Monday, 30 December 2013

Recipe: Perfect Fried Chicken



Making fried chicken should be a simple activity: take jointed chicken, dip in some kind of binding agent (milk, buttermilk, egg or plain water), dredge in seasoned flour, then fry in fat.

But, in the pursuit of an idealised version, there are always plenty of other questions vying for attention. To brine or not to brine? Skin on or skin off? Which flour or flours? Will plain flour suffice or should you reach for more advanced starches? Which type of fat? Shortening, vegetable oil, soybean? What temperature to fry at? And, perhaps most important of all, what seasonings?

These issues can send an obsessive mind into feverish overdrive. More often than is healthy, I lie awake at night mentally running through the various iterations of fried chicken recipes. And my aim by doing so? To approximate KFC’s recipe.

When put like that, it sounds rather sad, I know. Yet I’m far from alone in puzzling over the secrets that yield such a delicious coating. And the benefit of approximating KFC-style chicken is that you can use decent, organic/corn-fed chicken and have greater control over what you're putting into your gob.

Before we come to a recipe, let’s address the aforementioned issues in turn:
  • Brine by all means, but it’s not really necessary. The coating tends to keep the chicken pretty moist even after a prolonged fry (assuming we're talking about legs and thighs here). If you do brine, make it a really light one: since the coating needs to be over-salted, salty meat can be a case of over-egging the pudding. Go for a 1-1.5% equilibrium brine (i.e. weigh meat and water together then calculate the salt in grams as a percentage of the total mass) and soak for 12-24 hours. Add a couple of bay leaves and crushed garlic cloves for a little extra flavour. You can also brine with milk, buttermilk or yoghurt – these not only tenderise the meat but also give the meat a noticeably white hue.
  • Skin is good. The only flaw is that it can slide off whole, taking the coating with it, leaving naked flesh. If you’ve given your chicken a good brine this shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Skinless chicken should be reserved for burgers in my opinion.
  • Flour is a difficult topic. It depends on how much crunch you want. Pure cornflour, tapioca or potato starch will yield loads of crunch but, while good for wings, too crunchy a batter is not quite what we want for pieces. 1:1 plain flour to cornflour is a good starch but 75% to 25% is even better. Modernist Cuisine’s KFC-copycat recipe suggests a mixture of cake flour, plain flour and wholemeal flour. Cake flour is a low-gluten flour that can be approximated by adding cornflour to normal flour, so that makes sense. I can’t really detect what difference the wholemeal flour makes.
  • Fat is another complicated subject. Shortening was originally used if you believe the KFC instructional video from the ‘80s. What you really want is oil that doesn’t oxidise easily when heated and re-heated (so a stable one), drains easily, and has a neutral flavour. Apparently, KFC now use soybean but groundnut oil is your next best bet.
  • I’ve never had any problems frying at 180 for 12-15 minutes. That tends to yield moist chicken legs and thighs with the right degree of colour on the batter. You're aiming for that almost-orange colour of KFC batter. You can invest in a pressure fryer as used by chicken shops but units start at over £1000. (Some crazy fools use their pressure cooker as a fryer, but we're too, um, chicken to do this).
Modernist Cuisine's Fricken recipe

Seasoning really deserves to be discussed in a place of its own, away from bullet points. Firstly, you need lots of salt. Lots. Typically, using 1-2% salt for batter or dough recipes is a good bet, such as 10g of salt in a 500g bread dough; seasoned flour for fried coatings however need more like 9-10% salt. It sounds excessive but you have to think about how thin the layer of batter is. Using pure table salt yields too harsh a flavour, so go for sea salt like Maldon but ground fine so it disperses in the flour evenly. 2 parts salt to 1 part MSG also works well and will get you closer to fast food style. I tend to put all the seasonings (salt, pepper, herbs and spices) in a grinder together, powder them, then add to the flour.

When it comes to other additions, unless you’re a super-taster I think you’ll be hard pushed to pick up much more than salt, pepper and oil in the average fried chicken batter. However, there's obviously more to it than that - namely that elusive blend of herbs and spices. You can easily Google 'KFC recipe' and find people who claim to have reverse-engineered the Colonel's secret recipe. And, in reality, it's not that difficult a feat if you really set your mind to it. The ingredients of these recipes are hotly disputed nevertheless, with some calling for Jamaican ginger and nutmeg, others for marjoram and mustard powder.

