EVERY AMERICAN knows there is only one way to fry a chicken. Getting two Americans to agree on that one true way is another matter, for there are as many schools of thought as there are feathers on a fryer.
There is the paper-bag school; the iron-skillet school (or copper skillet, depending on your tax bracket); the deep-fried, crunchy-skinned school, and the steamer school.
Fringe groups include the honey dippers, the pepper shakers and the buttermilk devotees. And the chicken gravy faction can be downright militant when it comes to determining the fate of a pan's drippings. One woman gets up on a soapbox about spooning dollops of whipped cream on her chicken as it steams--she was so enthralled with the idea that she went public with it by entering the recipe in a nationwide cooking contest.
Arguments can be made on the worthiness of any of these causes--buttermilk, for instance, acts as a tenderizer while regular sweet milk does not. But Southern-fried purists generally are scornful of such deviations. As one Georgian commented sarcastically, "Save the honey for the quiche. Real fried chicken ain't got no use for it."
At the Red Roost--a restaurant located outside Salisbury, Md., in a slightly renovated chickencoop--owner and chief cook Frank Palmer says the high temperatures of deep-fat frying are a sine qua non to the Palmer method, as they act to seal the bird's flavor inside the superbly crunchy skin he has perfected.
Unfortunately, this former car salesman from Skaggsville, Md., guards his family's secret recipe like a mother hen. His protectiveness is understandable: his is a concoction that, come a good Saturday night, helps move about 600 people through the coop, and at $6 a head (or $9.50 if you want steamed crabs, too), it's a lucrative secret.
Palmer will volunteer that, yes, his fried chicken breading is flavored with paprika and no, it's not cut with corn flakes, a method some speculate is used in Col. Sanders' recipe. Palmer also allows as how his chicken pieces must "marinate" for six hours in their breading before cooking.
Since Frank Perdue seems to be selling himself as America's chicken king, one might wonder how that tough man likes his chicken fried. Well, it turns out that "Frank doesn't cook," according to one of his hired hands in New York City. And he doesn't seem to have any passionate convictions about fried chicken, although he's said to favor a "quick lemon chicken" saute'ed in a flour breading.
In spite of the controversy, there is one matter on which most chicken-fryers agree: the importance of having a fresh chicken--preferably not a bird that's been ensconced for a week in a cold plastic straitjacket.
For the absolute apex in freshness, you can go to Arrow Poultry at Fifth and K streets NW and pick out your own live bird. The people there will then "dress" it for you. (The 25-cent surcharge for spot-slaughtering is as anachronistic as the practice itself.) Arrow's manager says more squeamish customers can call ahead with specifications and then pick up their bird, dressed and ready to go, every day except Monday.
Those who know say buyers of live chicks should base their choice on the eyes (which should be clear and bright), the legs and feet (soft), and wing tips and breastbone (pliable to the touch). Once you get your freshly killed chicken home, sprinkle it with a teaspoon of salt and give it a night in the refrigerator.
Otherwise, look at the date on the package. Giant Food says its warehouse gets chicken deliveries every day except Sunday, and the stores get chicken deliveries every day except Sunday and Monday.
Safeway has a similar schedule, with deliveries made to its warehouse every day except Saturday and to its stores every day except Sunday. A spokeswoman said the travel time from the chain's distributors--most of whom are located on the Eastern Shore--is about one to three days. She also said the packages' freshness stickers are dated by the distributors--not by Safeway--to expire about seven days from slaughter.
When practical restraints preclude choosing your chicken by gazing into its eyes, base your purchase on the knowledge that more flavor awaits your palate in a smaller chicken that has not been cut into pieces.
The paper-bag school of thought dictates introducing the chicken pieces to flour, breadcrumbs or a mix of flour and cornmeal inside a brown paper bag (some cooks advocate use of a plastic bag, which may be less liable to break but in which the breading tends to get gummy). Those who subscribe to this method say the chicken pieces should be repeatedly dipped in egg and milk (or even better, egg and half-and-half) and shaken in the bag two or three times.
