Bon Appétit (September 2008)
Growing up, my mom owned a small business -- a florist, actually -- that demanded long hours of her.
We spent a lot of time there as a family, with Mom and Dad filling orders, processing all the paperwork, and doing deliveries, while my brother and I did homework, helped with chores like folding bills and riding along on deliveries, taking flowers to the doors of our friends and neighbors. (Knowing us, we likely complained as much as helped, but I'm choosing to remember that we helped more.)
Looking back, it's a remarkable thing that my mother did, starting that business and growing it into a thriving one, moving it from a small space into a much larger, new space that my parents built, and growing a loyal and supportive clientele. She was just about my age now when she started. It was a lot of long hours, working holidays, unexpected funerals and no doubt many thankless tasks.
Because of this crazy schedule, Mom wasn't the sort who cooked lavish meals every night -- and understandably so. There were many nights that we ordered food or ate very simple dinners. That said, Mom's a good and very competent cook. I would imagine she would describe her own cooking style as "country," consisting of simple but hearty staples.
But there's one dish my mother made growing up that I looked forward to every time she would make it. When I went to college, it's the thing that I would ask her to cook when I came home. Since college, she's made it for me almost every time that I've visited them, and it never disappoints.
This dish, my friends, is fried chicken.
Mom's fried chicken is the best I've ever had. It's simple, flavorful and crispy. The chicken is moist and tender, the breading substantial but not overwhelming. The recipe itself requires very little work and puts nearly no pressure on the cook.
I've only made Mom's Fried Chicken once before, for a picnic with friends on my 27th birthday, and it was goooooood.
But when Zach and I saw the recipe for Thomas Keller's Buttermilk Fried Chicken in September's Bon Appétit, we knew a Chicken War was brewing.
So we called a "Fried Chicken-Off," inviting seven friends over for Sunday lunch with the promise of dueling fried chicken recipes. Needless to say, the response was enthusiastic.
This is our first time cooking a Thomas Keller recipe. We follow (and are awed by) fellow D.C. blogger French Laundry at Home -- what we do here at The Bitten Word is easy in comparison. We also own a copy of Keller's gorgeous cookbook, but have yet to try any of the recipes. We've read Service Included and dream of eating at French Laundry or Per Se. So, you know, we get it -- Thomas Keller is the shizz.
How could my mom compete with that?
The recipes themselves could not be more different. Mom's uses seven ingredients (including the chicken and the frying oil), while Keller's calls for 21.
Keller's brine alone consists of 10 ingredients, while Mom's only calls for salted water. Mom fries in vegetable oil; Keller fries in peanut oil. Will these kids ever work it out?
Many of the ingredients in the Keller recipe promise to bring big flavors. The brine -- which the chicken soaks in for up to 24 hours (we did 20 hours) -- includes honey, 30 garlic cloves, rosemary, thyme, parsley and lemon zest and juice. The batter includes hefty doses of garlic & onion powder, paprika and cayenne pepper.
Mom's recipe, on the other hand, only uses salt, pepper, flour and milk.
In addition to using different oil, Keller's recipe also suggests that you use so much oil that, at least in our large dutch oven, the chicken was completely submerged. Mom, on the other hand, only fries with half the chicken covered in oil.
As the simultaneous frying began, we had trouble getting Keller's chicken to crisp up. In his defense, we were not using a deep-fry thermometer (because we don't own one), but are certain that our oil was very hot. Completely submerged under oil, our chicken could not get a solid, crisp skin, and some of the breading was lost in the pan.
Mom's chicken, on the other hand, browned beautifully, just as she had promised.
When we sat down to eat, anticipation was running high. Both plates of chicken looked amazing.
Everyone eagerly sampled both of the recipes. There was a very appreciable difference in the flavors. Keller's chicken was surprisingly spicy, and we could really taste the various herbs used in his brine. The lemon juice and zest, in particular, gave his chicken a real zing.
But as our friends around the table continued to dig in -- and reach for seconds -- a consensus started to emerge. The simple, salty flavor and crisp, classic skin of my mom's recipe were a real hit.
So, the winner? My mom. Maybe it was actually better, or maybe it was more of a nostalgic thing. But everyone at the table agreed that that's what fried chicken should taste like.
So there you have it, my mom beat out Thomas Keller. Since she no longer owns the florist, maybe she should open a chicken joint.
