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Chicken tasting

Ramona King


All the ways fried chicken can go wrong — and how to do it right

It's a common problem. You've buckled down and purchased a big jug of oil, a whole chicken and a quart of buttermilk. You've read countless recipes and learned as much as you can. You've marinated and dredged and skillet-fried. You've pulled your fried chicken out of the oil and taken a big bite. It's disappointing. But why?

There are countless ways fried chicken can go wrong — we're here to help you diagnose the problem so you can do it right next time. (And we've got a fool-proof recipe for you, too.)

Oil not hot enough
When the oil isn't hot enough, you'll be hard-pressed to get a fully crisp crust, and the final result will taste greasy, with a mushy exterior. Sad. We fry our chicken at a moderate 325 degrees — it's hot enough to turn the crust perfectly crisp, but not so hot that the exterior will burn before the chicken cooks through.

Oil too old
Oh, child. Old oil is often full of particulate matter, which lends the chicken a darker color and, worse, a rancid flavor. The best way to tell if your oil is too old is to give it a big sniff before you pour it into your pot. Rancid oil smells rubbery and unpleasant; you'll know it when you smell it, we promise. And while you can certainly re-use fryer oil (just strain it out first), re-purposed fry oil will go rancid more quickly than oil from the bottle. Give it a smell before every use.

Not patted down
When the chicken isn't patted down properly before breading, or it doesn't have a chance to rest before frying, the skin will balloon away from the chicken meat when it hits the hot oil — you'll never get a perfectly adhered crust. Bless your heart. To avoid this problem, give the chicken a light pat when it comes out of the brine, and then make sure to let the dredged chicken rest on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before dropping it in the fryer.

Not brined
Brines flavor fried chicken all the way into the meat, so un-brined birds will taste bland and, often, dry. You'll really only taste whatever seasoning is in the crust. Not good. Even a simple brine of water and salt will improve your fried chicken — even better is a buttermilk brine.

Fried too long
When chicken gets fried too long it is, often, burned, greasy, and the meat will start to separate from the bones. That's not what we're going for, at all. Aim to fry your chicken for somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes for breast meat, and slightly longer for thighs, drumsticks and wings.

Here, you'll end up with an ultra-thick crust that distracts from the chicken itself. It may also break your teeth. You really just need a single dredge in flour for chicken success.

Not seasoned properly
Unseasoned chicken simply doesn't taste good. It's full of unrealized potential, and we never want that. Make sure you're brining the chicken for at least an hour or two (see above) and seasoning the flour dredge with salt, pepper and whatever spices your heart desires.

The perfect chicken?
Try our Cast Iron Fried Chicken recipe for juicy meat and always crisp, flavorful crust. You really can't mess this one up.

Graphic: Amanda Pharis and Ramona King

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Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.