The Man Who Fried
On The Lifelong Pursuit in Search of Fast Food-Tasty Chicken At Home
Atop the huge pile of useless crap in my basement, there now sits a souvenir--no, a trophy, really--I picked up recently. It's a vinyl recording of a group called the Colonel's Mandolin Band that is sold at only one location: the Sanders Café in Corbin, Ky., aka the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. The restaurant itself is a standard KFC residing within the original structure, but the attached museum offers up some fascinating artifacts, such as old menus and invoices, and even one of the Colonel's (an honorary title, by the way) original pressure cookers. Well, they fascinate me anyway because, you see, fried chicken haunts me.
It is simultaneously one of my greatest loves and most painful failings. My first attempt at frying chicken required me to stand on a chair to reach the stove, trying desperately and blindly to re-create at home the fast-food awesomeness that, back in the day, was considered a special-occasion-only treat. I probably shouldn't have been handling boiling grease as a third-grader, but oh well. I don't remember how it turned out, but pretty much every attempt in the subsequent 25 years has sucked, so I can only conclude the first batch did, too.
I say "pretty much" every attempt because, amid the hundreds of batches of chicken I've ruined, there was one time, just one, that I got it right. It involved a somewhat obscure method called steam-frying, a technique with which Maryland is uniquely associated. After the chicken, dipped in egg wash and floured, is fried in a small amount of oil, water is added and the pan is covered tightly. Amazingly, the chicken does not become soggy. The drippings are used to make a cream-based gravy, and, served with some fritters, you've got Maryland-style fried chicken.
Aside from that singular, sublime anomaly, frying chicken for me was an exercise not in futility, but in ever increasing frustration and puzzlement. The more I practiced, the worse I became--like in golf. The batter was always improperly seasoned, and there was always too much or too little of it. The meat was always either moist but undone, or dry and dense. I tried every combination of seasoning, marinade, coating, and cooking imaginable, with zero success. So when I happened to find myself in Louisville last month, I figured a pilgrimage to my fried chicken Mecca might award me some direly needed level-up points. The weirdest part? It freaking worked.
People all over Earth fry chickens in some way or other, but we here in the U.S. are most accustomed to what's known as Southern fried chicken, which is fried either partially or totally immersed in fat that is hot enough to brown the coating or batter that has been applied to cut-up pieces. This method is thought to have been popularized by Scottish immigrants who settled the South in the 19th century; they apparently fried food more often than earlier English settlers, who preferred baking and boiling things. Enslaved African-Americans in the South adopted the practice because it was an efficient means of cooking and slaves were often allowed to raise chickens during the plantation era. Popularity exploded in the 1950s when Harland Sanders began selling his spice mix and method of reducing cooking time by frying under pressure to restaurants across the United States. Notably, Korean fried chicken, which has an exceedingly crisp and thin coating, has become something of a mini-trend in New York and Washington, totally skipping Baltimore, sadly.
In any case, I scoured the museum for clues about the Colonel's secret method, but all I got was that originally he used Mirro brand 16-quart pressure cookers at 15 pounds of pressure, with a cooking time of 13 minutes. Still, this was enough to reignite my chicken-frying ambition, and I resolved to teach myself the art of fried chicken making. I decided to follow the Colonel's model as closely as possible, since it had, for so long, served as my paradigm. The very same model pressure cooker Sanders used was available on eBay, but a cooker that size would require at least two gallons of oil, so I went with a tiny four-quart Mirro, which was $20 at Wal-Mart. My control cooker was my grandmother's cast-iron skillet, which, anecdotally at least, is supposed to be the best tool for this job.
Supposedly, Sanders' original recipe was given to him by a woman named Eula Gordon, which consisted of 11 flavoring agents and is kept in a high-security facility in Louisville. But in 1983, author William Poundstone had a batch of surreptitiously obtained KFC seasoning tested in a lab. The result was shocking--just four ingredients were found in the mix: flour, salt, black pepper, and MSG.
Indeed, nearly all recipes seeking to emulate KFC original include MSG; even Eula Gordon's supposed original 11-component recipe calls for a whopping three tablespoons of Accent for two cups of flour. A quick note on MSG--it's simply a synthetic form of the amino acid glutamate, and is found naturally in everything from salmon to grape juice. If you think you're allergic to it, check your freezer or cupboard and look for hydrolyzed protein in the ingredient lists. Guess what--it's MSG. Get over it, people. I used three recipes for my testing: the 11 herbs and spices version, the four-ingredient lab test result version, and my own six-ingredient spice mix.
In the space of a week I fried 72 pieces of chicken, which were sampled by eight tasters, in both oil and shortening, and the clear winner was surprising. It was my spice mix (which I haphazardly slapped together as a control and immediately forgot) fried in the pressure cooker with canola oil. Second place was the lab-tested recipe, also pressure-fried in canola oil. The least popular was cast iron, shortening, Eula. The pressure-fried chicken was very crispy, incredibly moist, more tender than the pan-fried, and cooked in less than half the time (higher pressure raises water's boiling point, allowing for more rapid cooking). The pan-fried also suffered from uneven browning.
I have long known that the simplest dishes are sometimes the most difficult. There's simply nowhere to hide flaws in quality or execution. So if you have struggled, as I have, with properly frying chickens, I advise you to make the trip to Corbin, Ky., and absorb some skill vibes. Or just buy yourself a pressure cooker.
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Baltimore, MD 21201