Monday, June 13, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Southern Pan-Fried Chicken, Done the Right Way

Since some readers seem to like my meanderings about cooking, I thought I'd push the envelope (or my luck?) a bit and follow yesterday's posting with one today describing how my mother fried chicken.  She made the best fried chicken ever cooked, of course.  Even her in-laws admitted that.  So it has to be true (smiley face imagined here, because, of course, I'm teasing, though her chicken was uncommonly good).

But a proviso and forewarning: frying chicken in the old-fashioned Southern pan-fried way is not easy.  I have tried and tried to replicate my mother's chicken, with only partial success.  Frying chicken well is as much of an art as it is a skill.  And like any art, it has to be learned, I'm convinced, in a hands-on apprenticeship way, by methodical, detailed attention to how a master of the art practices it.  

Here's what I learned watching my mother fry chicken, and talking to her about why her chicken turned out just right--crisp, yet succulent, fried to a golden-brown perfection without being fried to death in deep fat.  You start with the chicken . . . . 

Which is best of all if it was killed the day before or early the same day on the farm of a country relative, but for most of us, will now come from a grocery store.  Once you have your chicken and have cut it up, it must be immediately plunged into a sink or bowl full of very cold water.  My mother was convinced that her chicken excelled because she never skipped this step.  The water was just water.  It had no salt in it.  But it did, she maintained, draw out some of the blood from the chicken, and in this way, made the chicken taste fresher.  It also made the chicken plumper.  And having the chicken coldish when it goes into the hot fat helps it fry without absorbing excess fat.

My mother let her chicken sit in the cold water bath for at least an hour, as she worked on the other parts of the preparation process.  If you intend to fry chicken the way God intended it to be fried--according to the old-fashioned, Southern pan-fried method--prepare to invest several hours in the process.  And prepare to be spattered by hot grease and wilted by hours spent standing over a hot cookstove.  It's worth it.

As your chicken sits in its water bath (some Southern cooks recommend buttermilk or milk, instead: try and see what works for you), my mother slowly heated drippings--about two inches of fat--in the heavy black-iron skillet she used only to fry chicken.  She had inherited this skillet, which has a heavy, tight-fitting black-iron lid, from her maternal grandmother.  I now have and regularly use the skillet.

The drippings: as with every other family I knew in my kinship network or in our community as I was growing up, a metal canister sat on our cookstove between the burners, and into it were poured the drippings of almost any meat that had been fried or roasted in the kitchen.  Because (again, this was true of almost all Southern families with whom I had any contact as I grew up) the Southern diet has traditionally been pork-heavy, to the extent that it incorporates meat much at all, the drippings in the jar were always predominantly from bacon or ham fried for breakfast.

But they might also include flavorful tallow skimmed from the top of the pan juices after a beef roast had been roasted, and prior to the making of gravy for the roast.  A little grill covering the metal canister caught any particles of burnt fat or meat floating in the fats, so that they wouldn't end up in whatever you were frying, spoiling its taste and causing the fat to burn.  The filtering of the meat tidbits also kept the fat pure and unspoiled, as did its constant heating and reheating as the oven and stove were used.

I know full well that one reason my fried chicken doesn't approximate my mother's in taste is that I have long since dispensed with the use of drippings or a dripping jar.  Whereas my mother, her sisters, my grandmothers, and everyone I knew would routinely season vegetables with spoonsful of drippings dipped out of the jar, and would fry just about anything that they fried in the rich drippings kept in the jar, I tend to use olive oil or a little butter, instead.  To fry chicken, I use peanut or soy oil.

Your object as you pour your oil or fat into your heavy skillet: to end up with just enough oil or fat to cover the chicken about halfway up, after you place the pieces in the frying pan.  Pan-frying is distinct from deep-frying in that what you fry is not immersed in hot oil.  It's fried slowly and carefully in just enough oil to fry well one side at a time of whatever you're frying.  Pan-frying requires that you turn your meat or vegetable and fry it on the other side after it has fried on one side.

Emphasis on slowly and carefully.  Deep-frying robs many fried things--chicken above all--of flavor and juice.  Pan-frying, when it's done right, seals in the flavor and juice, so that your final product is both crispy and well-fried, and juicy and tender inside.

