I remember — a few years ago, now — having a conversation with a friend on social media about whether it was necessary to soak your fried chicken in buttermilk before dredging it in flour and slipping it into your skillet full of hot oil. At the time, my position was that my mother’s dear friend from Oklahoma — the woman from whom I learned to make the stuff, whose fried chicken we all prized above all else — never soaked. Therefore I don’t either. And my position at the time was that if your chicken is fresh enough, and if it’s in fact a frying bird — young and small — it doesn’t need the extra help anyway.
Well today, I’ve changed my mind. I stand corrected — more or less.
You already know that for the past month and more, I’ve been obsessively making kefir. You already know that it’s ended up as pie, and biscuits, and lots of other stuff. What you don’t already know is that I’ve also used it as a bath for a bird — to fill the same recipe slot for which others might use buttermilk. And the result, dear friends, has been spectacular: crisp skin, moist meat, and extraordinarily forgiving to cook.
Kefir — alas — is not quite traditional if your vision of traditional fried chicken means fried chicken from the American South. It might fill the role of buttermilk. But this particular fermented dairy beverage did not make it to the United States, or at least gain American popularity, until relatively recently — long after the formative years of fried chicken culture passed into the realm of hazy, distant memory.
But nevermind that. What’s important is that this recipe was an experiment at a dinner party of highly discerning palates — including one friend originally from the South, another who is a self-described fried chicken enthusiast, and Elizabeth, whose impeccable culinary sense you’ve seen here many times. And it was a huge hit. There were seconds and then some all around. And served next to collard greens and biscuits, I don’t think that anybody in the room could have mistaken the meal for anything but — indeed – a culinary missive, posted from somewhere deep in Dixie.
By which I mean to say: it was more than Southern enough.
But perceived provenance aside, though I’ve somewhat revised my position on soaking, I stand by my other fried chicken preferences and procedures. And in particular, I stand by my conviction that the main problem with fried chicken, when there is a problem, is an over-enthusiasm for breading.
I’ve found myself in restaurants — and not just fast food joints — where I all but choke on the fried. I’ve been places where it’s slathered on like batter, where I can hardly find the chicken, and where — alas — though the breading is crisp on the outside, the area adjacent to the meat itself is soft and squishy and oily, and not at all good to eat.
Almost all of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten has a single, thin coating of flour. And that’s it. It’s true for my mother’s Oklahoma friend, whose bird was so well loved that she regularly had to fend off special requests to make it for this function or that. And it’s true, too, for my other favorite specimen of the recipe: made as part of a weekly fundraiser for Berkeley, California’s Thai Buddhist Temple, and served next to a sweet, thin, peanutty dipping sauce that you wouldn’t think would compliment it — but oh how it does!
In my experience, when we’re in the mood for fried foods, we often think that we want a lot of fried crust. We think tempura — or fish sticks. But — again, in my experience — that’s not what we really want. What we want is a good fried crust. One that’s actually crisp, and that locks in the deliciousness and moisture of whatever it surrounds.
This fried chicken does that, folks. And it’s simple to make at home.
Kefir Fried Chicken
12 Pieces of Chicken (dark meat is better for this purpose)
2-3 cups Kefir
2-3 cups Unbleached AP White Flour
1-2 tbsp hot sauce (I used Sriracha, but Tabasco, Louisiana, or Crystal are more traditional)
2 tsp Paprika
2 tsp Oregano
Vegetable or Peanut Oil (and lots of it!)
When it’s time to fry, mix together the flour, paprika, oregano, and generous amounts of pepper and salt — more salt than you probably think you need. Fill a twelve or fourteen inch cast iron skillet with about a third of an inch of oil, and heat it over a medium flame.
You’ll want to cook the chicken in two batches.
Remove half of it — six pieces — from the kefir. Towel it off until it is (mostly) dry. Then dredge the pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, and lay them into the hot oil.
Fry on each side for six to eight minutes. Then, before each piece is done, flip it back onto its initial side for a couple of minutes more.
Use a knife to check a sampling of one or two pieces — to determine whether they are cooked all the way through. And if they are, remove the batch of chicken to a paper-towel lined baking sheet to drain, and give it a sprinkling of salt immediately.
While you cook the second batch of chicken, you’ll want to keep the first batch on warm in the oven. And as soon as the second batch of chicken is done, drained, and salted — serve it!
There’s nothing quite so good as fried chicken when it’s fresh and hot.