The 'secret' recipe
These herbs and spices are always going to be background flavourings so as long as you don't add too much of a strongly flavoured element (nutmeg or sage for example) you'll stay out of trouble. Don't get bogged down in the exact proportions - a certain degree of spontaneity is fine.

Here's my best attempt at fried chicken thus far:

Awesome Fricken
A mix of chicken legs or thighs (enough for 8 - or even more! - pieces)

Brine:

2 garlic cloves, bashed
2 bay leaves
Water to cover
Salt (1-1.5% of the combined weight of chicken and required water i.e. 500g chicken and 1kg of water would give 15-22g of salt)

Buttermilk

Seasoned flour:

300g plain flour
100g cornflour

30g sea salt
10g MSG

15g black peppercorns
5g white peppercorns

1 tsp paprika
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp caraway
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Generous pinch each of sage, allspice, thyme, cayenne, ground ginger, marjoram, bay leaf (tear off a piece of leaf)

- Combine brine ingredients and mix to dissolve the salt
- Submerge chicken in brine and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. The longer you leave it, the more pronounced a flavour it will have

- Remove chicken from brine and allow to drain a little
- Preheat oil to 180 degrees celsius in deep-fat fryer or pan-thermometer combo
- Combine plain flour and cornflour in a bowl (using a clean washing-up tub is a good idea if you're making a big batch)
- Meanwhile, grind seasonings to a fine powder in a spice/coffee grinder, then whisk into flour mixture until evenly distributed
- Dip the chicken pieces in the buttermilk then place in the seasoned flour
- Shake the bowl/tub to coat the chicken (this way you avoid sticky flour hands - a lid also comes in handy here)
- Remove chicken from the flour and shake off excess coating
- Fry in oil until golden/orangey and cooked through (approx. 12 minutes, though it depends on how fresh the oil is and whether you're using a deep-fat fryer)
- Drain on kitchen roll (and dab off excess oil)
- Consume with unrestrained joy (see Mr Bean above)


Saturday, 31 August 2013

On the Virtues of Fried Chicken



To get things underway we have an excerpt from Fried Chicken by the American rapper Nas:

Don’t know what part of you I love best
Your legs or your breast
Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gonna be a nigga death
Created by southern black women to serve massa’ guest

Well put, Nasir. In less than 140 characters he ruminates on which part of the beloved bird is the tastiest, the implications of fried chicken consumption for the health of Black Americans, and makes a barely disguised reference to slavery. Take that, Twitter generation!

The song is part pop at America’s dietary habits and part farcical metaphor for a lustful relationship with a woman (“You in your hot tub I’m looking at you salivatin’/Dry you off I got your paper towel waitin’”). I implore you to give it a listen, if only to hear Busta Rhyme’s hilarious closing lines on the dangers of ham hocks: “Who cares if the swine is mixed with rat, cat and dog combined/Yes, I’m a eat the shit to death.”

As is plain to see, fricken is important enough to write a song about. And Nas’ ode is probably the best example of a food-inspired song (if you discount Funkadelic’s Fish, Chips and Sweat). But what’s so great about fried chicken? I’m a self-confessed addict, but I often find, as with many things in life, the expected high turns out to be guilt-ridden disappointment, like a greasy one-night-stand. Guilt-ridden because my moral sensibilities tell me it’s not okay to keep stuffing myself with poultry that’s lived a life only marginally better than a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Disappointment because my ‘freshly’ fried chicken has inevitably been sitting on a warming rack for hours and thus taken on the consistency of the fused tentacles of a very dry mop.

