If you think fried chicken is a purely Southern thing, think again.
The crispy goodness of this great, messy finger food extends well beyond any American region. As much as the region would love to claim ownership of the down-home guilty pleasure, fried chicken belongs to the planet.
Take a glance at the drool-worthy recipes inside America’s hot new fried-chicken cookbook, “Fried & True: 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides” (Clarkson Potter, $22.50, 256 pages), and you’ll find plenty of variations on the crispy bird theme.
Sure, you’ll find Southern fried chicken, buttermilk fried chicken and Louisiana battered fried chicken. But those and other classic renditions share space with Vietnamese-inspired fried chicken, Cuban-style chicharrones de pollo, Argentinian Milanesa de Pollo a la Napolitana, Korean-style crispy chicken wings, Senegalese fried chicken and even an Israeli take on chicken schnitzel.
It’s all fried and true, says the book’s co-author, Lee Brian Schrager, a guy who knows his fried chicken. Sure, he’s a trained chef, a gourmand and, not to mention, the founder of the South Beach and New York Wine & Food festivals. And he can feast on faddish molecular dishes, the alien spheres and foams, with the rest of the fancy food cognoscenti. But he’s as fried chicken-obsessed as they come.
In fact, it was that obsession that sparked the sequence of events which led to the book project. The sequence began innocently enough when Schrager ducked behind a curtain during one of his sold-out South Beach festival events last year. Why did the founder of America’s hottest food festival need a private moment behind a curtain? To scarf down fried chicken, of course.
But, soon enough, Schrager was busted by one of his visiting food celebrities.
“Trisha Yearwood comes over and catches me in the act,” Schrager says. Next thing he knows, his publisher walks up and joins the fried chicken convo.“She jokingly says, ‘You should do a fried chicken book.“’
It was no joke days later when that publisher called to say, “You should really do this book,” says Schrager, whose cookbook, co-authored by food writer and recipe developer Adeena Sussman, hit bookstores late last month.
No doubt, Schrager was the guy for the job. He’s the guy who in his younger years was asked to leave a Howard Johnson’s restaurant because he and his friends had surpassed the per-person limit at the all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet.
The trail that led to that fateful HoJo’s episode is sprinkled with fried chicken crumbs. Fried chicken was the special-treat dinner he and his brothers would get – delivered from Chicken Delight, their favorite restaurant in Massapequa, Long Island – when his parents went off on date nights. Fried chicken was that magical dish his mother would conjure in her trusty burnt orange Le Creuset Dutch oven. Fried chicken is that code dish shared by so many of the chefs he’s met along his adventures.
But if researching this book taught Schrager anything it’s that the fried chicken universe is even larger than he had imagined.
“Everyone assumes fried chicken comes from the South. But it came over from Scotland in the 1700s,” he says. “And almost every country has a fried chicken recipe.”
In researching and recipe-tasting he discovered fried chicken can be as simple as it is complex.
“For such a simple thing to make, fried chicken can taste differently, depending on the preparation. You can use the same recipe and fry it in different formats – the fat changes the taste,” says Schrager, who is partial to a Crisco-fried bird. (“It lasts longer. You can fry more,” he says.)
But the fat that gives fried chicken its flavor can also be the biggest obstacle to its success as a dish.
“The biggest mistake is not heating the fat to the right temperature. The right temperature is key. I heat my oil to 370 or 380 degrees,” says Schrager, who advises home cooks to make sure the oil remains hot as they add chicken to the pan.
He also noted that many chefs, particularly those he met in New Orleans, used well-chilled chicken for coating and frying – it is said to help the coating or batter stick to the chicken skin.“The secret is cold chicken,” he says.
So what makes good fried chicken utterly exquisite?
“To me, I love a crispy crust,” he says.“I love it when the skin is crunchy and the inside is moist and juicy.”
That sound you hear is the planet applauding in agreement.
All recipes are reprinted from “Fried & True” by Lee Schrager with Adeena Sussman.