A few years ago during a Christmas vacation I volunteered to do most of the cooking. I enjoy it. The guests enjoy it. It’s win-win. Overconfident in the previous night’s well-received steaks, I decided to go out on a limb and make fries to accompany hamburgers. I had never made fries before. I had never deep-fried anything. If anyone reading has attempted them, then you’ll know how foolish it was of me to not only go solo on a new technique but go off recipe as well. Imagine a shallow pan, several cups of olive oil, and a gas burner. Now imagine me dumping a giant portion of raw matchstick-cut potatoes into that. Keep in mind I have no idea what the temperature currently is or even should be. The oil immediately bubbled over and rushed towards the flames. I later learned olive oil is unlikely to catch fire in this scenario, but at the time it was very scary and more than a little embarrassing.
From that point on, I made it my quest to quietly perfect the art of frying. There have been some missteps along the way, but I’m confident now. To this day I’m afraid to try fries again, but I do have a foolproof fried chicken recipe to share.
This is of course only one way to fry chicken. I’m sure there are countless similar recipes out there. But this is truly my way. It has evolved from various attempts at deep-frying, eventually settling on this. Unsurprisingly, there will be a few conceits, caveats, and substitutions. This is Eats Meats West after all.
- 1 pound boneless chicken thighs
To start, I use boneless thigh meat only. I mentioned my love of thigh meat numerous times already. It’s inexpensive, stands up well to overcooking, and arguably has more flavor than breast meat. Still, most thighs are too thick to evenly cook both the crust and the interior. Plus, usually each portion has one large section and one attached smaller section, which isn’t ideal, so I always cut the meat into quarter-sized pieces. It’s OK to leave on bits of skin and fat.
- 1 16 ounce bottle of beer, preferably amber or ale, room temperature
- an equal amount white flour
- seasonings to taste
The next major conceit is that I use beer batter only. This skips several traditional steps (egg wash/separate dry ingredients) and works so well I have no need to go back. This is the easiest step and also the only place you’re allowed to add variation. Simply combine equal parts beer and white flour. That’s it. No panko, no breadcrumbs, no cornmeal. Sure, maybe those things add interesting textures, but I think they interfere with the batter’s cohesion. Add in any dry seasonings you like, though. I typically do herbs de Provence, curry, salt, and pepper in roughly equal portions. For a 16 oz. bottle of beer I’ll typically use 1-2 tablespoons of each seasoning. A little does not go a long way. The flavors will be barely discernible. And don’t worry about the bubbles; just gradually mix the batter, and they’ll incorporate. In fact, along with the carbohydrates inherent in its brewing process, beer’s carbon dioxide is one of the reasons it’s so good for batter. That extra air will be trapped in the crust, making it crunchier. When the batter’s ready go ahead and dunk all of your chicken in it. No need to complicate this, and they can stay submerged for hours if necessary.
- peanut oil, amount varies by pan
Next prepare your oil. While you might want to experiment with different mixes (vegetable shortening, lard, etc.) it’s safest to use pure peanut oil. You’ll need a lot of it. If you can find a gallon, that’s your best bet. I usually have to grab several small bottles. Fill your largest pot (at least 6 quarts) with at least 3 inches of oil and set over medium heat. Aim to have at least 4 times as much empty space above the oil for safety. Submerge a digital thermocouple (like this one) and wait. Patiently. You absolutely do not want to rush this step. It will probably take a half hour or more. Bringing the oil to the proper temperature is the key to a successful fry. It’s OK to step away if you have a thermometer with a beeping or remote function.
When the oil gets to 350 it’s time to get serious. Very likely it will continue to rise, but ideally you want the increase in temperature to happen slowly. When you reach about 375 add enough chicken to form a layer on the top of the pan, leaving space in between each piece. Since these are colder than the oil they will lower the overall temperature. You don’t want the oil to ever be below 350 or above 400. In practice you’ll almost never be perfectly at 375, and that’s OK. The more oil you have, the harder it will be to change the temperature of the oil. That goes both ways. Underheat, and it’ll take a while to get back to 350. Overheat, and you risk burning beyond 400. Usually once I’m in the frying process, I can crank the stove to max as long as I pay attention to never going over 400. The temperature will invariably swing wildly, but as long as it’s in that range you’re good.
Of course, remove the chicken when their outer color resembles a golden brown. You might need to stir them slightly to avoid too many combining. This is not an aesthetic concern (they will easily break apart when cooled) but rather a cooking one: oil needs to be circulating all around each piece. Lay finished bites on a paper towel or wire rack and immediately salt. I go nuts on the salt because most if it will fall off.
In between batches it’s a good idea to remove any stray batter bits you can, but don’t go crazy fishing them out. Eventually, yes they will burn and impart a bad taste, but it takes several batches for that to happen. Generally, with a pound of meat I can expect to perform 6-8 frying rounds. You can save the oil and fry again, but you’ll need to actually strain out all solid matter. If that’s too much work, think about frying other things after the chicken’s done, just for fun. I’ve fried garlic, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, peppers, broccoli, and asparagus using this method.