Notes from the Test Kitchen: Fried chicken galore
Apparently, there's more than one way to fry a chicken.
When I started researching the Food story, "Back to basics: Fried chicken, made at home," I was amazed at how many recipes there were for the classic comfort food.
I decided to test a bunch of recipes to see which methods worked, and why. I looked for every possible variation: Buttermilk versus brine versus rub. Complex versus simple seasoning. Size of bird. Type of fat. Deep fryer or pan (and if pan, what type). Lard or oil. Temperature. I even researched how to drain the fried birds: rack versus paper bags versus paper towels (and are the towels flat, or do you crumple them?).
I chose 11 recipes, ranging from classics to just-released cookbooks. There was Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, Kansas City's Chicken Betty (courtesy of Jane and Michael Stern) and James Villas, the Lee brothers and the Bromberg brothers, Thomas Keller and David Chang. I included recipes and variations on the theme from David Rosengarten, Nancy Oakes, Frank Stitts, Gray Kunz and Peter Kamisky.
And because the only way to do a true comparison is to test variations side by side, I decided to test all the recipes at one time. Yeah, it sounded great in theory, but the execution turned out to be more than a little daunting.
Wanting to follow each recipe exactly, we started two days before the taste test, shopping for the right birds (many recipes called for specific weights and types). We then stocked up on lard and various oils (I still don't know how many pounds of fat we blew through), as well as flour and plenty of seasonings.
About a day before the test, we began brining birds for recipes that required it. That night, I took four recipes (birds, brines, buttermilk, seasonings, rubs, timers, kitchen sink) home with me so I could make sure to start or continue a recipe at the right time to coincide with the test the following day. (One of those brines leaked all over my fridge at home. I'm no longer allowed to bring my "work" home with me unless it's fully cooked and ready to eat.)
The next day, we prepared to fry. The test was scheduled for 3 that afternoon. By 1:30, we had pots of fat everywhere -- even a little deep fryer -- set to various temperatures as we fried the birds. It was quite a sight.
In all, we fried more than 40 pounds of chicken and game hen in about two hours.
We numbered the recipes to keep their sources secret, and set out the food. More than 20 people participated, each jotting notes on what he or she liked and disliked. And why.
And the results? Well, the overall winners were Frank Stitt's fried quail with cornmeal crust (we substituted game hens), Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's Southern pan-fried chicken and Thomas Keller's ad hoc fried chicken recipe.
I used what we liked -- and disliked -- about these recipes to develop my own recipes included with the story.
It will probably be a while before we fry any more chicken in the Test Kitchen. (We've moved on -- we're now frying doughnuts for an upcoming story.) But every once in a while, you can still catch a whiff of that taste test lingering there.
-- Noelle Carter
Photos: Fried chicken taste test, top, and subsequent recipe testing, right. Noelle Carter.