As your fat or oil heats slowly in your heavy skillet, take flour--as much as two cups--and add to it a generous amount of salt and pepper.  My mother would measure the salt in the palm of her cupped hand: as much salt as you can gather in the cup of your palm went into the flour.  She would place this flour mixture in a brown paper sack and shake it with the top of the sack held tight shut.  Shake it until the flour, salt, and pepper are well-mixed . . . . You can't stint on the salt and have good fried chicken, by the way.  Some Southern cooks also use hints of this or that herb or spice, or perhaps garlic salt, in the flouring mixture.  My mother stuck to plain salt and pepper.  The taste of well-fried chicken spoke for itself, she thought.

When the fat has begun to near the point at which you see little shimmers and wisps above it--not smoke, just intimations that it is at the point of being hot enough to fry well--you take the chicken from its water bath and wash it thoroughly one more time in a colander, again using cold water.  Shake each piece to remove the excess water, and pop the pieces one by one into the flour mixture in the brown paper sack.  

As you place each piece of chicken into the flour mixture, you hold the top of the bag tight shut again and shake until the flour has coated the piece well.  The flouring process begins, by the way, with the larger, meatier pieces of chicken--the thighs, breasts, wishbones, and drumsticks.  You want those pieces to be at the bottom of your frying pan, so that they will cook thoroughly, as the smaller and bonier pieces (e.g., the wings and backs) ride a bit above them, tucked in where you can find room in the frying pan.

(A linguistic aside: it was considered vulgar in some circles to speak of chicken legs even into my childhood.  It was considered common in some circles to speak of legs, period.   My maternal grandfather was from a family that stigmatized references to legs, so that he insisted on calling chicken legs drumsticks.  Which infuriated my grandmother, who hadn't been raised in the plantation circles in Alabama and Mississippi in which my grandfather grew up.  In my father's family, there were aunts and uncles who did not even permit their children to speak of the legs of a piano.  Like proper young ladies, pianos had limbs, not legs.)

As each piece of floured chicken comes out of the flouring sack, you pop the pieces immediately into the fat that is near its maximum heating point short of smoking.  There is an art to this step--an art, since you do not at any point in the frying process ever stick a fork into the chicken, since that causes the juice to run out.  My mother used her fingers to put the chicken into the grease, and somehow managed never to get burnt--something I can't say for myself.  She used a pair of tongs that did not have sharp points to turn the chicken.  (You should, by the way, have seasoned flour left over from the flouring process.  If you do, set that aside for the gravy-making that follows the frying of your chicken.  And you can, of course, use a bowl to mix your flour in and dredge the chicken.  The bag does save mess, though, and assures careful coating of the chicken with flour.)

There's also an art to getting a whole chicken into most regular-sized skillets.  It can be done, if you arrange the meatier pieces on the bottom in such a way that the angle or curve of one piece fits snugly into another.  After you've done this, you can then work in the wings and backs, which will fry well with the fat that bubbles up from between the other pieces, if you've done things right.  (My mother did not fry the heart, gizzard, and liver with the rest of the chicken.  She did fry these pieces, but in a separate, smaller skillet.  She did not place the giblet pieces into the skillet with the chicken since she thought, probably correctly, that they might give an undesirable flavor to the rest of the chicken.)

When all the floured chicken has been nestled down into the nearly boiling fat, you turn the heat down to medium high.  And then you let the chicken do its own thing, slowly, carefully.  The frying takes time.  Your goal at this point is to let the chicken become golden brown on one side, without disturbing it as it fries.  If you wish, check the pieces every now and again, lifting them carefully and looking at the bottom side.  You need to be particularly careful not to let the chicken in the middle of the skillet fry too quickly and too brown.

After the chicken has fried well on one side, turn each piece carefully, taking care once again to place the larger pieces on the bottom of the skillet and not to pierce the skin of the chicken.  At this point, cover the skillet and turn the heat down just a tad, closer to medium than to medium high.

This essential step in the frying process will combine both frying (of the side of the chicken that hasn't yet been fried) and steaming, to lock in the juice of the chicken and make it as succulent as possible.  Once again, your goal in this step of the frying process is to let the unfried side of the chicken fry rather slowly, thoroughly, carefully, so that you end up with chicken that is well-browned on the side that has not yet been fried.