So, what advice can a Manchester fricken junkie give? Well, I’m inclined to agree with Will Self when he says, in a clever inversion of the old rat story, “you’re never more than a few feet away from some disjointed portion of poultry carcass.” That is to say, there are plenty of options in this here city. What follows are some tips/recommendations that may or may not (especially if you don’t eat chicken) come in handy:
-          
  •       Avoid anywhere near Piccadilly or Portland St. And the Dixy Chicken at Shudehill. The one on Deansgate is acceptable. Beware of a greater than usual vibe of “I don’t give a fuck” on employees’ faces. That is, if you are in any fit state to be so aware.
  •             In theory, I’d question the kitchen practices of all chicken shops but I can’t bear to look at their Food Hygiene Ratings and suggest blocking it from your mind, preferably with alcohol.
  •           The best chicken wings are in my opinion to be found at Chunky Chicken and Chicken Cottage in Rusholme and Finger Lickin’ Chicken in Withington. They’re a (un)healthy size with the right amount of spice and a slightly less crisp coating (which I prefer for wings). If you like ‘em spicy, Finger’s the default. If you like shards of batter, then stick to KFC.
  •           I now only rarely order my old fave, the 2-piece combo, as I find that wherever I go the quality of chicken borders on the foul (bum-dum-tsh!). Unless we’re talking Southern Eleven’s chicken dinner, although I think they take the colour of the batter a little too far. More brown than golden. Stick to wings and burgers where poor quality is less evident.
  •           When you enter a joint, ascertain the quantities of chicken pieces, wings, and burgers on the warming racks. If they’re low on a certain thing you might be able to get some freshly made if you order enough. Failing that, just ask for it to be made fresh as we’ve established the price of eating stale fricken.

A word on KFC . If you like your service efficient and your options plentiful then it’s definitely worth seeking one out. As much as I try to avoid the global fast-food chains, I can’t fault their turnover of customers, their marketed-to-death specials, and the internal temperature of the food served. Sometimes when I enter any one of the number of ‘fake KFCs’ I often wonder (a) whether the my bowels are going to hate me for this in the morning (sorry!) and (b) why the most incompetent member of staff is serving and the other four are collectively managing to make one mini-fillet burger and a portion of chips. I think there should be a joke along the lines of: “How many Dixy Chicken employees does it take to make a bargain bucket? Five, plus the manager, and the delivery guy, and some guy they roped in off the street. And it still took two hours.” Yeah, I’ll grant you, it’s not very funny. And another thing:  why do KFC still refuse to salt their chips? Surely one salt shaker is cheaper than hundreds of individual sachets. Is it a way of limiting customers’ salt intake? If so, I don’t think it’s working.


Right, I’ll stop myself before I get too much into rant territory. Thanks for taking a foray into the crazy, mixed-up world of a fried chicken addict. It’s great to finally open up about my vice. But writing about it, far from helping in some cathartic way, has just made me want to get hold of a bargain bucket. Dammit!

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

Lovely Beagle branded glasswear sporting Buxton's Dark Nights and the Kernel's London Sour

Never have truer words been spoken than the title of this post. Spotting The Beagle's Chicken In A Basket night - chicken served three ways - our pulses raced as it was confirmed that fried would indeed be one of the ways it would be cooked. Then I stupidly decided to give up fried chicken for Lent (yes, it has got that bad). Cue moral dilemmas. Being agnostic I'm not really that strict on the whole Lenten abstinence, and decided, for the sake of democracy - as Jamie's analysis of fried chicken is only going to end in one answer: "good!" - to go and eat everything anyway.

I will ashamedly admit that we had never before visited the Beagle. Though it had most definitely been on our to-do list since I picked up a mysterious flyer promising a beer house with dining room (bastards! I shouted, they've stolen my concept!) at IMBC, we had failed to make the lengthy two bus-rides journey over. Whilst we have an array of chicken eateries on our doorstep, this journey proved we will travel far and wide for our land-burdened feathered friend. On entrance, the bar made me feel a little like I was in a very sophisticated German beerhouse - and even reminded me a little of Die Henne in Berlin (chicken on the brain or what?!) - though on moving into the restaurant area, it felt a little more like I was in a super stylish granny's living room.

