Make the best fried chicken ever: North Carolina chef William Dissen shares tips
Fried chicken, long considered the centerpiece of the quintessential Southern meal, is enjoying a renaissance. Even as healthier fare rises and plant-based burgers become commonplace menu items, fried chicken remains part of the regional conversation, whether it's Nashville's hot bird or the pickle-brined version that serves as the cornerstone of chef William Dissen's new flock of casual restaurants.
The North Carolina-based Dissen, owner of The Market Place in Asheville and Haymaker in Charlotte, also has three quick-service Billy D’s Fried Chicken locations. The first opened in 2018 at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, with the other two at Elon and Wake Forest universities.
"You know how many college kids are like, 'Man, I hate fried chicken, especially after a night out,'" Dissen said, laughing.
Billy D's keeps the students and zoo visitors fed with a menu centered around, of course, fried chicken. It's served on sandwiches or as fried breast, tenders and thighs.
Dissen comes by his love for fried chicken honestly, first learning how to make it from his rural-living West Virginia grandmother.
"You know, they slaughtered chickens on the farm and we'd have fried chicken for dinner that night," Dissen said.
Like many Southern Appalachian home cooks, Dissen's grandmother marinated her chicken in buttermilk before dredging it in seasoned flour and then pan-frying it in pork fat before finishing it in the oven.
Things are done a bit differently at Billy D's. First, Dissen brines his Joyce Farms chicken with pickle juice rather than buttermilk.
"The vinegar actually helps promote and expedite the osmosis that happens with the brine," he explained. "It pulls the spices and seasonings through quickly, and then the vinegar helps to break down the protein structure in the chicken."
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Once brined, the chicken gets dredged in seasoned flour, just like grandma used to do, but it's then fried in vegetable oil rather than animal fat. It can then be finished with hot oil, à la Nashville hot chicken, or served relatively naked with classic Southern sides including celery seed slaw and macaroni with Ashe County hoop cheddar.
The slightly elevated Southern fried chicken model has been a hit, Dissen said.
"People love it, and I think where we're at with Billy D's is that a lot of national brands focus more on growth than where their ingredients come from, and I think that's what really sets us apart."
Another thing that sets Billy D's apart from the national chains: transparency. Dissen, whose forthcoming cookbook "Thoughtful Cooking" focuses on seasonal Southern food, shared his tips for perfect fried chicken, as well as a recipe so you can make it at home.
Dissen's tips on how to make the best fried chicken
- If you're making bone-in fried chicken, be sure to cook the white and dark meat separately as they cook at different speeds.
- Brine your chicken, whether it's in a salt brine, buttermilk brine or pickle juice. "You need something to help tenderize it, pull flavor into the chicken, and to help keep it juicy and tender," Dissen said.
- Have fun with your dredge. Salt, pepper and flour are fine, but play with spices. "Put in some dried herbs and paprika — cayenne if you like a little spice," Dissen said.
- Make sure your cooking oil is hot, but not too hot. 325 is usually perfect unless your chicken is particularly thin.
- Use canola, peanut or other vegetable oils for frying.
Billy D’s Fried Chicken
Makes 4 sandwiches
- enough pickle brine to cover chicken thighs
- enough boneless chicken thighs, breasts or tenders for four sandwiches
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cayenne
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder (not granulated)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon + ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 cup full-fat buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- canola oil as needed
- kosher salt to taste
- 4 potato buns
- additional garnishes: slaw, sauce of your choice, pickles, etc.
Submerge chicken in pickle brine for 30 minutes under refrigeration (20 minutes for tenders and thinly filleted breasts). Remove from brine, rinse under cold water, and dry thoroughly. Place on a sheet tray with a rack and hold under refrigeration for 2 hours or as long as overnight to dry and form a pellicle.
Combine paprika, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a small bowl and set aside.
Whisk together buttermilk and eggs in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Meanwhile, combine the flour, garlic powder, ½ teaspoon kosher salt and 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture in a medium bowl, and whisk together until homogeneous.
Season the chicken on all sides with the spice mixture, transfer the chicken to the flour mixture and turn to evenly coat.
Shake off excess flour and transfer the chicken to the buttermilk mixture.
Spoon 3 tablespoons of the buttermilk mixture back into the flour mixture. Using your fingertips, rub together until the texture is coarse like wet sand.
Remove the chicken from the buttermilk, allowing excess buttermilk to drip off, and place into the flour mixture.
Turn chicken to coat in the flour, adding extra flour on top of the chicken and pressing firmly to adhere as much of the flour mixture as possible. Lift chicken out and place onto a sheet tray. Repeat process until all chicken has been breaded.
Preheat deep fryer, or sturdy cooking pot with enough canola oil to submerge chicken, to 325 degrees.
Next, gently place breaded chicken into the heated oil and cook until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165.
Remove chicken from the fryer and place on a sheet tray with a rack to remove any excess oil. Season with kosher salt. Serve immediately.
Serve fried chicken on a toasted potato bun with coleslaw, bread and butter pickles, and your choice of sauce.