When it appears that the chicken is nearing perfection on the side that had not yet been fried, remove the lid from the skillet, turn the heat a touch higher, and finish the chicken in the slightly hotter fat.  You shouldn't have to turn it at all, but if it appears to be less brown on one side or the other, feel free to do that in this final step of frying.  Removing the lid and continuing the frying at a slightly higher temperature causes the chicken to become crisp.

And that's it.  Plate the fried chicken on a platter and then begin the gravy.  (My mother used a heavy platter to serve the chicken, and she left the platter on the stove--though not on a burner--as she made the gravy.  In fact, we seldom ate chicken immediately after it had been fried, but only after it had sat for some time on top of the stove and had cooled--more on that in a moment.)

For the gravy, you'll want to drain off most of the fat in the skillet in which you fried the chicken, taking care to save the crunchy brown bits of chicken and crust that remain in the skillet after the frying.  After the excess fat has been removed, sprinkle a bit of the seasoned flour you have left from the flouring process--or newly seasoned flour, if you didn't have any left over--into the fat and among the brown bits in the pan, and carefully working the flour into the fat.  Your object is to let the flour mix entirely with the remaining fat in the pan, so that your gravy has no lumps.

My mother often added more black pepper at this point, since she preferred chicken gravy well-seasoned with black pepper (and, of course, with more salt if that was called for).  When the flour has been incorporated into the fat--say, three tablespoons--then slowly pour milk into the skillet, which should be over medium-low heat, scraping the pan to loosen any brown bits adhering to the skillet.  The brown bits in the skillet should at this point begin to dissolve into your milk gravy, giving it a rich flavor.

Add as much milk as you need to make a gravy that is of a pouring consistency, adjusting the seasonings if necessary and adding more flour or more milk if the gravy is too thin or too thick (but taking care to avoid lumps if you do add more flour).  For us, the gravy was an essential part of a meal featuring fried chicken, since the chicken was invariably accompanied by both mashed potatoes and biscuits, both of which went well with the gravy.  

My mother fried chicken almost exclusively on Sunday mornings before church.  Our Sunday dinner, when we returned home from church, was according to two unvarying menus: it consisted either of chicken that my mother had fried early in the day and left sitting on the stove, with the gravy, which was heated again for the dinner, and mashed potatoes, biscuits, and various vegetables, pickles, and salads; or it featured a beef pot roast that she had cooked in a heavy, covered black-iron Dutch oven (again, an heirloom from her grandmother) prior to church, which was accompanied by carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes that were roasted along with the pot roast.  Both meals could be prepared prior to the long, long church services to which Baptists were once accustomed, and then warmed (except for the chicken) and eaten when we returned home dazed by the sermon that had gone on well past an hour, on top of an hour of Sunday School and an hour or so of singing before the sermon.

Oh, and honey: there was always honey on the table when we had fried chicken, to go with the buttered biscuits.  Some of us liked a combination of honey, butter, and gravy on our biscuits.  Others, like my brother Philip, were gravy purists and would eat biscuit after biscuit slathered with the milk gravy alone.

And that's Southern fried chicken, at least, the way I remember it from childhood.  The way it was done in my home as I grew up.  It's a distinctly different--and far better--dish than what most people now imagine Southern fried chicken to be, as they pick up buckets of deep-fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant.  It is decidedly not what you will get at almost any restaurant anywhere in the country, including the South, featuring "Southern fried chicken" on its billboard or menu.  Pan-frying chicken takes time and skill and is not nearly so income-generating as dumping batches of chicken into deep fryers and calling that traditional Southern fried chicken.

Deep-fried chicken is not traditional Southern fried chicken, just as barbecue is--pace Felisa Rogers--anything but plain meat grilled on a hamburger grill for a cookout.  It's meat that is barbecued, meat prepared in a very special way in a tightly sealed pit, featuring smoke, low temperatures, and constant basting with a spicy sauce, so that the barbecues of which George Washington wrote were not, as F. Rogers implies in the article to which I've just linked, cookouts.  They were barbecues.

But that's a whole other story.

(And, of course, there's nothing especially ecological about this recipe, except that cooking at home almost always assures less expenditure of energy than eating in a restaurant, more control over the quality of ingredients, and less waste.)

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