Everyone loves a good fried chicken. The crispy golden brown, slightly spiced coating that crunches as you bite into it, with moist chicken that falls right off the bone. For such a simple dish, making it at home can be intimidating and overwhelming.
So what makes up the perfect fried chicken? Is it a quick dredge in flour? A buttermilk brine? We took a deeper dive into the ins and outs of this Southern staple and taste-tested 3 different batters (wet, dry and panko) to see which got the most drool-worthy results. Say goodbye to drive-through chicken and hello to homemade with these tips and recipes.
Step 1: The Brine
If you’re making any kind of meat, a long soak in a salty brine can greatly help tenderize your protein. The traditional brine used for fried chicken is buttermilk, which is a powerhouse of acid and sugars that work together to keep the chicken moist and juicy. If you don’t have 24 hours to brine your chicken, a one-hour soak in buttermilk will work just fine.
Step 2: Batters & Coatings (and Seasonings)
There are a few different routes you can take to get to that golden crispy coating. Traditional Southern fried chicken involves a quick dredge in seasoned flour right after the brine. Other methods involve a wet batter (flour, seasoning, eggs and a liquid like beer or water) or a textured coating like cornmeal, bread crumbs, panko, or cornflakes.
For extra crispiness, add a leavener like baking powder or baking soda to your coating. Both will release tiny bubbles when added to hot oil, breaking up the coating and creating a lighter, crispier chicken. Our Breading Mixes have a combination of flour, baking soda and baking powder for the perfect crunch.
Adding salt during each step of the process is essential. To amp up the flavor even more, add a seasoning blend (we like Cajun or Buffalo) or a mix of chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne powder, salt and pepper to your flour dredge. For the buttermilk brine, try stirring in grated onion, hot sauce, or a tablespoon of Ranch Mix.
For our test, we compared a traditional dredge in Breading Mix, a wet batter, and a panko coating.
Step 3. Frying
Frying is probably one of the most intimidating methods of cooking for any home cook. Do you need a deep fryer? How do you know when your oil is the correct temperature? Good news: you don’t need any special equipment to get a good fry on your chicken. A cast iron skillet or deep pan or saucepot with a few inches of oil can get you Colonel-style results.
The important thing is the oil and temperature. Make sure to choose an oil with a high smoke point like canola, peanut or soybean oil. Heat it gradually until a thermometer reads 350°F. Don’t have a thermometer? You can use one of these methods to test that the oil is ready for frying:
Wood: Dip the handle of a wooden spoon, chopstick or wooden skewer into the oil. If it starts bubbling steadily, you’re good to go. Too vigorous bubbling or none at all mean you’ll have to adjust your temperature.
Bread: Drop a small piece of bread into the oil. If it takes 60 seconds to brown, then the oil is at temp.
Popcorn: Drop a kernel of popcorn into the oil as it is heating. The kernel will pop as the oil reaches 350 - 360°.
Remember that no matter what temperature you start at, overcrowding the pan will result in a dramatic temperature drop and oily, uncooked chicken. To prevent oil from overheating and burning, turn your burner down to medium-low once chicken is in and fry in small batches.
When done (you can use a meat thermometer to test that the inner temp reaches 160°), remove from oil and place on a cookie sheet or other metal tray with paper towel layered underneath.
We put three of the most popular techniques to the test to see which had the best crunch, color, and flavor.
Winner: Wet Batter
This version had it all: a crispy coating, tender chicken and a malty hint of beer. As far as the process goes, this was the easiest version to make with the best results. Just a simple dip in dry mix, then the batter, drop in oil, and you’re good to go. The trick is to make sure your batter isn’t too thin or too thick.
Runner Up: Panko
We loved the crispy golden coating, but had to downgrade this version slightly because of the panko. Panko can be tricky to work with, especially if the crumbs are coarser. In our test batch, the panko wouldn’t stick to the chicken without some adjustments on our end. For best rest results, dip in egg and pre-crush the panko if it's too coarse.
While the buttermilk bath added caramelization and sweetness, the dredge wasn't enough to get a really good crust that sticks to the chicken. If you go traditional, you can’t be afraid to get your hands messy. The key to getting a breading that doesn’t crumble off after frying is to really press that flour into the meat. Don't be gentle, make it stick. And if you need to, give it an extra dip in buttermilk and back into the breading for double the crunch.
Don’t get us wrong, fried chicken is amazing on its own. But it's equally amazing dunked in a creamy or zesty sauce. Here are our favorites: