Tuesday, June 8. 2010
Matthew Yglesias: When Did Fried Chicken Get So Hard? Well, pace Yglesias, I did come from a family that served pan-fried chicken two or three times a week, and where relatives on both sides served fried chicken more often than not. It was invariably served with gravy, often on bread or biscuits rather than mashed potatoes (which I loathed), usually with green beans and/or corn. I learned to make it from my mother, although I never quite got her method of cutting the chicken up. (Instead I came up with my own, which splits the back into four pieces after separating the limbs, then goes Chinese on the breast, dicing it up into eight pieces for smaller shares and more surface area, but the wishbone gets lost or butchered in the process.) As for frying it, all we ever did was dredge it in flour, salt, and black pepper, then fry it in some fat, browning it good at first then covering the pan and letting it steam until done. Pull the chicken out, add some flour to the drippings, mash together until smooth, add a lot of milk, bring to a boil to thicken, season with salt and pepper, and you're done. I never had precise measurements on the flour and milk. Mom never cooked with pepper, which took something away, but she may have made up for it with salt. Later on she reduced the fat to chicken trimmings in a non-stick skillet. I usually use a little vegetable oil, certainly less than a quarter inch.
I've never actually seen this recipe in a cookbook, although it seemed universal as I was growing up. Chicken skin is moist enough to hold the flour without the aid of milk (which we used for fried round steak) or egg (which we used for baked pork chops, but more often we fried them naked). You can add more herbs and spices, but just because Colonel Sanders needs them doesn't mean we did. You can vary the fat: I think vegetable shortening was my mother's original choice -- she probably grew up using lard, but I can't recall anyone in my family using it. I've used bacon grease and duck fat, and they sure don't hurt, and when I make dishes like cacciatore -- which is basically fried chicken in a shallot-mushroom-tomato sauce -- I use olive oil, which would probably be good, if not authentic, on its own. These days I only make fried chicken when I'm feeling really nostalgic. It isn't hard, but it does take a little more than an hour. Ruth Reichl has a buttermilk recipe I should try some time just for reference, but I doubt if it will improve upon my memories.
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