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Napalm Chicken Redux: Making the Best Fried Chicken Even Better

Fried Chickie

Once upon a time I posted a recipe for Napalm Chicken. That dish is still one of the best ways to get your lips to steaming, especially if you’re not currently in a torrid love relationship. Back then, I rated the heat of Napalm Chicken at five chiles; nowadays I think it’s more like 3-4, but for novices it’s still a tasty-tough test of their capacity for capsaicin.

Now it’s time to kick that landmark meal up a few notches (to borrow from Emeril Lagasse).

There’s no need to add extra zest; that’s not where I’m going. No, this is about process, hardware and the like. The little details that will make this the best fried chicken you ever used as a contact fire starter ate. And like all fried chicken, it’s even better the next day, cold from the fridge. Here are the key elements:

  • Using a Cast Iron Skillet
  • Choosing the Chicken
  • Dredging for Success
  • Frying With the Right Oil
  • Managing the Fry Steps

If you’re really going to make great Southern-style fried chicken, you need a large, deep cast-iron skillet. One that’s at least 12 inches across, and preferably larger (I have a 14 that’s about right, and I’ve used 16+ at large, outdoor events). Yes, they’re heavy, and you have to treat them right. But if you do, you’ll have an ideal tool for frying. Even heat, from gas or electric (or even flame outdoors); stable, so sloshing hot oil is less likely; and surprisingly easy to care for. (That last point is for another post.) For stovetop ranges, twelve across is about the largest you can easily use. Anything smaller probably has too low a sidewall to operate as an oil-filled fryer.

RoosterThe chicken matters. Don’t use a really large bird; three pounds is big enough. If you’re cooking for a larger group, get two chickens rather than one humongoid fowl. Why? Big pieces will scorch on the outside before the inside’s done. Them ain’t good eats! (Sorry, Alton.) And be sure the bird’s a youngster (a fryer); old chickens (roasting birds) don’t fry up well, and they for sure don’t make great Napalm Chicken. For the best, consider free-range, or organic; something where the chickens were raised in something like “natural” surroundings.

By all means, start with a whole bird and learn to cut the pieces yourself. It’s a lot cheaper, if no other reason appeals to you. A sharp knife, a pair of kitchen shears and a few key milestones in the process are all you really need. (There’s a good video here.)

Dredging is where many great fried chicken meals turn ugly. It’s not hard, though! There is only one iron-clad rule: Thou Shalt Not Double-Dip. Make the wash, and dip pieces, one at a time, in the liquid to coat evenly. Next, place in the dredge and and roll to coat in seasoned flour; or use flour in a large paper bag. The paper bag method especially appeals to kids, if you have help of the appropriate size. From the dredge, either go directly to the hot oil (more on that in a minute), or, to get a better adhesion of the coating, lay the pieces gently on a rack which is resting on a baking sheet or large cutting board. After a few minutes you can have all the pieces ready to go, then clear the decks for the frying stage. See? That wasn’t hard.

The oil matters. I suggest canola oil in the recipe; that’s still a good choice, as it has little flavor of its own and has a nice, high smoke point. However, nowadays I’d go with peanut oil. A bit more cost (but I saved a lot on the bird), a bit more flavor, and an even higher smoke point. Peanut oil somehow adds extra color and texture to the fried chicken’s coating.

Frying chicken isn’t merely dumping the bits in hot oil and waiting a bit. Oh no, this is where a lot of good, hard work can be ruined! Pay special attention, Undergrounders, and you’ll be rewarded…

Bring the oil to 360-365° F. At 375° the outside may scorch before the chicken’s done, and below 350° the finished pieces will be greasy and limp. What do you do if you don’t have a hot-oil thermometer to check the temperature? If your oil is too hot, it’ll begin to smoke. Cut a slice of white bread into pieces, about one inch square. Drop a piece into the oil. It should go to frying immediately, and be nicely golden brown in 60 seconds. If not, the oil’s too cool.

Place pieces carefully into the hot oil; I use my fingers, but tongs are safer, I can agree. Put the pieces, one at a time, at the near edge of the skillet, lower into the oil, then slowly release away from your body. If there’s a small splash, it’ll go away from you that way. (Take it from an expert with the scars as evidence, other methods aren’t so good.)

Don’t overload the skillet! Leave room around for the pieces to experience the hot oil all around. Also, the temperature drops a bit with each fresh piece; too many pieces at once and your oil will be cool enough that your chicken will be greasy. The oil should come about 1/2-2/3 the way up on the chicken. Yes, you’ll have to turn them; that’s part of the fun. Submersion’s for fast-food chicken.

Once the pieces are a good mahogany-brown but there’s still plenty of bubbling going on, remove the chicken to a clean rack on a baking sheet. When you take a piece out, tilt it over the skillet a bit to let any extra oil run off. No paper towels! You can lose too much good, crunchy coating that way. If you’re worried about the chicken getting cold while you cook the rest, use your oven (set about 225-250° F) to keep the first pieces warm.

Fried Right

Here’s an important point about good, fried chicken: It’s got very little grease and fat. The right temperature oil does that. The fat in the chicken renders out; the oil doesn’t run in to replace it, as long as the chicken’s bubbling nicely while cooking. The bubbles are escaping steam, and that keeps hot oil out. Finally, draining properly removes most of the remaining oil.

Unfortunately, most folks think of fried foods as extra-fatty from the oil; this is true in many fast-food places, which don’t keep the process working to keep captured oil to a minimum. At home, you’re in control, and you can easily keep the total fat down.

What about the other tools? Here’s my list: Long tongs that are easy to grip; baking sheets (full size) with racks that fit; a thermometer for checking the oil temperature, and a quick-jab one for checking the internal temp of the cooked meat; big (and I mean big!) stainless-steel mixing bowl.

So go make some Napalm Chicken and enjoy, knowing that this fried dish is tasty and healthful, and that the burning sensation will eventually go away…

Enjoy the (Improved Zesty Fried Chicken) Heat!


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