Savory Summertime, Here At Last: Buttermilk Fried Chicken

I know. I know! You thought it would never happen, didn’t you? You thought that we would be mired in rain and cold and terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days forever, didn’t you. Well, check this: miracle of miracles, the sun has decided to finally make a prolonged appearance in our skies! This has had a few immediate impacts on my life. One, after a weekend spent largely outside I no longer look like a fishbelly. And two: PIC. NIC. TIME. If you know me, you know what picnic time means! Buttermilk fried chicken!

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As so many good recipes do, this one comes to us straight from everyone’s favorite culinary scientist, Alton Brown. He’s kind of like the wacky uncle of the food world, and I bet he’d be a kick in the pants to hang out with. At any rate, his fried chicken sure is! An overnight soak in buttermilk is the extra-special secret, the reason why, no joke, every single person who ate a piece last weekend said some variation on, “My god, how did you make it so tender and moist?” followed immediately by a conversation about how nobody likes the word “moist.” But tender it is, and moist it is, and when you eat it you will even be willing to overlook profligate usage of that particular word.

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The other secret is the dousing of the buttermilk-soaked chicken with a little spice rub. It’s no secret blend of herbs and spices — salt, paprika, garlic powder, cayenne — but it makes it just a little spicy, just a little salty, and a whole lot awesome.

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I also like to take the opportunity to practice my butchering skills; I generally get whole chickens and carve them into their component pieces, but feel free to give yourself a headstart with pre-portioned bits. One thing I do recommend, because it is fun and also because it makes the resulting bits way easier to eat when you’re in a park, is to remove the bone from the thigh, if applicable.

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When you’re frying, you should be able to fit two of each (breasts, thighs, drumsticks) into the pan at the same time. Don’t be afraid to rotate them around a little as you near the end of the frying time — because they’re essentially folded in half, I find it particularly helpful to prop the thighs up on the open side to help seal them shut into delicious little packages of fried chickeny goodness. Ideally when you serve this, all of your friends will have also brought something to share so you shouldn’t have to worry about sides and all that. Just sit back, and enjoy the accolades. And the chicken. Enjoy that, too.

Do you have a favorite picnic recipe? Let us know in the comments!

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Courtesy of Alton Brown
(This recipe scales very easily — I did four chickens total, ramp up or down as needed and just do multiple rounds of pan-frying.)

4 chickens, divided into 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks each
1 quart low-fat buttermilk
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Flour
Vegetable shortening/Crisco
**NOTE: As always with chicken, be careful about cross-contamination. Don’t use things that have touched the raw chicken to also touch the cooked stuff. I found it extremely helpful to have two sets of tongs: one is for flipping the raw/semi-cooked chicken around, and the other is for removing the fully-cooked chicken from the pan only.

  1. Layer all of the chicken pieces in a large bowl and cover completely with buttermilk. Cover, and stick in the fridge at least overnight, and ideally up to 24 hours.
  2. Combine the salt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne (in a spice shaker, if you have an extra). Feel free to adjust proportions of the mix to taste — I probably threw in some extra salt, a little extra cayenne.
  3. Drain the chicken in a colander and lay out on a cutting board. Sprinkle liberally with the spice mix on both sides. Dredge in flour, and shake off the excess. (I did the dredging in batches, so I didn’t have chicken hanging around in flour waiting for their turn in the pan. Douse and shake just before they go in.)
  4. Melt enough shortening over low heat to come about 1/8″ of the way up the sides of a 12″ cast-iron skillet or heavy pan. I’d estimate this is about half a normal-size can of Crisco, and honestly I wouldn’t be too worried about precise amounts. Once it melts, come up to medium heat. (Also note that Mr. Brown is very careful to define a 325-degree target for the shortening. I’ve previously described my general antipathy for kitchen thermometers, so I don’t have one. I just didn’t let it get hot enough to start smoking.)
  5. Drop your first batch of chicken into the pan, skin side down. Because they’re thickest (if you’ve deboned the thighs), I put breasts in the center, surrounded by thighs and drumsticks around the edge. It will probably be a very tight fit at first, but they shrink up a little as they cook and you’ll have plenty of room. Don’t touch for ten minutes, and then flip (still using your “raw chicken” tongs, if you please). Go for another 10 minutes on this side as well. (Again, if you’re picky about temp, aim for 180 degrees internal.)
  6. Using your “clean chicken” tongs, remove from the pan and drain on a rack over a cookie sheet. If you’re serving it hot, go right ahead, but I like to let it cool to room temp for transport to the park.
  7. Repeat the dredging, frying, flipping, draining for each batch of six pieces on your board. I recommend eating one of the pieces right away. For quality control, of course. Pack the rest in a box/basket/bowl lined with a kitchen towel, and head out to enjoy some actual summer sun!
  8. In cast iron, chicken, fried, summer

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