Spicy Fried Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon

Alison writes: I have always wanted to know how to make fried chicken for the occasional craving, but the only time I’ve tried, the thighs and drumsticks  were greasy and undercooked. I’m thinking I should try boneless breasts instead. Suggestions?

Tony’s take: Fried chicken is the Everest of home-cooking… or, at least, that really long family camping trip you’ve debated taking for years: if it’s successful, it’s monumentally triumphant. But if it goes bad, it’s a real mess and leaves the whole house smelling fried. You’re right to distinguish between chicken parts and breasts. Frying bone-in pieces is closer to the Everest end of the equation. You need to keep the oil at a consistently high temperature (above 350F) for a long period of time  so the chicken cooks through, but doesn’t get greasy (which is what happens when the temp drops well below 350F) – and in this scenario, avoiding the whole fried-house smell is a near impossibility. Breasts are quicker to cook through. And if you cut them into manageable chunks (about 1 inch), the whole process isn’t much more demanding than a saute.

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The tricks: The first trick in this method is to eschew bone-in chicken and think smaller. Shrinking fried chicken down to small chunks has a bunch of advantages. The cook time is quick (about 3 minutes) and the process easy (you can use a small pot and just work in a couple of batches); this also means less oil used and dumped… and less fried house smell! Perhaps best of all, these fried chunks are the perfect vehicle for big, bright flavors. And this is the second trick to this technique: after frying, you can toss the chicken pieces with intense, pantry ingredients – citrus, aromatics like garlic or ginger, fresh herbs, chiles, etc… The battered coating will soak up the flavors and become nuanced and dressy, but still wonderfully fried. Here’s how:

Serves 4. Prep time: 15 min. Cook time: 10 min.

1. Season: You can season fried chicken before and/or after cooking. For the boneless chunks approach, I prefer to do much of the flavoring after cooking (step 5). Before cooking, I keep it simple – just salt and pepper – so the chicken tastes like chicken.  Cut up 1 1/4 lb. chicken breasts into 1-inch pieces. Toss with 1 tsp. kosher salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper and 1/4 tsp garlic powder if you like – I know, it sounds hacky, but the garlic powder will add a little nuance.

2. Heat the oil: I like to fry with flavor-neutral oils that have a high smoke point – like canola oil or peanut oil – though you can certainly go with olive oil or grapeseed oil if you’re feeling flush. Fill a large saucepan or medium pot with canola or peanut oil so it’s somewhere between 1 and 2 inches deep (about 3 cups). Heat the oil over medium heat until it hits 350F (use a candy thermometer to check; if you don’t have a thermometer, test the oil’s heat with a piece of chicken – when you drop it in, it should start aggressively bubbling). Adjust the heat so it maintains this 350F and doesn’t keep climbing; on my stovetop, this means holding at around medium heat.

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3. Batter: The advantage of battering (or dipping the chicken in a sticky paste) instead of breadcrumbs is that the chicken picks up a light uniform coating with a lot less work than the flour-egg-breadcrumb practice. Battering also produces a coating perfect for meshing with other flavorings (it kind of sponges them up). To make the batter, mix 1 cup corn starch with 1 egg and 1/4 cup water using a heavy whisk until the mixture becomes uniform but thick – almost as thick as pancake batter. Add a splash of water as needed to loosen the mixture – and plan on whisking before dunking each batch of chicken.

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4. Shallow-Fry: There is not much to this. The chicken pieces are small enough that by the time they brown lightly, they should be cooked through. You don’t want to crowd the pot (which would cause the oil temp to drop precipitously or the oil, itself, to boil over); work in batches, so there’s a single layer. Add 1/3 to 1/2 of the chicken to the oil one piece at a time using tongs; if you add them in clumps, they’ll form little rafts of chicken that are tough to break up. Cook, flipping the pieces, until they’re lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Cut into a thicker piece to check. Drain on a plate lined with paper towel, then toss with the flavorings below. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

5. Toss with Flavorings: There is a moment, just after you’ve fried food where it’s steaming hot and open to take on other flavors. This is the time to season it with salt and a handful of intense pantry flavorings: the crisp chicken steams/heats the flavorings, soaking up their essence. Here are two of my favorite combinations.

Lemon, Rosemary, and Hot Chiles: Add to a large bowl 1 garlic clove (thinly sliced), 1 sprig rosemary (peel off the leaves), 1 dried chile (like a chile de Arbol, coarsely chopped) and the zest of 1 lemon (shave it into 1-inch strips using a peeler). Toss well with the fried chicken and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.

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Chinese Black Beans, Ginger, and Scallions: Add to a large bowl 1 Tbs fermented black beans (coarsely chopped; saute them with a little peanut oil for 1 minute to smooth out their flavor if you like), 1 Tbs. chopped fresh ginger, 1 jalapeno (thinly sliced) and 3 scallions (thinly sliced). Toss well with the fried chicken.

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