what kept that giant tub of Country Crock in our fridge my entire childhood). The days of Slim Fast powder and Jane Fonda aerobics tapes. Back when my mom only deep fried a couple times a year, and usually just to make breaded fried zucchini, and taquitos on Amanda’s birthday. Contrary to my mom’s belief, deep frying prowess is not something you’re born with. It’s not something I was born with. In fact, it’s something that, while brave and adventurous in the kitchen, I’ve always been intimidated by and have failed at every time I tried.
Yesterday, however, I learned a terrible, wonderful lesson: making fried chicken at home is. so. easy. I'm going to gain SO much weight. YOU GUYS. What was I afraid of? (I know exactly what I was afraid of from past attempts: burnt outsides, raw insides, my smoke alarm going off every five minutes). If you have the right tools, fried chicken is so, so, so, so easy. The right tools are a large, high-sided cast iron dutch oven (not enamel-coated cast iron) and a really good instant read thermometer. My mom practically disowned me when I told her I used a fancy thermometer to fry chicken, but again, I wasn’t born with the deep-fry gene. The most perplexing part of frying food for me was always the oil temperature. Every recipe says to heat the oil on high, then to keep the oil at a certain temperature, but it doesn’t say HOW to do that. Now, if you’re a southerner or grew up with a pot of bowling oil in your kitchen, this might be a no-brainer. But if you grew up in a time when bagel sandwiches with sprouts were health food and greasy fried zucchini was a once a summer treat, no matter how proficient you are in the kitchen, how on earth do you know how to control the temperature of a fiery cauldron of oil? For all the novices out there, here's how:
1. Use cast iron. It retains heat better than other materials, so it does half the work for you. You can bring the oil up to the heat you want it, then lower the flame, and the cast iron keeps the oil hot.
2. Use a fancy non-grandma-approved, deep-frying specific, instant-read thermometer. I used this one (it has a probe that sits in the oil, and then a digital thermometer interface that sits on the counter top). And I set it to alert me whenever the oil exceeded 350 degrees.
3. Add your oil to the dutch oven (I used about 2 pints of peanut oil in a 10 1/4 quart cast iron dutch oven, so it reached a little over an inch high).
4. Turn heat on high, and let it heat up to about 375 to 400 degrees. Then lower heat to medium (this is what they don’t tell you in the other recipes!). The temp will likely stay the same, or even keep rising, because of the cast iron.
5. Gently add 1-2 pieces of the chicken, then watch your temp. The cool chicken will lower the temp slightly, but maybe too much or not enough. You want the temp to fall to around 350 degrees. At this point, I LOWERED THE HEAT to medium low.
6. Watch the temp the rest of the time, and adjust slightly as needed. Sometimes I needed to turn the knob up to medium heat until the temp came back up, sometimes I needed to lower it quite a bit. THANK YOU INSTANT READ THERMOMETER.
7. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temp of the chicken after you remove from the oil.
As far as recipes goes, I tried two, and highly, highly, highly recommend the pickle brined chicken from Serious Eats (brined for 2 hours and made as written, but with 5 boneless skinless thighs instead of 4, plus a bit of smoked paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder in the flour). In the top photo, it's the bottom row of chicken. It has a shatteringly crispy, thin exterior. For the sandwiches, use soft fluffy potato buns, dill pickle chips, a piece of lettuce, and maple sriracha mayo (literally just mix up some mayonnaise, sriracha, and a bit of maple syrup.) And that’s it!
IT'S A NEW DAY. NOW YOU CAN HAVE THE BEST EVER FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICHES AT HOME WITHOUT EVEN SETTING OFF YOUR SMOKE ALARM.