Pre-Historic Fried Chicken

Picture, if you will, a tranquil scene circa 1 million years ago, when cavemen roamed the Earth. It is Sunday, about noon. A small tribe of prehistoric Baptists (scientific name: SHALLWEGATHERUS ATHERIVERUS) has just finished their worship service. While toweling off by the river bank, a member of the group hears the plaintive cry of a prehistoric chicken (scientific name: BIGOLWHANGIN’CHICKINUS KENTUKYFRIEDUS).

This tasty critter, about the size of a ’57 Chevy (without the fins) takes off, with the church-goers in hot pursuit. After an exciting chase, an early cave-dweller male (scientific name: FRED FLINTSTONIUS) dispatched the beast with one mighty swing of a 2-by-4. Thus, the first Sunday chicken dinner in history was served.

For many of us, fried chicken was as much a part of childhood Sundays as the comics and getting dressed up for Sunday school. But as we grew older and learned about the evils of fat grams and cholesterol, many of us let this delicacy fall by the wayside. Prepared correctly, though, you may be surprised at how little grease fried chicken really contains. The key is to use the proper fat and frying technique.

To begin, select either a 12-inch, cast-iron skillet or my favorite, a non-stick electric model. To ensure that the chicken takes the flour used to dredge it evenly, marinate the pieces at least two hours to overnight in buttermilk. This not only gives the flour a great medium to stick to the chicken, the lactic acid in the buttermilk acts as a natural meat tenderizer.

The choice of flour helps determine how well the crust will develop. Self-rising flour contains baking powder and baking soda. When they hit the acid in the buttermilk, the flour rises slightly. This produces a crispy, yet light, crust which is superior to regular all-purpose flour.

To keep the flour from going all over the place while coating the chicken, try placing the flour in a paper bag and adding half the chicken to the bag at a time. Close the bag and shake to coat the chicken pieces. This is a great way to make a messy job much neater. Let the chicken pieces “rest” for about 10 minutes on a wire rack. This will allow the flour to dry slightly and for the acid in the buttermilk to cause the flour to rise slightly to make for a lighter crust.

Vegetable shortening is far and away the most healthy way to fry chicken. Remember the old Crisco commercial where they claimed “all the oil came back — except for 1 tablespoon?” Well, “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine did a test several years ago in which they fried three whole chickens, each in 3 cups of vegetable shortening. After each test, all the shortening was poured back into a measuring beaker, and in each case only about 1 tablespoon had been absorbed by the whole chicken. The trick to this is to make sure the shortening is HOT! Most professional references for chefs recommend that the oil be 350 degrees. This is easily measured by a good kitchen thermometer, or by the temperature setting on an electric frying pan. Failing either of these, drop a small pinch of flour into the hot oil — it should start cooking immediately, causing the shortening to bubble vigorously.

The hot shortening causes the water in the cells of the chicken to start boiling almost as soon as the meat hits the pan. As it escapes from the chicken as steam, the pressure prevents the shortening from soaking into the coating. The shortening should come about halfway up the sides of the chicken pieces in the skillet. Don’t cover the skillet during cooking. This makes the crust crisper. For an even lower-fat meal, use boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of whole chicken.

Now, what time should I come over Sunday?

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