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VOL. 43 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 27, 2019

Fried Chicken: Methods, memories, shortcuts

By Catherine Mayhew

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Marty Rudolph, right, wipes the face of his granddaughter, Takyla Crawford, 16, during lunch at Wendell Smith’s Restaurant. “We’re connoisseurs of meat and threes and this is where we come,” Rudolph says. Rudolph and his granddaughter eat at Wendell Smith’s at least twice a week, he says, adding the fried chicken there is the best he’s had.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Fried chicken is kind of like barbecue. Everyone has an opinion, often strongly held.

Should you soak the pieces in buttermilk before frying or not? Dry brine with salt in the refrigerator to aid in getting a crispy skin? Pan fry in a cast iron skillet or deep-fry? If you fry in a skillet, lid on or lid off? Bone in or boneless? And if it’s just a skinless cutlet is it really fried chicken?

As noted food writer Calvin Trillin observed: ‘’A fried chicken cook with a deep fryer is a sculptor working with mittens.’’ It should be noted here that the vast amount of fried chicken cooked in Nashville restaurants these days is deep-fried.

Jim Myers, noted local culinarian and Ledger columnist, remembers his fried chicken evolution. He was introduced to it at a young age by his grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi. Friday night was fried chicken night. But he truly began his fried chicken bender as a college student at Vanderbilt.

“There was a Popeye’s across the street where Lowe’s Vanderbilt is now, and I discovered spicy New Orleans fried chicken,” he recalls. “And then we would go to Uncle Bud’s, the old Uncle Bud’s, groups of us would go for the all-you-could-eat fried catfish and fried chicken. And I loved going out there.

“But the other thing that really entrenched it was in Belle Meade, the old Belle Meade Motel. It had a little restaurant there, and they served frog legs and chicken livers, but they had great fried chicken.

“And Dora was our favorite waitress we would ask for every time we went there. They had the old jukebox consoles in the booths. And they worked so you could play records from your booth. That was a treat to go there for their fried chicken. That’s all I ever ordered.”

Tandy Wilson, a Nashville native and chef/owner of City House, remembers fried chicken as a child in a particular way.

“It was room temperature and even cold fried chicken,” he says. “That’s really how we ate it most growing up. You could take it to church or a tailgate. It was rare that we went somewhere and ordered fried chicken and sat down and ate.”

Fried chicken consumption in the South went through a metamorphosis when fast food fried chicken came on the scene, starting with Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1950s. All of a sudden, the messy long arduous process of home frying chicken gave way to convenience.

“We made fried chicken so we tended to eat it at home until Kentucky Fried Chicken came along,” remembers Nicki Pendleton Wood, a Nashville native and author of Southern Cooking For Company. “When it was easier to buy it than make it, we did that.”

“The bucket really revolutionized fried chicken,” says Wilson, who went on to become a huge Popeye’s fan for a time.

So what’s the best way to make fried chicken? Pendleton Wood thinks several things are key. She says soaking the chicken pieces in buttermilk before frying adds flavor and texture. She also adds a little bit of spicy heat to her flour dredge.

“And when she makes fried chicken, which isn’t often these days, she prefers an electric skillet with a vented cover.

“It is just fantastic but it’s the only thing I use it for,” she says. “It cooks so much faster with the cover on. It (the vents) keeps the steam from building up but it keeps the heat in. So I’m a coverer. I let the technology do the work for me.”

The extended Myers family also uses an electric skillet. But as much of a fried chicken aficionado as Myers is, he’s never actually cooked it.

“You start reading about it and you learn different methods,” Myers says. “Do you soak it in buttermilk over night? Does that really tenderize the chicken? The lid on, lid off. Do you cook it at one temperature and then flash fry it at the end at a higher temperature? There are so many variations. It just scares me. I’d rather just have someone cook it for me.”

Want to try your hand at making classic Southern fried chicken at home? Here’s a recipe from Pendleton Wood’s “Southern Cooking for Company’’ (Nelson Books, 2015). If you’re not a shortening person, you can substitute peanut oil or another oil with a high smoke point. You’ll also need a deep-fry thermometer to make sure your oil is at the proper temperature. They’re cheap. Go wild. It’s worth it.

Pan-Fried Chicken

1 (4-6 pound chicken), cut into pieces or the equivalent
2 cups buttermilk, more as needed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
About 1½ cups shortening for frying

Place the chicken in a large bowl and cover with the buttermilk. Soak for about one hour. Combine the flour, salt, garlic powder, chili powder and oregano in a shallow bowl.

Set up a wire rack over a baking sheet. Remove a piece of chicken from the buttermilk and let most of the buttermilk drip back into the bowl. Dredge the chicken piece in the flour mixture, tapping off any excess. Place the chicken piece on the rack. Repeat with the remaining chicken pieces.

Heat the shortening in a heavy frying pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it reaches 365 degrees. Carefully place the chicken in the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Turn and cook 10 minutes longer, or until cooked through. Drain on a clean rack set over newspaper or paper towels.

Makes 4-5 servings.

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