Monday, 30 December 2013

Recipe: Perfect Fried Chicken

Making fried chicken should be a simple activity: take jointed chicken, dip in some kind of binding agent (milk, buttermilk, egg or plain water), dredge in seasoned flour, then fry in fat.

But, in the pursuit of an idealised version, there are always plenty of other questions vying for attention. To brine or not to brine? Skin on or skin off? Which flour or flours? Will plain flour suffice or should you reach for more advanced starches? Which type of fat? Shortening, vegetable oil, soybean? What temperature to fry at? And, perhaps most important of all, what seasonings?

These issues can send an obsessive mind into feverish overdrive. More often than is healthy, I lie awake at night mentally running through the various iterations of fried chicken recipes. And my aim by doing so? To approximate KFC’s recipe.

When put like that, it sounds rather sad, I know. Yet I’m far from alone in puzzling over the secrets that yield such a delicious coating. And the benefit of approximating KFC-style chicken is that you can use decent, organic/corn-fed chicken and have greater control over what you're putting into your gob.

Before we come to a recipe, let’s address the aforementioned issues in turn:
  • Brine by all means, but it’s not really necessary. The coating tends to keep the chicken pretty moist even after a prolonged fry (assuming we're talking about legs and thighs here). If you do brine, make it a really light one: since the coating needs to be over-salted, salty meat can be a case of over-egging the pudding. Go for a 1-1.5% equilibrium brine (i.e. weigh meat and water together then calculate the salt in grams as a percentage of the total mass) and soak for 12-24 hours. Add a couple of bay leaves and crushed garlic cloves for a little extra flavour. You can also brine with milk, buttermilk or yoghurt – these not only tenderise the meat but also give the meat a noticeably white hue.
  • Skin is good. The only flaw is that it can slide off whole, taking the coating with it, leaving naked flesh. If you’ve given your chicken a good brine this shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Skinless chicken should be reserved for burgers in my opinion.
  • Flour is a difficult topic. It depends on how much crunch you want. Pure cornflour, tapioca or potato starch will yield loads of crunch but, while good for wings, too crunchy a batter is not quite what we want for pieces. 1:1 plain flour to cornflour is a good starch but 75% to 25% is even better. Modernist Cuisine’s KFC-copycat recipe suggests a mixture of cake flour, plain flour and wholemeal flour. Cake flour is a low-gluten flour that can be approximated by adding cornflour to normal flour, so that makes sense. I can’t really detect what difference the wholemeal flour makes.
  • Fat is another complicated subject. Shortening was originally used if you believe the KFC instructional video from the ‘80s. What you really want is oil that doesn’t oxidise easily when heated and re-heated (so a stable one), drains easily, and has a neutral flavour. Apparently, KFC now use soybean but groundnut oil is your next best bet.
  • I’ve never had any problems frying at 180 for 12-15 minutes. That tends to yield moist chicken legs and thighs with the right degree of colour on the batter. You're aiming for that almost-orange colour of KFC batter. You can invest in a pressure fryer as used by chicken shops but units start at over £1000. (Some crazy fools use their pressure cooker as a fryer, but we're too, um, chicken to do this).
Modernist Cuisine's Fricken recipe

Seasoning really deserves to be discussed in a place of its own, away from bullet points. Firstly, you need lots of salt. Lots. Typically, using 1-2% salt for batter or dough recipes is a good bet, such as 10g of salt in a 500g bread dough; seasoned flour for fried coatings however need more like 9-10% salt. It sounds excessive but you have to think about how thin the layer of batter is. Using pure table salt yields too harsh a flavour, so go for sea salt like Maldon but ground fine so it disperses in the flour evenly. 2 parts salt to 1 part MSG also works well and will get you closer to fast food style. I tend to put all the seasonings (salt, pepper, herbs and spices) in a grinder together, powder them, then add to the flour.

When it comes to other additions, unless you’re a super-taster I think you’ll be hard pushed to pick up much more than salt, pepper and oil in the average fried chicken batter. However, there's obviously more to it than that - namely that elusive blend of herbs and spices. You can easily Google 'KFC recipe' and find people who claim to have reverse-engineered the Colonel's secret recipe. And, in reality, it's not that difficult a feat if you really set your mind to it. The ingredients of these recipes are hotly disputed nevertheless, with some calling for Jamaican ginger and nutmeg, others for marjoram and mustard powder.

The 'secret' recipe
These herbs and spices are always going to be background flavourings so as long as you don't add too much of a strongly flavoured element (nutmeg or sage for example) you'll stay out of trouble. Don't get bogged down in the exact proportions - a certain degree of spontaneity is fine.

Here's my best attempt at fried chicken thus far:

Awesome Fricken
A mix of chicken legs or thighs (enough for 8 - or even more! - pieces)


2 garlic cloves, bashed
2 bay leaves
Water to cover
Salt (1-1.5% of the combined weight of chicken and required water i.e. 500g chicken and 1kg of water would give 15-22g of salt)


Seasoned flour:

300g plain flour
100g cornflour

30g sea salt
10g MSG

15g black peppercorns
5g white peppercorns

1 tsp paprika
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp caraway
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Generous pinch each of sage, allspice, thyme, cayenne, ground ginger, marjoram, bay leaf (tear off a piece of leaf)

- Combine brine ingredients and mix to dissolve the salt
- Submerge chicken in brine and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. The longer you leave it, the more pronounced a flavour it will have

- Remove chicken from brine and allow to drain a little
- Preheat oil to 180 degrees celsius in deep-fat fryer or pan-thermometer combo
- Combine plain flour and cornflour in a bowl (using a clean washing-up tub is a good idea if you're making a big batch)
- Meanwhile, grind seasonings to a fine powder in a spice/coffee grinder, then whisk into flour mixture until evenly distributed
- Dip the chicken pieces in the buttermilk then place in the seasoned flour
- Shake the bowl/tub to coat the chicken (this way you avoid sticky flour hands - a lid also comes in handy here)
- Remove chicken from the flour and shake off excess coating
- Fry in oil until golden/orangey and cooked through (approx. 12 minutes, though it depends on how fresh the oil is and whether you're using a deep-fat fryer)
- Drain on kitchen roll (and dab off excess oil)
- Consume with unrestrained joy (see Mr Bean above)