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Southern Fried Chicken

August 1, 2017 Prepared By Dax

Over the past few years I have watched a resurgence of fried chicken on American menus. Whether it is served with waffles for breakfast or as a Korean fried sandwich for a midnight snack, fried chicken is in a renaissance.

With so many new menu options out there, my approach was to look at fried chicken’s roots and explore the traditional Southern American recipes. I spent time in Charlotte, Memphis and Atlanta looking for the perfect fried chicken. Here are the top locations we visited in each city:

  • Charlotte, NC
    • Price’s Chicken Coop: Side note this is the equivalent to the Soup episode on Seinfeld, you better have your money and order ready when it is your turn or you will get passed over.
    • Mr. Charles Fish & Chicken
    • QUICK Stop
    • Chicken Box
    • US Fried Chicken
  • Atlanta, GA
    • Busy Bee Café
    • Mary Mac’s
    • Matthew’s Cafeteria
    • Q-Time Café
    • OK-Café
    • Pittypat’s Porch
    • The Colonnade Restaurant
  • Memphis, TN
    • Uncle Lou’s
    • Gus’s

My research goal was to determine what classic fried chicken is, which attributes are non-yielding and where recipes may vary depending on the cook.

The Breakdown

  • WHAT IS TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN: No frills, no additions
  • MEAT: The traditional chicken used in Southern recipes is called a fryer. A fryer is a female chicken, between the ages of seven and 10 weeks old, generally between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds. The age and gender lends to more tender and juicy meat than found in older birds.
  • CUT: The whole chicken on the bone is cut into eight pieces (reserving the giblets, organs and backbone for another purpose). Traditional Southern fried chicken is not boneless.
    • White meat:
      • Wings
      • Breast
    • Dark meat:
      • Thigh
      • Leg
  • TASTE EXPECTATIONS:
    • FLAVOR: The chicken flavor profile is always paramount. Generally, there is medium to moderate salt with slight pepper and possibly light herbs, with thyme being the most prevalent.
    • TEXTURE: The skin is crisp with a thin to medium crust and very moist. The recipes that most often win awards uses brines, which adds moisture and flavor.
    • SAUCE: Fried chicken is served as is with no sauce on the plate or container. But at sit-down establishments it is common to have a Louisiana-style hot sauce on the table, which is slightly thicker than Tabasco. Patrons will often apply the hot sauce liberally.
  • TECHNIQUE: How the magic is made
    • MARINATING: This step adds moisture, can tenderize and heavily influence the flavor of the chicken. This process breaks down into three practices:
      • Brined: Done in a salt and herb solution. This adds higher moisture in the finished product and a distinct salt flavor. Normally brined between eight and 24 hours.
      • Buttermilk: Used to add moisture and tenderize the meat. Normal marination length is between 12 and 24 hours. It is traditional to add spices and herbs to the mixture, thinned out with water.
      • Nothing: A few places mentioned they did nothing other than dredge the chicken in the flour mixture. However, they may also purchase a commercially brined chicken that injects the bird with a salt solution at a packing plant.
    • SEASONINGS: Seasonings can be added in one of two places: the marination stage or the breading stage. Seasonings stay very traditional and do not usually stray beyond salt, pepper (all three can be used: black, white and cayenne) and thyme. You will occasionally find garlic or a secret spice used. However, the chicken flavor is much more important than a custom flavor profile and should never become secondary.
    • BREADING:
      • Seasoning: A simple, classic flour dredging is traditional. This is usually a point of difference with Northern chefs. At this stage salt, pepper and herbs may be added. But traditionally all-purpose flour and salt is used.
      • Amount: The chicken is taken out of the brine or marinade and drained before tossing or dredging it in the flour. Most chicken is only dredged once, but a few will have a thicker coating. This could be from a second pass through the breading stage or due to thicker buttermilk marinade holding more flour.
      • Rest period: A short rest period between the breading stage and frying allows for slightly better adherence of the breading.
    • FRYING METHOD:
      • Pan-fried: If done at home or at small establishments
      • Deep-fried: This is most common in restaurants
      • Broasted: A combination of deep-frying and pressure-cooking, providing a tender and juicy product
      • Oil:
        • Lard
        • Peanut oil
        • Vegetable oil

After weeks of traveling the country and trying fried chicken, I can confidently say good Southern fried chicken is a simple thing. The best we found was normally at a place where it was at the heart of their kitchen. It was crisp, juicy and flavorful with no frills; just proper technique and an eye to quality. Traditional Southern fried chicken continues to maintain its position as a staple of American cuisine and have a home on any style menu. However, it is quickly becoming common to take this staple dish and add a twist. By understanding the core attributes and techniques of traditional fried chicken you can easily tweak and create your own culinary mash-up.

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