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traditional fried chicken

Ramona King

Fried chicken served at the Atlanta History Center


Southern Kitchen's guide to the very best fried chicken, both homemade and definitely not

While it is certainly true that cultures around the world fry chicken (and do a darn good job of it), it's safe to say that in America, the South has claimed the dish as its own. Traditional fried chicken, at least here in the South, is buttermilk-brined, spice-dredged and cast iron-fried, served up at picnics, Sunday suppers and any old day out of a fast food box

Since there's always more to learn about making fried chicken — and eating fried chicken — we've gathered our best work on the subject all in one place. Read on for our definitive guide to all things traditional fried chicken. 

The history of fried chicken starts in ancient Rome
The first recorded recipe for fried chicken, called Pullum Frontonianum, was in the 1st century Roman cookbook "Apicus," but the fried chicken we think of here in the South can be traced to a melding of techniques from both Scotland and West Africa. Recorded recipes for the American dish exist as early as 1830s, and began to appear frequently in books published during and after the Civil War. Of course, this dish was prepared almost exclusively by enslaved people, and has, since the abolition of slavery, been closely associated with African-American cooking. Today, we make fried chicken brined in buttermilk and hot sauce, breaded in all kinds of flours and fried in peanut oil or canola oil or even lard. But its most basic, fried chicken is simply seasoned chicken pieces, breaded in flour and fried in some kind of fat.
Learn more about fried chicken history — and get an O.G. recipe
Or get schooled in all the ways humans fry chicken around the world

Traditional fried chicken should be made in cast iron
You don't need a deep-fryer to make proper fried chicken at home. In fact, most of our ancestors fried chicken in cast iron skillets and pots — and you should too. Shallow frying in a skillet is quicker than deep-frying anyway; there's less oil involved so it heats up more quickly. We like a heavily seasoned flour dredge filled with goodies like garlic powder, Old Bay, cayenne pepper and onion powder, but you can certainly tweak your mixture to suit your tastes (consider your blend a secret recipe if you'd like). Just make sure to use a buttermilk brine (see more below) and keep an eye on your bird as it bubbles in the hot oil to crisp perfection.
Get the recipe
Watch the how-to video

And you should use a buttermilk brine
Buttermilk's most obvious benefit is that it keeps fried chicken tender and juicy. When used in meat marinades and brines, acids denature and unravel protein networks, which then reconnect, trapping water along the way and effectively giving you, along with salt, a one-two punch of moisture retention and flavor. In addition, buttermilk's tang, especially when using the commercial variety, will add a bit of brightness to an otherwise heavy dish. The sugars also help to balance out the salty brine and contribute to deeper coloring and caramelization of the breading on the chicken. It'll also provide some insurance in case you accidentally overcook your chicken. Bone-in pieces take a skilled hand to fry properly, and you're far more likely to end up with something plump, juicy and delicious if you cross all your t's and dot all your i's.
Read more about the magic of buttermilk

Want to make it easier? Batch your flour
The perfect spice blend for fried chicken can contain upwards of ten ingredients. Who wants to break out the spice rack and measuring spoons every time you want to fry? Making a large, multi-purpose batch of seasoned flour will streamline all subsequent frying sessions.
Get more tips for better fried chicken

Still struggling? Time to troubleshoot
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.
Read more about how fried chicken can go wrong

Now that you've got perfect chicken, here's what to dip it in
From sweet to savory, and with the right amount of kick, the perfect sauce can take your fried dish from delicious to unforgettable. Better yet, all of the featured sauces below can be whipped up in 20 minutes or less — just don't forget to make extra!
Try them all

And on the side? Try these recipes
You can't have fried chicken for dinner without the sides, which can both complement and counteract its richness — and can be just as good as the main act. Breathe new life into old favorites with these healthy(ish) dishes.
See all the sides

Learn to pair fried chicken with wine, beer and more
Fried chicken deserves to be honored by a full array of boozy friends, including wine, beer and even bubbles. No matter your preference, we’ve tested out some tasty, quaffable options to sip with your meal.

Read more about the pairings here

Got leftovers? Good.
Let’s face it: fried foods are generally terrible when eaten cold. The mealy, cardboard-like texture of cold french fries and the wet tissue paper texture of refrigerated shrimp tempura are bad enough to make anyone think twice about allowing anything fried to cool off. Fried chicken, however, is a different story.
Learn more about cold fried chicken

Not up for cooking? Take a break at these restaurants
From fast food to high-end, chefs love serving fried chicken. Not sure where to start on your tour of restaurant fried chicken? Not to fear, as we've tasted fried birds from restaurants around the South and the country. No matter your budget or need for speed, we've got you covered.
Here is our favorite fast food fried chicken
Try out our chef's favorite fried chicken restaurants
Or these spots outside (!) of the South serving excellent fried chicken

Ready to heat up your skillet? Find *all* of our fried chicken recipes below
Southern Cast Iron Fried Chicken
Nashville Hot Chicken
Nashville Hot Chicken and Biscuits
Rufus Estes' Fried Chicken
Fried Chicken and Waffles
Fried Chicken from Mary Mac's Tea Room
Buttermilk Fried Chicken from Taqueria del Sol
Cast Iron Fried Chicken Pizza
Crunchy Onion Fried Chicken
Baked Fried Chicken
Fried Chicken with Sawmill Gravy

Fried chicken video: Ideabar Austin
Photo (Buttermilk in cup): jeffreyw/Flickr (license)
Graphic (What went wrong?): Amanda Pharis
Photo (Srirancha sauce): Maura Friedman
Photo (okra): Danielle Atkins
Wine pairing video: Ramona King
Photo (fried chicken boxes): Lindsay Davis
Photo (fried chicken): Ideabar Austin

Author image

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.