When it comes to fried chicken, there are as many different ways to prepare it as there are people that love to eat it. Each region of the United States has its own unique take on the delectable dish. Managing producer Sally Swift talks with Tucker Shaw, executive editor for Cook’s Country magazine, about one of the most wonderful versions we’ve ever heard of – North Carolina Dipped Fried Chicken.
Sally Swift: I was digging around your website the other day looking at some fried chicken recipes, and around the twenty-fourth recipe I stopped looking. What is with the cult of fried chicken?
Tucker Shaw: It's just so good, right? There's nothing wrong with fried chicken – nice juicy meat and a crispy exterior. It's a popular dish, and there are so many different varieties of fried chicken around the country and around the world to be honest.
(Photo: America's Test Kitchen)
SS: It seems to me, as a cook, it's a hard recipe to make. Is that true?
TS: I understand that. I do think there is an emotional price of entry when you think about deep-frying anything because it sounds like it might be scary. It sounds like it might be a mess, but the truth is it's not that hard to do, and it's relatively difficult to screw up if you can get over the idea of having to use a couple quarts of oil on your stovetop and then figuring out a way to get rid of that oil.
SS: Right, that's the barrier.
TS: And again, it's not that big of a deal if you return the oil to the container that it was in. You can use it a couple of times if you like. But I wouldn't use it forever, because it will take on flavors. Then toss it.
SS: It seems to me, one of the great things about fried chicken is that it usually comes with a story. They're often family recipes.
TS: I agree. That’s one of the most appealing things about fried chicken – forgetting how delicious it is – it always comes with a story. One of the things that we focus a lot on in Cook's Country magazine and website is finding these regional variations on recipes or regional specialties. We travel to different parts of the country to find them, do a little bit of field work, then we bring that knowledge back into the kitchen and develop a recipe that comes as close as we can get. There's nothing better than eating fried chicken in the kitchen of the person who invented that recipe, but the second-best thing is to be able to make it at home. That is what we try to achieve.
North Carolina Dipped Fried Chicken
(Photo: Keller + Keller)
Last year, we developed a recipe for what is called "Dipped Fried Chicken,” or sometimes it's called just "Dip Fried Chicken.” This is a hyperlocal recipe that we discovered in Salisbury, North Carolina, which is about halfway between Winston-Salem and Charlotte. It's a town of a certain size – not huge, not tiny. In 1942, there was a man called Benjamin Franklin Cureton. He and his wife, Nannie Stevenson Cureton, opened a place called Frankie's Chicken Shack. It was meant to be a burgers and hot dog joint, but they also put fried chicken on the menu. It became a super popular dish on the menu. In fact, people stopped asking for the hot dogs and the hamburgers and just wanted the fried chicken. But the problem when you're selling fried chicken in a take-out place like Frankie's was that you can't cook it to order, because it takes 15 minutes or so to fry each piece. They had to figure out a way to keep their fried chicken relatively warm, so when they handed it over to customers they would have a warm lunch.
In a moment on invention – which is where all the best things happen – or a moment of desperation, I should say, Nannie Cureton came up with the idea of dunking the pre-cooked chicken into a hot dip. It’s really a sort of a vinegary sauce, much like many of the North Carolina barbecue sauces that you will find that have a heavy vinegar presence. They would give the pieces of fried chicken a dunk in the sauce, and hand it over. It brought this spicy, vinegary, invigorating flavor to the exterior of the chicken.
SS: Oh, it sounds delicious!
TS: Here's the thing – you’ve got fried chicken, right? You've got this lovely, crunchy, craggy coating on the outside. When you dunk it into sauce, you run the risk of completely sogging out the exterior of the chicken. That’s a problem. To solve that problem, you create an extra-crunchy exterior. That's what makes this chicken so rewarding to eat; you get an astonishing level of crunch when you grind it between your teeth. To get there, we make a very simple mixture of flour, a bit of granulated garlic for flavor, cornstarch to help it absorb whatever excess liquid might be lurking on the chicken, and the most important piece is baking powder. This adds a bit of leavening to the coating, much like you would find in baked goods, to create little air pockets which gives you that craggy, crunchy exterior.
SS: That gets dipped in the sauce?
TS: At Frankie's, they used to dip it in the sauce. But instead, we drizzle. We create this spicy, vinegary sauce, and drizzle it over the chicken. It winds its way into the little crags on the exterior of the chicken and fills it with flavor.
SS: I think this is going to be my first foray into fried chicken.
Tucker Shaw is executive editor of Cook's Country magazine. A native of Maine, he grew up in Denver before moving to New York for many years, before returning to Colorado as the dining critic for the Denver Post. After a decade eating out several times a week, he moved to Boston to join America's Test Kitchen. He's written several novels for young adults and has an unappeasable sweet tooth.
On each episode of The Splendid Table we visit with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.