The seasoning of the breading mixture--regardless of the frying school of thought you subscribe to--is paramount. One cook said, "pepper is the key," and many agree the pepper dosage should be more than liberal. One more eccentric bag-lady said she throws sage and thyme into her bag mixture; others have suggested garlic, paprika, parsley, rosemary, fresh basil or dried mint.
Even if the paper bag is not your style, the flavor of the chicken pieces will be much enhanced if they are allowed to set for an hour or so in their breading. This also makes them easier to work with in frying. Another preskillet exercise is to remove the skin from the pieces to improve crispness.
Deep-fat chicken frying is the method used by those who like their fried chicken's skin to be as absolutely crunchy as possible. The oil has to be about five inches deep in a much deeper pan, and hot enough to be barely smoking--fact is, you almost have to have an electric deep-fryer. Maintaining the hot temperature is important, because frying the pieces too fast, at heat that is too intense, will make the meat stringy. The length of cooking time for deep-frying is influenced by the age and temperature of the chicken, and the size of the individual piece; but you can try to judge for doneness by seeing if a bone in one piece will pull away from the meat.
Chicken fried this way needs to be drained several times, each time on a clean bed of paper towels. As one Southern-fried devotee put it, "greasy fried chicken is a Yankee plot to make Southerners look stupid." Regardless of the frying method used, the pieces should be drained for at least one minute.
A healthy percentage of Yankees seem to like their chicken fried in the French manner--or browned and steamed. Julia Child calls her poulet saute' a brun "the French answer to American fried chicken." It's predictable, therefore, that students of this school can be found steaming the browned chicken in a few tablespoons of white wine rather than water.
For crispy, browned, French-style chicken, the modus operandi begins with heating at a moderately high temperature about two tablespoons of butter and the same amount of cooking oil, shortening or olive oil--just enough so that the liquid will come about halfway up the side of a piece of chicken. When the butter is barely foaming, add the chicken pieces and turn them for about 10 minutes. Use tongs: forks poke holes that drain the bird's juices. After pouring out most of the oil, add about three tablespoons of liquid and cook, covered, on the stove for about 30 minutes. Baste the pieces occasionally, using a spoon.
The steamer advocates are almost indistinguishable from students of the iron and copper skillet school. These birds of feather, identifiable by their attraction to chicken saute'ed until it's brown and crispy (as opposed to crunchy), will try to tell you that the secret is in the skillet. Hence the highbrow insistence on copper over the iron proletariat.
But they are sadly misled. The mastery of the steaming method lies not in the medium but in its temperature: the heat must be evenly distributed. That's why some otherwise fastidious fried chicken Francophiles sometimes use--how gauche--an electric skillet to fry their chicken. Another tip is to place the dark-meat pieces in the middle of the skillet--they take longer to cook.
If you've never tried chewing a bite of underdone chicken, don't start now. Check for doneness by piercing one piece of the steamed chicken with a fork. If the juice runs clear and yellow rather than pink, it's cooked.
Now may be the time to become a chicken gravy convert. Truly depraved gravy fanatics eat it on white bread, but the moderate approach dictates drizzling it over biscuits. And over your chicken. And the mashed potatoes . . .
Regardless of your beliefs on the subject of fried chicken, summer is the season for it--when picnic baskets are going everywhere. As the Georgian deep-fry fan put it, "the best fried chicken is the piece eaten after the devil's food cake while pretending to pack up the picnic supplies to go home." CREAM GRAVY (6 servings) 2 tablespoons oil from fried chicken 2 tablespoons butter 5 tablespoons flour Salt and pepper 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 cup heavy cream 2 tablespoons butter Paprika Red pepper (optional)
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the pan, keeping the brown crispy bits in the skillet. Add butter and stir over medium high heat. Add about 5 tablespoons flour. (This varies, depending on how thick or thin you prefer gravy.) Stir and reduce heat. Continue to stir at least 3 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Pour in milk and cream. Reduce heat again and let gravy bubble 2 to 3 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and a generous amount of paprika. Stir well and remove from heat.
If gravy is too thick, add more milk and cream; if too thin, put flour in a glass with a small amount of milk and stir vigorously before adding to gravy and cook, stirring for 5 minutes. (This avoids lumps.) Sprinkle red pepper over gravy if desired.
From "The Southern Junior League Cookbook"