Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ad Hoc Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Taken from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Cookbook, I can't even begin to describe how delicious this recipe is.  Thomas Keller challenges the reader to find a better fried chicken, and I stand by his challenge - it's ridiculous-good.  Try it and let me know what you think!

The first key step to making the perfect fried chicken is to brine it in an herb-lemon brine for 12 hours; this not only seasons the meat, but helps it to stay juicy when fried.  The brined chicken is then dredged in a flour mixture, seasoned with garlic and onion powders, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper; dipped in butermilk and then dredged a second time.  The crust is "almost feathered" and yet has a crispy, golden crunch.

I put off making this for a long time, because I've never really deep fried anything, and as simple as it is, brining intimidated me.  This recipe is not for a beginner, but is more simple than you would think.  Brine is basically salt water with herbs.  And frying isn't rocket science.  Buy yourself a good frying thermometer (these range from $4 - $15, and are well worth the investment - you can find them at the supermarket or any general cooking store).  It takes a few pieces to get the hang of controlling the oil temp, but even with the pieces that came out slightly overdone, the interior was still super juicy and the crust flavorful.  Plan ahead.  You need approximately 12 hours to brine, and the the chicken rests for 1 1/2 hours.  Prep and frying take about 1 hour.  So worth the added effort, I promise you.

Ingredients for the Brine:
5 lemons, halved
12 bay leaves
1 bunch (4 ounces) flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch (1 ounce) thyme
1/2 cup clover honey
1 head garlic, halved through equator
1/4 cup black peppercorns
2 cups (10 ounces) Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
2 gallons water

We didn't have lemons, so I used bottled Lemon Juice instead and omitted the parsley - the result was still delicious.

Directions for the Brine: 
Combine all the ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil.  Boil for 1 minute, stirring to dissolve the salt.  Remove from the heat and cool completely, then chill before using.  The brine can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.  
(Makes 2 gallons - enough for 10lbs of chicken)

Ingredients for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken:
Two 2 1/2 to 3-pound chickens (see Note below*)
Chicken Brine, cold (recipe above)

*Note: You may need to go to a farmers' market to get these small chickens.  Grocery store chickens often run 3 to 4 pounds - which can, of course, still be used - but the smaller pieces mean "optimal meat-to-crust proportion".

(For Dredging and Frying)
Peanut or Canola oil for deep frying
1 quart buttermilk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

(For the Coating)
6 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup onion powder
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Ground fleur de sel or fine sea salt
Rosemary and thyme springs for garnish

Directions for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken:
Cut each chicken into 10 pieces: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 4 breast quarters, and 2 wings.

Thomas Keller gives you step-by-step instructions on how to split, quarter and so-on. It's not easy, so you can ask your butcher to tackle this step for you, or google it.  Here's a good link to get you started:

Pour the brine into a container large enough to hold the chicken pieces, add in the chicken, and refrigerate for 12 hours (no longer, or the chicken may become too salty).

It looks like a Horror Film, but don't be afraid.

Remove the chicken from the brine (discard the brine) and rinse under cold water, removing any herbs or spices sticking to the skin.  Pat dry with paper towels, or let air-dry.  Let rest at room temperature for 1 1/2 hours, or until it comes to room temperature.

If you have two large pots (about 6" deep) and a lot of oil, you can cook the dark and white meat at the same time; if not, cook the dark meat first, then turn up the heat and cook the white meat.  No matter what size pot you have, the oil should no come more than one-third of the way up the sides of the pot.  Fill the pots with at least 2 inches of peanut oil (I used Canola oil), and heat to 320 degrees F. Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet.  Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper.

Meanwhile, combine all the coating ingredients in a large bowl.  Transfer half the coating to a second large bowl.  Pour the buttermilk into a third bowl and season with salt and pepper.  Set up a dipping station: the chicken pieces, one bowl of coating, the bowl of buttermilk, the second bowl of coating, and the parchment-lined baking sheet.

Just before frying, dip the chicken thighs into the the first bowl of coating, turning to coat and patting off the excess; dip them into the buttermilk, allowing the excess to run back into the bowl; then dip them into the second bowl of coating.  Transfer to the parchment-lined pan.

Carefully lower the thighs into the hot oil.  Adjust the heat as necessary to return the oil to the proper temperature (*note: the oil temp. drops quickly and dramatically when you add the chicken, but be careful that you don't turn up the heat too much - especially with an electric stove top - because the oil temp. will increase past your target of 320 degrees and you'll need to remove the pot from heat to get it to even out.)

You actually should not use tongs; Thomas Keller recommends using a skimmer to avoid uneccesarily squeeze the food; plus it keeps you from breaking off any of the coating.

Carefully lower the thighs into the hot oil.  Adjust the heat as necessary for even cooking, for 11 to 12 minutes, until the chicken is a deep golden brown, cooked through, and very crisp.  Meanwhile, coat the chicken drumsticks and transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet.

Transfer the cooked thighs to the cooling rack, skin-side up and let rest while you fry the remaining chicken.  (Putting the pieces skin-side-up will allow excess fat to drain, whereas leaving them skin-side-down could trap some of the fat.)  Make sure that the oil is at the correct temperature, and cook the chicken drumsticks.  When the drumsticks are done, lean them meat-side-up against the thighs to drain, then sprinkle the chicken with fine sea salt.

Turn up the heat and heat the oil to 340 degrees F.  Meanwhile, coat the chicken breasts and wings.  Carefully lower the chicken breasts into the hot oil and fry for 7 minutes, or until golden brown, cooked through and crisp.  Transfer to the rack, sprinkle with salt, and turn skin side up.  Cook the wings for 6 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through.  Transfer the wings to the rack and turn off the heat.

Arrange the chicken on a serving platter.  Add the herb sprigs to the oil (which will still be hot) and let them cook and crisp for a few seconds, then arrange them over the chicken.

Note: If the chicken has rested longer than 10 minutes, put the tray of chicken in a 400 degree oven for a minute or two to ensure that hte crust is crisp and the chicken is served hot.

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