There is no magic to fried chicken. Most people don't cook it for the same reason they don't make their own burritos. They have grown up in a world with free-flowing fried chicken at every turn.
Fried chicken has always been a treat, but it was never supposed to be complicated: just chicken parts shaken up in a bag with seasoned flour, then fried in whatever fat is handy.
Now to the hows and whys.
First, the pan. You do not need a deep fryer, a chicken fryer or a large pot. Homemade fried chicken is the province of the cast-iron skillet. The oil will remain under control at all times so long as it comes only halfway up the sides of the skillet, which should be at least 2 inches high. Do not follow the amounts of oil given in recipes; follow your eye instead.
Then, the chicken. It is difficult today to find a chicken small enough to fry, by traditional standards. A chicken under 3 pounds can be cut into the usual eight pieces. But in order to avoid dry Air Jordan-size breast pieces, anything over 3 pounds should have the breast half hacked in two.
The chicken must not be refrigerator-cold when it goes into the pan.
Next, the crust. Another life-changing event for me was the discovery of Southern Living's Best Fried Chicken recipe.There is no buttermilk, no paprika, no bread crumbs or breakfast cereal, and no messy double-dipping. There is one coat of seasoned flour; that's it.
This chicken is simple, irresistible and relies on thorough and thoughtful frying, not fireworks. Covering and uncovering the pan traps the heat and renders out fat and water from the skin, making it elegantly thin and crisp.
Then, the oil. It does not take gallons of oil to make fried chicken. Peanut oil is a traditional choice for Southern cooks; grape seed can get very hot without burning, leaving fewer murky dark bits on the bottom of the pan waiting to stick themselves to your golden chicken.
A dollop of bacon drippings provides incomparable flavor, and corn oil can impart a bit of buttered-popcorn flavor.
Many traditional Southern cooks have used Crisco, but for frying, the hydrogenation that makes Crisco useful for crusts and biscuits, is irrelevant.
Finally, the aftermath. Many an ecstatic moment has been ruined by biting into hot fried chicken. It should never be eaten hot. When fried chicken comes out of the oil, the steam-cooking inside the crust needs to be completed, the juices need to redistribute and the volcanic heat of the crust needs to subside. It can be drained on paper bags or paper towels.
The true function of the coating -- be it flour, batter or Cap'n Crunch -- is to form a tight seal around the meat. The seal is created when the crust is fried in the oil at high temperature; the meat inside is not fried at all, but it is steaming in its own trapped moisture. This I found amazing. This also explains why frying works well for wet foods like zucchini, fish, shrimp and chicken, and not for, say, beets and beefsteak.
SOUTHERN LIVING'S BEST FRIED CHICKEN
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 chicken with skin, about 2 1/2 pounds, cut up into 8 pieces (see note)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable oil, like grape seed, peanut or canola (do not use olive oil)
1/4 cup bacon drippings (or use more oil)
1. Combine 1 tablespoon salt with 3 quarts water in a large bowl or container. Add chicken, cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Drain, rinse with cold water and pat dry.
2. Stir together remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the black pepper. Sprinkle half the mixture evenly over chicken.
3. In a large sealable plastic bag, combine remaining pepper mixture and flour. Add 2 pieces chicken to bag and shake well to coat. Remove chicken pieces, shaking off extra flour, and set aside. Repeat with remaining chicken.
4. Take a large (10- or 12-inch) cast-iron skillet or chicken fryer, for which you have a lid, and fit with a candy or deep-frying thermometer. Add oil and bacon drippings and heat to 360 degrees over medium heat; the oil will ripple and possibly give off a few wisps of smoke.
5. Using tongs, immediately add chicken pieces, skin side down (work in batches if necessary to avoid crowding pan). The oil will drop to about 325 degrees, where it should stay; adjust heat so that oil is bubbling gently around the pieces. Cover and cook 6 minutes; uncover and cook 9 minutes. Turn chicken pieces; cover and cook 6 minutes. Uncover and cook another 5 to 9 minutes, depending on size of pieces. If necessary for even browning, turn pieces over a few times toward the end.
6. Drain on paper towels or paper bags. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.
Note: If chicken is larger than 2 1/2 pounds, use a large heavy knife to cut each breast-half in half again, making 10 pieces in total. Yield: 4 servings.
Adapted from "The Way to Fry" by Norman King (Oxmoor House, 2013))