How to make perfect fried chicken like a real Southerner

Mar 2, 2016 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Image: Rebeccafondren/Getty Images

Few people can resist a bite (or 20) of crispy Southern-style fried chicken. Too many people are intimidated by it, but it doesn't have to be hard. You just need a little tried-and-true advice from a real Southerner, including some (gasp!) modern tips that make it even easier to match those standards for great Southern-fried chicken.

Remember, Southern fried chicken is more about the style than where you're from. There are so many variances (even among Southern cooks in the same region); it's all about choosing which tips make it a winner, winner, chicken dinner for you.

1. Cut the breast into thirds

Traditionally, fried chicken is left on the bone. While it's common to leave the breasts whole or to cut them into two pieces, many people swear by cutting the breast into three pieces because it cooks just as quickly as other pieces. It also guarantees more white meat pieces to go around, although with fried chicken, the dark meat is where it's at.

2. Buttermilk brine, baby!

The best fried chicken is brined in buttermilk seasoned with salt and pepper (and sometimes other seasonings) for four to 24 hours. The lactic acid tenderizes the meat over time. This buttermilk brine also gives the chicken that authentic Southern "twang" — like our accents, I guess. If you don't have buttermilk, use a regular milk or water brine made with salt, sugar and spices.

3. Batter or breading?

Generally it's breading. Batter is more like what you get from Long John Silver's chicken, which is freaking awesome, but not what most people think of when you say, "Southern-fried."

4. Hot sauce or cayenne?

Either or both is fine, actually. Unless you are attempting a spicy chicken, it's just there in a high-enough quantity to add depth. If you have a sensitivity, you could easily try paprika, soy sauce or fish sauce (just reduce the salt if you use the latter two).

5. Other herbs and spices

Everyone has their own recipe, and unless it tastes bad, you're not wrong. Dry ingredients can usually go anywhere, but wet ingredients belong in the brine.

6. To MSG, or not to MSG

KFC (probably) uses MSG; it's part of the secret to their chicken's punch of umami. The reality is, there's no definitive proof that MSG is harmful to most people. I use it, but it's your call. If you're using soy sauce or fish sauce instead of hot sauce, you don't need it anyway.

7. Take a tip from Korea

Korean fried chicken is known for its delightful crunch, and the secret is in the breading and frying. Add a little cornstarch to your flour to get added crunch. Then fry it first at a lower temperature to cook the chicken through, and then at a higher one to amp the crunch.

8. Drying is key

After the brine, pat off the excess liquid before breading it. Then let the chicken sit out to dry (it doesn't take long) so the breading sticks. If you'd like to double-bread it for extra crispness, you can give it a quick dip in the same brine, then back in the breading, but make sure you dry it between each step. This will ensure as much breading as you like stays on your chicken.

9. Room temperature is best

It's best if your chicken is room temperature when it goes in the fryer. Cold chicken lowers the temperature of the oil more than is optimal for a cooked-through product and crispy crust. But keep the chicken refrigerated as much as possible after the other steps. Food safety first!

10. You don't need a deep fryer

In fact, I hate them. They're hard to clean and take up room as a one-hit-wonder gadget. I use an enamel-coated cast-iron Dutch oven, which maintains temperature well and will go to whatever temperature you want, whereas consumer fryers usually cap out a bit low for some applications. The enamel coating is optional (though I do recommend the cast iron); it just needs a heavy bottom and high-enough sides to hold the oil with the chicken without splattering everywhere.

11. Watch the oil temperature

The oil temp needs to stay as consistent as possible and just low enough to cook the chicken through and keep the outside crisp. Start with one piece as a test, just as you would with a pancake. Use a meat thermometer (not the same one you're using for the oil) to test for doneness. Be careful to not touch the bone, or you'll get an inaccurate reading.

In general, you want the meat temperature to be slightly lower than a perfectly done temperature, since the chicken will keep cooking as it sits. You can always test the meat temperature again and put it in the oven for a bit to finish. This is especially important if you plan to double-fry.

12. Say "no" to paper towels

Many fried foods can be drained on paper towels, and that's fine for some food. But draining directly on paper towels is the kiss of death for longer-cooking fried chicken. It will get soggy after a while. Instead, line a baking sheet with paper towels, and place your chicken on a wire rack over the sheet so the fat can properly drip off without soaking back into the chicken.

13. Remember what you like

Look, "Southern-fried" chicken is sold all over the world — it's even made an appearance in one of the final rounds of Masterchef Canada as an elimination dish. The important thing is that you get your chicken the way you want it. That's what Southern comfort food is all about. Want to throw some garam masala in the breading? Well, I can't say it's traditional, but I can say I'd like you to save me a piece.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

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