Southern Fried Chicken, a traditional recipe:
Southern Classics: Fried chicken, biscuits, greens, hoppin’ john, succotash, fried pies. These are the kinds of dishes frequently identified as indigenous foods to the southeastern regions of the United States.
Many of the dishes I was exposed to growing up on the farm had more than one variety, often distinguished as “every day” and “comp’ny”, like biscuits. Company biscuits had cream and eggs and other stuff, every day biscuits were made of lard and flour and some baking powder (nothing else).
People in different parts of The South have had (naturally) different ways of doing the same thing. A lot of my family comes from northern central North Carolina and Southern Virginia, pretty much for as long as Europeans have been here. I learned to cook from my father, as I have mentioned elsewhere. I also learned from both my grandmothers, my grandfather, the mother of the share-cropper on my grandfather’s farm, and several old black men and women (what were called “coloured” cooks when I was just a boy though even then I was pretty much raised by my folks to be blind to the pigment of a person’s skin). The men were mostly outdoor campfire cooks, the women were mostly indoor kitchen cooks, with the exception of my father, who could do both with equal facility.
What I’m leading up to is that there are almost as many ways to make “real” southern fried chicken as there are towns in the south. With that acknowledgement, all of the people mentioned above made it the same way, and that way was The Way – so if you want to learn to make it some other way, there are a gazillion sites on the net that will be happy to pretend that you can make it some other way and call it “southern fried chicken”.
This is not deep-fried chicken. This is not pressure-fried chicken. This is not chicken with a wet thick heavy batter that you bite into and wonder if you’ve gotten to the chicken part yet. This is not fancified chicken with all kinds of other flavors added. It’s not Kentucky Chicken, or Kansas City Chicken, or any other place-name chicken.
You will need a cast iron skillet (or at least a stainless steel heavy skillet), as large as you can put on the burners you have. A lid is recommended. A grease screen is also a good idea. You will need lard, real lard, the kind that you have to refrigerate or freeze in order to keep. Or you can use peanut oil. I like to use refined peanut oil, with a couple tablespoons of unrefined peanut oil for flavor.
Fried chicken, when I was a child, was better than it got in the 1980s and 1990s. I discovered several years ago that the reason was the difference in the flavor of the chickens. Modern large white commercial factory-farmed chickens simply have less flavor than old-fashioned raised chickens. They also have smaller wings, legs, and thighs – while the breasts are so large that most old-timey recipes do not account for how long you should cook the individual pieces. In this regard, chickens are like tomatoes. Commercial grade supermarket tomatoes are tasteless faux imitations of the real thing.
The only real solution is to get pastured chickens. If you want to get certified organic chickens that’s fine, but I am telling you that you can get the best “organic” “free-range” “cage-free” “natural” chicken on earth but the flavor isn’t going to be what the flavor of a pasture-raised chicken is going to be. Now go and do what you will.
Cut the chicken into pieces. Yes you want bones, yes you want skin. No you don’t want boneless, skinless, fatless chicken. I strongly suggest with modern chickens that you cut each breast piece in half, yielding four (4) breast pieces per chicken.
Add a layer of chicken pieces to a large pot, salt them, then pour a layer of buttermilk over each one. Stack up your chicken pieces this way in the pot. You’re not trying to fill the pot with buttermilk you’re just covering the pieces as you go. Refrigerate and leave at least one hour, and up to a day if you can plan ahead – longer is better.
Pour enough oil into the skillet to come up 1/3rd (one-third) the height of the chicken piece laying in the skillet.
Turn on the burner. You will want the oil to get up to at least 300 degrees, but under no circumstances over 350.
Use a shallow casserole dish or even a mixing bowl. Add 1.5 cups of flour per whole chicken, more if it is a large (over 4 lbs) chicken, or if you run out. Add 2 tablespoons (at least) of black pepper, sweet paprika, and salt, and mix. If you have it, add 1 tablespoon of potato starch (I don’t really use cornstarch anymore, but when I was growing up, people used cornstarch).
Set a wire rack next to the skillet, the flour mix next to the wire rack, and the pot of chicken next to the flour mix dish. Dredge each piece on all sides in the flour, then place on the wire rack. Fill the skillet with pieces, but don’t overcrowd, you will almost certainly have to do 2 rounds per chicken. I like to cook the wings and legs together with maybe a thigh, and the breast and thighs together.
Cook for 12 minutes, then turn each piece and cook for 8 more minutes. Set on another wire rack and let dry and drain. Serve anytime. This recipe is as good cold as it is hot, but it won’t be crispy the next day. It is easy to calculate that in most cases it will take 40 minutes to fry a whole chicken. I typically fry two whole chickens at once, so we have plenty of leftovers.
In the winter, serve with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, and greens. In the summer serve with cold potato salad and biscuits. Bon appetit!