This kind-of weird, totally delicious fried chicken recipe is over 100 years old

Kate Williams
Rufus Estes Fried Chicken

This is an abbreviated version of a story written by Kate Williams, former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. 

The first recorded recipe for fried chicken, called Pullum Frontonianum, was in the 1st-century Roman cookbook “Apicius.” The Southern fried chicken we know can be traced to a melding of techniques from both Scotland and West Africa.

Recorded recipes for the American dish exist as early as the 1830s and began to appear frequently in books published during and after the Civil War. It was prepared almost exclusively by enslaved people, and has, since the abolition of slavery, been closely associated with African-American cooking.

At its most basic, fried chicken is simply seasoned chicken pieces, breaded in flour and fried in some kind of fat. Today, we make fried chicken brined in buttermilk and hot sauce, breaded and fried in peanut or canola oil or even lard.

This unique recipe from Rufus Estes, one of the first African-American cookbook authors, does not rely on a buttermilk brine. Estes instead cooks a few vegetables in brown butter to build the base of a marinade with both salt and vinegar, which adds flavor and tenderizes the chicken at the same time. The chicken sits in this mixture for only a few hours before being breaded in flour and fried to a “good brown.” 

Estes, born into slavery in Maury County, Tennessee, in 1857, wrote in his 1911 cookbook “Good Things to Eat" that when the Civil War broke out, “all of the male slaves in the neighborhood for miles ran off and joined the ‘Yankees.'"

“This left us little folks to bear the burden," he wrote. After the war, Estes' mother moved the family to Nashville, where he attended one term of school and worked various jobs milking cows and carrying “hot dinners for laborers in the fields.” 

Estes started working in restaurants at 16, eventually landing a job at the Pullman Rail Car Company. There, he said, he cooked for two presidents and a princess, in addition to other “prominent people,” as he was in charge of all special parties.

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Estes' self-published “Good Things to Eat” offers a mix of elaborate, high-end fare served in his rail cars, as well as practical Southern recipes, such as sautéed unripened melon and green tomato soup. His fried chicken recipe has a few tricks clearly gleaned from years of kitchen experience, but is, at its heart, a simple recipe.

“FRIED CHICKEN—Cut up two chickens. Put a quarter of a pound of butter, mixed with a spoonful of flour, into a saucepan with pepper, salt, little vinegar, parsley, green onions, carrots and turnips, into a saucepan and heat. Steep the chicken in this marinade three hours, having dried the pieces and floured them. Fry a good brown. Garnish with fried parsley.”

Good Things to Eat

This version of the recipe relies on Michael Twitty’s interpretation on his blog, Afroculinaria. He suggests making the marinade into a brine with additional liquid. 

The final result is a deeply flavorful and juicy chicken with a thin, golden crust. The browned butter and vinegar gives the chicken the same kind of richness and tang you’d get from a fulI-fat buttermilk brine.

Rufus Estes’ Fried Chicken

Serves: 4 to 6

Hands-on time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 4 hours

Ingredients

Brine

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 carrots, chopped

1 small turnip, chopped

1 bunch scallions, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

6 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup kosher salt

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 pound ice cubes

Chicken

1 (4- to 5-pound) chicken, cut into 10 pieces

Vegetable oil, for frying

All-purpose flour, for dredging

Kosher salt

8 to 10 sprigs fresh parsley

Instructions

To make the brine: In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the carrots, turnip, scallions and parsley. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and continue to cook until just beginning to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the water, salt, vinegar and peppercorns and remove from the heat. Continue to stir until the salt has dissolved. Add the ice cubes and stir until the ice is melted and the brine has cooled to room temperature.

To make the chicken: Add the chicken pieces to the brine. If necessary, weigh down the chicken with a plate to ensure it is submerged. Refrigerate for 3 hours. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry.

Pour a couple of cups of flour into a shallow bowl and season lightly with salt. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour until well-coated and place on a wire rack set on a baking sheet. Let rest for at least 15 minutes.

As the chicken is resting, fill a large cast iron skillet one third of the way up the sides with vegetable oil. Place the pot over medium to medium-high heat and bring the oil to 325 degrees. Monitor the oil’s temperature using a fryer or candy thermometer. Line a second baking sheet with a triple layer of paper towels.

When the oil is hot, add the legs and thighs of the chicken first, placing them around the sides of the skillet. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes before adding the breasts and the wings. Cover the skillet with a wire splatter screen to prevent excess grease from adhering to your kitchen surfaces. Fry, flipping occasionally until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165 degrees, 10 to 15 minutes.

As the chicken pieces finish cooking, transfer to the paper towel-lined baking sheet and season lightly with salt. Once all of the chicken has been removed from the skillet, add the parsley sprigs to the hot oil and fry until crisp, about 1 minute. Transfer to the baking sheet with the chicken. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes, then serve hot.