Though we would be provided with beer as part of the deal, we opted for something different as an aperitif, and Jamie wisely selected us a half of the Kernel London Sour (at 2.3% perhaps one of the lowest ABVs I've seen on something actually drinkable!), and another of the Buxton's Dark Nights (4.6%) - an American style Porter. Having acquainted my palette with a rather less sophisticated Irish porter in an attempt to enjoy beer as a young girl, I ended up becoming rather good friends with it, and so the Dark Nights was right up my street. Whilst I could appreciate the er, aperitif style of the Kernel (it certainly got one's mouth watering!) the barman's description of it tasting like salt & vinegar crisps couldn't get out of my head, and I passed this on to Jamie. Good news all round as he's loving the Cantillon brewery at the moment, whose Geuze beer isn't altogether dissimilar to the Kernel's offering. I should also take this opportunity to award Jamie with a small round of applause for managing to refrain from any puns on its name given what we were here to eat...

The most perfect scotch egg in the world. 

We were given a couple of morsels to begin: a perfectly cooked scotch egg (look at that yolk!), and something lovely and buttery on brown bread. I had to ask the waiter what it was who replied "just potted cheddar". Now to he who works there, and probably is lucky enough to pinch a bit every day of his working life (late at night, when going for a 'fag break' but secretly going on a fridge scour - that's what I used to do), it may just be potted cheddar, but to me, it was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten on bread before EVER. Even with the chicken still to come, this decided it: the Beagle was my new favourite restaurant.

Now, I can't say I'm altogether taken with this new fad of serving things in a basket (think burger bars), but I was going to let this slide for tonight, and was more than pleased when I spotted that the Beagle had carefully sourced lovely stylish baskets for the evening. Despite that, chicken in a basket ain't ever gonna look pretty so there's no photo, but you do get to hear my comprehensive description! First of all, my guilt re: Jesus' death subsided as the fried chicken was 'popcorn' style, and therefore not even what a fricken aficionado would term fried chicken due to its lack of grease. The coating was light and tasty and easily popped! into the mouth. The spicy Buffalo wings were seriously spicy (though I'm only one step up from a Korma kind of gal) though didn't set my mouth on fire as much as the ones we tried at the Bird in Berlin (more of what they're about here). Fortunately, the sides offered blue cheese dip which made them easily manageable for someone as wimpish as me. We were also given a purple cabbage slaw and crudit├ęs of carrots and celery (the chef's Mum had clearly taught them that you must always get at least one of your five-a-day in your evening meal!).

BBQ Beanz & blue cheez dip
Back to the chicken, as we still had a breast and a leg of chicken each to get through... My guess is that they might have been cooked sous-vide and then finished off in a pan as they were so wonderfully tender. Or they're just really good at cooking their poultry to perfection too! We were also given the best chips ever: perfectly seasoned with what I can only imagine was crack-salt as I am still craving more of them now, a whole week later. There was so much food we had to ask for a doggy bag to bring half of the chicken home, which I thoroughly enjoyed in a club sandwich the next day.

We were, of course, also given matched beers with the chicken with a choice of either Quantum's American Amber Ale (5.3%) which I really enjoyed; not overly hoppy and therefore a great choice for me. We were also served Magic Rock High Wire (5.5%), which - to be honest - I don't remember at all, but beer ratings websites seem to score very highly so it's probably not bad!

This would have small children crying with tears of joy
Dessert was still to come and took the form of a retro ice cream sundae. The ice creams were phenomenal - the strawberry even better than a Mini Milk (what high praise!), and I would hazaard a guess that the other was a dark chocolate sorbet. All served up with strawberries, bits of brownie and honeycomb, and topped - slightly too high, for my liking - with whipped cream (the proper stuff) - we manage to get through most of it, as we were worried it might not transport so well in our doggy bag.

All in all, a highly successful evening! I think that's evident from the number of seemingly superfluous statements I've made in this entry, but it's all true. My only criticism would be that when I heard 'matched beers' I thought there would be set beers provided to compliment each of the courses and had dreams of some sort of treacly dark beer to go with the dessert. Nevertheless, booze was enjoyed, food was demolished and even better, it was a bargain! £20 per person for a pint, a nibble, pracitcally an entire chicken, sides and dessert. I hear other great themed nights are on the cards, so please Beagle, reserve us a spot now, because I can't wait to see what you'll do with a prawn cocktail...


The Beagle
456-458 Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton
Manchester, M21 0BQ
0161 881 8596

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