Monday, November 7, 2011

Refining Protocol

As a Southern in such Northern climes, I occasionally have gustatory cravings that are hard to satisfy.  Sweet tea, biscuits and gravy, barbecue, fried chicken.  Granted, a few restaurants here and there are satisfactory, but they are certainly few and far between (emphasis on "far").  Thereupon, I resolved to find a remedy in my own kitchen.  I have long made sweet tea at home, but the other items would prove more challenging.  Alas, barbecue requires an outdoor space wherein a smoker can be utilized for hours at a time, and I have no such space.  Thankfully, my friend Dan would rig up his charcoal grill as a smoker for barbecuing purposes every now and again to excellent effect.  Thus, as I was recently struck by a rather powerful yen for fried chicken, I decided to embark upon this new project.

Understand, Southern though I may be, I have never needed to fry chicken at home, nor did I have a grandmother who could teach me the secrets of frying chicken (albeit, I am indebted to my grandmother for other such culinary arcana).  On the other hand, it has become a family tradition of frying a turkey at least once a year for Thanksgiving, and often once over the Christmas holiday as well.  Therefore, frying fowl was nothing new to me, but I did want to try and refine my chicken frying methods as much as possible.

Having brined the family fried turkey on many occasions, I knew that brining was important in producing a succulent end product.  I read on a couple of occasions that the chicken should be brined for no more than 12 hours or else the meat would become too salty.  However, practically speaking, if I wanted fried chicken for dinner, then I would have to wake up at 4 am or so to start the brining.  Simply put, an incredible inconvenience.  On the other hand, other recipes have suggested using salted buttermilk to brine, and yet others describe a method of brining first in salted water, then transferring to buttermilk.  Additionally, the importance of having dry chicken to fry became apparent as all recipes either suggested air drying or patting dry with paper towels.  Having only so much space in my fridge and a desire for only so much chicken, I decided to pick 3 methods to test.

1) Brine for 20 hours, then air dry for 2 hours;
2) Brine for 12 hours, rest for 8 hours in buttermilk, then air dry for 2 hours;
3) Brine for 12 hours, pour over boiling water*, and then air dry for 10 hours;

[*The method of pouring boiling water over the chicken before air drying comes from the traditional method of making Peking duck whereby the whole duck is submerged in a pot of boiling water for a mere moment for a day of air drying.  The logic behind this treatment is that the boiling water will tighten the skin and quickly render some of the subcutaneous fat to allow for a crispier skin.]

Clockwise from right: (2), (1), (3)

For now, there are several variables that I decided to keep constant.  I used only chicken thighs with bone in and skin on.  The last 2 hours of air drying was done as room temperature to allow the cold chicken to warm up before frying.  The oil temperature was to be kept as close to 330˚F as possible, and the frying oil used was corn oil.  The frying was done in a cast iron dutch oven that contained oil about 2 inches deep.  I could fry 3 pieces at a time with my setup.  For my first experiment, the brine was closely mimicking the brine recipe from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.

Frying chicken

The one that immediately stood out was condition (3), which was a bit drier than the other two.  Conditions (1) and (2) seemed to me to be equally moist.  However, condition (1) was certainly saltier and had taken on more of the flavors of the herbs and spices present in the brine.  There may have been a slight glimmer that (2) had a bit more of a buttermilk tang.  To me, though, the brine I used was almost too fragrant compared the the fried chicken to which I am accustomed.  I saved one piece of each to be eaten several hours later after the chicken had cooled down to room temperature.  My observations were largely the same.

The last variable before frying was how to dredge: 1) No dredging; 2) Buttermilk, then flour; 3) Flour, buttermilk, flour.

No dredging
Buttermilk, then flour

Flour, buttermilk, flour
The results of the three dredging treatments came out thus.  Visually, there was a quite noticeable difference in the three methods.  The first yielded crackling skin much like what I am used to on a fried turkey or a Peking duck; it was delicious when eaten immediately, but became more leathery as the chicken cooled.  The second method yielded an extremely thin and crispy coating that almost had a texture of very thin potato crisps, but it also did not stay this way by the next day.  The last method resulted in a noticeably thicker, audibly crunchy crust, which did stay crunchy through the next day.  Thus, I decided to stick with the latter method of coating the dried chicken in flour, then dipping in buttermilk before flouring again.

As a result, I decided to go with the method of brining first, then transferring to buttermilk with the double flour dredge.  A human trial of a second batch of chicken made with this preferred method was brought to a potluck where it was well-received.  Notably, I did not try the salted buttermilk method, and there is certainly room for more tinkering.

The Aftermath

My recipe follows below:

9 pieces of skin-on, bone-in thighs
1 quart buttermilk

8 cups water
1/2 cup kosher salt
5-7 bay leaves
7-9 cloves garlic, smashed
2 sprigs rosemary
2 Tbsp black peppercorns, coarsely smashed

1 cup flour
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp garlic powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp black pepper
Pinch of salt

1) To make brine:
-Bring 2 cups of water and other ingredients to a simmer in a small saucepan;
-Turn off heat and combine with remaining 6 cups of cold water in a large bowl;
-Allow brining liquid to reach room temperature.
2) Add chicken to brine, ensuring that all chicken is submerged.
3) Allow chicken to rest in brine overnight, ~12 hours.
4) Transfer chicken from brine into ~3 cups buttermilk, again ensuring all pieces are covered, rest for ~8 hours.
5) 2 hours before frying, remove chicken from buttermilk and allow to air dry at room temperature.
6) Meanwhile, mix the dry ingredients of the dredge and divide onto two plates. Put remaining buttermilk in a shallow bowl.
7) Fill dutch oven with oil to a depth of 2 inches, and bring oil to a temperature of 330˚F on high heat.
8) While oil is heating, gently pat chicken dry.
9) Dip chicken first in flour, then in buttermilk, then in flour again. Put dredged chicken aside on tray.
10) When oil reaches 330˚F, carefully drop in chicken. Do not add so much chicken that the pieces are crammed in, oil needs to easily surround each piece.*
11) Fry until internal temperature of the chicken reaches 160˚F, about 13 minutes.
12) Remove chicken from oil and place on paper towels or cooling rack to let residual oil drain.
13) Continue frying chicken in batches until all pieces are cooked.  Fried pieces can be put in an oven at 200˚F to be kept warm.

*When the chicken is added, the temperature of the oil will decrease, it is important to monitor the temperature of the oil and bring it back up to 330˚F.  It is also important to make sure the temperature does not exceed 330˚F, as the chicken will burn.

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