For those who are interested, we served our chicken with Bourbon Mint Tea, green beans that we cooked with a ham hock, a delicious sauté of fresh sweet corn and onions and Sister Schubert rolls. For dessert we served a peach crumble that we modeled after Barbara Kingsolver's recipe and topped with vanilla ice cream. Believe me, three days later, we're still not hungry.
Enjoy the portraits below of our friends, who were great sports for this fun-filled Sunday.
And give Mom's Fried Chicken a try. As she says in the recipe below, "It's not that hard to do, you might as well try it!"
Clay's Mom's Fried Chicken -- verbatim from the source
First, I would soak my chicken in salt water the night before if it all possible. If not, that's okay.
When you get ready to fry the chicken, salt and pepper each piece. You can dip the pieces in milk and that makes the four stay on really good.
Put enough oil in a frying pan that the chicken is half covered. Make sure the grease is hot before placing chicken in oil so your flour with brown good. I like to place a lid on my chicken once it starts frying good, but if you don't have a lid that's okay. Just make sure the chicken is done before removing from the pan. The thighs take a little longer than any other piece. Hope you have good luck. It's not that hard to do, you might as well try it!
Clay's Mom's Fried Chicken -- adapted
Chicken cut into 8 pieces for frying
1/2 cup salt (for brining)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 cups flour
2 cups milk
Vegetable oil for frying
Add salt to 4 quarts of water. Soak chicken 8 to 12 hours in salt water.
Once you are ready to fry, drain the chicken and pat dry. Heat enough oil in your pan (cast iron skillet is recommended) so that each piece of chicken will be half-covered once in the oil.
Mix salt, pepper and flour in a medium size bowl. Place milk in a second medium size bowl.
Dip each individual piece of chicken in milk, and then coat with flour mixture, and then add immediately to the oil. Add only enough pieces of chicken so that the pieces are not crowded and not touching one another in the pan.
Cook legs and breasts 8 minutes on each side, or until skin is crisp and chicken is cooked through. Cook thighs 10 minutes on each side. Remove from oil and place chicken on a dish lined with paper towels.
Thomas Keller's Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Bon Appétit (September 2008)
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Makes 24 Pieces
Keller's secret is brining, which makes the chicken incredibly moist. Don't brine the chicken longer than 24 hours; it may get too salty.
24 cups water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey
18 Turkish bay leaves
30 unpeeled garlic cloves, smashed
3 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
5 large fresh rosemary sprigs
1 1/2 bunches fresh thyme sprigs
1 1/2 bunches fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon peel
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 3 1/2 pound chickens
6 cups all purpose flour
5 tablespoons garlic powder
5 tablespoons onion powder
4 teaspoons paprika
4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 teaspoons coarse kosher salt plus additional for serving
6 cups buttermilk
12 cups peanut oil (for deep-frying)
Fresh rosemary and thyme sprigs (for garnish), deep-fried 30 seconds
BRINING | Bring all brine ingredients except chickens to boil in large pot. Boil 1 minute, stirring to dissolve salt. Cool completely. Chill brine until cold, about 2 hours.
Rinse chickens; add to brine, pressing to submerge. Chill at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours. Drain chickens and pat dry, removing any herbs or spices sticking to the skin. Cut each chicken into 8 pieces.
FRYING | Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Mix first 6 ingredients and 4 teaspoons coarse salt in large bowl. Place buttermilk in another large bowl. Dip each chicken piece in flour mixture to coat; shake off excess. Dip pieces in buttermilk, coating completely, then dip into flour mixture again, coating thickly (do not shake off excess). Place chicken on prepared sheets. Let stand 1 to 2 hours at room temperature to dry.
Pour peanut oil into heavy large pot. Attach deep-free thermometer to side of pot and heat oil over medium-high heat to 320 degrees Fahrenheit and 330 degrees Fahrenheit. Working in batches of 4 pieces at a time, add leg and thigh pieces to oil (use splatter screen to protect yourself from hot oil). Adjust heat as needed to maintain temperature. Fry until cooked through and skin is deep golden brown, turning once with wooden spoons (to prevent crust from breaking), about 13 minutes. Using wooden spoons, transfer chicken to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with course salt.
Add breast pieces to oil and fry until cooked through and skin is deep golden brown, turning once, about 7 minutes. Transfer chicken to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with course salt.
Transfer chicken to platter. Serve warm or let stand up to 2 hours and serve at room temperate. Garnish with herb sprigs.